The importance of vocals cannot be overstated. Killer vocals knock the socks off average tone-deaf Joes and seasoned producers alike. Basically, vocals sell the music and have the power to make or break a song.
In addition to being the one part of the mix that every listener is guaranteed to hear, vocals are also easy to mess up. Because of that, you have to be extra careful and mind the common vocal mixing mistakes.
To be fair, good vocal production starts long before the mixing stage. Pre-production and recording are the biggest and most crucial parts. But even a great-sounding vocal recording made in ideal conditions and environment can be damaged by poor mixing. And mixers often repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
In order to produce vocals that sound professional and impressive, you need to look out for the following mixing mistakes and ensure you never make them.
🟡Mistake #1: Too Much Reverb
One of the most common mistakes is going overboard with reverb. While it’s an excellent tool for adding a sense of space and depth to vocals, reverb can make a mix sound amateur and boring when it’s apparent.
You shouldn’t draw listeners’ attention to reverb, unless it’s a deliberate artistic choice or what the music genre calls for. Excessive reverb is a distraction and a sure-fire way to ruin the sound of great vocals.
A good rule of thumb is to apply just enough reverb to the vocal that you start to hear it, then bring it back a notch. As you mute and unmute the added reverb, you should hear a difference in the vocal space yet reverb won’t be as noticeable and distracting. Try delay if you think something that a more out of this world sound is missing in the mix.
🟡Mistake #2: Overly Aggressive EQ
Another thing you need to keep subtle is EQ settings. Applying drastic EQ curves to vocals is going to make them sound weird and unnatural. Don’t underestimate how much our ears are attuned to hearing other people’s voices – any substantial change is instantly noticeable. In case of too aggressive EQ, the vocal is perceived as fake-sounding and just downright bad.
Avoid boosting or cutting EQ moves by more than 5dB. You are free to make deeper, narrow cuts to remove boxiness and odd room tone, but as soon as your EQ settings start to remind of Swiss cheese, it’s a sign that you most probably went a bridge too far. Focus on objective issues like bad sounds that you can actually control and take it easy on the vocals, that’s how you will get natural, pleasant to the ear results.
🟡Mistake #3: Too Fast Attack Times
When working with lead vocals, too fast of an attack time is a big no-no. While it makes the vocals sound smooth and consistent, it also removes all the depth, energy and punch. Fast attack times push vocals back in the mix by shaving off the transients and make them sound dull, lifeless and one-dimensional. The compressor is clamping down so quickly that you’re losing the attack of the note and articulation of the words.
With backing vocals, on the other hand, fast attack times work out greatly because they set them further back in the mix and prevent them from stealing attention from the lead vocals. So, go for slower attack times on lead vocals to make them pop in the listener’s face and use faster attack times on backing vocals to dull them down.
🟡Mistake #4: Ignoring the Genre
Although there is some overlap, most genres have their own particular style of vocal mixing. Before you get to processing vocals, you need to have a clear understanding the genre of the music that you’re mixing and how that genre is generally approached.
For electronic, R'n'B and pop, loads of shimmer in the top-end, distinct effects and highly consistent dynamics are usually the norm. For hip-hop, especially the mainstream kind, top-end shimmer is acceptable, just like for pop music, but with less effects. For jazz, leave the dynamic in tact for the most part and avoid any obvious processing, the subtler, the better. For metal – less low-end, more body and high mids, with heavy compression for a more aggressive vocal sound. For rock, go with less top-end, more body and high mids; vocals can sit a bit further back in the mix.
🟡Mistake #5: Not Using References
Even if you’ve been mixing in the same room with the same monitors for a long time, it never hurts to use a reference track. Pull it at least at some point of the mixing process (right at the very end works as well). References are essential because they help you bring vocals to the next level and avoid a variety of issue, be that the tonality, volume, or style.
In fact, it’s smart to use multiple references for each aspect of your mix to perfect your work. It will also pay dividends as you work with clients and discuss preferences and ideas – more often than not references speak clearly than words.