How To Mix Vocals by Rob Mills
How To Mix Vocals | Rob Mills’ Blog # 4
A lot of ground was covered in the fourth week of the course. We started by looking at how to mix vocals. Of course, it is far easier to mix vocals when all of your source material is recorded to a high standard, so Al began by talking us through the best way to record vocals as well, demonstrating as he went along. As usual, all bases were covered – from using pop shields to ensuring that the recorded signal is set to a suitable level.
I have personally encountered some truly troublesome phasing issues when mixing backing vocals, so it was good that Al moved on to cover these. We were shown how phasing can introduce both constructive and destructive interference, together with a demonstration of how phasing can render a signal absolutely silent. In addition, Al demonstrated how phasing can damage snare signals, making them lack clarity and punch. The class were shown a goniometer, which is a plug-in that measures phasing within the signals it is fed. I’d never encountered one of these before and will try to track one down, as it is a useful way of confirming your suspicion that particular tracks may be working against one another. Finally, to tie things back to the miking techniques the class had opened with, Al introduced us to a simple rule when setting up stereo mics that should avoid most phasing issues.
As usual, the class were given the chance to put a lot of what we had learnt into practice. We were provided with two imperfect vocal takes and encouraged to ‘comp’ these into a better-sounding performance. Here the chance was taken to use crossfading and ‘strip silence’ commands. Most will probably be familiar with these, but I had never used crossdfading before, as my home DAW isn’t equipped with it. It allows you to get away with some surprisingly abrupt edits without making the process of comping too obvious.
After an animated lunch (again outside in the sun, at the pub), certain members of the class played their own tracks they had brought in. By now, we’d all discussed our own music between ourselves at various points, and it was nice to hear other people’s work. Both the class and Al provided some constructive criticism as well as positive comments, before moving on to more advanced aspects of how to mix vocals.
Having looked at a number of things to consider pre-mix, the first thing we looked at from the post-mix perspective was autotuning. Regardless of how people feel about this, it is technology that is taken for granted today, and a tool mix engineers are expected to be able to make use of, Al explained. Personally, I have always tried to avoid autotuning, and can’t get over the fact that it is ‘cheating’ somehow. That said, I have used it sparingly for creative purposes before, so was interested in this section. Al demonstrated briefly how to use the Antares Autotune and the Celemony Melodyne. Although I knew of it, I’d never heard the Melodyne in use, and was impressed by how subtle it could be and its flexibility. As if it wasn’t long enough already, my mental wishlist now contains another item.
The next part of the how to mix vocals class covered the ‘best’ way of getting a vocal to sit in a mix via serial compression and automation. We were also shown how automation can be used to manually de-ess a vocal, as well as how best to use a de-esser plug-in, with the chance to apply these ideas to the tracks we were mixing. EQ’ing vocals and backing vocals was also covered.
Al then showed an array of techniques to get creative effects. Too much was covered to go into here, but it included parallel distortion and the use of a resonant filters, ring modulators and frequency shifters. Al has always claimed to be a dab hand with Ableton Live and the speed at which he can manipulate sounds in this programme was amply demonstrated when he covered sampling, and how multiband compressors can be used to provide a greater range of manipulation over a sampled loop.
As I said at the start – a lot was covered. And this is a good thing, considering how much the class has learnt so far. I know from now on that I will try and automate my de-essing, and I will definitely keep a keener ear out for phasing issues throughout the entire recording process. However, what I mostly took away from this class was a mild sense of relief. I’ve been working on some ‘big’ tunes, with a large number of tracks, and my snare had kept getting lost in the mix. Over time, I had come to ‘bulk’ out the sound of my snare with samples of other snares mixed underneath, but had always felt I had been ‘cheating’ or doing something wrong. It was gratifying to find out during the section on sampling that a number of mix engineers (and big-name producers) employ the same technique to create a larger-than-life snare that can compete within the context of a modern mix. Plus, the shorthand way Al showed us of syncing these samples to the original beat should save me hours and hours. For that alone I am grateful.
Sadly, it was out last week with Al as our instructor, and his excellent teaching received a deserved round of applause from the class. But I am looking forward to next week, when the class will be in a full-blown studio with a Neve 8078 being taught how a track get mixed out of the box. It should be very interesting, bearing in mind all that Al has taught us…