The Philosophy of Vocal Production

A great mix always has a great vocal sound. Period.

In this blogpost, I’m not going to talk about how we can process our vocals and stuff like that because there are numerous articles out there for such production advice. Instead, I’m going to talk about some vocal philosophies that I hold when it comes to mixing and recording vocals. I hope you find them useful.

Mix vocals first

I know there are many opinions on this and we all have our own way of working a mix but let me offer my two cents. Like most engineers, I start working my mix from the bottom up. This meant starting with the rhythm section such as drums and bass, then working my way up to lesser important instruments. Once the music was well balanced and to a place where I like, I will then move on to work on the vocals. More often than not, I found myself having difficulty placing the vocals in the mix as now I have to carve out a space for the most important instrument of the song from a already solid music bed.

I got tired of facing that problem and decided to start mixing vocals first. Here’s how I do it:

  1. Setup your session to your liking and pull up the lead vocal track together with the main harmonic rhythm instrument. This can be a guitar, piano or whatsoever so that you are not mixing the vocals by itself.
  2. Do all the processing you want on the vocal including EQ, Comps, Effects.
  3. Get the vocal to the loudness that you want.
  4. Now slowly mix in the different instruments and work the balance and mix around the vocal.

I have had many successful mixes using this approach because at the end of the day, the vocal is what makes the song. Take a stab at it if you’re game!


Clean up the vocals

Although you shouldn’t be cleaning up vocals during the mixing stage, it is something worth making sure gets done. It all goes back to the idea of the vocal being the most important element in the mix. With all the heavy compression and EQ going into vocals these days, the quiet parts of your vocal track are more audible. This means, the likelihood of you hearing lip smacks, bad edits, saliva noises are higher.

Cleaning up your vocals also mean making sure that backing vocals all end together and start together. Making slight timing changes to your vocal tracks can help your vocal sit much better in the mix. So before you start mixing, take an hour or so to thoroughly clean up your vocal tracks. You will not regret it.


Keep your vocals neutral when recording

As a recording engineer, I am mindful that I’m handing off my recorded files to another mix engineer to mix. With that in mind, if I wasn’t given any specific reference to follow, I will usually record the vocals in as neutral a tone as possible. This means that the vocal is not crazily sculpted but at a point where there is enough frequency information that a mix engineer can use. Here’s some steps that can help you achieve a vocal-neutral tone:

  1. Choose a microphone and pre-amp combination that compliments the vocalist.
  2. A neutral tone should consist of a decent amount of low, low-mids, mids, and highs.
  3. If a vocal is lacking in certain frequencies, use an EQ straight to tape to rectify the problem.
  4. Do not over-hype the vocal with EQ.

Of course if you are also mixing the song later on, you do not have to record it this way but go for what you’re trying to achieve in the mix right at the recording stage. But if you are unsure of your direction, it is always best to keep the vocals neutral. You rather have something to work with than nothing.


Monitor your vocals through a crappy speaker

Everyone knows that we should monitor our mixes using crappy speakers to check the integrity of our mix. But, a technique I always use when recording vocals is to monitor vocals through a crappy speaker throughout the session. The philosophy is simple – if you can hear the singer’s emotion, expression and diction through a crappy speaker, it is definitely going to sound great on better monitoring systems. Producing vocals is another blogpost altogether but, if you have a cheap mono-speaker lying around, put it to good use and use it to monitor vocals while tracking. It forces you to produce a better vocal performance.

April 1, 2016

Reuben Raman Product Marketing Manager at Splice