TCM MASTERING: HOME MUSIC STUDIO PART 40 – MORE MIXING VOCALS TIPS

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 40 More Mixing Vocals Tips

Last week we started our detailed look at the mixing process, kicking off with Vocals. Today I’d like to continue and consider some of the favourite tips and techniques used to enhance vocal tracks in the mix…..we’ll cover splitting out a vocal track for EQing, ‘comping’ or compiling (the same technique can be used on instrumental tracks too), double tracking, automation and more.

How easy your mix comes together and the resultant quality of your mix tracks is dependent on how well the recording session went. Were you or the other musicians sufficiently rehearsed? Was the gear you used good quality and did you use it correctly? How was the overall health/frame of mind of the musicians involved? And incidentally, always be prepared for the vocalist/instrumentalist who wanders into the session and nails it first time. You will not be very popular if a great performance is produced and you weren’t ready to record it.

Lady Gaga Does Like A Nice Cup O’ Tea.

Being a creative exercise, most singers (and musicians in general) perform at their best if they are healthy, happy and hydrated.

If a vocalist has a cold or throat infection they’re obviously not going to perform at their peak. If their performances are met with thoughtless criticism instead of constructive suggestions on how to improve, they will not give their best (and may even walk out). A good mix in their headphones is also essential to inspire them. And especially for vocalists, they need liquid refreshment of the non-alcoholic kind…..water (not chilled) or tea, usually does the trick.

Digirack Plug-In Showing An Example Of Lead Vocal EQ.

Providing you have managed to record a great vocal sound (with a good mic, good placement, a high quality bit rate and sample rate), you can relax and try as many different options on your raw tracks as you wish, to get the result you’re after in your mix.

Splitting Out Vocals

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.

In The Pro Tools Session Above, The Lead Vocal Has Been Split Out Over Several Tracks With Different EQ Settings Applied.

You may need to split out the vocal over several tracks, so that in the mix, you can easily apply different EQ settings to the different tracks, to produce a consistent or cohesive performance (see picture above).

Many singers get tired (which can alter the vocal quality) or bored (which can alter their attitude) when recording a lengthy vocal session. As a result, the best performances are often found in the first few takes.

‘Comping’ Vocals

Ted Carfrae of TCM Mastering and TCM Music Group has worked with some of the greatest singers over the last few decades. ‘Comping’ or compiling is basically choosing the best sections from various takes and putting them together to form a master track for that instrument or vocal. In the video below Ted explains the technique for getting a magical vocal performance, which also makes mixing the vocal a much easier task.

The idea of getting a performance not only works for vocals but for other instruments too. For example, if you record a few good lead guitar or saxophone performances, you can then choose the best parts and compile them together into a master track. Some producers/engineers will ‘comp’ before the mix stage. But as it often entails applying slightly different EQ settings to different sections to produce tonal uniformity, the mix stage is often the best place for it.

Whether you do it before or during the mix stage, doesn’t really matter if you’re working in the digital realm, because it’s very easy to move between the various different stages if you’re working in Pro Tools, Logic or any of the other top programmes that are out there on the market.

The Top Track, ‘Comped’ From The Three Tracks Below It.

When compiling different sections of tracks, listen for tonal and level variations. Where different tracks are joined or edited together make sure notes or breaths aren’t cut off, as timings might be slightly different between two takes of the same section (see picture above).

The ‘comp’ technique tries to use the best of both worlds. Think of some of the great records of the early 1960s…..before the advent of multitracks. Bands had to rehearse and play a song from start to finish. If a mistake was made, the whole band had to perform all over again, and again, until they got a great performance.

Add in modern digital technology, which allows you to compile the best parts of the different takes into one master track, as well as record different instruments to separate tracks (at different times in different locations across the world), then edit them non-destructively…..you have an almost perfect combination.

Double Tracking Vocals

A very popular technique used to fatten the sound of an instrument, is double tracking. It works especially well on vocals if the vocalist is able to sing multiple performances in the same way…..using the same intonation, phrasing, timing and tuning.

Double Tracking Vocals – Singing The Same Lyrics With The Same Phrasing, Timing And Tuning.

The first step is for the vocalist to sing a take, that is good enough to be used in the final mix. Then that take is fed back to the vocalist in headphones (along with any other tracks that aid the singer) and he/she sings another take over the first.

Some singers can match the same phrasing and tuning so that it almost sounds like one voice. Others have great difficulty remembering the detail of what they did, resulting in a messy effect. The trick, is to record the second track as soon as possible after the first. So that the tone and energy are the same and the mic position and ambiance can be matched. Attempting to double track days later will invariably be an uphill struggle.

Double Tracked Vocal – Showing The Lower Of The Two Tracks Needs Editing To Bring It Into Alignment With The Top Track.

However, some singers will still find this difficult. Before you can mix the two tracks together, you may need to edit them to bring the phrasing into alignment (see the picture above). There may be tuning issues with one track against the other, which can be fixed with an Auto-Tune type plug-in. Just don’t overdo the Auto-Tune effect. Apply any tuning fixes to just the syllables, words or phrases which need it. Don’t use it as a blanket treatment for the whole performance.

George Martin & Geoff Emerick (Producer & Engineer For The Beatles) In Abbey Road Studios – The Home Of Many Recording Innovations Including Double Tracking.

Alternatively, there are various plug-ins on the market which produce an automatic double tracking effect, like the TC-Helicon Voice Doubler ADT Processor (see below). Check out this article for more information on Double Tracking.

Using Vocal Energy

A technique used by some producers/engineers is to record a straight version of the lead vocal with lots of energy, then record another that has little or no energy. The second vocal could be whispered or spoken. You could try just accenting certain words or phrases. In the mix, try applying reverb to only the second accented or whispered track, whilst leaving the straight vocal dry.

Using Delays

Using a tight stereo delay can produce an interesting effect. Start out with approximately 30 milliseconds of delay, with the left side slightly different from the right. Raise the levels of the delay until they’re just audible. Try a narrow or wide stereo spread to see which works best.

The Ricky Martin Technique

There’s also the so-called – Ricky Martin technique. Keep the main vocal panned down the centre.

Ricky Martin In The Studio.

Then make 2 copies of the vocal track. Pan one hard left and pitch it down 4 cents, for example. Pan the other hard right, pitching it up 4 cents (whilst keeping the length of both the files the same). Adjust the volumes of the 3 tracks for the desired effect. You can experiment with different amounts of tuning.

Automation

Along with the session file in your DAW (which needs saving regularly), a sophisticated programme will provide automation that will capture everything you do in a mix…..all the fader adjustments, EQ, panning, routings, sends and plug-ins etc. Plug-in adjustments can often be automated and adjusted in real-time too. So for example, the reverb decay time can be lengthened or the EQ change you make on the vocal throughout the mix will be remembered and replayed whenever you listen back to the mix.

Incidentally, some interesting effects can be achieved using real-time EQ adjustments on certain instruments…..try it.

DB Audioware Sidechain Compressor.

In a busy mix, you may want to ‘duck’ the mid-range instruments e.g. overdriven guitars and keyboard pads, under the lead vocals by a few dB. You can do this automatically by using the ducking facility part of a compressor or noise-gate (see picture above). Every time the vocal is present it triggers the ‘ducker’ to reduce the conflicting tracks. Use a fast attack and a slower release time, but use your ears to determine the optimum settings. A fast release might induce noticeable gain-pumping, which may work okay in a rock mix.

As we focus on other instruments in the mix stage, we’ll consider EQ and other processing plus more detail on automation.

Next week, we’ll look at Background Vocals and start to consider production values and the arrangement, then move onto Drums the week after.

If you have a music project that you need help with…..TCM Music Group and TCM Mastering provide full recording, mixing, mastering and production services from their facilities in the UK and Nashville, USA. For more information, click here.

Don’t forget to check out our TCM Mastering Friday blogs in the next few weeks. We’ll be looking at some great Christmas stocking fillers and gifts for the musician.

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