The Five Basics of Mixing Vocals
Mixing vocals may be the most critical part of mixing a track; listeners will always appreciate when they hear a great lead vocal shining through in the mix. Here're five tips that will help to improve vocal mixes.
A good compressor is an essential tool for creating a solid vocal mix. Compression will smooth out the vocals and add a warm overall sound. Compression is used to bring down the peaks above the threshold level and leave the lower levels as they were. After this gain is added so that the peaks are the same level as they were to start out with, but the overall dynamic range is reduced. The result is a more controlled sound that will sit better in a mix. Sometimes a good compressor is all that's needed on vocals, especially live recordings.
One quality compressor to try out is the Waves CLA-2A, which is modeled on a famous vintage compressor.
Another good quality compressor plug-in to use on vocals is the Slate Digital Virtual Mix Rack, which includes the FG-116 'Fet Compressor'. This compressor is a digital replication of a classic American FET compressor/limiter.
Try setting the compressor on your lead vocal with a ratio of 4:1, with the input higher and the mix range lower. To push the vocals to the front of the mix, try a low attack setting and a high release. Another tip is to compress the vocals while listening to them to in the mix, rather than only working on them when they're soloed. Compressing the vocals while continually playing them together with the instrumentation will give you a better idea of how the vocals sit in the mix.
Use EQ to sculpt the sound of your vocals and bring out the best in them. Start by sweeping through the frequency range and find a sweet spot in the mid-range to bring out. This area is where the presence and brightness lie in the vocals. Try EQing the vocals while the other instrumentation is playing so you can hear how the EQ choices sound in the mix. Experiment with narrowing down the Q and consider filtering out anything below 80-100 Hz. If the vocal starts to sound too thin after boosting the high mids, find another area in the low mids to bring out. The high mids bring out the presence while the low mids bring out the warmth. A few EQs to consider using are: Waves Equalizer or Renaissance Channel (combines together EQ, compression, gating and limiting in one plug-in) or Slate Digital's FG-N 'BRIT-N' EQ, available in the Virtual Mix Rack.
Compress, then EQ
Every producer will have a different opinion on whether to compress or EQ first. Most times, I tend to recommend compressing first, then EQing afterward. This allows a second compressor to be added to the chain after the first compressor and EQ. On the second compressor, really compress the vocal by lowering the threshold to -20 dB to make it pop in the mix. This approach does tend to bring out any sibilance, which brings us to the next step of mixing.
Sibilance is a sound characterized by pronouncing words with the letter 's'. In audio reproduction, the letter 's', 't' and 'z' should sound clear and distinct, not smeared or distorted. Sibilance can be quickly brought out by compression and the remedy to this problem is to add a de-esser. It's always best to address any issues with sibilance while in the mix, and not send vocals with sibilance to mastering. A useful plug-in to correct vocal bits with sibilance is Waves DeEsser.
Riding the Vocals and Finishing Touches
At this point, the vocals should sound loud and clear and sit on top of the music. Chances are the vocals will need some leveling, or 'riding' to even them out. Waves Vocal Rider is an excellent plug-in that can be used after compression and EQ. It smooths out the overall volume level of the vocals so that levels do not have to be manually adjusted inside the DAW. To use the plugin, the target range of the vocal level in relation to the rest of the mix must be set. Vocal Rider then compensates any changes in volume from the target by instantly adjusting the level of the vocal. Lastly, add warmth, shimmer and thickness to the vocal mix by using a plugin like Slate Digital's Revival.
Luckily, Revival is a free plug-in, and it works like a charm.
A great vocal mix will help your track to stand out and receive the attention that it deserves. Best of luck mixing!