MIXING MAIN VOCAL EFFECTS
Technical Articles/November 11, 2015
The other day I was driving alone in my car, listening to random songs on the radio. In the space of about 20 minutes I’d heard three songs I’d recently mixed at The Mill so my mind was already racing with production and mixing ideas… and a smattering of self-loathing. Then along came a song on JJJ…
Who the band was now I can’t recall – someone current. What astounded me about this particular single was how badly the vocal had been mixed: low, dry and dull… not the most gratifying combo of attributes you’d have to agree, especially from a car listener’s perspective.
Now I don’t know what these people were thinking at the time, or what circumstances had led to this outcome, but to me the mix was the musical equivalent of a bad enchilada. Vocals were far too low, the song was dull and the vocals even duller… I gave it three out of 10 before changing the station.
It set my mind racing and quickly reaffirmed what I’ve discussed in another article on this website about main vocals: they’re the key focus of any good mix, and driving them way back into a morass of instruments is a recipe for disaster.
The JJJ song was in desperate need of a new mix perspective… a good night’s sleep might have done the trick, or better still, a week off. The vocal fader needed to be turned way up, the vocal tone addressed to contain some semblance of frequencies above 400Hz, and effects added to the equation to make the singer sound like he hadn’t been recorded in a dusty broom closet with his back to the mic.
MORE IS LESS… MORE OR LESS
One of the difficulties a studio mix engineer faces with vocals nowadays is that they’re invariably competing with more and more channels of audio: be they instruments, random sounds or other vocals. Add to this problem the perennial issue of songs being squashed flatter than a tortilla and there’s every chance fundamental mixing levels will occasionally be mishandled by even the most assiduous engineer. It’s not that professional mix engineers don’t know what they’re doing nowadays – au contraire. It’s simply that as any process grows more complex, elongated, and detailed, basics can sometimes get overlooked.
When it comes to main vocals, one thing I do on an almost hourly basis when I’m mixing is pull the vocal fader down and listen to the mix sans main vocals, maybe addressing a few issues while I’m at it, before restoring the voice to the mix without looking at my previous mark. This technique can be applied to any sound of course, but it’s particularly effective with vocals.
But not always…
Sometimes establishing the vocal level is more involved than turning a single fader up and down. Nor does hitting the same mark 10 times in a row necessarily prove the level is correct. Other things can be out of whack in a mix that skews the perception of the vocal – like, for example, its effects.
Often a vocal can end up too low in a mix simply because the effects being used to support it are inappropriate or insufficient. When a vocal seems to stick out too far, the first reaction of some mix engineers (and artists) is to turn the voice back down again, rather than question whether the effects around it might instead need to come up.
The point here is this: getting the vocals to sit right is rarely just about the level of the vocal fader (or faders). It’s about giving the vocal a sound and a context – in short, confidence. Without this confidence a vocal can quickly begin to sound ‘stuck on’, ‘two-dimensional’ or ‘disconnected’, and that’s when the urge to turn it down quite rightly takes hold. But it’s not always the right decision.
THE EFFECT OF EFFECTS
Let’s say you’re mixing a basic rock song and the vocal seems too loud. You’re trying to make the song sound BIG right, but the vocal level is fighting this perception; making the instruments sound small. Problem is, any lower and the voice starts getting lost in the cacophony of distorted guitars and drums, the words hard to follow. It’s a bind.
One thing to consider at this juncture is whether the vocal could – perhaps counter intuitively – sound bigger! I know, I know… it already sounds too loud, but too ‘loud’ doesn’t necessarily mean too ‘big’. There’s a difference, and being able to perceive one from the other is crucial to the mix outcome.
Sometimes the vocal level seems wrong only because its context is wrong; in this case too dry for the big song around it. The vocal may be too ‘close’ – loud in the mix sure, but too small, intimate and dry somehow. The singer seems to be standing right in your face, while the band are 50 feet away in a big rock hall, going for broke.
In this example, rather than turning the vocal down, which only makes it less audible, less compelling and less appealing, try adding some filtered stereo delays to the mix, and don’t be shy with them. Try varying their tone too so they’re not all the same. And as you do this bear one small fact in mind: in nature there’s basically no such thing as an echo that returns with precisely the same tone as its source, so filtered delays will often sound more natural in a mix even though when soloed they may not.
Make some of the delays very dull, others strong in the midrange, and see how they work in context. Try sending these to a hall reverb as well, so as they fade they also get wetter. Often these types of delays go all but unnoticed in complex mixes, even when they’re up quite loud, yet they invariably give the vocal a context and help prevent it sounding ‘stuck on’. If you’re finding the effect of these effects hard to hear, use your good friend the mute button to hone your perception of them.
Now our main vocal, which previously seemed too loud, too dry and too close is out there rocking with the band. It’s bigger sounding because the delays are alluding to a bigger space and providing the vocal with much needed three-dimensionality. It’s less intimate and more in proportion with the big rock guitars and drums and our urge to turn it down has gone… and we’ve managed to achieve all this without ever touching the vocal fader.
OPEN YOUR MIND TO SOLUTIONS
Obviously this is but one illustration of how vocal effects can alter the perception of a main vocal level. There are countless effects on offer these days and myriad ways to apply them to vocals. In the end it’s up to the mix engineer to judge what’s appropriate for the song. It’s also up to the engineer, and anyone else involved in a mix, to remember that mixes can be complex and fragile and easily knocked off balance.
When a vocal seems too loud or soft, think twice before reaching for the vocal fader in a knee-jerk fashion. Think carefully about the cause, and be prepared for it to be something other than the bleeding obvious. Otherwise your mix may end up sounding like that song I heard on JJJ…