How to mix vocals: Step by step to a perfect vocal sound

Dreaming of a recording that not only sounds amazing but also leaves your audience speechless? This is where professional vocal mixing comes into play. Vocal editing is the foundation of this process. Combined with vocal mixing, it guarantees a flawless listening experience, free of errors.
How to mix vocals, vocal editing NoiseWorks. vocal mixing

If you’re new to audio engineering, you might be wondering how to achieve top-notch results without spending countless hours. To get you started on the right foot, we’ve outlined several key aspects in our blog post.
We answer the question “How to mix vocals?” by offering a step-by-step guide to vocal editing and sharing tips for the mixing process. Additionally, we give you a sneak peek at our innovative vocal editing plugin, GainAimPro, designed to support you throughout your editing journey.

Whether you’re delving into podcasts, music, films, or audiobooks, mastering professional vocal mixing is key to creating a standout sound.

How to mix vocals: Basic equipment

Let’s face the truth. No matter how sophisticated your equipment might be, you can’t transform a poor recording into a masterpiece!


Equipment
The secret to successful vocal mixing and attaining high sound quality lies in the quality of your initial recording. We recommend starting with a large diaphragm condenser microphone that  has an XLR connection. You’ll also need an audio interface and a XLR cable. These components (microphone, interface, and cable) can often be found second-hand for under 100 euros and work wonders for beginners.


The room
The acoustics of your recording space are equally crucial. Recording in an acoustically optimized room is ideal. There are many great DIY solutions for bass traps and absorbers online. Ff that’s not possible, you can still improve your recording quality with simple adjustments. To minimize room reverb, consider opening your wardrobe or hanging clothes around the room to dampen the sound. Dont position your microphone too close to the corners of the room.


Software
With a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), your computer, and your audio signal set up, you can focus entirely on editing and mixing vocals. And just a heads-up, incorporating some plugins can significantly streamline the process!

Learn how to edit vocals in just 6 steps

In general, vocal editing forms the basis for a successful and efficient vocal mixing. It improves the sound dynamics, regulates annoying sibiliances, and eliminates breaths and silence. This not only simplifies the subsequent vocal mixing process, but also ensures a more professional audio quality.

Step 1: Vocal comping

The first step in achieving a polished vocal track begins before the mixing process even starts: always record multiple takes. This gives you the flexibility to swap out any parts you’re not happy with for better ones from different takes. This method, known as “vocal comping,” is a standard technique for fixing issues with incorrect notes, timing discrepancies, or simply selecting the best-sounding segments.

As shown in an image, each color represents a different take that has been blended together.

To ensure smooth transitions between takes, it’s crucial to apply a crossfade of at least 10ms. This helps to seamlessly merge the recordings and mask the use of multiple takes. However, it’s wise to avoid stretching the recording sessions over a too long period, as the human voice tends to vary from day to day, which can make achieving a consistent vocal sound more challenging.

mixing vocals: vocal comping

Step 2: Adjusting the volume

The initial step is to adjust the volume of your recording to prepare it for later compression. If certain parts of your recording are quieter than others, it’s beneficial to increase the volume of these sections to achieve consistent loudness throughout your entire clip.

Vocal Riding
At this stage, professionals often use a tool called a vocal rider like GainAim—a plugin designed to automatically adjust volume levels in real time. These tools can predict volume changes a few milliseconds ahead, adjusting incoming signals to meet target level. They also allow for signals below a certain threshold to be left unaltered, ensuring that only the vocal parts are adjusted.

Volume Automation with GainAimPro
GainAim Pro features ARA, which enables GainAimPro Infinite Look Ahead. This allows the plugin to analyze the entire track in advance. In this way, GainAim Pro can adjust the volume before loud sections occur and avoid unwanted artifacts.  It’s in these specific parts that a vocal rider encounters its limitations and may begin to pump.

Furthermore, GainAimPro provides several other settings for precise volume control, enhancing your vocal mixing efforts. Read more about GainAimPro here
GainAimPro-RideFeature-Vocal editing plugin- NoiseWorks

Step 2: Removing Silence

Even with an outstanding vocal performance, you may not have the perfect audio signal just yet.
Listen carefully. Background noise, clicks, or other incidental sounds, like a door slamming nearby, can all detract from the quality of your recording. Addressing these issues is a step towards achieving a polished, professional sound. Trimming silent sections is also a beneficial practice.


Gating
is another technique to manage silence effectively. A gate works by closing off the signal when it falls below a certain threshold. When using gating, opt for a fast attack and slow release to ensure it blends smoothly with the overall mix without becoming noticeable.


For issues like pops or clipping, these can often be edited out manually. If clipping occurs within a vocal passage, remove that section and replace it with a similar part from another take. If you’re working with a single take, find a part that matches the removed section, duplicate it, and insert it into the gap. Applying a crossfade between the segments ensures a smooth transition.

Mixing Vocals - clipping peak
plop sound
mixing vocals: silence with background noise
silence with background noise

Cutting the tracks by hand
Cutting the tracks by hand takes a lot of time, which can lead to problems, especially with tight deadlines. If you use a gate, on the other hand, you will save a lot of time but will have to compromise on quality. This is because regular gates work level-dependent. As a result, signals that should be excluded are often too loud and signals that should not be excluded are too quiet.

Removing silence: Insight form GainAimPro
For precise and efficient silence removal, consider using a level-independent gate, like the smart vox-gate in GainAimPro. This gate ensures no signal is wrongly included or excluded, regardless of volume fluctuations, thanks to its AI-driven ability to recognize the signal’s volume range. GainAimPro also visualizes the volume curve post-silence detection, simplifying the editing process. You can interact with each line on the curve, adjusting it as needed, giving you full control over the editing process.

Step 3: Adjusting breaths

Removing breaths in vocal editing not only enhances the quality and professionalism of the vocal track but also simplifies the mixing process.

During the vocal mixing, after editing, the dynamics of the track are significantly limited. This limitation can cause breath sounds to reach an unnatural volume level. Moreover, breath sounds have a frequency spectrum that can be very unpleasant to listeners. Therefore, the third step in vocal editing, removing breath sounds, is crucial and should not be overlooked.

While you have the option to manually adjust breath sounds, offering unparalleled precision and control, this approach is time-consuming. As a result, using plugins has become a popular alternative.

Control breahts with GainAimPro

For those aiming for efficiency without sacrificing quality, GainAimPro presents a compelling option. It utilizes ARA, allowing for the smooth integration of an AI specially trained to identify and adjust breath sounds automatically.

With the option to set a Relative Threshold value in the settings, you can ensure that only loud breaths are targeted for processing, avoiding the adjustment of every single breath.

GainAimPro-Breath-Settings-NoiseWorks-Vocal Editing

Step 4: Correcting sibilances

It’s crucial to address the adjustment of sibilants (s-, st-, ch-, and sh- sounds). Due to the dynamic limitations applied later, there’s a risk of these sounds being unnaturally amplified, just like breaths, which can be unpleasant for listeners.

There are typically three options for managing sibilant sounds in your track:

Option 1: Manually write a loudness automation. This method is complex and demands a considerable amount of time, but can sound better than some automated solutions.

Option 2: Use a de-esser plugin. This approach saves time, but might not result in same quality as manually editing, since you are not able to edit each sibilance manually.

Setting the de-esser too aggressively can make the voice sound lisped, so achieving the right balance is key.

Option 3Opt for GainAimPro, which combines the best of both worlds: automatic sibilance detection with the option to edit each sibilance later on. GainAimPro also has no CPU load during playback with no latency.

Step 5: Find room resonances

Can you hear that whistling sound?

These sounds are caused by interferences on your microphone’s diaphragm. Overlapping incoming and outgoing frequencies in front of the microphone and room modes can contribute to this issue.

A common method to identify these unwanted frequencies is to use an equalizer with a bell filter set to a high Q-factor and then sweep through your signal, boosting by +4 dB or more.

Personal Note:
While the sweeping technique can be effective in finding those whistling frequencies, it has its downsides. As you sweep across the spectrum, many frequencies might begin to sound problematic, tempting you to unnecessarily cut out essential tones. My advice? Close your eyes and listen carefully. Are there any frequencies that stand out or interfere with your vocals? Trust your ears!

Step 6: Gain-Staging

Let’s explore the concept of gain staging in more detail:

What is Gain Staging?
Gain staging is the careful management of audio levels throughout the recording or mixing process. Its main goal is to maintain the audio signal at optimal levels — avoiding levels that are too high, which may cause distortion, and too low, which might introduce noise or lose detail. Proper gain staging preserves the signal’s purity and clarity, contributing significantly to the quality of the recording or mix.

Why is it Important?
In an audio processing chain that includes tools like EQs, compressors, and reverbs, each component can react differently to various signal levels. While some plugins may start distorting at moderate levels, others can tolerate higher signals without any issues. Maintaining consistent and appropriate gain levels helps prevent unwanted artifacts and ensures each tool functions at its best.

Best Practices:
When setting gain levels in your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) or external equipment, aim for peaks around -10dB. This level of headroom prevents any single plugin or processor from being overdriven, which could result in distortion or other negative effects.

Understanding and applying proper gain staging is crucial for creating a mix or recording that sounds clean and professional.

fig.10 well leveled signal

fig.11 clipping signal

Exploring ways to lower gain in your mix:

1. Using GainAimPro:
By adjusting the target loudness of GainAimPro, you can effortlessly manage the desired loudness level for your track. Lowering the target loudness will reduce the gain, ensuring your mix remains within safe boundaries.

2. Employing TRIM Plugin:
By using a trim plugin, you can manually correct gain increases made by other plugins.

3. Consolidating Clips:
As the final option, you can consolidate all your clips into one and then decrease the gain of the resulting clip.

In conclusion, preventing overloads and managing gain effectively is crucial to ensure a distortion-free and high-quality mix. By incorporating these techniques, you can navigate the gain staging process more efficiently.

Learn how to mix vocals

Building on the solid foundation of vocal editing, we now transition to the subject of vocal mixing. We’ll address the question of how to mix vocals and delve into the intricacies of balancing, shaping, and enhancing vocal tracks to unlock their full potential. You’ll discover common techniques and approaches that allow you to produce vocal mixes marked by clarity, depth, and emotion.

Step 1 - Compression

Before applying compression, make sure to level out your vocals. By utilizing a vocal editing plugin like GainAimPro, our vocal rider GainAim, you can achieve a more consistent signal. This consistency simplifies the process of adjusting your vocals to the desired settings. With a more stable input, the compressor faces a narrower dynamic range, allowing better processing.

Rather than relying on a single compressor for vocals, we recommend employing two compressors with distinct settings. This approach, called serial compression, and helps prevent unwanted pumping and other artifacts.

Control the dynamic range
This Compressor operates quickly and rigorously. It’s the component that subdues high-volume peaks in your signal.

  1. Load your chosen compressor onto your track.
  2. Begin with a ratio of 10:1 (10dB input = 1dB output).
  3. Adjust the ratio to respond only to individual volume peaks.
  4. If possible, set the knee to ‘hard.’
  5. Position the attack between 4ms and 10ms. The lower the attack, the more “aggressive” your sound will be. This setting determines how fast the compressor responds when a signal exceeds the threshold.
  6. Using the release, you can push your signal further back or bring it to the fore. The lower the release, the more forward your vocals will be. Start with 20ms and listen to the vocal in context with your song to allow it to breathe. To make an informed decision, refer to your reference track.
  7. You can now decrease the ratio to somewhere between 4:1 and 2:1 until the gain reduction reaches 2-4 dB.
  8. With the Output gain, you can restore the signal to its pre-compression volume. To do this, switch on bypass and then switch back to check for any gain differences. Alternatively, use GainAim in leveler mode, which adjusts the gain for you automatically.

Tonal Compression

This compressor will modify the tonality of your vocal. If possible, choose a compressor that adds some character to your vocals, such as the LA2A.

  1. Load the compressor onto your track and start with extreme values. Choose a high ratio (10:1) and a low threshold, making it easier to hear the impact of your adjustments.
  2. Begin with a slower attack (10 – 20 ms). The slower the attack, the more aggressive your sound will be. A faster attack results in a thicker sound. Little note: The LA2A has an attack of 20 ms.
  3. Set the release somewhere between 40ms – 60ms. The higher the value, the more audible the effect of compression.
  4. Now you can reduce the ratio back down to 2:1 – 4:1, depending on your genre.
  5. Lastly, adjust the threshold to achieve a gain reduction of 3-5 dB.

Congratulations, you’ve successfully compressed your vocals!

Step 2 - EQing

Now, let’s delve into shaping the sound with an equalizer.

Important when EQing is to recognize the different types of EQs. If you have analog emulations like the Pultec or SSL EQ, they’re wonderful for adding color and harmonic overtones when boosting frequencies. Conversely, when cutting frequencies, opt for EQs that maintain the natural tone of your vocals. 
For optimal results, lean on your reference track. Place an EQ on it to pinpoint where the vocals lie in the mix. Regularly switch between your track and the reference to ensure precise tweaks.

Normally, boosts and cuts should not exceed 3dB – 5dB. A lower Q factor usually yields more organic outcomes.

Vocal Eq gant chart

Step 3 - Saturation

Applying some saturation to your vocal tracks is a technique worth considering. It’s important to understand that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach here. Instead, closely listen to your reference track, experiment with the tools available in your DAW, and make choices that resonate with the sound you’re trying to achieve. 

Here are som reasons to add saturation to your track:

Emotive Powerhouse:
Saturation can serve as an emotional amplifier, enhancing the rawness and intensity of a performance. It adds a powerful edge to vocals, making them more impactful.

Harmonics:
Saturation introduces additional harmonics to a signal, enriching the vocal sound and making it fuller.

Textural Tapestries:
It adds a unique layer of texture, allowing your vocals to either stand out in the mix or blend in seamlessly, depending on your creative intent.

Achieving the Perfect Tone:
Strategically used saturation can correct vocals that are too bright or too dark, leading to a more balanced and sonically appealing outcome.

Step 4 - Limiting

As the last plugin in our chain, you need to use a limiter. This limiter ensures that there are no peaks in our signal. If there happens to be a peak, the limiter will catch it.

To set the limiter correctly, ensure it’s only catching the truly loud peaks. It shouldn’t be working continuously if you’ve compressed your signal correctly in earlier steps. If it is, you might need to review your settings. Remember, the purpose of the limiter is not to amplify your signal. If you set the input to 12 dB to limit the peaks, you should set the output to  -12 dB.

Step 5 - Brighter vocals

Mixing vocals in stereo can brighten up your signal. By introducing more side signals, you spread your vocals across the stereo field, achieving a brighter vocal sound.

Double Your Vocals:
For a bright vocal effect, alongside your central vocal track, record two additional takes and pan them left and right. The differences between these takes enhance the vocal brightness. Using specific compressor, EQ, and reverb settings, you can adjust the presence of these doubled vocals in the mix.

Enhancing Vocals with Whispered Layers:
Another technique is to whisper your song in two extra takes, panning them left and right. The volume of your whispered tracks affects the brightness of your vocals in the mix.

Use Modulation Effects:
For stereo enhancement without recording more takes, use modulation effects like chorus to create a stereo backdrop for your vocals. Apply the chorus effect on a parallel aux track for greater mix flexibility. Create an aux track, set the chorus to 100% wet, and send your vocal track to this aux. The send level dictates the brightness of your vocals.

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