Getting vocals to 'sit right' can require a lot more than setting the fader and applying EQ. We asked a number of engineers how they do it.
Any experienced mix engineer knows that a good musical arrangement should leave a 'natural' spot for the lead vocal, where it will be supported at the right moments by other instruments, but getting a vocal to sit perfectly all the way through a mix can require some 'heavy lifting'. Having recently given a lot of thought to this most crucial aspect of mixing I was curious to know what other engineers thought about it — so I decided to ask them. Five of them, to be precise (see 'About The Engineers' box), and, as I'd hoped, their answers revealed both commonality in their approaches and some very different ways of working. Inevitably, our discussion strayed into more general mixing topics — monitoring and listening levels, for example — and I make no apology for including that here, as it's all very relevant. But we also found lots to discuss about vocals specifically...
I'll highlight a few things before we get into the nitty gritty. First, I asked the engineers to assume that the performance, recording and arrangement were of a good enough standard to mix. But there are several scenarios in which it could prove difficult to get a vocal to sit nicely, no matter what tricks and tools you have at your disposal, and some engineers felt it important to address this. Jack Ruston said that: "If the track is massive but the delivery is undercooked, or the voice too soft in timbre, you wind up in this position where you need to make it too loud in order to cut through. That sets up an incongruity, whereby the brain knows that such a timbre shouldn't be able to dominate the stronger sounds in the arrangement, yet somehow it does. You feel uneasy because that doesn't ring true. If you have to work at it too hard, it could be that it's just not quite right in some aspect of the vocal source."
Another recurring theme was how far the client wants the mix engineer to stick with what's expected in a genre (the answers to most of my questions could easily have begun with "it depends on the song and the genre"!), and what the role of the vocal is in the song.
Julian Kindred addressed this in some depth: "In many styles of dance, reggae or electronic music there's a pretty good argument that the bass is at least as important, if not more so, than any vocal content... One of the most important things to assess when starting a mix is the relationship between the song's musical arrangement and the vocalist's character/timbre of voice, as well as their performance personality. Sometimes the relationship is conventional; other times it's juxtaposed. A commanding voice can fill a lot of situations. A subtle, more nuanced performer may be in the middle of a dense arrangement. Deciding how to approach things based on the artist's wishes is the key."
Tony Hoffer made a related point: "There are instances where the essential sonic element isn't the lead vocal, and a synth hook of some sort could be treated as I would a lead vocal. If there is also a main vocal, this could be set back in the mix slightly more than usual."
I asked the engineers if (assuming the vocal is the lead instrument) it's better to get the vocal in there early and build the mix around it, or to take other elements further before fitting it in. Jack Ruston feels the former approach is usually preferable because, "without the lead vocal, we can't make assumptions about what the other parts really mean. The levels will be influenced by the vocal content." Tony Hoffer shares that view: "If the vocal is meant to be the focal point, I'll make sure I have it placed in the mix quite early."
Romesh Dodangoda offered an insight into his overall mixing process: "When I mix a song I have the sound of the mix in my head, so my entire mixing time is spent chasing that sound. Once I have drums and bass working pretty well and have a foundation, I will bring in almost everything and, with broad strokes, try and create space for things. I'll fine tune later... but not leaving the vocal 'til the end can make you aware of how much space you need to keep for it." And production duo Boe Weaver offered a variation on that theme: unless working on a very stripped-back, intimate production, they'll typically "flick the vocals on and off throughout the process".
Julian Kindred believes it's all about figuring out what the key elements of a song are, which typically involves "getting the spinal relationship right between the drums, bass and vocals, then working out where to get the song's power, and deciding what balance of music to vocal that requires. Usually it comes from strengthening the density of the two together. Sometimes they're distinct."
Boe Weaver: "Vocal mixing is something we make a conscious effort to not get lazy with. What works changes every time.
Boe Weaver add: "Vocal mixing is something we make a conscious effort to not get lazy with. What works changes every time, and not simply 'starting with what worked last time' seems to be a good rule." That struck a chord with me, as I think we often gravitate subconsciously to the areas of a mix we find most appealing — I was a drummer before I was an engineer, and in the early days of my mixing career I spent far too long honing drum sounds. It's not laziness, exactly, but overcoming such inclinations can require a special effort.
If you take only one thing from this article, I suggest it should be what all five engineers said about monitoring levels. Tony Hoffer tends to mix "very, very quiet. Quieter than the level of a normal conversation! When I do my first automation pass on the...