TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 39 Mixing Vocals Tips & Signal Processing

The last few weeks have served as an introduction to mixing. Over the next several weeks we will examine the mix stage in detail, by considering the most common instruments, setting levels, panning, automation and the uses of EQ, dynamics and effects processing.

Before we start by looking at Vocals, I think it’s important to briefly mention some generic guidelines for the use of signal processors, as these are the tools used most often in the mix process.

We took a first look at signal processing in this blog…..TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Part 24 – Signal Processing. We then went on to consider in some detail, various types of EQ (graphic, parametric), dynamics (compressors/limiters, expanders/gates) and effects (reverb, echo, chorus etc). So feel free to refer back to these earlier blogs for more information.

Pete Townshend, Neil Young, George Martin, Sting, Ted Nugent, Jeff Beck And Many More Musicians Have All Complained Of Suffering Hearing Loss, Which They Put Down To Monitoring At High Volumes For Many Years.

It’s worth bearing in mind that monitoring your mix at high volumes gives you a false sense of balance between instruments, which does not translate very well for the eventual end user or listener. Musicians/Engineers use their ears a lot, and often abuse their ears too by monitoring at volumes that are very loud, for extended periods of time. Most people can hear frequencies between 20 Hz to 20 kHz. So, if you want to preserve your hearing for as long as possible and produce more accurate mixes, monitor your music at sensible levels.

Using Signal Processors

Every mix session is different, but there are some general guidelines for using signal processors, which are useful to consider.

Before you start to use any signal processing in the mix, make sure you have recorded the best possible sound from the vocalist or instrumentalist, by careful positioning of the mic(s) and by using the best equipment you can afford, throughout the entire recording chain. At the risk of repeating myself, your sound is only as good as your weakest link.

Vocalist With Selection Of Mics – Neumann U47, Microtech Gefell M92.1S, AKG C414B ULS, Coles 4038.

The variations in sound you can obtain with a quality mic and different mic placements, are numerous. If you can capture good recorded sounds, there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t end up with a great sounding mix.

Check out some of TCM’s earlier blogs on how to get the best recordings of your instruments…..

Miking Vocals & Instruments, Recording Piano, Recording Electric & Bass Guitar, Recording Acoustic Stringed Instruments, Recording Horns, Recording Woodwind, Recording Drums.

EQ should never be used to ‘save’ a poor recording, unless you have no other choice. Use it to improve an already great sounding track. Sometimes EQ can be used to create a ‘special effect’ sound on an instrument or voice, but try not to over use this approach.

The Digirack 7 Band EQ Includes A Bypass Button For Comparing With & Without EQ.

If you have an On/Off switch for EQ, use it frequently to prove to yourself that the EQ your boosting or cutting is actually improving your sound.

Changing EQ will invariably change the level of a sound. Adding EQ, adds level to a signal. So be careful that you don’t introduce clipping, distortion or more unwanted noise to your signal’s sound. Adding bass can increase hum or buzz levels. Adding top end (treble) can increase unwanted hiss in your tracks.

To improve clarity in your mix, try cutting the bass frequencies of instruments which are not bass instruments.

Many plug-in EQs give you a visual display of the amount of cut or boost you’re applying to a signal. Make sure you listen to your sound with your ears. Try not to be influenced by what your eyes are telling you.

Specialist Outboard Gear Can Often Solve Some Of The More Difficult Mix Problems.

And if you feel that your mixing console’s EQ isn’t good enough or can’t handle the job you’re asking of it, then you may need to consider buying or hiring an outboard piece of gear that is specifically designed for the job.

The use of dynamic processors in the mix can be abused too. Too much compression or expansion can harm your tracks. Over compressing gets rid of the natural variations in level that occur in any performance. Using a badly set up expander or gate, can cut off starts and ends of notes or vocals.

The Over Compressed Pair Of Tracks (Bottom) Give More Headroom Allowing You To Raise The Level, But Get Rid Of Most Of The Dynamics That Are Present In The Top Pair Of Tracks.

So set up your units or plug-ins carefully and listen closely when applying dynamic processing to make sure you’re getting the desired result. Solo tracks that you’re working on, so that you can hear exactly what is happening without other instruments masking the effect.

If there’s one group of signal processors that is prone to abuse more than any other, it’s effects. Too much reverb on too many instruments, chorus, flange, delays…..the list goes on. If you have several tracks of instrumentation, each with their own effects, you can quickly reach the point where it sounds cluttered, clichéd and very amateurish. Moderation is the key.


There are different approaches to the mix process. Some prefer to build from the drums and bass first, then add the other instruments and finish with the lead vocals. Whilst others start off getting the lead vocal or lead guitar/keyboard sound (depending on the song) and build everything else around it. You won’t know which works best for you until you’ve been through the process a few times. And some songs will dictate how and where you start, anyway.

So without further ado, let’s start by looking at EQ for vocals. Just remember that every vocalist (as well as every instrument) is unique, so use the suggestions as guidelines only.

Vocals can be adjusted dramatically with just 2 or 3dB gain or reduction at different frequencies. Adding 10kHz produces a brighter sound. Reducing in the 5-10 kHz (sometimes even as low as 2 kHz) range can help to cut sibilance (the harsh sounds produced from Sss or Ssh). But each vocal is different, so you will need to sweep through the frequencies to find what needs cutting. Boosting at 5 kHz will add presence. To reduce muddiness, cut between 200-250 Hz. Vocals can be warmed up and made more full by adding 150 Hz.

Waves – DeEsser Plug-In.

On the subject of sibilance, be careful not to over-compress a vocal, as this can make the problem worse. Some mix engineers recommend using a de-esser after the compressor, to reduce sibilance.

The lead vocal is the most important element of a song. A common mistake made in the mix stage is to have the vocal too loud or too quiet. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but when you’ve spent days, weeks or months on a music project, it becomes almost impossible to remain objective and sensitive to the various levels of your tracks in the mix.

This is why we have suggested in earlier blogs that taking a break from your music or enlisting the help of others who have a vested interest in the music,  can prove to be so beneficial.

The style of music and your personal preference, will have a lot to do with where the vocals lie in the mix and at what level. Just make sure that you ask someone who is unfamiliar with the lyrics to tell you whether they can be heard and understood.

Aphex Systems 204 Aural Exciter & Optical Big Bottom.

Aphex Systems introduced the original Aural Exciter back in 1975. It can enhance the sound of most instruments, but has been used to great effect on vocals since its introduction. It works by adding low level, dynamically related harmonics to the signal. These harmonics add little or no level to the overall signal, but increase presence and clarity, restore brightness and give greater perceived loudness whilst also improving detail.

Lead vocals are usually panned down the centre of the stereo field. If you want them to sound distant, try adding some reverb. For an upfront effect keep them dry.

The recorded sound of your vocals also effects the way they are interpreted. If you used a close mic technique, they will sound more upfront than if you had your vocalist several feet from the mic, allowing more of the room ambience to be recorded.

So in summary…..go easy on the EQ if your original recording is good. Depending on the desired effect, moderate the use of reverb, delay or other effects on a lead vocal. Judicious use of a compressor, can help to even out the level of a performance with unnatural highs and lows. Just don’t overdo it and compress all the dynamics out of the voice. Too much compression will squeeze the life out of your most important track.

Don’t forget, use the automation if you have it in your system, it will make things so much easier. And SAVE your work at regular intervals.

Next week we’ll continue to examine vocals in the mix and discuss some popular techniques for improving your vocal sound, then move onto drums.

Editor’s Note: We’ve covered a lot of ground in the TCM Mastering Home Music Studio series so far and still have lots more to do. However, there are times when I feel a particular subject needs more space, taking a lot longer to explain than I had initially planned. When this occurs, I continue the theme over two or more weeks, which inevitably results in some blog topics being pushed back to be covered later than expected. We will get there in the end, but in order to make this series interesting (hopefully!) I have to limit the size of each blog to a sensible length.

Thanks for your continued interest. We really appreciate your comments and feedback.

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  1. […] Last week we mentioned a few EQ tips for vocals. But bear in mind, the human voice, unlike most other instruments, can change quite dramatically in its tone over the course of a recording session. So much so that between the first take and the final take, which could be a few hours or even days apart, the vocals could sound like they’re coming from two different people. Different energy levels and inconsistent mic positions are just two factors that will alter the vocal sound. […]

  2. […] we mentioned in TCM Mastering Home Music Studio Part 39 some producers/engineers prefer to start building the mix from the drums and bass, then add in the […]

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