It’s time to give you guys part 3 of our journey into how to mix vocals like a pro.
In case you missed parts 1 and 2, I’m linking them here and here
Today, we’re dealing with the finalizing processes of mixing vocals. Effects, Sends, Parallel processing, Sidechaining on Send effects, Automation on send effects, and mindset to approaching different sends in the song.
When approaching effects and additional processing measures, you want to think about precisely what each part of the song represents. Do you want the vocal to upfront or in the distance? What if you want the words to be hyper-articulate or bigger than life in a spacious 3 Dimensional sense? Maybe you want the reverb of something to wash over the following sentence of the vocalist, or you might want the reverb to stop before the vocalist starts the following sentence. How do the vocalist's rhythmic patterns allow for a long decay reverb in the first place?
So many questions, but simplified down into introspecting what you want each part of the song to represent and how you want the audience to feel as they go on the journey.
Often, you might get a much shorter reverb taking place in the verse, with less reverb amplitude, giving the vocalist the perception of being upfront and personal.
You might have multiple backing vocals in the chorus, gang vocals imitating a crowd, and harmonies, and you might be aiming to make the chorus sound like the vocalist is singing with a stadium. By creating long reverb space and making the vocals reverb more present, you’d create the perception of a bigger-than-life performance, making the listener go from intrigued to blown away by the heightened experience through the journey of the song.
This has to be done tactfully. You have to choose the right reverb for every situation, but often, thinking about what effect you want the journey of the song to have on the listener is the VERY FIRST STEP to creating a masterpiece.
Most of the time, mixing engineers send the vocal to additional auxiliary/bus tracks where they process the effects separately(reverb, delay, etc.).
This allows them not to affect the amplitude of the original vocal while adding in reverb, and they proceed to leave the reverb at 100% wet on the plugin and control the volume of the reverb with that individual track fader the send fader on the original track. There are different reasons why you’d want to use each of these faders.
The reason you’d want to use the effect track fader is if you’d like to easily set the overall volume of that track, controlling the overall reverb output volume without affecting how much might be sent into a compressor on the end of the reverb signal(which would be sidechaining to the main vocal to duck the reverb out of the vocals way when the vocalist is singing, more on that later).
The reason you’d want to control the send fader on the original vocal would be to control how much of the original vocal is being sent into the reverb at different points in the song with automation. By doing this, you can create an automation curve that sends in more of the last word of a sentence to the reverb, creating a lovely ambiance shimmering over the next few seconds.
This is very useful for doing a reverb throw at the end of a chorus for a decaying ambiance of that particular reverb, without worrying about it making words after that triggering the reverb too much
Short Reverb is best suited for creating the sense of a room, a live space around a very dry vocal recorded in a studio, and dimensional depth.
Often, you’d combine short reverb with longer reverbs at particular points to create extra dimension.
Long Reverb: Useful for more ambient rich instrumental situations, choruses of music you want to sound bigger than life, and sometimes, just used as a low level send to fill up a song in general.
Sometimes, you might get a situation where vocals sound better with a long washy reverb, and you have to try to make sure that you have a balance between the vocal’s presence and the decay after the singer ends a phrase. Utilizing a sidechain compressor at the end of the long reverb chain can help push the reverb out the way slightly while the vocalist is singing.
Reverb Pre-delay: The time it takes for the reverb to begin after the original signal hits the reverb is called the reverb pre-delay. It’s a really useful function because it helps an engineer create some space for the vocalist by setting the pre-delay slightly later. If the particular case sounds great with the pre-delay later, then go for it.
It’s often recommended that you use a plate reverb for a vocal as your first short reverb, but what I’ve found is that although that holds true much of the time, there are many other reverbs that sound great in the situation too. Experiment, think of why you’re using the reverb and apply the mindset and concepts to the decay time and reverb choice instead of blindly hoping to use a particular reverb because people say so.
Slap Delay: Slap delay is advantageous because it allows the engineer to create a sense of presence, depth, and width to a vocal. It’s always best used in moderation.
Different Delays: The most common ones you’re going to use on a vocal are 1/4 note, 1/8 note, and 1/16 note. You might ad a 1/16 note with reverb diffusion afterward to a chorus to give it a big feeling, and you might automate 1/4 and 1/8 note delays to come in after the end of particular phrases. It depends on the genre, but it's always nice not to put a delay on the entire vocal at a static volume. Enough of a good thing is sometimes bad.
Jaycen Joshua says that he automates delays to come in after certain phrases and creates many different versions of those delays to make each time the delay coming in slightly different to keep things interesting. I like this method myself. It’s a lot of work, but the nuances are important and make a world of difference when mixing.
Often, people like Chris Lord Alge send delays to reverbs and reverbs to delays. They essentially have multiple stages of sends that compound on each other and probably end up in one room reverb to make everything sound like it belongs in one physical space, which brings a layer of realism. Utilizing his plugin CLA Epic is an excellent example of how this works. It’s still possible to do it without CLA Epic, and I encourage you to look at his concepts and then experiment.
Utilizing parallel processing is a massive part of some mixing engineers' workflow.
Traditionally, parallel processing involves sending the original signal on a send to an aux/bus track where you compress that duplicate signal heavily and alter the EQ curve to be able to blend it back in and create a little bit more bite, presence, and fullness to the main vocal.
Of course, you could be adding a flanger on top of that, a phaser, or anything really interesting to spice it up. It’s not advised that you do that in most situations, as it could cause the final result to degrade, so use your ears and try to ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish. You could even add distortion on the parallel process to bring more grit into the vocal.
Sidechaining on Send Effects
Usually, it’s a really good idea to add a compressor after reverbs and delays and route the original vocal to the sidechain input on those compressors to make the compressor compress the effect whenever the main vocal is singing. It helps move the effect out the way and then allows the effect to come back once the vocalist finishes a phrase. Sometimes, you don’t need to do this drastically, but even if it moves out the way a couple of dB, it’s going to go a long way into creating something a bit more intelligible.
Sometimes, it’s helpful to send the main vocal to a chorus effect track to get a certain width, and “double” like effect. Not many plugins do this well if you’re looking for realistic doubles because they simply move each side of the channel a few ms, known as the Haas effect. Depending on the situation, you might want to use a more advanced doubler plugin, like the izotope doubler plugin, which creates active variances as the audio places.
Utilizing automation to have more of a particular effect at certain points creates a non-linear listening experience for the consumer. This could range from using automation to add more of an effect in the chorus to make it sound bigger, or throwing certain words at the end of a sentence into a delay or reverb, or even just riding the reverb send fader to make sure the send isn't linear or static. This can go a long way into creating life and realism in the track without the listener picking up on what's actually creating the movement. Try to always be asking yourself what’s missing from a particular section of the song to determine what effects you need to add, so you don’t add anything unnecessarily.
Now that you’ve learned some concepts on how to mix vocals like a pro, check out our vocal mixing compressors and EQs at https://mixanalog.com/
I’d recommend trying the LA-2a and the 1176 Blue Stripe for compression on vocals, and the Elysia Xfilter EQ to help shape your vocal sounds tonal balance(I’ve made some awesome presets for you to use with that).