Mix Recipes: Clear and present vocals

Getting your vocals to sit right on top at the front of your mix is desirable for any vocal focused song. Lackluster vocal production is like a glowing neon sign that says, “home studio recording!” This tutorial covers a simple mix recipe for getting your vocals right out there in the front of your mix with clarity and presence.

Step 1: A good foundation

It is fairly common knowledge that “fix it in the mix” does not really work. Still it is worth mentioning that you should strive to get the best vocal recording “on tape” that you possibly can. You don’t need to break the bank on a TLM 67. Something as simple as an SM57 or AT2020 will do and I’ve certainly gotten great results with lesser microphones than even those. So use the cleanest mic you have, make sure your home studio is as low noise as possible, and try to nail a solid performance with feeling.

Step 2: Clarity

Most vocal recordings I’ve dealt with suffer from being too robust in the lower range. This causes the vocals to lose intelligibility as well as causing masking of guitars, bass and other instruments with low frequency information. You first step in combat against muddy lows is to record your track with the low cut filter of your microphone turned on (if it has one). I always do this. My two most used vocal mics have their filters set at 50Hz and 70Hz so they are well below the range of usable vocal frequencies. The only exception I could think of for this rule is if you were recording something like an a capella quartet with a really low bass singer, but even then you might still use the filter.

Some EQ can be applied after the track is recorded to further clean up the bass frequencies and eliminate muddiness and masking. I’m going to use the Free Queue equalizer but I also recommend the excellent Renaissance EQ. I like to use a low shelf if the track was recorded with a microphone’s high pass filter engaged or a high pass filter if the mic didn’t have one or it wasn’t turned on.

Using the Free Queue low shelving band, turn the frequency and gain both all the way down.

Free Queue eq plugin starting eq settings for vocals Free Queue eq frequency response of the low shelf
Figure 1: Starting low shelf eq setting

From Figure 1 you can see the frequency response of the low shelf is affecting frequencies as high as 500Hz. This is due to the gentle, musical slope of the low shelf and the extreme -12dB gain of the shelf. You should already hear a difference in the low end clarity. Start turning the frequency knob to sweep upward. Listen closely to the vocal. What you are listening for is the vocals getting clearer and more transparent and at some point they start to become thin. At this point you have gone too far. Hone the frequency control back and forth until you strike the optimal balance of transparent and thin for your mix. For this particular mix I ended up at about 150Hz for the low shelf. I almost always leave the gain at -12dB when using an EQ for this purpose but feel free to make some adjustments here if it is not right for your mix. Always remember that settings for one mix don’t always work for any other mix.

The low end has been cleaned up a lot and you should already hear your vocals with a lot more clarity and that commercial sounding transparency. The last step is to add some presence.

Step 3: Presence

The word presence tends to conjure up an instant association with EQ when used in audio circles. In this context it is more about the “in your face-ness” of the vocals than what simple EQ can provide. Instead of reaching for that EQ we will use a vocal-centric dynamics processor to bring the vocals right to the front of the mix. You can perform this trick with a standard compressor and a lot of automation followed by an analog warming plugin but if you’re anything like me then you really want something with just one knob that says, “give me more of what I want.” I just don’t like spending lots of time with multiple parameters or getting mired in automation when I’m trying to be creative with a mix. Luckily there are at least two plugins made especially for this task. This mix tutorial will be using the VescoFx Provoker but the Rennaissance Vox plugin is another good choice.

Using Provoker for this task is simple as can be. Turn the big knob until you reach the desired amount of cut, presence, and grit on the vocal track. I tend to settle in the 30-50% range but it will be very dependent on your source material and needs of your mix. Harder edged styles will tend toward the top end of the scale while ballads or softer voices will be near the bottom. I came up with a setting of 40% for the sound samples below.

VescoFx Provoker vocal compressor
Figure 2: Provoker main knob

With no other tweaking the vocal will be your face and right on top of the mix. It cuts through easily with a Provoker style effect. Have a listen and see for yourself.

Case study: Lovin’ Cup

Here is one section of my dry vocal recording with and without backing track.

Dry vocal
The raw performance sounds good with lots of feeling so we aren’t going to sweat the technical detail of the 10dB difference in volume between the first two phrases and the last three. When you listen to the mix you will hear the quiet phrases get buried and the loud ones almost seem to cut in and out. Since the performance is there we’re going to work with this take. Let’s clean up the low end to add some clarity to the vocal.

Vox with EQ
There are only subtle differences in the visual but the sound has changed drastically. Next we add the Provoker.

Provoker Vox
The full mix sounds a lot better now. You can hear the first two phrases just as well as the others and the vocal is not coming in and out at all. Visually, it still looks like there is a big differnece in volume between the phrases, but when measured we can see there is only a 4dB difference between peaks where there used to be a 10dB difference. We don’t really want to go for everything peaking at the same level because the music will start to take on a squashed, lifeless quality. Retention of dynamics is a good thing, even when we reduce them. Remember, reduce, don’t eliminate.

For comparison, listen to the vocal final vocal track without the EQ.

  • Vocal, full mix with EQ bypassed (vocal interferes with bass and kick)

The vocals have a lot of low frequency energy that is stomping on the bass and kick drum when that EQ is bypassed. It would be hard to hear the effect of the low shelf before we applied Provoker but the muffled sound of the vocals without the EQ is quite apparent once the levels are all working out. Working with low shelves (or high pass filters) like this can make a big difference in making your home studio recording sound more like a pro studio recording. You can read a bit more about this technique in this related article.

Plugins

Here are some of my favorite plugins for performing the techniques described in this article.

Waves Musicians 2 Native Software Waves Musicians Bundle 2 price check
This low cost bundle from Waves includes the Renaissance Equalizer and Renaissance Vox processors which can be used together to produce the sound in this tutorial. The Renaissance Compressor and Waves Doubler are two other essential mix plugins in this bundle. If you have been thinking about stepping up to Waves quality then this should be your entry point.
Free Queue VescoFx Free Queue get it
This no frills EQ has been praised for its simplicity and clean operation. The price is also hard to beat!
Provoker VescoFx Provoker price check
The Provoker is a vocal centric dynamics processor which can add analog style grit to your signal. You can go from cat’s meow to lion’s roar with the movement of one giant knob right in the center. Sounds great on drums too!

Your home recording studio is your playground. Have fun!

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23 Responses to “Mix Recipes: Clear and present vocals”

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  1. To better understand the process of recording vocals and for illustrative and tutorial purposes, I’ve divided it into activities in two spaces: what goes on in the studio area and what’s required in the control room.