One of the most challenging obstacles in mixing is the art of getting great vocals. This is quite easily the most obvious sign of a good or bad mix. Let’s face it! If the vocals don’t sound good, what’s the point, right? Thankfully there are some fantastic steps that can be taken to ensure a professional result.
Retrace your steps and make sure that the microphone is clean of a noise floor, that the room sounds good, and that a decent preamp is being used. Check that the signal is good. Don’t let the signal clip before it even gets into your DAW. Compression is the best way to manage this; just don’t apply so much that you squash the signal by removing the softer nuances of the voice. You may need a noise gate if recording the vocals in a live session. Avoid nearby walls by keeping the vocalist in a central location with sound absorption placed between them and any nearby surfaces. Don’t over EQ on the way in. Just go for what cleans up the signal and makes it sound as natural as possible. Put a pop filter between the singer and the microphone and set the polar pattern to the angle of the room you’d like to capture. If the singer has a large aggressive or boomy voice, you may opt to use the bass roll off switch on the mic as well. A bird’s nest can help to isolate the microphone from the stand where it sits, but it may be necessary to coach the singer into watching their body movements so no dancing or stand touching disrupts the recording.
Once this is all checked and you’re sure you’ve gotten a good take, or even multiple takes, then it comes time to clean it up. Recording some volume automation to even out the volume changes is standard practice, as well as taking out sudden noises or heavy breathing sounds. Then the processing can be done. Typically, a bit more EQ or compression and maybe some doubling. If reverb is used, it’s usually because the recording is too flat from being recorded in a treated room and the reverb needs to be minimal at best; having short tails and using only some wet into a dry signal.
Getting the vocals to sit into a mix is where the magic happens. Depending on how the dynamics of the vocals sit within the mix without any changes, a simple bus compressor may be just what’s needed to glue the two together. As they fight with each other to steal the headroom of the mix bus, they each take turns, and sometimes will, together, trigger the compressor to react with gain adjustments. If the settings are nailed just right, this works quite well. Another powerful trick is to use a stereo equalizer to split some of the track’s frequencies from left to right so some room is made in the middle of the mix for the vocals. You should remember that the typical lead vocal track is mostly in mono and should rest in the middle of the mix. Other techniques can be used to get a stereo presence out of the vocals. Automating delayed echoes or momentary reverb tails can do it. And so can many of the vocal thickening tools, like chorus or pan pitching. Just make sure to check the overall volume of the voice in the mix in both mono and stereo. If necessary, you can automate, not just the volume of the voice, but the pan and even the stereo width as well. By doing so, you can control how relaxed it feels within the headroom as it tries to superimpose itself upon the mix.