When it comes to beginning a mix, there are two schools of thought: those who start a mix from the bottom up, and there are those who begin with vocals first. Although top engineers like Chris Lord Alge have advised against the latter, there are definitely compelling reasons for young engineers and producers to start mixing top down.
A well balanced mix is built around the vocals. But many amateur producers who mix their own tracks are, understandably, heavily invested in the elements of their track that they owned. The result is that many amateur mixes fall into being bottom heavy. Engineers spend so much effort–and sonic space–making rhythm elements sound great and full, that when they start mixing the vocals, there’s no room for it. That forces an engineer to either make the vocal sound small and unintelligible or loud and harsh.
4 Tips for Vocal-First Mixing
- Don’t do it in isolation
When first starting on a mix, don’t mix the vocal in isolation. Instead, pull up an accompanying harmonic instrument (such as a guitar or piano) so that you’re not mixing in a bubble.
- Get your vocal level right
Invest in a good level meter (we recommend, brainworx’s bx_meter) and get your vocals to the loudness you want at an acceptable level. This leaves headroom for other instruments to come in without overpowering the vocal.
- Don’t be afraid to add effects
Don’t be afraid of getting the vocal to sound the way you envision it in the mix. Feel free to add effects to put the vocals in a space and then fill up the same space with the rest of the other instruments later. There’s no hard and fast rules here, but starting with a polished vocal gives a mix direction and focus for young engineers who are just beginning to learn the craft.
- Check your mixes
Vocals may sound great on your headphones and studio speakers but not on your laptop or handphone speakers. Be sure tocheck your mixes at different volumes and on different mediums to make sure that the integrity of the vocal is consistent.