Mixing Vocal Track: Step by Step Guide

I am going to show you how I mix my vocal track in one of my songs. Before writing this guide, I had read many articles and listened to podcast regarding vocal mixing. This article will be a step by step guide with pictures and effects tweaking that I applied to my audio file. Before mixing, let’s assume that you already got a very good and clean vocal recorded. About how to record a great sounding vocal track, it will be another post in the future. You will also find those articles and references that I studied to accomplish this task at the bottom of this page.

This vocal track is retrieved from my own composition:
Original Song: Earnest ????

For easy illustration, I only use a few clips out of the 4 minutes track which is appropriate.
Original dry track:01-original-track.mp3
Dry means there is nothing added to the track, no EQ, no FX, no tweaking or anything else.
The wave form looks like this:

Step 1: Cleaning Plosives

Plosives are the P and B wind problem. When there is Ph, B, or F sounds in the lyrics sung, a big puff of air comes out and hits the microphone. It sounds like a kick drum noise. Look at the wave form that consist a puff noise.

Try to minimize this problem during recording. Anyway, there will be some puff went through unnoticed. With just the puff selected, apply an EQ that cuts by about 12db or so below 300Hz or whatever sounds the best. If you catch it right, the nastiness will be greatly reduced without cutting the low end from the rest of the track. I did it with a low pass filter.

Puff noise: 02-puff-plosive.mp3

Puff reduced:03-puff-plosive-removed.mp3

Step 2: Cleaning Silent Clips

In order to reduce noise level, chop out the silent part of the vocal clip. The result won’t be significant. But if you don’t do this trick for every other audio tracks, the noise would be stacked up significantly. I never cut out the breath sound. It makes the singing more natural. If you listen to some Whitney Houston’s songs, you will notice her breathing sounds so clear and crispy in the recording.

Step 3: Smoothen the dynamics

There will be certain words sung unnaturally loud or soft making the dynamics sound uneven. You can smoothen the dynamic, but don’t overdo that it will take out the life of the vocal performance. There are two method to achieve this:

  • use volume envelope: I personally think that using volume envelope is more troublesome. But it all depends on your work habit and practice. Volume envelope can put in level gain or level cut and visually it is easy to achieve. It is also non-destructive. When you hear that the envelope is not appropriate, it can be deleted easily.
  • use easy level gain or cut function: select the softer part, and boost it up 3dB or you can cut those louder parts 3dB. Most audio sequencer has this basic function. I prefer this method because I can see the wave form smoothen out. Bear in mind that this function is destructive. You can make a copy of the original track before you edit it this way.

Find the louder part of the clip:
Cut 3dB and smoothen:

Listen to the smoothen clip:04-smoothen-clip.mp3

Step 4: Fade in at the beginning of the clip, fade out at the end

This step is not necessary. For some vocalist like me who can’t really control my voice at the end of a sustaining phrase, it would be a good idea to fade out. This make it sound nicer and reduce the glitch.

Dry clip:05-not-faded-out-clip.mp3
Fade out clip:06-fade-out-clip.mp3
I am sure that you can hear the difference. It is smoothen and more natural without glitch.

Step 5: Tuning the tone deaf

I don’t suggest that you record someone who is totally tone deaf unless you want to try your patience tolerance level. By the way, even the best singer sometimes sings a little bit out of tune. Nowadays, it is pretty easy to cure this out-of-tune disease with sophisticated effect plug-in.

Refer to the dry clip, you will hear that the first two notes are slightly sharpen. Even though it is hard to hear, but you can see it clearly in the Antares auto-tune FX.
Dry Clip:01-original-track.mp3
Use the FX to correct the pitch a little bit lower as shown by the yellow line

Tuned clip:07-tuning-sharpen-note.mp3

Ok, now you realize the secret why some singer can’t sing well live on stage but they sounds so perfect on the CD. In the studio recording session, all the vocals are fine tuned extensively before it is duplicated into CD.

Add Effects (FX)

Now the vocal track is completely edited. The next big step is how to set up the proper effect chain for the vocal track. I would like to emphasize that effect should be used conservatively and subtly. As shared by Brian Redmond, “Any constant effect loses its affect very quickly. Also, effects don’t have to be complicated.”

Step 6: Add Compression

Compressor is an effect which is hard to master. According to Joe Shambro, “Compression does two things for vocals. One, it can help a vocal track stand out better in the mix by sitting better within the overall mix itself. By compressing, you’re making sure that the loud and soft parts of the vocals are even. Without it, the soft parts will get buried in the mix, and the loud parts will overpower the mix. You want the vocals to have a nice, smooth sound in the mix. Second, compressing brings out the tone of the overall vocal sound better, allowing it to make a better impact.
In short, compressing a vocal track make it sound more “stable”, instead of appearing, and then suddenly disappearing at softer part.

It will need another post to explain how to use the compressor. Here is the setting I use:

Start with the ratio setting 4:1 would be fine. Lower the threshold. Remember to add some gain to compensate the level loss after compression. Compression effects is so subtle that it takes years of experience to master the parameter setting such as the attack and release time.

Compressed clip:08-compressed-vocal.mp3

Step 7: Equalizer or EQ

According to Joe Shambro,” When EQing, there’s two types of EQ. One is subtractive, where you’re removing a frequency to help others stand out better, and then there’s additive EQ, where you boost frequencies to help the overall mix. Personally, I prefer relying on subtractive EQ for the lower frequencies, since additive EQ on the lower end tends to color the other frequencies in a way that’s not too pleasing to the ear.
Different vocalist need different EQ. For mine, the setting is shown below:

Bear in mind that any EQ more than 6dB will sound odd. However, there is no rules on this. You can be as adventurous as you want. For me, I just boost a bit around 195kHz and cut some lower frequency.

Listen to the equalized clip:09-eq.mp3

Step 8: Reverb

We record the vocal preferably as dry as possible in an isolated room. But most of time we are listening to natural voices which are filled up with thousands of delay and echoes, which is known as the natural reverbs. So to make the dry vocal sounds more natural, adding some subtle reverb is a must.
I will write another post about reverbs effect in the future.

Listen to the clip with reverb:09-add-reverb.mp3

Generally, the two most important parameter is the “mix” level, and the predelay. Normally it is set to 10-30% wet. The predelay should be more than 100ms so that the reverb won’t blur the wordings.
Paul White taught me a great strategy on applying reverb to vocal,“Traditionally, vocals are treated using plate or room reverbs, but on
the cheaper hardware boxes and most plug-ins, the presets tend to muddy
the sound before they produce the desired thickening effect. One
strategy that I have found to work well is to use a reverb algorithm
where the early reflections level can be adjusted independently of the
reverb tail, then turn the level of the reverb tail down by around 6dB.
The early reflections have the effect of thickening the vocal without
making is sound washy, and by turning down the level of the reverb
tail, you can still get away with a fairly long reverb time (typically
around 1.8 seconds) without losing clarity. Up to 100ms of pre-delay
also helps add depth without clouding the picture, and you may even be
able to drop the reverb tail level further if you’re aiming for a more
subjectively dry sound. If you have a commercial recording in a similar
style, keep this on hand as a reference when you’re setting up the mix,
as it helps to compare general tonality and reverb settings.”

At last, now compare the unedited clip to the edited and FXed clip:
Dry unedited:01-original-track.mp3
Final product:09-add-reverb.mp3

Finally, I would have to declare that I am not a master in mixing music. Because of tight budget, I tried my best to DIY (do it yourself) my album. At the meantime, I love to share what I learned from the process.

You are most welcomed to share whatever you know or pinpoint any contrast opinion about my approach. Thanks!

Reference for vocal mixing:

Tracking and Mixing Vocals
Mixing with Ed Cherney: persistence is as important as gear
Pandora Mixing Vocal Podcast

Other related mixing tutorial:
How to Fatten a Sound in a Mix

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71 Comments

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  • Jerry

    Reply Reply November 29, 2012

    Hi mate,
    none of the sample links above works. please fix.
    love to learn something on your post.
    Jerry.

    • KCLau

      Reply Reply January 3, 2013

      Hi Jerry,

      In fact, we lost all our uploaded pictures and transcription when our cpanel account was deleted by a criminal working in the hosting company. Bad luck for us.

    • teboho radebe

      Reply Reply August 31, 2013

      i mix vocal in a beat by manualing/none the beat match.but they get better for just a few minutes and i dont know why?can you tell me why?

  • djbrandnu

    Reply Reply March 29, 2013

    Thanx boss for dat tute is very intersting now I av goten more idea about mixing my audio most expecialy in d area of cuting out breath.

  • teboho radebe

    Reply Reply August 31, 2013

    cn sum bdy teach me hw 2 separate a vocal and a beat.

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