I thought long and hard about it because when it comes to mixing vocals it can be a pretty convoluted process as nothing is really ever the same. That said, I did realize that I have somewhat of a checklist (in my head) that I run through as I’m mixing vocals. Some performances go through every step, some go through very few and others go through some extra steps.
The good thing about these vocal mixing techniques is that they aren’t bound to any one genre or style of music. So if you are mixing lead vocals, female vocals, male vocals or if your mixing backgrounds vocals than I’ve got you covered. You might be working on Rock, R&B, Rap, Country or anything else for that matter and that’s okay. It’s about the concept and not the technique.
This is, however, not meant to be taken as gospel and every step I lay out should not just become default for every mix. Take it with a grain of salt and decide for yourself if each step is necessary. Or you may want to add your own steps – I applaud the ones who take action and think outside the box.
Also, I am constantly changing and improving (at least I think I am) on my mixing technique. So a year from now, this checklist could have more steps, less steps or the steps could be laid out in a different order. The best thing to do is find something that makes sense to you and try it out. If it makes your process easier and your mixes better, than keep doing it, if not then stop doing it.
1. Talk to the Client
This step is very important because finding out which direction the vocal mix needs to go is going to give me a destination. It doesn’t have to be my road map and of course I can get there however I want but I definitely need to know what the client wants otherwise I am just throwing darts.
Every step after this won’t matter if I don’t know the direction that the track needs to go. A lot of times the client will provide a reference/demo mix and that is usually a great indicator of where the track should end up.
I’ve found that the client isn’t usually shy about what they want so I just try and listen to them as much as possible and takes notes if I have to. If I send them a mix and it’s not what they expected, I just take it on the chin and ask them to explain to me what is wrong with it so you can correct it and make them happy.
If you are mixing your own records than I assume you already know what you want!
2. Listen to the Performance
Before I even lay down a plugin or effect I like to just listen to the performance because it’s the point at which I can start to create a blue print for how the vocal should be treated.
I can determine if the vocals need effects like reverb or delay throws plus I can get a general idea of how much processing is going to be needed.
It also gives me clues on which plugins to reach for. Like if the vocal is kind of edgy, I might need to soften it up, so I start planning out which plugins I think will help me achieve that effect.
After I’ve listened to the performance and got a good idea of what should be done I’ve pretty much already figured out what steps should take place.
Of course there will be a lot of experimentation to follow but I can generally pick out what needs to be done to the vocal. At the very least I can hear where the vocal should sit in between the speakers and then from there I can just try out as many different techniques as possible until the vocal ends up where I hear it.
3. Clip Gain/Automation
For the most part I am using the Clip Gain for this step and not the volume automation but just realize that the clip gain is a form of automation. One benefit of using the clip gain over volume automation is that it is pre insert which really comes in handy later when we start adding processing.
This process is sort of the beginning stage for me but it also continues throughout the entire record. As the mix builds and other things start to stand out, I find that I have to refine the Clip Gain a lot so that the vocal can maintain a certain balance.
The goals and points of using the clip gain:
Fix the Balance – These days it’s not uncommon for vocals to be comped and recorded on completely separate takes. As a result the balance between the comps is usually off so the clip gain helps to even that out.
Remove Plosives – Sometimes I can hear some obvious P’s and B’s from the vocals and the clip gain can remove those things fairly easily. Also if the vocalist hits the mic stand and as a result I hear a pop in the performance I can fix that with the Clip Gain as well.
Remove Esses – There are times when the DeEsser doesn’t quite do the job and I need to go in and take out the Esses manually. I prefer to do this with the clip gain so that it gets fixed before it goes into my inserts but if you want to you can use volume automation to fix this after.
Improve Performance – Depending on the skill level of the artist and their microphone techniques, I may have to bump up a word here or there to help improve the performance. I find this especially on the ending of words where the vocalist dies out just a bit too quickly. I would take the clip gain and bump up or fade up the ending word so that I can pull out the emotion and intimacy of the vocal.