Focusing on the vocals will take your mixes to the next level.
They’re the most important part of your mix. Without a good vocal tone, your mix will always sound amateur.
In this article, you’ll learn the secrets to creating radio-ready vocals.
But before we continue, I’m guessing you’re here because you want to make music that sounds professional in your home studio.
Getting the lead vocal right is important, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle.
That’s why I created this new free workshop for people who want the entire framework for pro mixes.
Inside, I share the only 7 steps you need to go through if you want your mixes to sound professional.
You will also learn the #1 mistake that musicians make when it comes to recording their own music.
So, if you just want a shortcut to pro-quality mixes, watch this free training now:
But if you just want to learn about vocals specifically, keep reading.
- Vocal Mixing: The Definitive Step-by-Step Guide
- Step 1: Get A Great Recording
- Step 2: Comping
- Step 3: Remove Noise and Add Crossfades
- Step 4: Apply Subtle Pitch Correction
- Step 5: Gain Automation (The Secret Sauce)
- Step 6: Prepare the Session
- Step 7: Gain Staging
- Step 8: Surgical EQ
- Step 9: De-Essing (Optional)
- Step 10: The First Compressor
- Step 11: Tonal EQ
- Step 12: The Next Compressor (Optional)
- Step 13: Saturation (Optional)
- Step 14: Limiting (Optional)
- Step 15: Reverb and Delay
- Step 16: Chorus
- Step 17: Range Allocation
- Step 18: Volume Automation
- Step 19: Advanced Techniques (Optional)
- Step 20: Perfecting the Background Vocals
Vocal Mixing: The Definitive Step-by-Step Guide
Step 1: Get A Great Recording
You NEED a good recording if you ever want to produce a good mix.
If the vocals were recorded badly, you won’t be able to fix it in the mix. Sure, you can do your best to salvage a bad recording, but you will never achieve a professional sound.
The quality is decided in the recording phase. Think of it this way… a good vocal is 80% recording and 20% mixing.
If you want the vocal to have a certain sound or timbre, use microphone choice and placement to control the tone. Don’t rely solely on EQ, because it won’t work.
Spend plenty of time preparing for the recording session, and then try out a few different microphones if you can.
Make sure you are using the proper microphone placement for the mic type, and experiment with distance and height until you find a tone that sits well in the mix.
Don’t skimp out on this part.
You can learn how to record vocals in my definitive guide to recording vocals.
Step 2: Comping
Modern production standards require consistency. I recommend editing the best parts of several different takes together to create the perfect performance.
This may seem fake or over the top, but it’s a very normal procedure. Some pop songs will use a different take for every word. You don’t need to go that far, though. Even combining the best takes of each section will improve the vocal.
Of course, if you want to maintain the original performance, that’s also fine – you can skip this step.
Most Digital Audio Workstations have a built-in system for managing takes. It’s definitely worth looking up how to comp in your DAW. Here’s how it works in some common programs:
- Pro Tools: Create a new ‘playlist’ for every take.
- Logic Pro: Record over the top and a new take is automatically created.
- Reaper: Record over the top and a new take is automatically created.
- Studio One: Record over the top and a new take is automatically created.
- Cubase: Enable ‘lanes’ and ‘stacked recording’.
You can learn more about vocal comping in this video:
Step 3: Remove Noise and Add Crossfades
Once you’re happy with your comped track, it’s time to go through the entire vocal and make sure there aren’t any clicks or unwanted noises.
Sometimes comping can create clicks at your edit points. If this happens, add a short crossfade between the clips. Somewhere between 5 – 15 ms.
If there’s any background noise between phrases, you can simply cut this out.
Some people like to remove the breaths, but I think this completely ruins the natural emotion of the performance. My advice is to leave the breaths in.
You can also go through and fix any timing issues. Perhaps there is a phrase that comes in slightly early or late – simply move it into place.
Step 4: Apply Subtle Pitch Correction
Even after comping and choosing the best take for each phrase or section, there can still be imperfections.
Imperfections aren’t always a bad thing – sometimes they add raw emotion and energy.
But other times you will need to use pitch correction to fix a rough note.
When using these tools, I highly recommend that you go through and manually correct any out of pitch notes, rather than applying automatic pitch correction.
This may take more time, but the end result will be far more musical.
You should also apply pitch correction in the context of the track, rather than with the vocal isolated.
Sometimes the other instruments aren’t perfectly in tune, so you may have to make the vocal slightly sharp or flat to compensate.
To learn more about pitch correction, watch this video:
Another note: comping and tuning are definitely important. But there are a few other editing steps you should follow. Make sure you’re covering all your bases by knocking out these 13 steps.
Step 5: Gain Automation (The Secret Sauce)
One of the most difficult things about working with vocals is controlling the dynamics.
A singer can go from a whisper to a shout in seconds. Compared to any other instrument, vocals have a huge dynamic range.
Yet modern standards of production require consistency. Every word needs to be intelligible and loud.
This is usually done with a mixture of volume fader automation and compression.
Loud words and phrases are manually lowered in volume, and quiet words and phrases are manually raised. You can do this by ‘riding the fader’ with live automation, or by drawing in lane automation in your DAW.
This works well, but I want to show you a better option… gain automation.
The problem with volume fader automation is that it comes at the end of the channel, after the plugins. This means that the level going into your compressor and other plugins is all over the place.
Instead, if you automate the gain at the BEGINNING of the channel, the level going into your compressor will already be consistent.
This will make it easier to avoid over-compression.
You can automate gain in a number of ways. Pro Tools has a great function called ‘clip gain’ that allows you to draw in gain automation.
Right-click on a clip, go to ‘Clip Gain’ and ‘Show Clip Gain Line’.
Alternatively, you could insert a gain plugin in your first plugin slot, and automate the level of that.
Depending on how much time you have, and how consistent you want the vocal to be, you could apply clip gain automation to individual sections, phrases, words… or even syllables.
You can learn more about gain automation in my article on gain staging.
Or just watch this video for a complete step-by-step breakdown:
Step 6: Prepare the Session
By now you should have a good recording that’s been edited to perfection.
The levels should be pretty consistent thanks to gain automation.
At this point, I recommend bouncing the vocal down to a new channel or playlist. This will help you to commit to your edit and stop you from going back and constantly tweaking.
In Pro Tools you can highlight all of the regions and use the ‘Consolidate Regions’ function (in the ‘Edit’ menu) to combine them into one tidy clip. Most DAWs have a similar function.
Make sure the vocal is clearly labeled and that the rest of the mix is organized.
Working With Different Genres
Depending on the genre and style of music that you are working with, different standards of mixing will apply.
Here is a brief overview of how to approach the different genres:
- Pop, R’n’B, Electronic: These styles share similar traits. In general, heavy processing is acceptable and often required. Lots of top-end shimmer, noticeable effects, and highly consistent dynamics are the norm.
- Hip Hop: Similar to Pop, but with less effects and less top-end. More presence and aggression in the upper mids. (Though the most mainstream of Hip Hop often has top-end shimmer more akin to Pop).
- Rock: Less top-end, more body and high mids. Vocals can sit a bit further back in the mix.
- Jazz: Approach with subtlety and taste. Avoid obvious processing and leave the dynamics mostly intact.
- Hardcore/Metal: Heavy compression (several rounds of 6-10dB gain reduction can be warranted) to make the vocals sound aggressive. Less low end, more body and high mids.
Never over-process a voice or use effects for no reason.
Consider the music and the style above all else. Your mixing should be transparent and compliment the music. You’re not trying to show off your mixing skills by using every trick in the book.
You can learn more about using compression in different genres in this video:
The Vocal Mixing Formula
For mainstream genres that require heavy processing, I tend to use the same tools in a similar order.
Here’s how it pans out for the majority of mixes:
You can replicate this system and then tweak it to suit your individual mixing style. It’s important to develop your own systems as a mixer, but it’s perfectly acceptable to model somebody else first.
Don’t try to re-invent the wheel. The most creative mixers still combine an element of replication with imagination and experimentation.
You can grab my vocal mixing ebook if you want to follow this system while mixing:
Let’s break down these steps and look at them in more detail.
Step 7: Gain Staging
If you automated the gain of the vocal as I recommended, it should already be sitting in that -18dBFS sweet spot.
If you didn’t bother with gain automation, now is the time to apply a gain plugin at the beginning of your plugin chain and adjust it until the vocal sits around -18dBFS.
Want to learn how to gain stage properly? Check this guide out:
Curious why we use a VU meter to gain stage? That’s because most plugins are based on old analog technology, and their “sweet spot” was always around 0dBVU. Since VU meters measure volume differently than your DAW’s standard FS meters, we want to use one to keep our gain staging as accurate as possible.
Gain staging crucial step that most people overlook. You should check the rest of the mix too. Not everything has to sit at EXACTLY -18dBFS. Just make sure that nothing is near clipping and try to keep everything peaking below -6dBFS.
Step 8: Surgical EQ
A lot of people are unsure of whether to use EQ before or after compression. Well, I say do both.
Use EQ before compression to remove any nasty elements. Then, add an EQ after to shape the tone.
This way the compressor won’t exaggerate any of the ugly stuff (as it has already been removed), and it won’t mess with your tonal adjustments either.
I also recommend using multiple compressors in series. Sometimes I use two compressors in a row, sometimes I use a compressor after tonal EQ as well. The key is to experiment and try swapping around the order when mixing.
With surgical EQ, you want to hunt down any horrible room resonances and cut them out.
When recording in an untreated room, there is normally some element of frequency buildup from the room.
To find these buildups, you can use the good ol’ boost-and-sweep technique. I don’t recommend using this technique when applying tonal EQ (as it can warp your perception), but for finding problematic frequency buildups it’s perfectly fine.
The “EQ Sweep” technique is one the 4 ways you can use EQ in your mixes:
In this video, I’ll show you how to find these nasty buildups and cut them out…
The next step is to use a high-pass filter to remove low-end noise.
If you want the vocal to sound warm and full, I don’t recommend going above 50Hz with this filter.
Step 9: De-Essing (Optional)
Placing a de-esser after your EQ usually works best. But adding a de-esser at the very end of the plugin chain can work well too.
Sibilance is a super common issue. “S” and “T” sounds can make your mix sound harsh.
You can reduce sibilance in the recording phase by placing the microphone slightly off axis, or by using a dynamic microphone.
You can also use a de-esser to reduce sibilance while mixing. This’ll compress the sibilant frequencies so they aren’t too loud.
Most de-essers have a ‘listen’ mode that allows you to find the sibilant frequency range. Find the problematic frequencies and turn them down.
Step 10: The First Compressor
As I mentioned earlier, I prefer to apply compression in several stages. This is called ‘serial compression’.
Rather than using a single compressor with aggressive settings, it’s better to use multiple compressors each adding a little compression. The end result is more musical and natural.
Your goal here (in most cases) is to make the compression unnoticeable. Sometimes, heavy compression sounds good (for example, in hardcore and heavy music) but most of the time you want the compression to be pretty transparent.
Your goal with this first compressor is to shape the tone.
By adjusting the attack time you can make the vocal sound more aggressive and punchy (slow attack) or thicker and heavier (fast attack).
Shaping the sound of an instrument is one of the 3 ways you can use compression in your mixes. Check out our guide on compression techniques:
We’ll actually be using Method 1 in a moment. But first…
Avoid using really fast attacks (below 2ms). You want the lead vocal to be right at the front of the mix – by using a super fast attack time you will really squash the transients and beginning of words, which will make the vocal sit further back.
Start with an attack of around 15ms. For punch, turn it down to around 5ms. Set the attack at or above 30ms if you want it to sound thicker.
I find that a ratio between 1.5:1 and 3:1 works best. Set the threshold so that the compressor is engaging on pretty much every word (watch the gain reduction meter) and then adjust the ratio until you see 2-3dB of gain reduction.
You can learn a lot more about compression in my definitive guide to vocal compression.
Step 11: Tonal EQ
Now it’s time to adjust the tone of the vocal to taste.
Start with boosts and cuts of around 3dB or less. We hear voices every day, so as soon as you start to apply heavy EQ moves the vocal will start to sound unnatural.
Top end boosts are the exception to this. When mixing pop and other mainstream genres it’s common to add aggressive boosts to the top end of a vocal. This adds air and makes the vocal sound more expensive.
Use a high shelf for this rather than a bell curve, and use an analog modeling EQ if you have one.
I generally find myself adding a couple of boosts in the upper mids. This helps the vocal cut through the mix.
Step 12: The Next Compressor (Optional)
You can apply another round of compression after applying tonal EQ to add even more dynamic consistency to the vocal.
But for lighter and rawer genres (like jazz, acoustic and alternative rock) it might be best to avoid using too much compression.
This time you can use a slightly faster attack to catch the peaks. But be careful about going too fast.
Aim for another 2-3dB of gain reduction, but this time adjust the threshold until there’s only gain reduction on the loudest syllables. Then adjust the ratio until you see 2-3dB of gain reduction.
Depending on the genre, you could opt for more gain reduction here. Also, experiment with placing this compressor before EQ.
Again, refer to my article on vocal compression if you want to go into more depth.
Step 13: Saturation (Optional)
Applying a small amount of saturation to the vocal can help it sound brighter and more exciting.
Sometimes boosting the top end with an EQ just isn’t enough, and you need you use saturation to create some new harmonics on the top end.
I highly recommend Softube’s free Saturation Knob plugin. Dial in some subtle saturation until the vocal sounds like it has more air and excitement.
Step 14: Limiting (Optional)
Even after applying automation and compression, you can use limiting for extra consistency.
You only want to catch the very loudest peaks. If the limiter is engaging once every few words, you’re probably being too aggressive (although this does work for some genres where heavy processing is needed).
If the limiter is constantly engaged, you’ll cut off the transients and make the vocal sound dull and lifeless. Just like using a fast attack, it’ll push the vocal further back in the mix.
Adjust the gain or threshold on the limiter so it only engages on the loudest peaks. For more apparent volume, opt for a fast release time. For more subtle limiting, use a slower release.
Congratulations! You have made it past the hard stuff. The bulk of your work is done.
By now you should have a vocal that sits well in the mix and is clear and intelligible. Every word should be loud and consistent, and the vocal should sound bright and expensive.
Now it’s time to use effects to create space and add stereo width.
Step 15: Reverb and Delay
The current mixing trend is vocals that are up front and in your face.
So reverb is counterproductive.
By adding reverb to vocals, you’ll push them further back in the mix and make them less intelligible. Most of the time, this isn’t what you want.
Of course, for atmospheric styles or situations where reverb is used creatively, go crazy.
But if you want modern, radio-ready vocals, you don’t need to use reverb. At all.
Instead, you can use delays to add space without putting it back in the mix (more on that in a second).
But first, there is one way you can use subtle reverb on vocals…
A subtle, short stereo reverb can add width and depth to the vocal:
Check out how to do it here:
Instead of using reverb to add space to the vocal, use a stereo slapback delay with different times on the left and right side:
Here’s how it works:
By using different times on the left and right side you add stereo width to the vocal.
When you mute the delay, you’ll notice that the vocal sounds dry in comparison.
If you want a more depth and interest to the sound, you can also use a mono delay. Try syncing a mono delay with plenty of feedback to the tempo of the track. This gives the classic ‘echo’ sound that you hear on a lot of pop mixes.
Experiment with whole note delays, half note delays and even quarter note delays.
If you want the delay to be more obvious, adjust the timing with your ear. Set the delay time manually rather than using the sync function.
A lot of people create ‘delay throws’ by automating the send and only adding delays on the last word of a phrase. This can add interest to a vocal and fill in the gaps between phrases.
Step 16: Chorus
Chorus is great for adding depth and shimmer.
If you have a chorus that has a dry/wet control, you can add it directly to the vocal. If you don’t, put the chorus on a stereo aux channel instead.
Bring up the volume until you notice the chorus, and then back it off.
Make sure it’s really subtle. When you mute it, you’ll notice that the vocal sounds thinner. When you bring it back in, it’ll add depth and shimmer.
UPDATE: We just released a great video on recording giant layered vocals:
Step 17: Range Allocation
The home stretch! There are only two more things I do before the vocal is complete. The first is range allocation.
By cutting out certain frequencies in other instruments, we can make space for the vocal to sit.
If you find that the vocal is getting covered up by the piano, cutting some frequencies in the piano should help the vocal cut through.
The best place to start is to cut any frequencies on the competing instrument that you boosted on the vocal.
For example, if you boosted the vocal at 130Hz, 2.3kHz, and 4kHz, yet there is a guitar that is still competing with the vocal, cut these frequencies in the guitar.
Find the lowest “bump” in the frequency spectrum of your vocal. That’s the fundamental. It’s often around 80-180Hz for men and 160-260Hz for women. Turn down these frequencies on any competing instruments.
Step 18: Volume Automation
Earlier on in the mix, you used gain automation to manually make the level more consistent.
Now you can use volume automation to add more interest and character. You can enhance the emotion of the performance by exaggerating certain syllables, words or phrases.
Try enhancing the very beginning and ends of words. A lot of emotion lives in the beginnings and ends of a phrase.
My favorite way to apply volume automation is to shut my eyes and manually ride the fader using a midi mappable fader, like the PreSonus Faderport.
Step 19: Advanced Techniques (Optional)
There are a number of other tools, plugins, and techniques that can be useful for vocal mixing.
You can use multiband compression to add more body and tame any ugly resonances that crop up here and there.
For dynamic control that sounds natural, try using parallel compression.
These techniques are covered in more detail in my vocal compression guide.
Step 20: Perfecting the Background Vocals
You want your background vocals to sit nicely underneath the lead vocal and support it, without distracting from it.
While the lead vocal should always be panned dead center, I recommend panning backing vocals hard left and hard right.
Try compressing them more aggressively. This’ll help them sit well in the mix. Use a fast attack time (below 2ms) to push them behind the lead.
There’s no need to go through and manually control the levels with gain automation or volume automation. Since they’re meant to sit in the background, heavy compression is fine.
So, now you know how to mix vocals. All the steps outline above will get you where you need to be to mix professional sounding vocals.
But this is just one small part of the process.
You can do this perfectly and still end up with mixes that sound like bedroom demos if you’re missing a crucial step (it took me 10 years to learn this).
There is SO MUCH that goes into a good mix. It’s actually pretty overwhelming.
Once you’ve learned how to properly mix vocals, there’s a lot of other stuff you need to get right if you want your music to sound professional.
But what if I told you that you don’t have to be an expert (with years of experience) to make radio-ready music at home?
That’s the truth.
It’s likely that you’ve already wasted time, money and effort on the wrong things. I know I did. I wasted years focusing on the wrong things.
So, what should you focus on if you want fast results?
Inside this new free training, I share the secret to making radio-ready music at home.
After I stumbled upon this new approach, I knew exactly where to spend my time and energy. I was no longer confused and overwhelmed by the recording and mixing process.
Honestly, I was annoyed I didn’t learn this stuff sooner. It would have saved me at least 7 years.
This new approach hasn’t just worked for me either…
One of my students – his name is Patrick – was pretty new to home recording when he came to me for help. I shared this idea with him and he went from his first ever home recording to high-quality, professional mixes in just 2 and a half months.
This same approach has worked for hundreds of other musicians too.
Now it’s your turn.
If you want to learn the *exact* steps that will take your mixes to a professional standard in under a year…
Watch this free workshop now:
It’s only playing for a limited time – we’re always updating the site and this could get removed soon. So go and check it out now.
Audio professional, musician and founder of Musician on a Mission.