Vocal Mixing Checklist
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There are many variables to deal with when mixing vocals. A few that come to mind are:
- The performance
- The quality of the recording
- Was it well edited? (or edited at all)
- How’s the pitch?
- Good microphone selection?
All of these and more can influence the outcome of a mix. And while there’s not one perfect technique that will give you professional results for every song, there are a handful of tried and true techniques that will help you deliver consistently good results.
*Disclaimer: Before sharing the checklist I have to give a quick disclaimer… I’m calling it The Golden Rule of Mixing:
Listen first, THEN process.
Not every song or vocal will require every single one of the steps I’ll share with you today but if you follow the golden rule of mixing and listen BEFORE you process any sound during a mix, you’ll begin to mix with purpose which I believe will subsequently lead you towards a better final mix.
With that in mind, today I want to share my new Vocal Mixing Checklist with you. I’ll be delivering these to your inbox in stages so that I don’t overwhelm you with too much information in one sitting. Who knows… At the end I may even throw some free multitracks your way so you can practice the techniques and use your mix on your resume. #staytuned 😉
- Rough Mix
- EQ (subtractive and dynamic EQ)
- Evaluate the Dynamics (first stage of compression, if needed)
- Evaluate the Tone (saturation)
- Additive EQ
- Parallel Compression
- Dealing with Sibilance
- Modulation Effects
- Spatial Effects (main delays and reverb, if needed)
- Ear Candy (special effects to add interest)
1. Rough Mix
After session prep, every mix begins with the rough mix. We need to get the vocal into the mix and sitting in a good place. I’m assuming you’ve already imported the tracks into your mix template, organized them where you like to see them, and are ready to push up the faders.
To accomplish this you may be tempted to use the track’s fader but I recommend using Clip Gain (Pro Tools, Logic, etc) or whatever your DAW calls it (Studio One for instance calls it “event gain”).
Personally, I look for the high point of the song which is usually the last chorus or sometimes the bridge and I’ll set the clip gain level to where I hear the vocal sitting mostly on top. This will vary between genres and possibly even from song to song.
2. EQ (subtractive and dynamic EQ)
The first plug-in for me on a vocal is almost always an EQ. My goto EQ plug-in for 90% of any equalization I do in a mix is the FabFilter Pro-Q 3. I choose the Pro-Q 3 for many reasons but my top reasons for choosing it are sound quality, the built-in dynamic mode, and the speed at which I can shape the sound I’m after using the keyboard shortcuts and my Apple Track Pad.
The initial thing I’m looking for with this first EQ is to apply a high pass filter (AKA low cut filter) to remove any unnecessary low end. The frequency I set this to varies by singer, song, genre, etc. BUT a cool trick to find the sweet spot and something I learned from Dave Pensado years ago is to take the high-pass filter up until the vocal is too thin and bring it back down until you feel the low end in the vocal take shape so that you don’t feel like you’re missing anything.
Subtractive EQ and Dynamic EQ (multiband compression)
The next process I’ll use this EQ for is to apply subtractive EQ or even dynamic EQ/multiband compression.
Many of us record in homes nowadays which were never intended to be used as treated recording studios. Issues like air conditioner hum or other low end rumble from appliances may be captured by the microphone and a high-pass/low-cut filter is the tool for the job here.
Here are a few things I’m listening for before applying any processing:
- AC hum or rumble from any appliances
- Low end build up from the singer being too close to the microphone (usually between 100-400 hz)
- Any harsh or overwhelming frequencies in the mids or top end
I don’t do it on every mix but generally I’m applying either some low mid cuts around 150-300 hz or I’m utilizing dynamic EQ/multiband compression to control the low mids. Don’t stress too much if these settings aren’t perfect for now because once we get into compression it’s likely we’ll have to revisit and tweak them again.
3. Evaluate the dynamics (first stage of compression, if needed)
I mix for both independant artists and labels and let me tell you… Most of the vocals I receive have little to no compression from the recording process.
This is important to identify because without some compression during tracking a lot of the compression techniques that you see your favorite mixers using won’t cut it for you.
Have you ever wondered why after some intense parallel compression the vocals you’re mixing still aren’t sitting on top of the mix enough? Well, it could be that the vocal you’re mixing needs some compression applied BEFORE being sent into the parallel vocal chain.
There are many ways to skin this cat but a simple way to help your vocal take shape before using parallel compression is the use an 1176 compressor with a medium attack and a medium to fast release. You’ll be the judge for you but I like to see anywhere from 3-10 db of initial transient gain reduction. It all depends on the singer, the song, etc but the goal of this initial compressor is to tame the transients of the vocal which will help smooth things out a bit. It’ll also prevent your next stages of compression (be it a simple LA2A or a series of compressors in a parallel chain) from having to work too hard.
If the vocal you’re mixing already has some compression from the recording phase you may be able to jump straight into the next step in the process, saturation.
4. Evaluate the Tone (saturation)
The use of saturation on a vocal will also vary from genre to genre and song to song but I’d be doing a huge disservice if I didn’t address it in this checklist.
Keep in mind, there’s no right or wrong way to use any of these tools. You may find that you prefer to use saturation as the first plug-in in your vocal chain. I choose EQ and initial compression to come before saturation because as I mentioned earlier most of the vocal recordings I see have little or no compression at all. I view the initial use of EQ and compression as a way to get the vocal recording up to par with what I’d personally like to hear if it were recorded by a great tracking engineer. Therefore, those tools come first in my checklist.
Here are a few of my favorite plug-ins to add saturation to a vocal (be it mild or extreme):
- Slate Digital’s VMR – Virtual Channel
- Slate Digitial’s VMR – Hollywood (mild), London (medium), or New York (spicy!) saturation modules.
- SoundToys Decapitator
- FabFilter Saturn
- Softube Saturation Knob
- Kush Audio’s Silika (new fave! and it has a built-in compressor!)
- UAD Studer
- UAD 1176 (Bluestripe)
Again, the goal with saturation will vary with the song and genre that you’re mixing but these tools will give you everything from mild color all the way through to obliterated nastiness (nasty in a good way of course).
Don’t forget! LISTEN FIRST, THEN PROCESS… Or… Don’t process. You may not need any saturation at all to achieve the vocal sound that the song is calling for.
5. Additive EQ
A question I get asked a lot from subscribers is whether I use EQ boost before or after compression???
Actually, the answer is sometimes both and sometimes neither. But let’s take a look at my general approach which is to use a little bit of both (and more importantly, why I use them).
I mentioned previously that most of the vocals I mix are coming to me without much processing during from the recording phase. This is especially true of EQ. When I’m sent a raw vocal it’s rare that the microphone selection is enough to give the vocal the perfect sonic characteristic that it needs to sit on top and fit the mix. My typical approach will look something like this:
EQ before compression
I like to first use additive EQ by boosting two distinct frequency ranges INTO the compressor. The first range depends on the vocalist, the microphone selection, the song, etc, etc, but is usually between 800hz and 2khz. This tends to be the sweet spot for most vocalists and boosting some of this range into a compressor can give you a great result. I don’t do this as often as my next boost but when it works, it really works!
The second boost I’ll use is a top end boost with one of my favorite EQ’s for vocals, the Kush Clariphonic MKII. I start by boosting a significant amount of the clarity knob on the shimmer setting. I’ll boost until it’s clearly too much and then due to the fact that our ears are so easily decieved with top end “magic” I’ll back off about half-way from what I’ve boosted. Hit bypass and if you like what you hear, wallah! If not, give the Silk setting a shot and see if that takes the sting off a bit.
Don’t own the Kush Clariphonic? What about the Maag EQ 4? If so, the air band works great for this as well. Don’t have either? No worries! Just take your stock EQ and boost with a top shelf starting at 10 khz or so. Add to taste and we’re moving on!
Why boost into the compressor?
Great question. Compressors react to what you send into them. Have you seen that most buss compressors will feature a switch for engaging a high-pass filter? These exist to prevent too much low end from triggering the compression which can help you achieve a more balanced result from the compressor. By boosting into the compressor we’re essentially telling the compressor that you want it to react more to the frequencies that you boost which results in a different tone than if you were to boost after a compressor.
Here’s a simple exercise:
1. Pull open a recent mix
2. Duplicate the lead vocal track and get rid of all processing
3. Solo the vocal (relax, it’s just for the sake of the lesson) 😉
4. Place an EQ followed by a compressor of your choice and then another EQ after the compressor.
5. Set the compressor to give you at least 10db of gain reduction at all times. Try a medium attack and fast release.
6. Now, boost around 1khz with the first EQ and listen to how it affects the sound. Listen and then bypass this first EQ.
7. Next, boost with the second EQ (the one placed after the compressor) at the same frequency range and by the same amount. Do you hear the difference? Try this same exercise but with a top end boost as I described in the last section.
6. Parallel Compression
I love me some parallel compression. Especially, on vocals.
My go to compressor for parallel compression on a lead vocal changes from season to season but as of late I’ve been rocking the Slate VMR Distressor. I’ll add some shiny pictures and maybe even some videos to this article soon but for now pull up any compressor you want and start by using a fast attack and fast release. You’ll typically want to see at least 10db of gain reduction happening at all times. Sometimes this pushes up to or over 20db of reduction for me. No… I’m not kidding. 😉
I’ll include a video tutorial soon to showcase how I route everything but in short, I send my main lead vocal audio track into a mono bus labeled “Vocal Crush”. Both the main lead vocal audio track and this vocal crush buss feed into another mono buss labeled “Ld Vocal Level”.
Blending to taste
I start with the main lead vocal audio track’s fader set to 0 and the “Vocal Crush” fader all the way down. I’ll go to the high point or loudest part of the song where the vocal is going to need the most help to sit on top and loop this section while pulling in the Vocal Crush’s fader until I get a nice even vocal sitting mostly on top.
What about the verses? Do they need that much compression???
I’m glad you asked because this is something I have to automate and watch on almost every mix. IF your lead vocal in the verses sounds overcompressed a simple fix is to automate the vocal crush buss down to your taste at the verses or any sections where you want the vocalist to sound a bit more natural.
Now the vocalist’s breaths are too loud. What now?
Another great question! Simply turn them down. Yes… Manually. Don’t be lazy! Who told you this wasn’t going to take work? 😉
There are a couple of ways to handle harsh sibilance or S’s…
The first and most common way to control sibilance is to use a de-esser. My favorite de-esser is the FabFilter Pro DS but your DAW’s stock will work fine as well.
Another method involves rolling up your sleeves and taking the time to manually pull down the s’s with either clip gain or volume automation. I personally prefer to use clip gain as some singer’s sibilance gets whacky when it hits the multiple stages of compression so I prefer to pull breaths and s’s down before they hit any plugins.
Here’s a quick tip for setting your de-esser plug-in:
Find a section in the song where the vocalist has at least 2-3 s’s in a phrase. Make a selection and ensure that loop playback is enabled in your DAW. I like to solo the vocal and with the FabFilter Pro DS I can audition the frequency range that the de-esser is going to work within and I use the audition button to identify where the nasty stuff lives. Sometimes I’ll use two de-essers set to two different frequency ranges.
Once the section is looping I’ll dial in the threshold to give me waaaaay too much de-essing (which purposefully causes the singer to sound like they have a lisp) then, I’ll dial it back until it sounds natural and controlled. Bypass to hear the difference and make your final tweaks. Done deal!
If you find that a single de-esser just isn’t cutting it, throw a second one on OR you may need to suck it up and pull the s’s down manually with clip gain. I know it can be tedious but trust me, it’ll be worth it!
8. Modulation Effects
One of my secret weapons for mixing vocals is to stack multiple sends/busses of slightly different modulation effects on top of one another. Today, I’m going to share my exact recipe for mixing vocals to sit on top. Once you have it, make it your own by blending each of them to your taste and/or swapping out plug-ins I use for ones that you prefer.
Vocal Send #1: Gentle Chorus
My first send is a gentle chorus and it was inspired by the Waves Mondo Mod plug-in and the preset labeled “Gentle Chorus” (imagine that). It’s a slow moving chorus that serves as a sort of polish or gloss. It’ll take your raw/natural vocal and add a slight hint of that “modern sound”. It’s not for every vocal or every genre but I sure do try it on just about every vocal and it sticks 95% of the time.
My process for setting these effects:
It might be helpful for you to know how I go about blending these effects to taste.
1. I activate the send (they’re all in my template but muted from the start)
2. I hit play and slowly bring the fader up until I have too much of the effect
3. I bring the fader back down to a less distracting level
4. I’ll bypass and compare against the dry vocal
Vocal Send #2: Mono Dimension D
One of the few Universal Audio plug-ins left in my template is the Roland Dimension D. For this send I use a mono instance to give a slightly different color than the gentle chorus. I’ll use the exact same technique and then we move onto the next send. If you don’t own this one just choose you a different chorus plug-in from the first OR a slightly different setting within your DAW’s stock chorus plug-in.
Vocal Send #3: Vocal Dimension (slight widening effect)
Next up and certainly one of the more impactful parts of the vocal chain is the UAD Cooper Time Cube. The preset is called Vocal Dimension and it’s amazing at helping the vocal fill out the center of the mix which makes the lead vocal blossom and sit on top all the more. This is a go-to for me on just about every mix where the vocal is meant to sit on top. I might not use this on heavy rock where the vocal gets tucked back a bit but on 99% of everything else it’s a must for me. A similar effect can be had by using a stereo delay with the left set to 5 ms and the right to 20.3 ms.
I’ll use the same technique as the previous two sends but something special I’ll do with this one is I’ll automate more of it at the chorus.
Vocal Send #4: Stereo Dimension D
I’ve been using this one less and less but if I ever need a pop vocal to really sit on top and shine at the chorus this is a great effect to blend in. Again, I’ll use the same technique for setting the level but this is almost never on during a verse.
Vocal Send #5: Vocal Doubler/Fattener
I have to be honest here… I have no idea what the settings are for this one. It’s from a plug-in called Excalibur by Exponential Audio (bought awhile back by iZotope) and while mysterious it’ll give you exactly what the preset name implies… A fat vocal!
I’ll get a video up soon to break down this preset so we can see about recreating it with stock plugs.
9. Spatial Effects (Delay and Reverb)
There are endless ways to use delay when mixing vocals. We don’t have time today to cover them all but I’d like to touch on a few ways I routinely use delays and then hopefully it’ll inspire you to get creative with these starting points.
Mono Slap Delay (AKA slapback delay)
This can be as simple as throwing a stock delay on a buss with a delay time ranging from 90ms to upwards of 120 ms. But how boring does that sound?
My mix template has a few extra plug-ins on my mono slap delay buss including:
- EQ to filter out 1-3khz (ish) for a less abtrusive sound
- Distortion/saturation plug-ins to add character
- Spring reverb to activate when I really need something interesting (mix knob stays on the lower side but who cares what I say, crank it if you like!)
Stereo Delay (in place of reverb)
My go-to stereo delay is a dotted 1/8th note on the left and a regular 1/8th note on the right. I set the feedback independently on each side to create an even number of delays on each side. This delay setting seems to work well for me when I want to avoid the drowning or washing effect that reverb naturally gives us. That being said, I will sometimes send this delay into a reverb to avoid sending the vocal into the reverb directly.
An underappreciated tool in my book is the ducking delay. What this will do for you is allow you to create a sweet sounding and busy delay that gets ducked or pushed down in level during vocal phrases but then comes to life (gets louder) at the ends of words or phrases. If you’ve ever dialed in a delay only to realize it’s too busy or messy while the singer is singing then you have to try setting you up a ducking delay. Pro Tools, Logic, and any DAW worth it’s salt will come with a stock delay that has a ducking ability.
As with delay, the options for applying reverb can be overwhelming when wanting or needing to apply this effect to a vocal. However, in my experience you really only need a couple of good options in your mix template to choose from for 99% of the mixes you’ll do.
What’s more important I’d say is not the type of reverb you use but the decay time, the pre-delay, and the EQ on whatever reverb sound you choose.
Generally speaking you’re going to hear short decay times on faster tempo tracks and longer more sustaining reverb tails on slower tempo numbers and ballads. But rules were made to be broken and I do it all the time. Instead of getting into the habit of setting your reverb decay times based on the tempo, try setting them based on the emotion of the song. What’s that? Too artsy for you? Haha. What I mean is to experiment with the decay time until it feels right instead of just automatically defaulting to a “rule”.
I know, I know… You still want to learn how to set the reverb according to the tempo, right?
No problem. Here’s my process for dialing in the reverb tail to the tempo of the song:
1. Go to a section where you have drums or any percusion happening.
2. Ignore your vocal for a minute and send the snare drum or any loop you have into the VOCAL REVERB.
3. Set your vocal reverb’s decay time so that the tail dies out just before the next snare hit.
4. Remove the snare or loop from the reverb send.
5. Go back to your vocal and bring up the send until you have the amount of vocal reverb you like.
6. Tweak to taste and… You’re done!
Pre-delay is a parameter on most reverbs that allows you to separate the sound of the dry vocal from the start of the reverb with a short delay. This can bring intelligibility back to the vocal if it’s getting too washed out for you. Your vocals will sound more up front but still benefit from the flavor that reverb adds.
I like at least 25 ms of pre-delay when mixing vocals but this changes from song to song.
EQ and Misc.
If you create a reverb send and merely slap a reverb plug-in on with no other processing you’re missing out!
Here are a few of the added tools I use when mixing with reverb:
Most of my reverb sends have an EQ plug-in that filters out bottom and top-end. The old Abbey Road trick was to use a high and low-pass filter set around 600hz and 6khz respectively. The db/octave slope on these was generally very low but it still has a massive impact on keeping the reverb in check.
You didn’t see that one coming, did you? I like to prevent sibilance from spilling out into the reverb so I’ll have a de-esser just before the reverb plug-in. Some mixers like the s’s to spill so give this a shot and see what works for you.
I get excited when a saturated reverb works in a mix but it is a rare event. Nonetheless, some gentle saturation may be just what you’re looking for to create something unique.
*Quick tip: I’m a big fan of modulating reverb tails and if you haven’t used them before (or dialed them in yourself) they can be a great way to add interest to the decaying tail of a reverb. My favorite sound is to set the modulation rate to around .20-.35 and then crank the depth or mix percentage of the modulation upwards of 70%. By using a slower modulation rate I can get away with a higher audible use of the effect. However, you may prefer the sound of a more rapid modulation and should try setting the rate higher and then experiment with lower mix/depth percentages.
Any of these techniques can separate the pro’s from the amateurs but none quite like the use of vocal automation. Use these tips today and you’ll stand out from the other mixers in your town who get lazy and try to rely merely on compression to sit a vocal properly in the mix. Don’t be that guy!
Clip Gain Automation
One of my favorite tools… I use clip gain automation to prevent breaths and s’s from hitting the compression too hard in a vocal chain. I’ll also use it to lift up low volume phrases and/or phrases that jump a bit too much. This helps the compressor tone stay more even between phrases and sections of the song.
One more use… For now… I LOVE taking 10-15 mins to go through the vocal performance with clip gain to enhance the beginning and ends of words. There can be a lot of emotional character in a vocal performance and I appreciate what clip gain automation does to bring this out.
Volume Fader Automation
Simply put (at least for me), I use volume fader automation to lift words or phrases up to sit on top of the mix. Even when you’ve hit the vocal with compression, parallel compression and in some cases even saturation you may find that it still needs help cutting through small sections of the mix where other instruments have stacked up or drowned out the vocal. Easy fix! Just lift the words or phrases of the vocal up to re-take it’s rightful place in the mix.
11. Ear Candy
Alright, we’ve covered some ways to get your vocal mix to sit nicely, we’ve addressed issues like sibilance and instruments drowning out the lead… Now it’s time to put your signature touch to the vocal and get people asking “who mixed that?!”. 😉
Ear candy is exactly what the name implies. It’s sweet touches of automation using effects like delay, reverb, modulation, saturation, EQ, tremolo, auto-panning, etc. Name any effect and it can be used as “ear candy”.
Here are some of the most popular pieces of ear candy:
Also known as the telephone vocal, this effect is achieved by filtering a lot of bottom (if not all) out of the vocal AND the top end before boosting 2-3 mid range frequencies that work for the singer you’re applying the effect to.
This can be a great sound for an intro line or any section of the lyric that you really want to draw the listener’s attention to.
I love me some distortion on vocals when the genre allows it. Here’s a quick and dirty way to dial in a distorted vocal:
- Separate each word or phrase that you want to apply the effect to.
- Apply an EQ as the first plug-in in the chain so we can filter out the botttom (to your taste) and remove any nasty frequencies that the distortion may enhance. (keep a close eye on 3-5Khz!)
- I like to throw a compressor on and hit the vocal hard to even out the performance before adding the saturation/distortion plug-in of choice. Try a higher ratio like 10:1, a fast attack with a fast release, and shoot for at least 10db of gain reduction at all times.
- Now the fun begins… Choose a saturation or distortion plug-in (stock plugs are great here, too). and dial you in some sweet mangled (or light… whatever sounds good) distortion. The mix knob is your friend here. You may only need a hair blended in to get the sound you’re after but man, doesn’t that sound sweet?! Haha
It never fails that when I get rushed and shoot a mix over to a client without putting delay throws on the first note always seems to be something like this: “Man! It sounds great! but… Can you hit me with some of those sweet delays?”
You’ve probably heard of using delay throws so I’ll skip the setup process but what I do what to encourage you to do is to combine some of the ear candy tips we talked about WITH your delay throws. Instead of dialing in a pristine and clear delay throw, try hitting the throw with some distortion or tremolo, maybe even some over the top modulation. You never know what signature sound you’ll develop when you start turning knobs.
I use these a lot in pop mixes to enhance certain lines or phrases that have been doubled but mostly you’re going to see reverb throws at the end of a long held out note coming out of the chorus. The same rules can apply here… Mangle it. Add a nice bit of modulation… Maybe even send into a stereo delay with a ton of feedback first and THEN send that delay into a long tailed reverb. The options are endless. Get creative and don’t forget to save your presets so you can call them up faster in future mixes.
If you’ve enjoyed this vocal mixing checklist I’d love to hear from you in the comments below! What was your biggest take-away from this article?
Also, if you want to download the free pdf version of this article…