Tips for Mixing Acapella Vocals
So, at the very least you’re going to learn something, and at the most you’re going to learn a whole lot depending on what you choose to do. But anyways, here we go.
What we’re going to be talking about is an A Capella vocal. Now, A Capella vocals are a unique and difficult challenge, because there’s nothing to really hide any of the imperfections of the recording, and on top of that, we have to give the vocal space, and if the space is not good, then we might have trouble.
So, for example, in this particular record, there were no room mics up.
Okay, so it’s a good recording. The actual dry vocal is sounding pretty good. My first move here is to – first, I just want to figure out the vocal itself. So, I’m going to take a compressor and just do some compression here. I think it hits on the bigger parts.
[vocals with compression]
And I have the attack set pretty long. 20 milliseconds. I have the release set pretty long. 76 milliseconds here. I have it in Opto mode, so it’s not the most aggressive compression, but it’s also not the least aggressive compression. It’s sort of in the middle. Just because this is a particularly dynamic performance, and ideally what I would actually do is a lot of rides, but this will also help to thicken the overall vocal sound.
So then the next thing is going to be some EQ. There’s a lot of mid-range push in Barbara’s voice here, like right around 1kHz. It’s probably some kind of a Neumann microphone recording her, which tends to have a lot of that 1kHz, and she has a lot of that in her voice naturally. It’s also deficient in the treble range. I have the analyzer turned on, so we’ll see that right here.
So, as you can see, there’s a whole lot of buildup in this upper mid-range area. The buildup is not consistent, so what I’m going to do – whenever there’s tonal inconsistencies, my thought is multi-band compression. So what I’ve got going on here is some compression triggering from the upper-mid range so that when she hits some of those strident notes, it’s going to pull it down, but overall I’m going to be boosting a little bit more of it.
[vocals after multi-band compression]
So I get as much treble and upper-mid presence in there as possible without making the voice sound painful.
Sounds good. Really good singer.
But now, it’s completely dry. So what are we going to do? Well, first thing we could do is we could send off to a reverb. So I’ve got a really nice software reverb here. A Lexicon Hall reverb. Let’s hear how that sounds.
[vocals with reverb]
So, I don’t love it. I don’t hate it. I think it would be a really good sound if I wanted to make this sort of like a pop type of tune, like you know, if this was an A Capella from like, Ellie Goulding or something like that, I would love that kind of a reverb for her. It just goes with her for whatever reason, and it sort of works with the pop aesthetic, but it sounds very unrealistic. It’s clearly an artificial reverb, and I don’t know if I totally dig that.
So my next option is to use a convolution reverb. This is also a concert hall, but it is a convolution rather than an algorithm, and it sounds like this.
So, I don’t love that, and I don’t hate that either. I think of the two, I actually prefer the algorithm, just because I think it’s a sweeter sound, but the convolution is a little bit more realistic. That said, I’m not totally thrilled with either.
Do we have another option? Well, there were some mics up on the piano. The piano is not in use in this segment, so maybe I can take the piano mics and turn them into my room ambience. Let’s hear how that sounds.
[vocal ambience plays]
Here’s with the vocal.
[vocals, piano mics up]
Alright, so that’s clearly the most realistic sounding, but it sounds a little bit weird because it’s resonating inside the piano, but maybe I could EQ it in a way to make it sound more natural.
Alright, one more time, before and after.
[vocal ambience, before and after EQ]
So that’s sort of a difficult thing, but what I’m doing here, and as you can see, this is an absolutely batty curve, but what I’m visualizing is what it sounds like before the EQ is a couple of mics inside a piano, which is no good. It sounds like it’s in a weirdly dead space, even though it’s clearly in a live room.
So what I’m doing is I’m trying to open it up to make it sound as if the microphones were placed in the actual room itself, and I think I actually managed to achieve it. So here’s one more time, before and after.
[vocal plays, before/after EQ]
That’s inside the piano. Here’s out.
Nice. Now let’s hear it with the vocal.
[vocal with ambience]
[vocal with ambience]
Okay, so now it sounds like Barbara is in a three-dimensional space, so we’re getting there, but we haven’t quite gotten there yet. Why? Because the space itself is kind of dead. It’s not totally live in the most flattering way. So is there something we can do to add a little life to it? Yes there is.
One cool thing about having these short rooms when you’re grabbing room mics, even for things like vocals, which is why I’ll sometimes throw up a mono room as well, even when I’m recording vocals, is that they work really well with echoes. Delays.
So, here’s a copy of this track with a delay plug-in set to it.
[vocal ambience plays with delay]
So, it adds extra tail to the reverb, which makes the space bigger overall. Here’s how it all sounds together.
[vocals play with ambience]
Without the echo.
[vocals play with ambience, sans echo]
With the echo.
[vocals play with ambience]
Now that’s a subtle difference, but I think it’s an important difference. The difference being that it’s a grander space. It’s a bigger, smooth space than what we got before. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to play it dry, play it with the room verbs that we just created, and then compare that to the original algorithm that we would substitute otherwise, and you’ll hear the difference, I think.
[vocals play dry, with rooms, and with rooms and delay]
Then what I can do is I can go in there and smooth out the resonances that are in the delay that show up at times, or work it just a little bit more to really smooth it out, but overall, that sounded pretty good. Here’s the algorithm.
[vocals, Lexicon reverb on]
Not bad, but not this.
[vocals, with ambience/delay]
Pretty cool, right? The voice sounds bigger when we use the actual room, and that’s part of what I like about it.
Anyway guys, I hope you learned something. Check out the EQ tutorial, mixing with EQ, and I hope to hear from you! Take care.