Pro Audio Files

How to Mix Vocals to Sit Properly in the Mix

Transcript
Hi, it’s Warren Huart here with producelikeapro.com. Thank you ever so much for watching.

Today, we’re going to talk about vocals. Now, I’ve done quite a few different videos over the last few months since we’ve been running the channel on vocals, but I’m going to get into in greater depth, vocal mixing, and just show you all the little tricks I do.

So this is our comprehensive vocal mixing video, and we’re going to use a track called, It All Comes Back Around. We just did a video on it, and I did touch on the elements, but I’ll go a little slower, and I’ll talk about all the little details that I did.

So please enjoy this, and please ask millions of questions, etcetera, and I will go into as much detail as possible. Okay, so let’s get started.

Okay, so what we have here is the song, It All Comes Back Around. It’s Alaina Blaire. We’ve feature a couple of her songs in our How to Arrange series, and I thought of this one, just because it’s a relatively simple production, there’s only a couple of loop ideas, there’s just some strings, piano, bass, and one stereo guitar I did.

So it gives us a lot of room to hear what I’m doing in the vocal. So first of all, let’s just talk about the vocal. The vocal has to feel present in the mix at all times. I want to hear the vocal in a simple piano, vocal song like this, I need every inflection of her voice to come through.

So let’s have a listen to the mix.

[mix]

There, for instance. That’s the first line, and it’s really imperfect, but it’s imperfect in a beautiful way. You know, she honestly had a little bit of a sore throat. She had been singing, she had done — and I often ask people, what’s one of the most famous vocals of all time? And obviously there’s a lot of debate as to what that might be, but one of the most famous Beatle vocals of course is Twist and Shout.

Twist and Shout was the last song that John Lennon sang after singing for 17 hours, or 13 hours, or whatever it was when they did their first album, they did it straight. So he’s got that, [sings Twist and Shout], and everybody identifies it, and they go, “Oh my god, that’s so passionate, and he’s ripping his voice,” it’s because he was at the very end of a long, long day of singing ten songs, so his voice was really worn out, and it just has that passion.

So I like keeping those kind of elements, so on my vocal comp, I deliberately chose that first line.

[mix]

So for me, the first thing I will say, before we get into any details, and this will be our number one thing, is when you’re comping, you know, compiling the vocal, find the moments that are not just in tune or in time, but have a lot of charisma. We identify with the imperfections in the voice as much as we identify with the tuning and the timing.

So for me, that is a great first line. It’s just her and me playing piano.

[music]

You hear that little bit of breath at the end of that as well?

[mix]

See, I love all of that stuff, and it’s the little kind of moments where you hear the compression choking and bringing out the breaths a little much, but you know what? I like all of that. It draws me in. It makes me want to hear her vocal. So up through that first verse, let’s just concentrate on that area. That is all just a vocal and piano.

Okay, so what do we got going on? Well, we’ve compiled — we’ve comped the vocal, finding moments that have little vulnerabilities, because as a guy, honestly, listening to a girl with a little vulnerability to it, it draws me in. So we’ve found the vulnerable moments. Especially that first line.

Secondly, after compiling it, what did we do? I did some volume riding. So before even all of this compression, and EQ, and effects, or whatever, the first thing I did was bring out different lines. So here is the volume automation. This is over the whole song. If you look here, there is a ton of volume automation when there’s little lines that maybe there’s breaths, and the way that she phrases the end on “I want to exaggerate,” so I am sitting there and I am automating the vocal.

So it’s a little bit harder work than just sitting there and sending direct volume in and compressing and EQing just that. I’m actually pushing it first, but I’m doing lots of things on this vocal, so this vocal is good because it shows a lot of different techniques that I do.

Okay, so we’ll just concentrate on this first verse. So look. You can see here, the line is a little stronger. And here, it’s weaker on the end, so I’m actually pushing the vocal.

[vocals]

I love that. So that between us kind of whispered, and so here it is. It’s very straight forward. You can see here where it’s hitting the compression a little harder, so I pulled it down, because all of this stuff is going into a vocal sub.

So now I’ve got an R-Vox across it here.

[vocals with R-Vox]

Watch it again and listen.

[vocals]

So you know, it’s up to five dBs of compression going on as she hits it really hard. Maybe six at one point. I do like the sound of the R-Vox. It adds a lot of fatness. Just try it without.

[vocals, no R-Vox]

That’s just as nice. Just a little… Yeah, it’s doing just enough for me.

Okay, so what we’ve got is some volume automation, and then if you look here for instance, here’s a line which is quite powerful, and it’s actually being cut down quite dramatically.

[vocals]

So what we did on this line, if we zoom in just on this line, we brought it down where it’s going too heavily into my buss, pushed it up here, then exaggerated this line at the end for the breath.

[vocals]

And I wouldn’t be afraid to go in and do this even. Maybe just a little bit. See this area here? Push that up a little bit. Let’s have a listen.

[vocal playback]

Ride the F a little bit. Maybe bring it down a little bit. These are subtle moves. Hopefully it comes across on YouTube.

You know, and this ending here, we could even exaggerate it a little more. You could do this. See on my volume automation? Just bring it up here.

[vocals, automated]

Now, compression can do all of these things. However, each compressor has its own sound. So, you know, I was talking in the All Comes Back Around video, about how the great, great engineers, such as Bruce Botnick and stuff, Bruce would do this, and all of the great guys from the 50’s and 60’s would do these on fader moves. They would sit there, they’d have a chart that would have all the lyrics written down, and they would literally write, and I’ve done it many times myself, they would write down where the singer was pushing and pulling, and before sophisticated VCA compressors, where compressors had much slower attack and release times, like LA2As, and Fairchilds, which sound wonderful, but they don’t have fast attack and release times, so they would do this manually.

They would sit there on the fader, and they would push and pull the vocal so it didn’t distort, and it kept the vocal at all times clean going to tape. So this is us doing that. This is us reproducing and replicating it, and the reason why I’m doing it on the vocal initially is because I’m then going into a sub down here, so I want to control how it’s being compressed.

Okay, so even with all of this vocal riding here, I felt like I just wanted to pull back a little bit on the trim. So there’s a 1.7dB pull back. Now, the reason why I did that is I don’t want to send a clipping signal from one plugin to another. You can end up with compression, etcetera, and limiting, sending a nice level signal to your master buss, and it doesn’t look like it’s clipping at all, but it still sounds bright and aggressive.

That is because it’s probably clipping from one plugin to another. You don’t want to send a clipped signal into a compressor, then have the compressor pull it down so it looks — not sounds — but looks like it’s not clipping. It’s important to send the signal from one plugin to another that doesn’t clip going into it. Because yes, the compressor will pull it down so that the output of the compressor isn’t clipping, but the signal that’s gone in may have clipped.

Hopefully that makes sense. So that’s a very important thing for me. So I trimmed that down just to give myself some room.

Now, the next thing I’m using is a Vocal Rider, which is actually a simulation of what we’re doing. Watch it here.

[vocals with Vocal Rider]

See? It’s exaggerating the move. See how great that is? It’s doing a little bit more of what I’m doing, and you can control it from the top and the bottom of the range. You can have it do very small movements, I’m having it do very large movements, but that’s the next thing after my volume automation. I discovered this plugin, it is fantastic, and it is exaggerating what I’m doing.

Next is some EQ. I pulled out some of the pure mid-range at 830. There’s a bass definition there, there is, you know, a little honkiness in the piano, and I just felt like they were all beating each other up there.

[vocals, not EQ’d]

It’s like, [emulates 830Hz], it’s that little nosiness. If I take that off…

[vocals]

Very in that, so I pull out that.

[vocals, EQ’d]

Just a little tiny pull out of that, it’s like a couple of dB, the Q is kind of wide-ish, you know, and then there’s a nice presence lift here at 7kHz, just to get it over the top, and a gentle rolloff. We don’t need the super, super lows in there, but it’s not that steep, it’s only 6 dB an octave, and it’s a nice, gentle low rolloff.

I don’t do really, really aggressive low pass filters or high pass filter work on top and bottom. I don’t do that unless I have got my key stuff. If you’ve got really dense EDM tracks, and everything is massive, then sometimes, you have to sculpt them, but in organic, natural, analog instruments like vocals, acoustic guitars, basses, drums, you won’t see me do really aggressive high and low pass, you’ll see me do really soft, gentle ones, just so they sit in.

If you treat them like a synthesizer, you’ll end up — it’ll end up sounding very harsh. The only other time I’ve seen people do that is on heavy, heavy rock guitars, where you might have to get aggressive on some of the super lows, because it’s messing in the way, but otherwise, I use really gentle low and high pass filters.

Okay, next and most importantly, now that I did a little presence boost, which was on the vocal and made it sound really beautiful, I got — did a little de-essing.

[vocals, de-essed]

See, [singing], it’s just pulling out some of that exaggerated.

[vocals]

And again, watch it here. So it’s taking out the exaggerated esses, because I just added the 7kHz, so it’s going to exaggerate them a little bit, but I want the air on the vocals at all times, but where it gets exaggerated, I’m pulling it back. And that’s at about 6kHz.

[vocals]

Take it off.

[vocals, no de-essing]

It’s subtle. It’s subtle. It’s doing like, two or three dBs worth of reduction, and then I went to our R-EQ and added just a little bit more top, again, I tend to do two or three EQ plugins, and just shape it lightly around the instruments. You can simulate it all with one. However, I’ve learned this from working with lots of — many great mixers. Michael Brauer, for instance, who’s obviously very well known from Coldplay, and a bunch of other very successful acts, will do multiple amounts of EQ and compression, but doing little tiny amounts, and that will give you a much more rounded and less processed signal than when you take one plugin and boost huge amounts of EQ and pull out huge amounts of EQ. This is a very gentle presence lift.

So again, another top end boost.

[vocals, top end boosted]

Then I’ve got some gentle R-Comp here. Just a gentle amount of compression there, and the ratio is only 2.2, so it’s like, it shows it’s compressing, but we’re only talking, you know…

[vocals, with R-Comp]

Again, another little bit of high boost, followed by another de-esser. Then, believe it or not, one more Vocal Rider. You see, at that point, the movement is very subtle. We’re talking less than 2-3dB of movement, but it’s keeping that vocal nice and consistent.

So let’s drop in the piano against it.

[mix]

Just kept that vocal nice and consistent in the front. Now, you can do all of the vocal riding stuff manually. If you don’t have the plugin, you could do all of this, all of this vocal riding stuff here, on our channel there. In fact, sometimes, you know, you can copy your vocal automation down onto your sub and do it that way.

Instead of using very harsh compression, because you saw I was using little tiny bits of compression, or putting a limiter or anything like that across it, I’m just using — I’m doing more fader movement, I’m doing more Bruce Botnick, even though he was probably also using an LA2A or a Fairchild as well going in, and then maybe an LA2A and a Fairchild on a mix, again, using two or three compressors on the out. He still was using the fader.

It gives you a little bit more control, it means that when it’s hitting the compressor, it’s hitting it evenly. So if we go back to our R-Comp here, watch it.

[mix]

See, even right up to the very end, even right when the vocal is dropping down here, it keeps a consistent 2-3dBs worth of compression until it gets to that breath at the very end, so you know we’re sending a nice even signal into our compressor and we’re bringing it forward.

[music]

Great. Keeps that vocal ever present.

Okay, so let’s take the piano out a second and let’s see what else we’ve got going on. Now, I’ve got my vocal distortion sub here, so what I’m doing is I’m using — the reason why I put a de-esser across it in the first place is because I don’t want this to be super harsh and bright on my distortion, and then compressing the signal.

This is coming straight off our lead vocal, so our same buss here, 123, is sending to this as well. So we’re compressing the signal.

[vocals]

Boosting the top end, but controlling it with another de-esser. So that’s an even signal. So let’s listen to just that element. I’m going to pull these all up and we’ll hear them all individually.

Okay, so here’s just the distortion sub. The last thing on it is the Lo-fi. Now, the Lo-fi plugin comes with Pro Tools. Now, I’ve talked about this before on another video, but I’ll explain it again. Why do I do this shnizzle? Why do I do this whisper, and the distortion, and the octave?

Well, first of all, I’ve been doing it for a long time, so I’ve found these to be very effective, but I work a lot with a guy called Jack Douglas, and Jack produced obviously Aerosmith and a whole bunch of other people, but one of the tricks he did with John Lennon’s vocal is he would take a crowd noise of people cheering, like, [emulates cheering], and he’d put it against John Lennon’s vocal, but he would gate it to the lead vocal.

So John would do, [singing], and there’s like this, [emulates noise], and it’s very low level, and it’s just this level of excitement like, yeah, going on, but it’s gated to the vocal.

Now, that’s a difficult trick to do. I didn’t have a great vocal, you know, simulation of a crowd going, so I simulate it with a distortion. So all it is is just energy behind the vocal.

[vocal distortion]

Now you hear, the de-esser and etcetera on it.

[vocals, distorted]

So it’s just a little aggression. Just add some aggression behind it. Next up is our vocal octave sub. And that literally is, as you see here, I’ll put it into the middle, an octave lower on the vocal, super buried in there.

[vocals, octave pitched]

Yeah, it’s terrible sounding on its own. Dreadful. It sounds like Beelzebub. But it’s buried low against it. Just to give it some width. Just to make it feel just a little stronger.

Here’s the two things together. Distortion and the vocal sub.

[vocals, distorted and pitch shifted]

Last, but no means least, is the Morphoder, which is our vocal whisper track.

[vocals, Morphoder applied]

Which gives us some extra air on the vocal. Here’s all three together.

[vocals with effects]

Drop that in against the lead vocal.

[vocal]

Let’s add in — let’s just listen to it on its own. Our old friend, distorted slapback.

[vocal distortion slapback]

With our little vocal thickening trick. Go to the vocal thickening video for that. And here’s our vocal.

[vocals]

Fantastic! Thank you ever so much for watching! I hope you had a marvelous time. Please, leave some questions and comments down below.

A lot of these tricks are used by a lot of great mixers. I’ve borrowed them, stolen them, we’ve swapped the ideas. They are unique ways to make the vocal appear more breathy and open sounding, and more in your face in the mix.

Like I said, I’ve been judging a mixing competition that my new guys have been doing an incredible job. I can’t believe the quality of the work out there. I’ve watched a lot of videos on YouTube with different guys and girls talking about, you know, their mixing techniques, and to be honest, most of the stuff I’ve been getting is better.

It’s just really good. Your mixes are fantastic, you’ve been working very hard. I’m very, very impressed. So please, leave questions, leave comments, let’s have a great discussion about this, and please subscribe. Sign up for the email list at producelikeapro.com, and have a marvelous time recording.

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Warren Huart

Warren Huart

Warren Huart is an English record producer/musician/composer and recording engineer based in Los Angeles, California. Learn more at producelikeapro.com.


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