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9 Great Plugins for Mixing Vocals (+ Mix Tips)

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The human voice is at the center of most popular music productions. No instrument matches the feeling, the vulnerability or the power of the voice. Obviously, the ability to communicate emotions through lyrics kind of stacks the deck in the favor of the voice, but I digress.

Before I break into this roundup of my top plugins for mixing vocals, I want to be clear that there is absolutely no substitute for proper singing technique, correct microphone choice & placement, and using a high-quality signal chain including a microphone preamplifier is a necessity. Working in a well-treated room is important, too. Beautiful, emotive vocal performances existed long before all of the latest and greatest plugins.

That being said, a fair amount of work goes into the tonal sculpting, dynamics shaping and precise pitch shifting that makes today’s vocal performances sound so squeaky-clean.

Here are my top plugins for mixing vocals.

1. The Universal Audio 1176 Into the LA2A

These are two emulations of classic hardware compressor units, and while there are plenty of plugin manufactures that offer versions of these, I find that none capture the mojo and three-dimensionality of them as well as Universal Audio. So what’s the deal with two plugins occupying the top spot on this list? Well, although they are each tried-and-true, character-rich dynamics processors, my favorite application is to use them in tandem. If you dial in these two compressors properly, you can make it seem as if your vocalist has nearly perfect control over their singing dynamics.

UA 1176 Classic Limiter Collection

Mix Tip

Place the 1176 first and set the input (which also has control over the threshold) so that the compressor is working hardest (think 2-5 dB of gain reduction) during the loudest passages of the vocal track. Next, set the LA2A to be applying a pretty consistent level of gain reduction (1-3 dB generally is what I shoot for) throughout. The point here is that the faster and more aggressive 1176 does the heavy lifting on the loudest passages, allowing the LA2A to work in a less drastic way. The resulting sound is smooth, natural and helps the vocals sit well among the rest of the arrangement. You can use more drastic settings (like higher ratios and faster attack times on the 1176 and more gain reduction on the LA2A) for more aggressive sounding vocals, or more tame settings to retain the natural dynamics of the original performance. Figuring out this technique many years ago was a game changer for me when it comes to mixing vocals, so I suggest you go try it out for yourself.

UA LA2A Collection

2. FabFilter Pro-Q 3

When it comes to equalization, the Pro-Q 3 can do it all. I use it for so many tasks: hunting down unwanted resonances, cleaning out headroom, eating low frequency rumble, subtle de-essing and even adding transparent boosts here and there.

Mix Tip

Every so often, I’ll be delivered a session where the engineer failed to prepare for plosives when recording the vocalist. Plosives generally happen in the 200 Hz and beneath range, but can occupy areas of the frequency spectrum even higher than that. Unfortunately, there is some seriously important information happening in that range. In this case, I’ll hunt down the exact frequency range where the plosive is wreaking havoc using the Pro-Q 3 spectrum analyzer, create a band at that frequency, set it to dynamic mode (so it only works when it detects a certain amount of information over a set threshold) and then automate the bypass of that band strategically so that it is only active during the plosive. As you can see, it’s a multi-step process, but it renders great results most of the time.

Fabfilter Pro Q3

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3. Oeksound soothe2

I use soothe2, which was designed by Helsinki, Finland-based plugin makers Oeksound all over my mixes: individual tracks, subgroups and even the stereo buss can benefit from just a smidge of this lovely dynamic resonance suppressor. That said, it really shines on vocals. soothe2 only applies reduction when and where you want it to. If your vocal is boomy, muddy, honky, harsh or sizzly, it does its thing in a transparent and natural-sounding way.

Mix Tip

I encourage you to place soothe2 wherever it works best for you in your signal chain, but I find it most effective when used very close to the end of mine. My bare-bones vocal chain usually consists of de-essing, compression, equalization, some kind of saturation and then soothe2 to tame any harshness that somehow made it through (or was added by) my other processors. It truly adds a great Finnish-ing touch.

Oeksound Soothe2

4. Soundtoys EchoBoy

Delay is so important in establishing the correct space for your vocal to sit in, and it can also be used for more special effects like throw delay or a 1950’s style slapback. I have found delays that feel different than EchoBoy, but I’ve yet to find one that is as versatile and useful. The key to unleashing the full potential of EchoBoy is understanding its 30 different echo styles, which can be accessed in the bottom right corner of the GUI. Classic units including EchoPlex, Space Echo, Memory Man, DM-2 as well as a variety of tape delays can be used to give your vocals whatever type of echo best suits the material.

Mix Tip

Not only is EchoBoy a world-class delay plugin, but the onboard saturation is also top-notch as well. This comes in handy especially when I am trying to achieve a vocal delay sound that is prominent and cutting. Utilize the saturation to give your repeats more attitude.

Soundtoys Echoboy

5. FabFilter Pro-DS

Sometimes you’ve got throw the kitchen sink at a vocal to make it compete with a dense arrangement, and often times when you’re using multiple instances of compression, saturation, and a fair amount of additive equalization to make a vocal cut through, some icky things can happen in the 6-10 kHz range. The Pro-DS from FabFilter is my go-to de-esser in these scenarios. The plugin GUI provides clear visual feedback, telling me exactly how much de-essing it is applying and when it is being applied. I have found that the Pro-DS can usually handle more extreme tasks than other de-essers, but works best when used subtly.

FabFilter Pro-DS

Mix Tip

If you don’t have access to something like soothe2, experiment with using a gentle de-esser at the beginning of your vocal chain to remove harshness before any gain reduction, additive equalization or saturation is applied, and then again at the end of the chain. I’ve found that two de-essers applying 2 dB of gain reduction is more transparent than one de-esser applying 4 dB.

6. Valhalla DSP VintageVerb

This plugin is one of the most versatile and fun time-based effects processors I’ve ever used. It can do a bit of everything from subtle, shorter reverb sounds to wild and warbly long-lingering tails. The simple-looking GUI is intuitive, and I find myself experimenting a lot because of how quickly I can navigate this plugin.

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Mix Tip

Use two instances of VintageVerb to achieve two drastically different sounds, and pan them left and right. When going for an unorthodox, out-of-this-world vocal sound, I’ll use this technique to envelop the singer.

Valhalla VintageVerb

7. Slate Digital Virtual Mix Rack

VMR from Slate Digital is a great Swiss Army knife plugin set, offering a variety of colorful utilities for shaping the tone and dynamics of any sound source, including vocals. Emulations found within VMR include equalizers by SSL and Neve, Distressor & 1176 compressors and other useful tools for fine tuning the sounds of singers.

Mix Tip

The great thing about VMR is the ability to move modules around in whichever order you please. If you’d like to tame the dynamics of a signal before hitting EQ, you can do that. If you want to remove unwanted low end rumble before compression, you can do that as well. Experiment with module placement to achieve the exact sound you desire.

Slate VMR

8. Soundtoys Decapitator

Decapitator can do several types of saturation really well. The 5 different style buttons located towards the bottom of the GUI give you access to the sonic characteristics of several esteemed hardware units. It works great If you want to add subtle warmth and clarity to a vocal; simply turn the drive button to a value between 2-5. The low-cut, high-cut, and tone controls are also fantastic for shaping the timbre of a vocalist.

Mix Tip

Punish in parallel. The ‘Punish’ button on Decapitator introduces an absurd amount of distortion. I wouldn’t suggest using this feature for the duration of a song, but dialing back the mix knob after punishing can sometimes give a vocal just what it needs to cut through.

Soundtoys Decapitator

9. Antares Autotune and/or Melodyne by Celemony

Face it, pitch correction isn’t going away. Humans, and therefore art, are imperfect. But the reality is that top-40 pop music sometimes calls for pristine, clear, perfect-sounding performances. Both of these plugins belong in a music producer’s toolbox, so know how to use them and when to use them.

9 Great Plugins for Mixing Vocals (+ Mix Tips)

Mix Tip

If you’re hoping to achieve the robotic T-Pain effect, Autotune is what you’re looking for. If you want to gently massage vocal performances to be just a touch more in tune, Melodyne is a fantastic tool to have.

9 Great Plugins for Mixing Vocals (+ Mix Tips)

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Ian Vargo

Ian Vargo is a Producer, Mixer and Audio Professor based in Los Angeles. He has worked on numerous major label and independent records. Get in touch on his website or learn more from him in Mastering in the Box and Mixing Pop.