Mixing Vocals with Instrumentals

#

A mix is the final presentation of a production in an audio file. Just about anyone with some entry-level gear can make a mix, but not many people can make a great mix. A great mix is one that brings a great song to its fullest potential through its production.

We’ve brought together best practices and interesting mixing techniques into a single guide that will help you combine vocals with an instrumental and deliver that elusive great mix.

Mixing vocals with an existing instrumental can be a tough art, especially if you don’t have the stems to work with. Still, the foundations of a great mix apply to both of these situations. We’ve included a dedicated section to help make your mix gel effectively when you’re mixing vocals with an already-mixed track.

Great Mixes

One of the traits of a great mixer is the ability to focus on the small details that make a track pop without losing sight of the big picture. Before we move into any of those mixing details, it helps to understand the bigger goal of your mix.

The definition we started off with emphasized that a great mix starts with a great song. Ultimately, your mix is built on this foundation, and it’s worth putting extra time into ensuring the song itself is as good as possible before you ever step into the studio.

In fact, this reaches through all of mixing. Mixes are built in layers, where each layer depends on the quality of the previous one. It all starts with the song itself, and then the performance, the recording, and only then the mix. Like with the song, it’s worth investing extra time into the performance and recording.

By the time you’re mixing the vocal and the track, though, you’re past this stage. You’re already in the mixing chair, staring at a bunch of tracks loaded up on the screen, and you’ve got to deliver the best mix you can with what you’ve got. Keep these thoughts in mind as you start:

  • The overall feel of the track matters more than any single part — including the vocal. Never spend too much time working on an individual part without listening to it in the context of the mix.
  • Most of mixing is actually arrangement. Mixing is about placing sounds in space and helping them gel together. It’s your responsibility to choose what the most interesting elements of the track are and focus the listener’s attention on them. And it’s OK to adjust the arrangement to help the track, even if that means removing a part, cutting its level, or panning it off to the side.
  • Just as a mix relies on the song, performance, and recording, the parts _within _ the mix build in similar layers. It’s worth starting your mix with its foundation: the rhythm, in the bass and drums. Then, move on to the harmony, in synths, guitars, or piano. Only then finish with the centerpiece of the track: the vocal.

With the big picture in mind, it’s time to start mixing the instrumental itself.

Mixing Vocals With Raw Instrumentals

The first common scenario when mixing vocals with instrumentals is when you either recorded or have been provided with a set of raw tracks. These are usually called “stems” and they allow you full control over the mix. In turn, that ensures you can adjust the track however you need to emphasize the vocal performance.

Side Note

If you have the chance to record vocals as well as mix them, you’ll find our in-depth guide to mixing rap vocals useful. It has a detailed set of tips about recording vocals.

If you only have a pre-mixed instrumental that you’re mixing vocals with, you’ll still find value in this section, but the most actionable tips are up next.

Working with stems allows you to make arrangement decisions and control each part of the mix. This matters because mixing is an illusion — it’s about space. Your primary goal in structuring your mix around a vocal is simply to make space for that voice.

  • The height of your mix is determined by frequencies. Low-frequency instruments like kick drums and bass sit at the bottom of your mix and are its foundation. Synths, snares, guitars, and vocals (among others) fill up the midrange. Hi-hats and cymbals take up the high end. The core problem of mixing comes in the overlap between instruments, where one sound is masking another. With all those instruments in the midrange, how can you possibly get a clear sound? Fortunately, we’ve got several other dimensions we can use to make space.
  • Reverbs, delays, and volume primarily affect how close or far away something sounds. The more sustained and heavy the effect, the more distant the sound.
  • Panning delivers your width, left to right. Don’t be afraid to use the entire soundscape. There’s even a common style of mixing called LCR mixing (left, center, right) that refers to panning everything hard left or right or keeping it directly center for maximum effect.
  • Songs unfold over time, which gives you a fourth dimension. You can manipulate how dense, loud, or effected sections of the song are to keep the mix interesting. This is most often used to ratchet up the intensity of the chorus.

Combine these two ideas of mixing in space with the arrangement, and you can see how mixing the instrumental itself comes down painting on this 3D canvas. When your instruments clash with one another, you need to create space for them — and you can do it by panning an instrument out into an un-used direction, like hard left; or you could push it further away with a reverb; or you could move it higher or lower by cutting the lows or highs, thus creating more room for a similarly-toned instrument. Thinking of the mix in space helps ensure you can find the right home for each part of the arrangement. And when you need the chorus to hit hard, you can rely on making it denser and louder to bring things home.

Now that your mix has room for all the parts, it’s time to actually mix some of them! The rhythm and the vocal tend to be of utmost importance in modern instrumentals, so I’m focusing on just those two here.

Drums

  • Most RnB, hip hop, and electronic music is built with drums from samples and loops, so usually there’s not much to do with the arrangement besides a little EQ to focus the frequencies how you want, perhaps some panning for the hi hats, maybe adjust the pitch of the kick to tune it to the track, and move on.

Bass

  • Most bass outside rock music these days are synths. The greatest sonic competition for the bass is usually the kick drum. It’s worth taking time to listen to just these two together in isolation (if you can). Both of these need to be centered so most of the time one instrument needs to take precedence and be the stronger of the two. Usually that’s the kick. You also should try to push the bass lower than the kick, or higher than the kick, so there’s some height separation. For example, focus the bass around 120Hz but keep the kick low and subby at 60-80Hz. Or flip that — have a punchy, high kick and a subby bass.
  • If your bass sounds weak, try beefing it up by layering a low-frequency sine wave every time a note plays. Or, consider layering a heavily-distorted copy with all the high end rolled off underneath the bass track.
  • Side-chain compression is a compression technique in which a compressor active on one track is actually listening to another one. For example, your bass compressor clamps down on the bass every time your kick drum hits. This is a nice way to have the bass loud when the kick is inactive, but dip it on every impact so the kick sounds even stronger than it really is. Mixing is an illusion!

The next section is about working with pre-mixed instrumentals, but even if you’re building your mix from scratch you’ll find useful tips on making the overall mix sing. 

Mixing Vocals With Finished Instrumentals

If you’re mixing vocals with an instrumental that’s already mixed, you’re left without many options. If you can possibly get the stems for the instrumental, you should. If that fails, you’re mostly at the mercy of the existing track.

Even so, the same advice from the previous section applies. Your primary goal in this case will be to make space for the vocal and match that vocal with the overall vibe of the track.

  • If there isn’t much space for the vocal, you can create some with EQ. Use a graphic EQ to see where the dominant frequencies of the vocal are, and then lightly cut the mix at those frequencies so the vocal can settle into the new space.
  • You can also use the same side-chain compression trick from the last section to create space. Lightly compress the entire mix — in dense sections, not the whole way through — using the vocal as the source. To make the effect subtler, try using multi-band compression to only compress the frequencies around the vocal.

However, it’s not only about making space. It’s important that the mix gels . The listener needs to feel like they’re listening to a performance, not 2 separate ones from different studios.

Whether you mixed the instrumental or you’re working with a pre-made one, there are a few ways to make an overall mix sing:

  • By far the best way to make a mix feel all together instead of separate takes is with a high-quality stereo bus compressor. This can be analog, of course, but there are good software variants, too (Steven Slate’s Virtual Bus Compressor is a prime example).
  • Another use is to put a tape emulator across the master bus, thus blending a little tape hiss and warmth into the entire mix. This lends a nice analog quality to the mix, but more importantly it makes the entire track sound like it’s coming from the same source.
  • It’s risky, but if you have an especially dry mix you can try adding a light reverb across the entire mix bus. Most of the time, this will just muddy things up — usually you’ll put reverb only on a few tracks grouped together — but it’s worth a shot.

 Mixing The Vocals

We didn’t forget about the vocals! If you’ve done the legwork so far, you now have a mix that’s powerful but still has space for the vocal. This dramatically simplifies your mixing job for the most vital instrument. All you have to worry about is making the vocal sit well in the track from start to finish.

Before You Mix: Recording Vocals

Vocals are often the only live, in-focus part of a modern track. To build a great mix, then, you need a great recording of a great performance. The performance is up to the performer, but you should at least ensure you’re working with a high-quality recording.

We’ve written an in-depth guide to mixing rap vocals that includes a useful section on recording. Use those tips to put together your mix.

Best Practices

In most modern songs, the vocal _is _ the song. It carries the melody and the words. And for that reason it deserves its primary place as the anchor of the song.

That said, the vocal exists in the context of the track, and usually the best results come from mixing the foundation of the track first, and then adding in the vocal and working on it within that context. Don’t mix the vocal in isolation!

Any time you start mixing a vocal, consider these best practices:

  • In 99.9% of cases, vocals should be dead-center in the mix. This should be a common sense rule, but alas, it’s not always followed. Occasionally, if your track features a back-and-forth, light panning can help add separation.
  • Try to go easy on the vocal effects. In many modern tracks, the vocal is the only full human performance in the track, and it’s where the listener connects — unless the point is to turn the vocal into essentially a synthesizer (like a Diplo track), keep it simple.
  • Compression is great to even out the dynamic range, but it can kill the emotion of the vocal. If compression isn’t getting you the right results, go old-school — use the fader. Most DAWs will let you record automation, so you can listen through the track riding the fader up or down to control dynamics. Or, if the problem is only in a few sections, feel free to pencil it in.
  • Be gentle with the EQ on vocals. If you have a great recording, you shouldn’t have to do much. Cut before you boost. One of the first things to cut in most vocals is the low end — most of it will be masked in the mix and get in the way of other parts. You can usually cut everything below around 100hz. Listen to the vocal in the mix and run the cut up until you notice any change in the vocal, and then back it off.
  • Err on the side of manually removing problems with your vocal rather than apply a band-aid across the whole track. Also keep in mind that “problems” like breath noise, sibilance, papers rustling, and so on can be vital on some tracks. Removing noise completely (especially the breath) can make a vocal sound artificial, choppy, and over-processed.
  • That said, if your vocal has a lot of sibilance, you can try selectively cutting high frequencies, but you’ll usually get the best effect with a dedicated de-esser.
  • The easiest way to get rid of breath noise is to use a gate. There are de-breathing plug-ins, but results vary. Set reasonably slow attack and release times to ensure you don’t clip any parts of the actual vocal.

Vocal Mixing Tips & Tricks

When your instrumental is mixed and you’ve applied our best practices to the vocal, things should be sounding close to finished. But if the vocal still feels like it’s missing something, consider trying a few of these tricks:

  • Just like our example with the bass, you can use layering to change the timbre of a vocal. Beef up a thin vocal by layering a low synth playing the exact same notes (or use a side-chain to trigger the sound), or a distorted copy of the vocal with the high-end rolled off. Make a vocal sound shimmery and polished by having the singer re-do the performance entirely in a whisper and layer that on top. Or thicken the vocal by actually layering more takes — since these will be lower in the mix, try going for a more aggressive performance.
  • Try duplicating your vocal and running it 2 or 4 beats later than the main vocal. Listen for points where the delayed vocal fills a space, and mark it down. You can then chop the vocal to fill the gaps where it sounds great.

For more vocal mixing tips, check out our article on mixing rap vocals.

Related Posts

Leave a comment