Anatomy of a Mix with Bob Horn: Mixing Vocals [Excerpt]

Alright, guys. So we’re moving on to vocals now.

A fair amount of vocal tracks in this. A few different leads and a handful of background vocals.

Let’s start with the lead vocal. One thing about me and vocals is that I always want whatever I hear in my head, the way I think that vocal should sound, I’m not going to stop until I achieve it, or give up after I’ve failed.

But I use a lot of processing on vocals and it might seem crazy to some people, but yeah. It’s like, de-essing, compression, multi-band, whatever it takes to get that vocal to sound to me like a million bucks. I mean, that’s what we’re selling. The vocals. It’s the thing. It’s the king of the song, it’s what we’re selling to the public.

So I do a lot to vocals. A lot of crazy fader rides, a lot of everything I have to. So here we go.

Start with the lead vocal.

[mix]

Okay. So I have the music kind of turned down, or I’m going to. I’m going to turn the music down so we can just hear the vocals. A lot easier.

[vocals, music quiet]

So I have the lead, I have a doubler, a reverb, and a delay. That’s kind of everything that encompasses our effects.

I’m going to mute those for the moment and just show you my processing on the vocal itself.

Start with an 1176 compressor. Fastest release possible, and kind of a medium/slow attack. The fast release is going to help the vocal just pop right in front.

Let me see if you can hear the difference here. Watch what happens when I go from a slow release to a fast release. You should hear that vocal move physically a little bit more forward.

[mix]

So I prefer a fast release, because it just gets that vocal up in your face. It’s a lot easier. I get that question all of the time. How do you get your vocals up front and present? That’s how you do it. Fast release.

I hear a lot of rock mixes where the vocal is kind of buried, and it’s just gripped by compression and held really tightly. That’s usually slower releases. The fast release is what’s going to get it up front.

Now, the problem with doing fast release, if you do a lot of gain reduction, as soon as that — they’re done singing a word, anything afterwards — mouth noises, breaths, they’re going to come up in volume drastically. So we’re doing…

[mix]

On the verse, we’re doing 5-7 dB of reduction. When she starts singing louder, it will probably get up to like, 10 dB of gain reduction. Things like breaths and mouth noises aren’t triggered by compression.

A breath is going to get right through compression, so when that compressor is done holding onto that vocal and it releases, and then you have a breath happen, that breath is now 10 dB louder than it was originally because of your new compression and your fast release.

So it actually — to make sure she doesn’t sound like she has asthma, we need to go through here and use automation and kind of dial the breaths down. Some singers more than others, but you might see this kind of thing.

Then when that compression releases, you won’t hear that breath extra loud.

Interesting thing about her — this singer — is that she didn’t — her breaths are actually really low to begin with, so I didn’t have to do all of that tedious fader work, but typically when you do fast release compression, a lot of singers you’re going to start to hear all of that garbage, but to me, it’s worth the extra work to get the personality that you get out of compressing this way.

So next up, we have a de-esser. Let me bypass all of these and kind of put them in as we go.

[mix]

So all of the t’s and s’s, we’re grabbing them fairly hard. 3-6 dB. I prefer to over de-ess and brighten the track later to make up for it. I just want those esses really controlled so they’re never offensive. They’re never biting your head off.

You know, you’re listening loud in the car, or if it’s a club song, listening loud in the club. You never want those esses jumping out of the speakers and hurting peoples’ ears.

Bob Horn

Bob Horn

Bob Horn is a mix engineer who has worked with Grammy Award-winners including Usher, Timbaland, Ashanti, Dave Koz and Akon as well as many others.
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