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Vocal Mixing Basics - By Hyde

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You think you're hot shit. You’ve practiced everything—writing, delivery, flow, rhyme scheme, etc.—and you know you’re a beast. Then you lay down your track, add some random effects to make it sound better, and . . . it sounds like ass. Regardless of how good you are, this will happen until you learn how to mix or shell out the cash necessary to get a decent mix. As far as I can tell, all of you are broke, so I decided to offer some free knowledge to get you started. All of this information is available through YouTube videos and other formats, but this is a step-by-step introduction to mixing for dummies (you’re the dummy in this case).

Before we begin, there are some important things to note. First, these are the basics. There’s a lot more that can, does, and should go into mixing. Nonetheless, if you get these basics down cold, you’ll be able to put out pretty clean vocals on a regular basis. Then you can start adding in more complex things. Second, plugin order matters. I’m going to list steps. The steps are in order. Doing them out of order will not yield the desired results. Do so at your own peril. Third, despite my best efforts to do so, you cannot follow a rote list of instructions and come out with a decent mix. You have to listen to the mix and really make an effort to understand how different things tweak the sound. At first, you will suck at this. You will need to spend many hours listening to music and becoming familiar with how each plugin works and what it does. No amount of instruction is a substitute for this. You must practice. Even after following these instructions, your first mix will be mediocre at best. But they will improve and you’ll get better at each step. Finally, you have to have a decent recording first. You can’t unclip a vocal. You can’t take your laptop recording and make it sound like it was recorded on a thousand dollar microphone. Mixing isn’t where you fix the things you screwed up in recording. It’s how you polish your recordings so that they really shine.

To the instructions....

Step One: Add an EQ to your vocals, preferably a graphic EQ, but any will work. They all do the same thing, graphic EQs are just easier to visualize. Take the following steps with the EQ:

  1. Cut out the low end using a low-cut or high-pass filter (they’re different names for the same thing). Everything below 150-250 Hz (you have to listen to hear when you start cutting off sound you want to retain) is noise that is largely inaudible and that you don’t want in your mix. It will make the whole thing muddy.

  2. Use another EQ to identify and reduce bad sounds. To do this, you take an EQ slider and make the bandwidth as narrow as possible. Then use it to boost a tiny frequency range as high as you can. “Sweep” this along the frequencies and listen for sounds that are bad. How do you know if a sound is “bad?” Listen for spikes that are fairly constant. Sometimes you get spikes at a particular frequency range because the vocal lands on a certain note for a second. These are normal. More constant sounds that occur in conjunction with the vocal indicate room noise, sibilance, or some other problem that should be corrected. Generally, I find problems in the low range (200-500 Hz, but up to 1 kHz at times), mid range (usually somewhere just above 3 kHz and again somewhere around 6 kHz), and occasionally at the very top end (often around 10-12 kHz). Once you’ve identified a bad sound, cut somewhere around 3 dBs using that same band, and then widen it some so that it isn’t as narrow (don’t make it too wide, though; you’re only trying to remove bad sounds, not fundamentally change the sound of the vocals). You may not notice a substantial difference at this point, but it will make a big difference once you add compression. Repeat this as many times as necessary (anywhere from 3-5 such bands is pretty normal for me).

  3. Note that there is no boosting here. Boosting can be helpful, but I’d recommend trying to get the cleanest sound possible with cutting before you turn to boosting. I almost never have to boost anything in the EQ. If you’re doing it all the time, you’ve probably made a mistake.

Step Two: Add a compressor (any compressor will do) and follow these steps:

  1. Slow the attack down substantially (probably somewhere between 80-100 milliseconds).

  2. Speed the release time up substantially (maybe not as low as it goes, but between 5-20 milliseconds).

  3. Adjust the threshold until you get somewhere around 5 dBs of compression most of the time (your compressor probably has a needle and a meter, try to get that needle to hit “5” at the loud points, although if it slips over at really loud parts, that’s ok). Try not to let it compress more than about 10 dBs at any point (needle over the “10” on the meter).

Step Three: Add a second compressor:

  1. Speed the attack time up (somewhere in the neighborhood of 5-10 milliseconds—an attack that’s too fast will create some bad distortion, so listen for that and increase the attack if necessary)).

  2. Slow the release time down (around 200-500 milliseconds is generally where mind lands).

  3. Adjust the threshold until it hits about the same as the first compressor (~5 dBs of compression).

Congratulations! At this point, your mix should be sounding pretty clean. If it doesn’t, tweak your EQ and compression before going to the next steps.

The next steps all involve bussing (routing sound from the main track to a “bus” track to apply effects). You bus instead of adding tracks directly for two reasons. First, you can send more than one track to the same bus, thereby saving time. Second, it gives you better control over how much you add of a given effect to a particular track.

Step Four [OPTIONAL]: If your vocals feel flat, muddy, or lifeless (because of a mediocre mic or a bad recording environment), this step can help give them some extra crispiness or sparkle and really make them pop. If you think your vocals sound stellar as is, then you can definitely skip this step.

  1. Add an EQ to the bus and cut everything below 3-6 kHz (play with it until it sounds right).

  2. Add a compressor and compress the hell out of it. Turn the threshold down, the ratio up, the knee down, and speed both the attack and release time up (if you don’t have all those knobs, that’s ok, some compressors don’t—work with what you have).

  3. Turn the send up until you start to notice a really crispy high end. Sometimes, cranking it way up will help you hear it, although it won’t sound good. Then just turn it down until it sounds natural, but with a really clean, crisp high end.

Step Five [OPTIONAL]: If you want to add a delay (echo), now is the time to do it. Don’t add a delay after you add reverb (trust me, you don’t want the reverb repeating itself over and over again—it’ll be a muddy mess). Bus to a new bus, add whatever delay you want, and adjust the send until you get a nice delay without overdoing it. Be careful—your mixes can become muddy if there’s delay competing with your vocals at every step. Automation can fix this on your main vocal tracks, but that’s a topic for another day. I would recommend adding a delay to any adlib tracks you have.

Step Six: Bus to reverb. Create a bus, add reverb to it, and pick a preset that has a nice short reverb. You aren’t looking for anything more than 1.2 seconds or so, and shorter is fine. You’re just trying to give your vocal a little bit of space. If you’ve added delay on a bus, you can bus that bus to this bus to soften it a little, too. Turn up the send until you start to hear it over the instrumental, and then back it off a hair. If you wanna make sure it’s actually doing something, listen carefully while you disable and enable the bus—you should hear that the vocal sounds more natural with reverb.

Other Steps: At this point, you should have really clean vocals that sound pretty dang good. If you want to add a longer reverb, now is a good time to do so. You can also add effects like autotune, chorus, saturation, or anything else. Play with it until it sounds good. To figure out what order to put things in, ask whether you want an effect to be subject to the effects after it (do you want to autotune your chorus effect or would you rather add a chorus to your autotuned vocals?). Alternately, just experiment with different orders and see which way sounds right.

Once you get your vocal tracks to sound the way they’re supposed to, you need to turn to levelling (making sure that the volume of each part is appropriate) and ultimately mastering. There are lots of intricacies here that I’ve left out and different ways to approach things, but if you can’t figure out how to get your vocals to sound clean, this should help a ton. It’s a starting point, not an ending point. Practice. Learn. Listen. Grow. Improve. Pay me instead. Whatever. But now you can’t say you can’t figure out how to do it. Best of luck. Feel free to come to me with questions or for feedback (which I will provide irregularly).

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