MIXING MAIN VOCALS
Technical Articles/November 11, 2015
Getting a song’s main vocal sounding great is the most important aspect of any good mix. If a song has a vocal, that’s its focus – always. I don’t care what genre it is or how loud the band needs to be: a mix will always be judged on how the vocal is presented. Sorry to sound so sure of myself here, but it’s true.
Whether you’re mixing live or in the studio, the vocal is paramount to the overall appeal of the mix. That’s why I almost always draw a star on my console’s vocal channel these days – not merely the word ‘Vox’. (When you’re mixing you need all the cues you can get to remain mindful of this unassailable fact!)
The main vocal – even though you’d think it goes without saying – is the average listener’s perpetual focus, and in the end, this is who we – the mix engineers of this world – try to cater to most. We’re certainly not mixing for our own sake, or one another’s. We’re mixing for punters who, in 99 cases out of 100, are focused on the singer in any given mix. Buried and/or unintelligible vocals are thus almost always a bad thing.
If a punter can’t hook into a vocal performance – sing along with it, hear the words and the story behind it – they tend to switch off or get frustrated. To them, a low vocal equates to a ‘muffled’ sound. That’s, in fact, how they will describe your whole mix, regardless of how good those guitars and drums might be sounding.
So how do you ensure then that a main vocal is sitting at the appropriate level? Well, first of all, you need to dispense with any false notions that it’s ‘just another one of the elements’. It’s THE element.
The biggest mixing falsehood is the notion that every member of a band deserves equal focus. At a live concert, for instance, it’s not a mix engineer’s job to equally represent everyone on stage like they’re cans of beans on a shelf, though sometimes that’s how mixes sound. Mixes should go with the audience focus, and when it comes to a live concert, almost everyone is watching the singer.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve been at a concert where the people around me have complained that the vocals were too low: “I couldn’t hear what he was saying!”
I can, however, count how many times I’ve overheard complaints that the kick drum was too low – never!
ESTABLISHING THE MAIN VOCAL LEVEL
If you’re a mix engineer having doubts about a main vocal’s relative level, try this simple trick.
Pull the vocal fader down and work it back up with your eyes shut, listening for the point where you’re satisfied that the singer is ‘in focus’. If you can only hear half the words, or the detail is lacking, your focus is lacking, just like a poorly captured photo. Keep pushing it up until it’s crisp and vivid. When you’re satisfied, open your eyes and check out where the fader ended up – you might find it’s 5dB up on where you had it previously.
Repeat this process several times. Mark where the vocal fader was, dump it down to nothing and bring it back up again with your eyes shut. Don’t ‘reach’ for the old level, or feel tempted to open one eye and peek. The key is to focus only on the voice and its clarity. Do this several times using only your ears until you find yourself hitting the same mark over and over. That’s when you can be sure you’ve nailed it. Too often mix engineers look at levels rather than listening to them, and in no case is this approach more misleading than with the vocal.
Now that your main vocal is ‘in focus’, you may find you have another issue: that the vocal is now a touch loud and proud of the band. But don’t panic! You’ll just turn it down again and lose it in a sea of instruments if you do.
This is where effects come into the mixing equation. A vocal that needs to be loud and proud to remain the centre of attention – the star of the show – often needs help to stay glued to the instruments around and behind it. That’s why delays and reverbs were invented… to tether the vocal to the song!
Remember: quality vocals are vital to any good mix.