Mixing vocals could be considered the most important part of your mixing job. For instance, people will tolerate a poor acoustic guitar mix when the vocals shine through. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t put effort into creating an all-around solid mix. My point is that when the vocal mix suffers, everyone notices. How do know your vocal mix was bad? Have you ever heard these complaints; “I couldn’t hear the lead singer,” “I couldn’t understand what they were singing,” or the worst complaint, “they sounded terrible, what happened?”
This vocal mixing guide gives you the information needed for creating a solid vocal mix every time. By the end of this guide, you’ll know what you need to do, when you need to do it, and how to do it.
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This guide breaks down the vocal mixing information into eight areas;
- How Vocals Fit in a Mix
- Key Vocal Qualities
- Vocal Microphone Selection and Monitor Usage
- Mixing with the End in Mind
- Setting Vocal Volumes
- Preparing Your Vocals (Cleaning up your Vocals)
- Mixing Vocals / EQ’ing Vocals
- Using Five Types of Effects Processing
1. How Vocals Fit in a Mix
Vocals are mixed to make the way they are used, the style of song that is being performed, along with a few other aspects for consideration. This section covers all of those.
A. ARE THEY A LEAD VOCALIST OR BACKING VOCALIST?
The first part of mixing vocals, or mixing ‘a vocalist,’ is knowing the use of that vocalist in the song arrangement. A vocalist is either going to sing a lead part in the song or they are going to sing in a way that supports the lead singer. In the latter case, they would be considered a backing singer or backing vocalist.
A lead singer, just as it sounds, is the singer that leads the song. They sing the primary vocal line. A band can have multiple lead singers. The first song could have singer A and the second song could have singer B. One song can jump between multiple lead singers. In some instances, more than one person can lead the song so you have multiple lead singers. How you blend or contrast them is something that’s covered later.
Backing singers can sing in a variety of ways;
- Sing along side the lead. This might happen at a chorus when everyone sings the same words at the same time.
- Sing behind the lead. They might sing a highlighting phrase (the same line as the lead for a moment) or completely different words.
- Sing separate from the lead. This can happen when the song arrangement calls for the lead singer to step out of the way so a choir or backing singer can step in and sing out for a bridge or chorus or whatever the arrangement calls for them to do.
The ways in which you mix a lead singer and a backing singer are quite different. Mixing backing singers will be covered later in this guide. That being said, you can still learn a lot about mixing backing singers as you learn about how all types of vocals fit into a song.
B. MATCHING THE GENRE OF MUSIC / STYLE OF THE BAND
Ten years ago, it was safe to make a statement like, “don’t mix a rap singer like you are mixing a country song.” Now, there are popular country songs which feature a rapper. I think this is a sign the end of the world is near! That unusual combination aside, you need to sculpt your vocal(s) so you create a sound that fits in with the genre of the song.
Take three different music genres; country, rock, and gospel. Regarding the use of vocal reverb across these genres, the type and amounts of reverb will be different. You might use heavy vocal reverb in a rock mix but would never think of using that same effect in a traditional gospel music mix. Whatever your situation, your band will tend towards playing in a particular style. They might change up a song and one day do, “the reggae” version of a song. But, it’s safe to say your band has their own sound and you need to treat your vocal mixing so you are mixing to their desired sound.
Here’s where you might have problems. If your band plays a contemporary style of music along the lines of Hillsong or Chris Tomlin or David Crowder but YOU don’t like that type of music then you are going to be mixing against your bias. You might like the Southern Gospel style or are more of a country music fan or even a “traditional hymns” fan. You’ll find yourself either;
- Mixing so the result sounds like your musical preference.
- Mixing a poor mix because you can’t get into the music.
- Mixing a great mix because you know the importance of your job.
Hopefully, if you aren’t into the style of music that’s performed, you will be the person who does the last of those. If you struggle with it, take some time listening to song in that style of music via Youtube videos or free music services like Spotify. Maybe you’ll start to like it but if not, at least you’ll have an ear for how it is usually mixed.
That last bit is a great way of improving your mixing and creating a good vocal mix to match the song. Listen to a professional recording of the song and then listen to music in other genres and listen for the differences in how vocals are mixed. You’ll learn how genre / style of song makes a difference in vocal mixing.
C. MATCH THE EXPECTATIONS OF THE PEOPLE AND OF THE ROOM
This part gets a little tricky. You don’t want listeners to actively drive your mixing. However, you do have to respect their expectations. Imagine you are mixing 150-person room. You can’t create the same type of mix that would rock a 1,500 person room. Believe me, it doesn’t work. You can’t put a ton of hall reverb on a vocal in a small room without sounding out of place. At the same time, if the congregation isn’t used to vocal delay, as an effect, then that’s probably not something you want to use in many of your songs. This isn’t to say you can’t use it, as an arrangement calls for it; you just need to be careful with how and when you use it.
In the world of church audio, you can have five different churches each with their own worship band and they can all sound completely different. But they can also all sound completely right. It’s a matter of what sound the band desires, what works in the room, and what works with the congregation. Of course, this can be said for mixing the instruments as well as the music.
One final tip which is important in church audio; don’t make people sound like someone totally different. You can change a lot about a vocalist’s sound but don’t go so far that people think, “he/she sounds nothing like that.” Reverb and delay are good effects so don’t think I’m talking about that type of change. Don’t change the core of their true sound.
D. LISTEN TO THE MIX THE BAND USED
Working with vocal mixing and vocal eq’ing would cause your brain to explode if you had NEVER heard ANY music ever sung. But you know a few songs, right? You know “Happy Birthday,” and perhaps a few thousand other songs you’ve already forgotten. My point is you know how lead vocals and backing vocals are generally mixed in a song. Generally. What you need to learn, to really kick up the quality of your vocals, is how those vocals need to sound in the particular song you are mixing. A great way to do this is through the use of reference tracks.
You can use reference tracks in two ways. First, you could listen to seven different versions of a song, and get an idea of three or four or seven different ways of mixing the vocals. Or, secondly, you could do what my church does (and many others do the same) and find out what songs the worship leader has picked out for the week and then have them send you links to the YouTube / Spotify / iTunes version of the song that closest matches the arrangement and sound of what they plan on doing. Using this method, by listening to the reference track over and over, you’ll eventually hear the details of the vocal mix arrangement. As a side note, you’ll also hear how the instruments should be mixed. The long and short of it is reference tracks are great for planning your live vocal mix.
One last note on reference tracks and planning your mix; take advantage of first impressions. You will hear a song differently the first time than the second or third or tenth. As studio engineer Dave Pensado said, “There’s only one time to hear a song the first time, and I like to catalogue my first impressions because I trust them. So I’ll begin the process by pulling out pen and paper and noting down the weaknesses and strengths of a song.” In this case, do that with the vocals. Make note of what stands out, what emotion comes from the vocals, and where the vocals might suddenly sit back or sound different in the mix.
2. Key Vocal Qualities
There are several components to a vocalist’s sound. There is the uniqueness of their voice, their vocal range, their average singing volume, and their vocal dynamics. Let’s look at these different key vocal qualities and how they impact your vocal mixing.
A. TIMBRE: VOCAL UNIQUENESS
Imagine two singers on the stage. They are singing the same words, at the same time, at the same pitch, and singing in the same octave range. They still produce two completely unique sounds. The reason is they have unique timbres.
A person’s singing voice might be referred to as warm, bright, dark, or smooth. There are a variety of terms for describing a singers “voice.” These descriptions are direct reflections of their timbre. Vocal timbre is the tonal coloring of the vocal which enables vocalists to appear distinct from each other when they sing at the same pitch and the same volume.
Getting technical, timbre describes the unique sound of a voice which comes about through;
- Spectral Differences: the summing of distinct frequencies, or overtones, which are sometimes called the richness of the tone.
- Time Envelop Differences: the overall amplitude structure of the sound which includes rise, duration, and decay.
In this image, you can see the time envelop of a singer who is singing the word “Wade” from the old gospel song, “Wade in the Water.” Notice the sudden rise, the duration, and the slow decay.
You can also hear that audio clip here;
Mixing vocals and going through the whole vocal eq process, you are dealing with the uniqueness of the singers voice; their unique timbre. As you’ll soon learn in eq’ing vocals, how you deal with a lead vocalist’s timbre can be quite opposite in how you deal with the varying timbres of backing vocalists.
It’s been reported that it takes about 60 ms to recognize the timbre of a tone. Also, that it takes about a +/- 4 dB change in mid or high harmonics to be perceived as a change in timbre, whereas about 10 dB of change in one of the lower harmonics is required to be noticeable.
Tonal qualities can add richness and depth to mix. An odd sounding vocalist might sound really odd but when mixed properly, sounds right. A good example is Leon Redbone. Yes, he’s definitely got a unique sound but the result of the mix is a great sounding song…at least in my opinion.
Let’s take a completely different route and listen to the tonal qualities of Chris Tomlin
While I’d guess the latter is closer to what most of you are used to mixing, it’s obvious even the former has its place. When it comes to tonal qualities, understand each voice is unique and should be respected as such.
B. VOCAL RANGE
Vocal range is the quality of a singer’s voice which represents the span of musically useful pitches the singer can produce. A singer is categorized according to their vocal range as such*;
- Soprano: C4 – C6 (261 Hz to 1046 Hz)
- Mezzo-soprano: A3 – A5 (220 Hz to 880 Hz)
- Contralto (Alto): F3 – F5 (174 Hz to 698 Hz)
- Tenor: C3 – C5 (130 Hz to 523 Hz)
- Baritone: F2 – F4 (87 Hz to 349 Hz)
- Bass: E2 – E4 (82 Hz to 329 Hz)
*Letter/number combinations represents the “note location” whereas C4 would be Middle-C on a piano.
Related to EQ’ing and mixing vocals, these ranges give you an idea where the fundamental frequencies are located for singers of these types. Therefore, when you are mixing a soprano, you have an idea of the base frequency range from which you’d be working. These ranges do not imply frequencies above the upper limit are not used. Harmonics are present well above these listed frequencies and can be present as high as 8-10 kHz. Therefore, a soprano singer could have frequencies cut out completely above the 1100 Hz mark and the resulting sound would not appear natural.
Note, when listening to a singer struggle with singing a particular note, phrase, or song, it’s often because the song is being performed in a key which is not suits for their vocal range. In such a case, there isn’t much you can do in the live environment.
Cutting and Boosting on Fundamental and Harmonic Frequencies
Given the above concerning frequencies, let’s take a female vocalist and make some changes. I’ve taken the vocal line that you hear above and applied some changes, both at fundamental and harmonic levels.
Cutting a fundamental frequency of 800 Hz at -6 dB
Boosting a fundamental frequency of 800 Hz at +8 dB
Boosting (shelving eq) a harmonic frequency of around 8000 Hz at +6 dB
Cutting (shelving eq) a harmonic frequency of around 4000 Hz at -9 dB
The cutting and boosting at both fundamental and harmonic frequencies can make a significant difference in the resulting sound.
C. VOCAL VOLUME
Every person talks at a different volume level. My friend, Brad, talks at a naturally loud volume. I have another friend named Brad who talks softly. Just as with a natural speaking volume, people have a natural volume in which they sing. I’ve mixed for singers who I would pay cold hard cash if they would just sing louder. I’ve mixed for people like my wife and my friend, Leshon, who can belt out a song with great volume strength but without being over-the-top. You have to consider a singer’s natural volume as a quality of their voice.
D. VOCAL DYNAMICS
Consider vocal dynamics as the changing volume levels in which a vocalist sings during a song. These changes can be detrimental to your mix but they can also be beneficial, it all depends on the intent of the song arrangement and the quality of the singer. For example, a vocalist can raise their volume at a critical part of a song and that adds to the emotional impact at that time. There are also the tell-tale signs a singer isn’t comfortable singing a song when they belt out the chorus but their volume drops significantly when it comes to the verses. You might even hear a bit of hesitation in their voice. You can’t control everything.
The quality of a vocalist’s sound can also change with volume. Singing louder might produce a better sound for a singer. It might throw off their pitch. Vocalists who try singing softer for part of a song might not be able to stay on pitch. It all depends on the particular singer. Volume changes can result in pitch changes, though trained singers aren’t likely to have such a problem. Volume control is normally relegated to you, the person mixing. If you have a singer who is changing their volume during parts of a song, and appear to be struggling, tell them you will take care of the volume so they can focus on singing with their best voice. If you have a singer who can control their volume without any decrease in quality, then consider yourself blessed.
Looking at the impact of vocal dynamics, you need to ask yourself the question, “what should I do when”;
- “…the volume changes have a positive effect?”
- “…the volume changes have a negative effect?”
Dealing with negative volume changes
Sometimes, you have to use your eyes when you are mixing. You might have a vocalist who doesn’t hold the microphone at the same spot when singing. One minute, it’s by their mouth and the next minute, they have it two feet away. When this is the case, you need to work directly with the vocalist or go through the worship leader and train them in proper microphone usage; right up to their lips.
If the singer fluctuates their volume because they aren’t comfortable with the words, then you can’t do much of anything.
If the singer is modulating their volume so much that one minute they are fine and the next minute they are singing louder with no correlation to song arrangement, then this is a time when vocal compression comes in handy. Compression is covered further on in this guide.
Dealing with positive volume changes
This would be changes where the singer is able to sing with the same good tone while singing softer or lower according to what the song arrangement needs. In this case, you may or may not need compression. If they are too loud, then compress it, but if they are adding a great depth to the mix by singing louder and adding an energetic feel to the mix, then sit back and enjoy it.
A side note on vocal volume changes. Your channel gain should be set so there is no clipping when the singer really belts it out. If there is, then you need to back off the gain on their channel.
Set your vocal gain by having the vocalist sing at their normal volume and once they do that, have them sing at a louder volume they would be likely to hit during an emotional part of a song or during an energetic song. Your gain control should not have any clipping or distortion. It is possible you see the peak light pop on every once in a while and that’s ok. As long as it’s not solid red or flashes regularly then you are ok. Some mixing consoles distort when the channel clips but most do not.
You might ask, “how do I mix a female vocal compared to a male vocal.” In terms of mixing, I haven’t found gender-based vocal mixing to be an issue. Where there are slight differences in the vocal cord construction across genders, and men and women do tend to speak in different patterns and intonations, when it comes to mixing vocals I treat each one as unique. Brady, one of our band’s singers is male but sings higher than our other males. I also mix a female that has a surprising amount of low-to-mid range frequencies in her voice. Mix vocalists by their voice, not their gender.
3. Vocal Microphone and Monitor Usage
What is a good vocal EQ guide if I don’t address microphones and monitors!?!
A. MICROPHONE CHOICE
“Choosey mothers choose Jiff.” Choosey sound techs choose the best microphone for the job. For a review of vocal microphones, see this vocal microphone guide.
I’ll summarize that information here;
- Pick a microphone with the right polar pattern so you prevent un-necessary feedback and capture only the singer’s voice as best as possible. Hyper-cardioids are great in the live environment.
- Pick a condenser microphone for improved frequency detection but recognize they will distort if given too much volume.
- Pick a microphone that has a frequency response which best sculpts the singer’s sound so you get a better sound from the source. Better sound = less mixing and correction. The best the sound at the source, the easier your job will be. All microphones are not the same, so check the mic’s documentation for the frequency response chart.
And if you don’t have that much control in microphone selection, find out your microphone frequency response charts anyway. You want to know what the microphone is doing to the frequencies it’s sending to you. One tech, who use to work with the big acts “back in the day” and whose name escapes me, would use the same microphones all of the time. He knew what they did to the frequencies so he knew how to mix according to what he knew he was being sent. Think of it this way, you can’t boost 100 Hz and hear a difference if your microphone rolls off frequencies below 200 Hz
B. MICROPHONE USAGE
Perfect sound isolation isn’t possible but with proper microphone usage, you can get a solid sound for mixing. They should have the microphone right up to their lips, at about a 45-degree angle. That’s about it. You might find people discuss absolute optimal angles but 45-degrees is an angle that most people understand. If they don’t, then show them. This is assuming the singer is using a handheld microphone. In the case of microphones kept on a stand, set the stand and microphone so you get that 45-degree angle, if possible. They have to stand as close as possible.
C. MONITOR MIXES
In order for a vocalist to sing their best, they need to hear the proper sounds in their monitor mix. Monitor mixing is rarely taught so this might be a great opportunity to help your vocalists get better mixes in their floor wedges or in-ears. The key is knowing the person who is using the monitor needs to be able to use that information to be in time and on pitch.
A lead singer, who also plays an instrument, will need their instrument and their voice in their monitor. Leads like this are commonly guitarists and pianists. In addition to those two sounds, they will likely need something to set/keep the tempo for their instrument. A bit of snare drum and high-hat are good for this.
Lead singers, who don’t play an instrument, need to hear themselves (duh!) as well as a good lead rhythm instrument (usually an acoustic guitar) and a bit of snare for good measure. Song arrangements vary but usually one of those is present and therefore good for keeping time.
Backing singers need to hear each other, themselves, and something to set the time. A lead rhythm guitar is good. They also need to hear the lead singer.
4. Mixing with the End in Mind
Given all you have learned, up to this point, you should be able to imagine what you’d like to hear from the house speakers in regards to the vocal lines. That being said, consider these four points;
- Mix with the end in mind. When you get to the later section on EQ’ing and start EQ’ing your vocalist, you should have a reason for every knob you turn, fader you move, or button you press. Don’t turn knobs wondering “what will this do.” Make adjustments with the mentality of “I want my current vocal to sound like THIS [imagined in your head] so I need to change THIS setting.”
- Know that your vocalist should own the frequency band in which they are singing. If they are sitting in the 800-1000 Hz area, then make sure you don’t have other dominate sounds fighting for that space. You don’t have to clear that space out completely. See the next little bit on Mixing the Lead Before the Instruments.
- The lead LEADS. No matter how you mix the backing singers and the instruments, the lead singer should be out-front in your mix and never fighting for volume against anything else. There is a lot of room for nuanced mixing for a tight sound but when it comes down to it, the congregation needs to hear the lead singer so put them out in front.
- Plan for backing vocal mixing. Just like the first point, while it’s easy to focus on lead vocalist with such importance, the backing vocals should be mixed with as much effort. They aren’t the lead vocal but they are no less important.
Mixing the lead before the instruments
The lead vocal is the main foreground instrument. Therefore, when you are mixing all of your sources, carve out frequency space in the instruments so the lead is out front. In case of having backing vocals, carve out the backing vocals for the lead to shine through when the song calls for it.
In the words of Kim Lajoie, “Make sure it sounds exactly how it needs to, and then bring the other instruments back in around the vocal. The vocal is the most important part of the mix and the song – don’t compromise it by jamming it into a sans-vocal mix.”
5. Setting Vocal Volumes
Balancing the vocal level against the instruments is crucial in a well-mixed vocal. The manner in which is this is performed varies depending on if the vocal is a lead vocal or a backing vocal ground. And with backing vocals, it can even get a bit more complex….but nothing you can’t handle.
Starting with lead vocals, I’m going to turn to the respected recording engineer Bob Ludwig, “The vocal is everything to the success of a song. Make it loud enough to be able to hear the lyrics. The problem is, if the vocal level is too high, all the energy of the track disappears, if it is too low, you can’t understand what is being said.”
Not only can the vocals be too soft, but they can also be too loud. You need them, “just right.” Why am I suddenly thinking about portage? Anyway, I find the easiest way of testing my vocal level is by hitting the mute button. Leave the lead vocal muted for a few seconds and then un-mute the channel. When the lead vocalist’s sound comes back into the mix, it’s easy to identify if it’s way too loud or “not loud enough.” The congregation needs to be able to follow along but if the vocal is too loud, then, like Ludwig said, your mix energy is out the window.
Backing vocals…this is the complex part I mentioned. You have to know the song and how the vocals will be used. For example, listen to Our God is Greater below.
In this song, the backing vocals are singing the same words throughout but volume-wise, they are quite distant in the mix. Compare those backing vocals to what you get in the classic Agnus Dei, by Michael W. Smith. Smitty doesn’t come in until 2 minutes into the song. In this song, the backing vocals are quite “out front” during much of the song.
Setting volumes for backing vocals comes down to knowing how the backing vocalist arrangement is expected for the song. Only then, can you consider where they need to sit in the mix. Depending on the song, you might have to change the group level of the backing vocalists throughout the song if the arrangement changes. And by group level, I mean that you should have your backing vocalists in a group (subgroup, VCA, DCA) so once you blend their vocals together, you can easily control their overall volume level.
6. Cleaning up your Vocals / preparing your vocals
As of the time of this writing, my house has just been painted. Before applying the paint, the painters did a lot of cleanup work. They had to patch holes. They had to prepare the wood by scrapping away the dust and dirt and flaking paint. Likewise, you have to prepare your vocals for your EQ work. This involves cleaning up the bad so you can hear your raw vocals for their potential, not for their flaws. Once this is done, only then can you start your in-depth EQ work.
Cleaning up vocals is about getting rid of what you don’t need and minimizing the bad. Let’s start with the stuff you can throw away.
The first step is engaging your High Pass Filter (HPF). The HPF on your mixer will either be a set amount, such as 80 Hz or will be controllable. Both analog and digital mixers can have adjustable HPF’s. For starters, I’ll engage the HPF or, in the case of an adjustable one, I’ll set it around 120 Hz. This is only a baseline adjustment. I’ve later bumped a HPF as high as 180-200 Hz because it cleaned up my vocal mix. In your later mixing process, you might find you need to set it higher. But when it comes down to it, your bass and kick drum are ruling that low-end area and your vocals can’t add anything positive. Also, if any low frequencies from the stage seep into the vocal microphone, they can muddy up the sound and the HPF will keep them out.
Next, clean up any offending frequencies by cutting them in your vocal mix. The level to which you can do this is dependent on your type of mixing console. A digital console with graphic EQ enables you to make many changes whereas an analog console is much more limited. That being said, listen for harsh frequencies that are out of place or plain “don’t benefit the sound.” Many times, harshness can be found in the 2.5 kHz to 4 kHz range.
After engaging the HPF, I’ll listen for fundamental frequencies that are harming the mix. Most of the time, I’ll follow that with a slight cut in the sub-600 range and in the 3 – 4 kHz range. It all comes down to your particular vocalist and what you need to do. You might find your vocalist has a very unique sound but when sung along with another singer the uniqueness becomes a distraction. In that case, cut the frequency area which gives them their distinctness. Consider it a light sanding.
A note on backing vocalists; think of their voices as “one voice.” Cut what you need to cut so they sound unified.
Regarding problem frequencies, the rule is cut narrow and boost wide. Surgeons cut out the least amount of tissue possible when removing any abnormalities in the human body. Likewise, when removing problem frequencies, you want to remove only those that are bad. By removing too much of a frequency range, the “operation” becomes quite noticeable to the human ear. As it relates to boosts, it’s best to boost a wide range of close frequencies so the listener doesn’t hear a noticeable spike in frequency changes. However, some of this work is limited to the type of mixer in use.
This is where a lot of what is being done is dependent on the type of mixer you have. For example, if you run an analog mixer, you most likely have a semi-parametric EQ. This means you EQ via knobs on each channel with control for gain (amplitude) and the center frequency; however, you can’t control the width of the affected frequencies – the bandwidth. Thus, your EQ adjustments affect a wide range of frequencies at once – like moving a mountain peak back and forth – it means you have to move a lot of the mountain with it.Some analog EQ’s allow the user to work on EQ like a surgeon, making freq cuts/boost in very specific ranges. Harsh vocals can be reduced by sweeping over the mid/ high-mid frequencies until you hear the harshest vocal sound. Then you cut (reduce) those frequencies via the EQ. This would be the case with a parametric EQ where you can control the center frequency, the gain/amplitude cut or boosted, and the bandwidth, sometimes known as the Q.
Close your eyes. That is one of the best mixing tips you’ll ever receive. Throughout the mixing process, you are listening, adjusting, and watching. That’s a lot of work for anyone to do at one time. Complete multi-tasking when you think about it. Closing your eyes, you enable your brain to do what it really needs to do…listen and interpret the sound.Graham Cochrane is a recording engineer and worship leader who said, “I was sitting in a workshop at Sweetwater’s GearFest, listening to Grammy award winning engineer Frank Fillipetti talk about recording and mixing in the modern DAW. At one point in the presentation he displayed images of two identical brain scans of a person. Scan #1 showed the brain activity when listening to music with eyes open. Scan #2 showed brain activity when that same person listened to music with eyes closed. And it showed considerable more brain activity happening. It turns out, the amygdala (or the emotional center of the brain) increases in activity dramatically when presented with aural stimuli and no visual stimuli. Visual stimuli actually impair our ability to listen critically.” Throughout your vocal mixing process, make a point of ceasing your mix work, closing your eyes, and listening.
* I know I’ve quoted a few studio recording engineers for a live audio guide but there are a lot of similarities in our work and much we can learn from them.
7. Mixing Vocals / How to EQ Vocals
You’ve learned a TON of background information regarding mixing vocals. You’ve just learned how to clean up the vocals. Now, let’s turn to how to eq vocals. EQ’ing vocals is an iterative process which requires you to modify the sound, evaluate the results, and then repeat the process until you get the desired results. In this section, you’ll learn how to apply basic compression and gating and make EQ changes. After that, the next section takes you into the world of further effects processing for your vocal mix.
Compression is an effect and effects are usually brought in after EQ work is done. Compression, as a volume control, should be brought in before you start your EQ work. The reason is you want your volume, and the effects of compression, to be part of your baseline, not a later part you have to adjust and tweak and tweak more.
Vocal compression, as a means of volume control, should be set up from the point of view of the listener. For example, listening to a singer, I wouldn’t want to hear a sharp change in their volume that wasn’t tied to a logic arrangement change. It should be natural. Therefore, consider these basic settings;
- Attack: 30 ms (Quick to activate)
- Release: 300 ms (Slow to release)
- Ratio: 3:1 (2:1 – 4:1) (Applied significantly enough you don’t have to make manual fader changes)
- Soft-knee setting. (Subtle change when compression begins being applied)
Feel free to adjust the compression settings so they best benefit your vocal mix. Do keep in mind the words of my friend and fellow sound guy, Steve Dennis, “use compression to smooth out a vocal, but not so much that you suck the life and dynamics out of it.”
Any volume spikes, after compression is engaged, will be resolved through the automated compression process. You can then move to gating your volume.
Gating vocal microphones is a way in which you can clean up the audio coming into the vocal channel when the singer isn’t singing. There are a lot of sounds on the stage which can be picked up by vocal microphones. When the singer isn’t singing, there is no reason to let those sounds into the channel. Thus gating comes into play. Gating enables you to set a volume in which you want sound to be drastically cut from the channel. This way, your mic channel isn’t broadcasting the drums when the lead singer isn’t singing.
Gating controls are similar to those of compressors and how the sound is altered. This article covers gating in depth.
Regarding the use of gating, close the gate when you don’t want the secondary sounds to leave the yard. Yes, you’ll hear them a bit when the lead singer starts singing but every little bit helps.
C. EQ’ING VOCALS
EQ’ing vocals is definitely an art that’s judged not with your eyes but with your ears. Don’t get me wrong, you do need to know the science behind your work and the workings behind the knob turning but well, there is no one-size fits all EQ setting for any vocals. Therefore, in this section, you’ll learn key frequency ranges, good eq’ing practices, and then it’s up to you to apply it to your band / room / vocalist.
KEY FREQUENCY RANGES
The section on key vocal qualities covered vocal range and part of that included discussion on frequency fundamentals and harmonics. In short, the fundamental frequencies, used in singing, can go from as low as around 80 Hz to 1,100 Hz and harmonic frequencies can extend up to the 10,000 Hz (10 kHz) area. “Ok, but where do I start?” Good question.
There are key frequency ranges which carry certain characteristics of the sound. For example, the 100 Hz to 300 Hz range can alter clarity and make a vocal sound thin. The difficultly with these ranges is they can be quite wide and you have to figure out where your particular frequency spot is located for that characteristic. As a side note, know that it’s better to cut first and then decide if something else needs to be boosted. A yard with weeds can have flowers but even if the flowers grow taller, you still have the weed problem. That in mind, here is a list of the frequency ranges (bands) and their characteristics.
Important Frequency Bands:
- 100 Hz – 300 Hz : Clarity / Thin (Good for cutting these frequencies)
- 100 Hz – 400 Hz : Thickness
- 100 Hz – 600 Hz : Body / Warmth
- 100 Hz – 700 Hz : Muddiness (Good for cutting)
- 400 Hz – 1,100 Hz : Honky / Nasal
- 900 Hz – 4,000 Hz : Intelligibility
- 1,000 Hz – 8,000 Hz : Presence (I told you the ranges could be wide)
- 1,500 Hz – 7,000 Hz : Sibilance (Start in the 3,000 to 5,000 Hz range)
- 2,000 Hz – 9,000 Hz : Clarity (Compared to the 100 to 300 range for cutting, this is good for boosting)
- 5,000 Hz – 15,000 Hz : Sparkle (who makes up these words!?!)
- 10,000 Hz – 20,000 Hz : Air / Breath-iness
As you can see, there are a number of frequency areas which impact the sound of your vocalist. And, because very few things are ever easy, there is a wide range of frequencies in some of these bands. You should know one other very important piece of information; these are typical frequency ranges. Sometimes you’ll find the solution to your mix need is outside of the above ranges. For example, you might find cutting in the 1,500 Hz to 2,000 Hz range fixes your nasal sound.
Use headphones only if you need to hear something for clarification. For example, which singer is giving me those bad frequencies? Slap on the headphones. Outside of that, listen to the sound in the room. In the words of world-class engineer Chris Lord-Alge, “no [listener] ever hears anything in solo. Period. So the only way to get a great vocal sound is when it’s competing with everything else in the mix.”
GENERAL MIX AREAS
There are four general areas in mixing lead vocals. This isn’t to say there aren’t more. But these four will get you far:
- Clean up your low end as much as possible. Go back to your high pass filter (HPF). There are a lot of gremlins that live in the low frequencies. I’ve found that re-visiting my HPF setting and cutting as high as 200 Hz has cleared up a vocal mix when nothing else would do the trick. Sweep the filter parameter up until you find that sweet spot that clears out the low end and gets your vocal out front without getting a thin or cold vocal. Not only are you cleaning up the direct low end from your vocalist, you are also knocking out any low end stage noise that’s sneaking into their microphone.
- Carve out space for your vocals. This was mentioned in the prior section of “Mixing with the End in Mind” but it’s so important that it bears repeating. You are painting a picture with frequencies and the more similar frequencies, the more similar colors. Hence, a painting with hues of red instead of a painting with a spectrum of colors. Therefore, make mild cuts in your instruments when you feel they are overly intruding into that vocal’s core frequency space.
- Get your vocal to punch out above your music mix and backing vocals. This can be done by adding brightness to your vocal mix. Much of your high frequencies control how bright and airy a vocal can sound. For example, crank the high EQ all the way up during practice. It will be very airy and then you can reduce it to where it sounds good. I find that, by focusing on the 2-9 kHz Clarity range and the 5-15 kHz Sparkle range, I can get my vocals clear and above the other sounds once I’ve addressed the low end and cleared up any muddiness.
- Smooth out the vocal line. Much of the natural frequencies of a voice are in the mid-range area. By cutting or boosting in the mid-range, we can do a lot to the core sound. Obviously, by the number of frequency bands which contain mid-range frequencies, you can control intelligibility, warmth, presence, sibilance, and clarity to name a few. You have to find that line where you can gain clarity without taking out the heart of the vocal or accentuating sibilance. You want to give a feeling of presence without producing heaviness. You want the vocal to sit right in the mix so it leads with distinction but maintains emotion and feeling.
Asking the question, “what is the best EQ for vocals” is akin to asking, “what sounds best in every scenario yet works for all scenarios.” Finding the best EQ for vocals comes about when you sculpt the vocals so they match the music genre performed, meet the expectations of the congregation / audience, fit in the right place in the song such as lead versus backing vocals, and presents the best possible sound. The best vocal EQ is achieved when you’ve removed offending frequencies and found the optimal volume so the vocals sit properly in the mix. In the church environment, the best lead vocal mixing results in a congregation that can clearly hear, and be lead by, the lead singer. The “best” mix comes from taking into account all of the mix needs and creating a vocal mix that works for the sound of the band and for the purpose of the vocalist AT THAT TIME. There is no “one perfect vocal eq setting.” It’s what works for the specific singer for the specific song for the specific room for the specific congregation…at a specific time.
TIPS FOR EQ’ING
- Cut first. The section on cleaning up your vocals did give you the opportunity to clean up your vocals from the generic low end mush and harsh frequencies. When you get to EQ’ing the general vocal mix, first look at other areas for “cutting before boosting” such as in the areas of clarity and muddiness.
- Don’t try creating something you can’t. Your overall mix is based on your ingredients. For example, if you are used to mixing a female vocalist and they aren’t singing one week, don’t try getting the same sound from any of the male voices. Females do tend to have a unique timbre which you can’t replicate in most male vocals. I know a California church that makes sure they have one or two female singers in each worship band.
- Don’t tell anyone I told you this; you can mix and EQ until your ears fall off but nothing can make up for a bad vocal or a vocal that doesn’t fit the song. In the words of one who shall remain nameless, “if you can, bury it.” In the case of multiple lead singers singing at the same time or backing singers, if you have one singer who is having a hard time with a song, go ahead and tuck their voice behind the others or drop it out all together. If it’s your one and only lead singer, check they are getting enough from their monitors and have the right mix. This can easily get them back on track. If they still are having problems, so be it. You can only do so much and they are likely aware they are struggling through the song…stress no one wants.
- Clean up male vocals by taking a 3-6 dB cut in the 325 to 350 Hz range. This is where a lot of the muddiness in a vocal can be found.
- Cut for uniqueness. If you have two lead vocals and each are sharing key frequencies for their uniqueness, instead of boosting one of the channels in that area, cut that frequency band in one channel.
- Get the guide. If you struggle with live audio production and want a guide that explains all aspects of live audio mixing and how to create a good overall music mix then check out my e-guide, Audio Essentials for Church Sound.
- EQ the dominate frequencies of the vocalist when singing their strongest. For example, tweak your low-end frequencies for a bassier singer when they are really singing out. In essence, they are giving you the best qualities of their voice at that moment, so take advantage of that time. One tech told me this saves him from having a singer’s high frequencies become harsh if he had previously tweaked them at a lower volume.
- Test your settings. There is an option with some mixers to bypass the EQ settings. If you have this option, use it to see how different your EQ’ed vocal sounds versus the original sound. Sometimes it’s best to start EQ’ing from scratch if you have gone too far from the original sound.
After working in audio production for over twenty years, I can tell you I’ve mixed on a variety of consoles and there were a couple old consoles that I saw and thought, “You’ve got to be kidding!” The key in getting a good, dare I say great, sound out of any mixer is knowing your limits and your restrictions.For example, when mixing on the most minimal of semi-parametric systems, my first goal is getting rid of the bad sounds and low end garbage. Then, if I have the remaining flexibility in the vocal EQ, I’ll go for any presence and/or clarity I can get. It’s usually a matter of cleaning up the vocal line and that’s about all I can do.
Moving into a common semi-parametric EQ with one or two sweeping mids or a fully parametric EQ, then I have a lot more room to work. Clear out the low end, clean up the harsh frequencies, and then I can focus on presence, warmth, and a bit of sparkle. The better my vocalist, the more I can focus on making them sound sweet in my mix and less on cleaning out the bad.
Once you get into a digital console with a graphical EQ, I find the key is being realistic so I don’t over-EQ. Clear out the low end, as needed. Then clean up the bad frequencies, now you really have your baseline for the rest of your work. But remember, this isn’t a recording studio and your audience isn’t going to notice a 3 dB cut here and a 3 dB boost there. Reflecting on my graphic EQ plot points for my last few mixes, I don’t think I ever have more than five and that includes the sweeping HPF. I probably average four EQ points on my graphic EQ’s, sometimes less.
MIXING BACKING VOCALS
There are seven great methods, when used together, which can get you a solid backing vocal mix:
- Address volume. The backing vocals normally shouldn’t be as loud as the lead vocal. While that is true, you need to recognize there are times when they can be the “out-front vocals” for part of a song, as the arrangement calls for it. This is covered more in the last point.
- Blend the vocalists together. You aren’t creating three distinct sounds for the three backing vocalists. You are creating a single sound. Cut and boost frequencies so they sound as one. In a way, you want to minimize the uniqueness of each singer for the benefit of the group sound.
- Roll off some of high end frequencies. You are aiming for a unified sound which sits behind the lead. Therefore, you want a blended sound with all of the backing vocalists and the high-end can be the source of a lot of individual differences.
- Back off the lows. Use a shelf filter for knocking out the low end and not interfering with the low-end instruments.
- Compress. The backing vocals fit in a very tight space and you don’t want one backing vocalist suddenly louder than the others. Use a higher compression ratio if necessary, especially if you have one singer who really likes to sing loud.
- Separate and blend with reverb. Separate the lead vocal from the backing vocal by using reverb on the backing or, in the case of reverb on both, use a different type of reverb on the backing vocals. The lead vocal would be good with a short reverb while backing vocals can be blend with a longer reverb, like a Hall reverb. You can also streamline some of your work by EQ’ing the individual vocals and then sending all of them to an effects bus where you then apply your reverb to the collective sound.
- Actively mix. Blending is more than setting the initial volume levels, setting the EQ, and putting on some reverb. Place the backing vocalists into a group and control all of their volumes with one fader. If the lead singer has the backing vocalists take over for the chorus, then you can easily boost their volume. You can also boost their vocals at a point in the song when a verse has a punched up line that stands out. This is where it helps to listen to professional recordings of the same songs.
Vocal EQ’ing isn’t just about singers, it’s also about those who have speaking roles…such as the pastor! Here’s a good article for eq’ing for speech intelligibility.
8. Effects Processing
Mixing vocals is more than setting the volume and making some EQ changes. Yes, you can get some really nice sounding vocals doing that work but effects processors allow you to take it to the next level.
An expander is the opposite of a compressor. Instead of limiting the maximum volume, you are lowering the volume if the audio level drops below a specified value. A gate cuts out the audio quickly and is used for preventing sound from passing through while the expander is used for saying “ok, I don’t need to hear you anymore.”
Whereas a gate has a hard knee (sudden impact on the signal), an expander uses a soft knee (gradual impact to the signal. The ratio of audio reduction on a gate is usually fixed rather high, such as 1:20 whereas the expander would be more like a compressor; 1:2.
You know what it is, so when do you use it? Imagine controlling the rate of fade. For example, as a song ends, all of the vocalists let the final word of the song ring out. And you want all of their voices to fade away at the same time. Using an expander, once the voices drop below a certain level, then the expander could be set to fade at whatever decay rate you desired. Granted, some of this might sound like it’s better suited for studio recording but the fact is the tools are available and your mix might benefit from their use. Remember, these effects processors can be beneficial for both lead and backing vocals.
As in the action of “getting lower,” not as in the water fowl. Ducking automation can be set up so when one channel volume exceeds a particular level, another channel’s volume decreases a particular amount. Ducking can be used in conjunction with lead vocals for automatically reducing the volume of an instrument when the lead vocalist beings singing.
An example of lead instrument / lead vocal ducking would be in a song where the lead instrument starts the song with a very up-front arrangement. Using ducking, the moment the vocalist starts singing, the lead instrument is “ducked” down to a lower volume level.
Ducking is a “nice-to-have” feature in the live environment but it’s definitely not a deal-breaker. I’ve mixed most of my life without a ducker. It just meant I had to ride my channel faders from time to time and I’m perfectly ok with that.
Reverb (reverberation) is the reflection of sound(s) within an environment which are heard after the initial sound is broadcast. The first reflected sound is an echo. After that, it’s all the reverberation which lasts until the energy in the sound waves drops to zero. Speaking in terms of audio mixing, reverb is an effect which can be used to soften harsh vocals, add depth to a mix, and add emotion to a song.
Just as reverb can do a lot of good, it also has negative effects. Reverb can be used to attempt to mask harsh frequencies – something that should be fixed at the EQ level. Reverb can clutter up a mix if it’s not used judiciously. Too much reverb and you get a swell of sound covering up your other instruments and vocals.
Reverb also affects the singer’s timbre. By using reverb, you are altering their unique sound. This can give good and bad results. For example, too much reverb or the wrong type of reverb can create a new sound which makes the singer sound bad.
There are three common types of reverb; room, hall, and plate.
- Room: Everything about room reverb is small. It has the characteristics of a small room. It adds a little depth and a little space. Also, it’s a short time period of reverb.
- Hall: Hall reverb lasts a longer period of time and carries more reflection. It carries a larger fuller sound. The smallest of halls is still bigger than the largest of rooms.
- Plate: Plate reverb does not emulate any specific space. Plate reverb is created through sound vibrating a metal plate at the end of a tube. This metal plate vibrates rapidly. This reverbed sound therefore carries a lot of early reflection. Plate reverb is popular with drums. A benefit of plate reverb is it gives the thicker sound you might associate with a hall reverb but for a shorter period of time.
Which type of reverb do I use?
There is no easy answer to this question. Not only are there these basic types of reverb, you can control certain settings of the reverb and how much of the effect is added to your vocal. During the next practice session, change the reverb type and parameters with your vocalist until you find the right one for your situation.
Calculating reverb time
You can use your ear for setting the right reverb time or you can perform a simply calculation for getting a good reverb time for starters, for quarter notes.
60,000 divided by BPM (Beats Per Minute) = delay
60,000 divided by 120BPM = 500 milliseconds (.5 seconds)
This isn’t to say the reverb calculation is a simple formula for the right answer. It’s might be for your situation at a given moment but let your ear tell you when it sounds right.
A tip on setting reverb; digital consoles and reverb units can have settings for selecting the frequencies in which you want the reverb to be added. For example, take your vocal channel reverb and drop frequencies below 200 Hz and above 5kHz within the reverb settings. This enables you to get an improved tone from your reverb because you are only creating effects on those core frequencies.
Use timed reverbs to help punch up your vocals. For example, add reverb to a vocal only during the chorus. You could punch up your backing singers in the same way. Not only is song arrangement something the band does, it’s also something you do in the form of your mix arrangement.
Vocal delay has its place. Oh, I have heard bad delay placed on a lead vocal…at which point the sound guy looked at me, grimaced, and mouthed the words, “whoops.” The real problem, in such scenarios is that delay is less forgiving than reverb. Bad reverb and people think the sound is weird…if they even notice it before you correct it. Bad delay and everyone notices it.
Whether or not delay is right for your venue, that’s an issue only you can decide. But before you outright dismiss it, consider these two things you can do with it for your vocals. Delay can be used to;
- Fill time gaps in a song, where you have an empty moment in your mix that might be the perfect some for an echo of the last line of the song.
- Produce depth without the lasting time of reverb. Now, we could start talking about reverb time length options but look at it this way, you could add depth to your vocal with a few sparse echoes instead of a longer period of reverberation. The echoes can be pronounced or not and you also get the added clarity.
What delay time is best? It depends. Let’s go with standard timing and you can apply them where you find them to work best in your mix.
- < 20 ms (milliseconds): Produces timbre changes and can cause combfiltering problems.
- 20-60 ms: The time in which doubling is easily perceived…perceived…perceived.
- 60-100 ms: More of a distant echo. Can sound funky when slapback comes into play where sounds start echoing off of the walls. Trippy!
- > 100 ms: Consider this the time in which people consider a sound to echo.
Here are samples of delay on the vocal at 60 ms and 100 ms.
Calculating delay time
You can use your ear for setting the right delay time or you can perform a simply calculation for getting a good delay time for starters, for quarter notes.
60,000 divided by BPM (Beats Per Minute) = delay
60,000 divided by 120BPM = 500 milliseconds (.5 seconds)
You don’t have to use delay on a vocal, but there are times when it can help your mix.
Use a de-esser for reducing negative levels of vocal sibilance.
Sibilance is characterized by ‘sss’ and ‘ts’ sounds spoken as part of word pronunciation. The sounds of ‘t,’ ‘k,’ and ‘z’ are also included, though to a much lesser effect. Sibilant sounds produce both low and high noise components which can result in high-pitched “hissing” sounds as are common with the ‘S’ and ‘Z’ sounds.
Sibilance isn’t entirely bad. Sibilance is important for speech intelligibility so you can distinguish one word from the next. The problem occurs when a singer has more sibilance in their voice than is ideal and you get a lot of high-end hissy sound. The result is when they sing words which are particularly sibilant in nature, their vocal line suddenly jumps out of the mix…in a bad way.
The de-essers (de-s-er) should be engaged as the last part of your vocal mixing. This guarantees the de-esser will only be taking out what is necessary in the channel so as not to hear the harsh sibilant sounds that crop up in the 2 kHz – 7 kHz area. The de-esser can work by compressing the vocal line so the sibilance is present, but softer (less noticeable), or it can work through a dynamic EQ in which case it reduces gain to only the high frequencies. This latter type would be changing the tone of the vocal.
Regarding the signal chain, look at having your de-esser hit after your EQ and compression but before any time-based effects such as reverb. You don’t want to add reverb to sibilance and then try to remove the sibilence.
De-esser’s come in the form of rack components or digital audio workstation plugins.
One More Thing…
DOWNLOAD THE 34-POINT VOCAL MIXING CHECKLIST
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- Create lead vocals that pop above the instruments every time.
- Get backing vocals that sound as one.