Mixing Vocals 101: How to Mix Vocals Perfectly

by Ilan Adar, NoiseWorks CEO  15.08.2023
Mixing Vocals 101 - NoiseWorks
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How to prepare vocals before start vocal mixing

While having a skilled singer or top-tier equipment can be beneficial, it doesn’t always guarantee an impeccable vocal recording. Often, the recording phase is crucial, but occasionally you have to work with what you’re given, and those vocals might not always be flawless. However, this shouldn’t be a cause for concern. All you need is the know-how to address these issues. Below is your checklist. Once you’ve completed these tasks, you’re ready to mix your vocals.

Use vocal comping and choose the best parts

mixing vocals: vocal comping

fig.2 example vocal comping

The initial step begins even before the mixing process. Always record multiple takes of your track. By doing so, you have the flexibility to replace any segments you’re not satisfied with using portions from another take. This technique, known as “vocal comping,” is a widely-accepted approach to address issues with wrong notes, timing discrepancies, or to simply choose a preferred sound.

A notable example is Billie Eilish’s process for “Happier Than Ever”. In a behind-the-scenes video, she recorded 87 takes, eventually combining the best segments to craft one seamless take. As illustrated in the provided image, each color denotes a distinct take that has been merged with other recordings.

To maintain a smooth continuity between different takes, ensure a crossfade of at least 10ms. This guarantees a seamless blend and obscures the fact that multiple recordings have been used. A word of caution, though: try to avoid spreading your recording sessions over an extended period. The human voice can vary day-to-day, and this can challenge the quest for a uniform vocal sound.

Remove background noise for clear vocals

Having captured the best vocal performance doesn’t mean you have the best audio signal yet.
Listen intently. Can you hear background noise, clipping, or extraneous sounds like a neighboring door slam? Addressing each disruptive artifact moves you closer to a refined, professional sound. It’s also wise to trim silent sections.

Gating can be also a technique to manage silence. A gate functions by closing when the signal dips below a set threshold. When employing this, use a fast attack and slow release. This ensures the gating remains unobtrusive in the complete mix.

Should you detect pops or clipping, these can typically be edited out. If the clipping occurs within the vocal section, excise that fragment and replace it with a segment from another take. If working with a singular take, locate a portion resembling the excised area, duplicate it, and insert it into the void. Lastly, apply a crossfade for a seamless blend.

Mixing Vocals - clipping peak

fig.3 plop sound

mixing vocals: silence with background noise

fig.4 silence with background noise

Control the timing of your vocals

Ensure your vocals match the beat. Does the singer start on the first beat, or does it sound off? Be careful when adjusting the singer’s timing so you don’t unintentionally change their rhythmic intention.

Breath Control

Lower the breaths!

When mixing vocals, the breath sounds can become more pronounced due to compression and the boosting of high frequencies. This often leads to breaths sounding unnaturally loud.
So, let’s reduce the volume of the breaths relative to the vocals. 

There are several methods to handle breaths in recordings. One tactic is to employ a separate sequencer dedicated to breaths. By doing so, the breaths remain untouched by the processing of other plugins.
Should you stumble upon a breath that feels out of context or just off, consider swapping it with a breath from a different part of your recording.

Frequency Cutting

Can you hear that whistling sound?

These sounds arise from interferences on the diaphragm of your microphone. Overlapping of incoming and outgoing frequencies in front of the microphone and room modes can also contribute to this.

A prevalent technique to pinpoint these unwanted frequencies is to employ an equalizer with a bell filter and a max Q-factor. Then, sweep through your signal, boosting by +4 dB or more.

Personal Note:
While this sweeping technique can certainly help identify those whistling frequencies, it has its pitfalls. When you sweep across the spectrum, many frequencies may start to sound problematic, leading you to cut out essential tones without valid reason. My suggestion? Shut your eyes and really listen. Can you discern any frequencies that jut out or interfere with your vocals? Trust your ears!

Vocal riding for closer dynamics

No, you don’t need a compressor for this. We’re simply looking to prepare the signal to yield more consistent and improved results.

Here are three methods to prep your signal:

1. GainAim VocalRider

GainAim is a vocal rider designed to regulate the volume of your signal, providing seamless gain adjustments for more consistent dynamics. Here’s how you can use it effectively:

1. Set your preferred target loudness.
2. Opt between the rider or fast mode based on your requirements.
3. Ensure that the floor level remains above the breaths to maintain a natural sound.

The interface displays all gain adjustments made by GainAim in real-time. During processing, signals below the target loudness are boosted, while signals above are reduced. This ensures a consistent track and prepares the signal for further compression.

2. Write volume automations

Volume automations is another technique that can be used to manage the dynamics of your recording. With automations, you can change the value of a parameter over time, such as the gain of the quieter parts. In addition to managing gain, automations can be used for other parameters within your DAW as well.
mixing vocals - write automations

3. Adjust the clip gain

Gain Staging

Let’s delve deeper into the concept of gain staging:

What is Gain Staging?
Gain staging is the process of managing audio levels throughout a recording or mixing system. The primary objective is to ensure that the audio signal remains within optimal levels — not too loud to cause distortion and not too soft to introduce noise or lose detail. Proper gain staging ensures the purity and clarity of the signal, thereby contributing to a high-quality recording or mix.

Why is it Important?
In a chain of audio processing tools — such as EQs, compressors, and reverbs — each plugin or hardware unit can react differently to the incoming signal levels. Some plugins might introduce distortion even at moderate levels, while others can handle hotter signals without issues. By keeping a consistent and suitable gain level, you can prevent unwanted artifacts and ensure each tool performs optimally.

Best Practices:
When adjusting gain levels in your DAW or outboard gear, a good benchmark is to aim for peaks around -10dB. This provides enough headroom, ensuring that no individual plugin or processor is pushed to the point of overdrive, leading to distortion or other undesirable effects.

Understanding and implementing proper gain staging is pivotal in achieving a clean and professional-sounding mix or recording.

fig.10 well leveled signal

fig.11 clipping signal

Exploring ways to lower gain in your mix:

1. Using GainAim:
By adjusting the target loudness of GainAim, 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.

fig.12 TRIM

Now you are ready to start mixing vocals

And there you have it! By following these steps, you’re now on track to having a professional mix. Let’s remember that mixing isn’t just about precision; it’s an art. It demands patience, practice, and the courage to explore. So, keep experimenting, stay curious, and always push your boundaries. The journey of mixing is filled with endless learning and discoveries. Embrace it, and let your mixes resonate with your unique touch. Happy mixing!

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