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In The Studio: Four Tips For Mixing An Unruly Lead Vocal

If you smack the vocal around enough, it'll behave...
This article is provided by Home Studio Corner.

As I was telling one of the members of Mix With Us, I learn something new every time I mix a song… and I imagine that will always be the case.

Mixing is such a wild task. It’s exciting, tedious, invigorating, and depressing… all at the same time.

But there’s nothing like those final stages of a mix, when everything is finally coming together.

One of the biggest hurdles you’ll run into is the lead vocal. Your goal is to have an awesome lead vocal that sits just right in the mix. However, this proves to be more difficult than it seems.

Sometimes the vocal track has too much low end. Sometimes it’s too harsh or thin. Sometimes it disappears in the mix. Other times it’s overpowering the mix.

Be patient. Give it time. If you smack the vocal around enough, it’ll behave. grin

As I’ve been wrestling with my own lead vocal tracks, I’ve come up with a couple tips I’d like to share with you.

1. Use A Low Shelf

I talk a lot about getting rid of excess low end by using a high-pass filter. Sometimes, though, this can be too drastic of an effect, especially on something so prominent in the mix like a lead vocal.

If you’re having a hard time finding a good balance between too boomy and too thin, try using a low shelf instead of a HPF.

Turn the low shelf down by 6 dB or so, then roll it up from 100 Hz as high as you want, until the vocal stops being boomy but still retains its fullness.

I just mixed a song today, and I think I did a 9 dB cut with a low shelf at 300 Hz on the lead vocal. Sounds extreme, I know, but it sounded right. Had I tried a HPF at 300 Hz, it would’ve sounded WAY too thin.

2. Ease Up The Compression

Compressing a vocal is a great way to tighten it up and help it sit in a mix. However, it’s really easy (especially if you’re new to mixing) to over-compress the lead vocal.

Remember, if you remove all dynamic range from an instrument, be it a lead vocal or a guitar, you lose some of its musicality. Too much compression can kill the life of a vocal.

If you’re having a hard time getting the vocal to sound right, try dialing back the compression a bit…or perhaps don’t use any compression at all.

3. Use A De-Esser

You’ll run into this scenario quite a bit. You’ve dialed in the perfect lead vocal sound. It’s EQ’d perfectly, with just the right amount of compression, then….SSSSSSssss… The vocalist sings a word like “Mississippi,” and the S’s chop your ears off.

That’s a byproduct of compression. It tends to increase the volume of the sibilance of a vocal. The solution? A de-esser.

A de-esser is simply a compressor that only compresses a specific frequency range. It’s decided to compress (i.e. turn down) the sibilant frequencies of a vocal track without affecting the tone of the rest of the track. If dialed in correctly, the de-esser will turn down those S’s in Mississippi…and your ears will thank you.

(Be careful, though. If you overdo de-essing, the vocalist will sound like he/she has a lisp.)

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4. Turn The Vocal Down

Sometimes the simplest solution is the one we don’t think about. It’s really easy to make the lead vocal TOO loud in the mix.

It’s understandable, you’ve crafted this exquisite lead vocal sound. You want the world to hear it, right? Right. But turn it down. The vocal should sit in the mix, not on top of the mix.

Hope these tips help you out next time you’re mixing a lead vocal.

Joe Gilder is a Nashville based engineer, musician, and producer who also provides training and advice at the Home Studio Corner.

Note that Joe also offers highly effective training courses, including Understanding Compression.

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