How to Mix and Master Vocals The Professional Settings



Record flat with no effects and instead find the right microphone for the singer. In the mix, roll off everything below 100 Hz and above 15,000 Hz. Add 2-4dB at 160Hz for male vocals or 320Hz for female voice for warmth. Notch out the mid-range, 500-800Hz, by a few dB. Sometimes a little sparkle in the 7-8kHz area is good, if there's no sibilance there. Finally, a little compression after the EQ can smooth the vocals out nicely.

Automatic double-tracking. Set a delay line to a short delay, between 5 and 30 milliseconds and hard pan the dry and delayed part for maximum effect. Or, use a pitch shifter set between 2-4 cents and again dry sound goes hard left while the pitch shifted part goes hard right.



Vocal reverb sounding muddy? Don't send so much bass to the reverb. Use EQ before the reverb and take out everything below 3,000 Hz. This gives a nice, bright splash on the plosives and hard consonant sounds. This can make the words more intelligible in a busy mix, too.

Put a delay before your reverb and set it to a 100% short delay with no feedback. Send a vocal line to the delay and then on to the reverb. In the mix, you'll first hear the dry vocal. The delay line then creates a gap before the reverb begins. This makes the room seem bigger, without needing a long (read: muddy) reverb time. Adjust the delay time to fit your music. On choppy vocals it's cool. Dry sound . . . silence . . . reverb splash.

Unique sounds Search for and use equipment, especially synths and outboard gear, that others don't usually use. Old gear can give you a very distinct sound.

Don't forget that EQ can be CUT to affect tonal quality, not just boosted. Do you want a deeper bass? Cut everything from 5K on up on the bass track. Cutting the highs keeps all the sound in the lower register without getting too dark or flabby.

Flange or chorus your ride and crash cymbals. Make sure to use a noise gate to eliminate the noise of the chorus or flanger when the cymbals are silent. This way the effect kicks in when the cymbals are struck with a unique wobbly sound.

Put a speaker and mic in your garage, basement, or tiled bathroom. Place them at opposite ends so you pick up the most room sound. Send instrument tracks to the speaker via your mixer send and return system and add real reverb to your mix.

Play those faders. As you begin mixing your music, keep moving the faders up and down slightly. You bring a little extra motion to your mix through this subtle manipulation of levels. Often I'll diddle with EQ and effects sends and returns, too. Nothing major. I'll just make a few minor tweaks live as the mix progresses. With software, you can automate these subtle changes, too.

Vary your tempo. You can be subtle by pushing ahead a few clocks and falling behind occasionally. Or be more intrusive by jumping tempo in greater leaps.

Don't forget about dynamics. I get lots of CDs and the one common thread is dynamics . . . or a lack of any. Get soft. Get loud. Swell. Fade. Mix it up. Subtract some instruments from the mix. Add in everything including the kitchen sink sample. If you don't know what I mean, listen to orchestral music, specifically try Mahler's Adagio to his Tenth symphony. You'll learn what dynamics really are!

Check your mix in mono (use TV speakers). If you use small speakers, check your bass content on full-range systems.

Less is more 
Today's technology makes it very tempting to add layer upon layer. The side effect is your song or production gets rather dense and cluttered. Sometimes you must step back, reevaluate, and strip it down. Heed the advice of award-winning recording and mixing engineer Ed Cherney (Stones, Clapton, and Raitt): "Listen to what's there, see where the song is, [and] eliminate things to find the heart of the song. Nobody dances to what kind of gear you used."

A clear mind creates stronger music. Also, take time away. A mix made after ten hours of tracking rarely sounds good to rested ears. Tired ears = bad mix. So, make sure you take a break. And then return to your mix with fresh ears.

Mastering A final mix is NOT a master
Use mastering hardware or software to add the final sweetening to the stereo mix. However, don't over process too much. Mastering Programs make it way too easy to push the sonic integrity of a piece. Often a little low end whump and high end sizzle coupled to some light compression to raise the overall level coupled to peak limiting to prevent digital distortion is all you need. Use your favorite CDs as a reference when mixing and mastering. Alternately, hire a professional mastering engineer who brings experience and fresh ears to your project.

Keep a notebook of your tricks and tips and compile a handy bag of tricks that brings your music alive.

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