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How To

A Guide to Common Vocal Mixing Techniques and Software

Tips and tricks for a high-quality vocal mix.

Crafting studio-quality sound starts with solid vocal mixing techniques. Learn how to smooth out imperfections and make your vocals shine, and you can take your track from raw to radio-ready. To get started, here's a guide to the most popular digital audio workstations used by vocal mixers and helpful mixing techniques you need to know.

Digital Audio Workstations

First, you'll need the right recording software. Here are some of the most commonly used digital audio workstations (DAWs) for each level of expertise:

Ableton Live

This DAW is popular for beginners. With 23 sound libraries, totaling 50GB of sound, Ableton Live makes it easier to start making music right away. This recording software includes standard multi-track recording and cut/paste/slice features. Combine that with seamless MIDI sequencing software and hardware, and you have a great starter digital audio workstation.

Propellerhead by Reason

Slightly above beginner territory, Propellerhead is a good DAW for semi-professionals. It runs on a fast system with a solid mixing console and an exceptional workflow. This workstation is also great for recording guitar and bass since it includes amp and speaker plugins. Propellerhead supports all MIDI hardware and can cut and splice files automatically -- a great time-saving feature.

Avid Pro Tools

As the industry standard for mixing and mastering, Avid Pro Tools is considered by many to be the DAW that can do anything. With a fast processor and 64-bit memory capacity for sessions, you can expect that it will never lag or freeze. It also comes with the ability to change the tempo of any track, Elastic Pitch to "correct" harmonies, and around 70 other effects and plugins. And while these capabilities have set Avid Pro Tools apart from other DAWs, it also means this recording software can have a bit of a learning curve.

In the video below, Darren Schneider, Recording Arts Course Director at Full Sail University, uses Avid Pro Tools to demonstrate some common vocal mixing techniques.

Vocal Mixing Techniques

Some consonants, like "s," "z," "j," and "t," can create harsh sounds or produce unpleasant hissing noises in vocal recordings, called audio sibilance. To tone down these sibilant consonant sounds, vocal mixers use a de-esser. This tool compresses the vocal track to smooth out the consonant sound and create less audio sibilance.

EQ Settings

The EQ tool helps mixers "sweeten" vocals to create a more put-together sound. Finding the right EQ settings takes experimentation, but when you find the sweet spot, you help vocals stand out in the mix and keep them from sounding flat or dull.

While EQing techniques will differ from singer to singer, here are a few important tips to keep in mind:

  • High-pass filter: Clean up the low end of vocals by creating a high-pass filter. This allows higher frequency signals to pass while reducing those below the frequency set.
  • Boost high frequency: Adjust the brightness of vocals by boosting the high frequency sounds. This makes vocals sound clearer and come through stronger.

Compression

One of the most commonly used tools in vocal mixing, compression is an important technique to master; it's also one of the trickiest. Just remember, when trying to find the right compression settings, your main goals are to make the volume of the sound more consistent and make changes in volume less drastic, while maintaining the dynamics of the work.

Here are some effects to master so you can achieve this:

  • Threshold: Create a cutoff point for sound volume so that if the vocals go above that set level, they will be turned down. The amount of the sound volume reduction is determined by a ratio. A common ratio for the threshold is 3:1.
  • Attack time: This setting dictates how quickly the compressor will "attack," or react, once the sound rises above the threshold.
  • Release time: Conversely, the release time determines the time it takes for the compressor to release, or stop compressing, the audio once it falls below the threshold.
  • Makeup gain: Boost the signal of the audio coming out after the compression using makeup gain, also called "output."

Compression takes trial and error to figure out which settings make the most of the vocal track. But it's important to avoid over-compression which can cause vocals to sound lifeless and become overshadowed in the mix.

Reverb

The use of reverb is a classic technique that can give vocals a boost of character and color. The settings you choose for this effect can create an entirely different mood on the vocal track.

Here are some reverb settings to know:

  • Wet vs. dry: Tweak the emphasis on the reverb effect by adjusting the percentages of wet and dry. Higher wet percentages mean the reverb effect comes through stronger.
  • Pre-delay: This setting determines the amount of time it takes to hear the effect. No pre-delay means the reverb sound is instant. You can match your pre-delay and reverb times to the tempo of your song and adjust the EQ of the reverb.
  • Delay: Create an echo with the delay effect. You can lock this effect to the tempo of the song and adjust the meter by musical notes so the delay will be in time with the song.
  • Feedback: Dictate the amount of repeats the delay will have using feedback.

While these vocal mixing techniques should get you started off on the right foot, trial and error will be your guide. Remember — as with any art – there is no one-size-fits-all process.

To learn more about recording vocals, check out our step-by-step guide here.

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