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How to Balance Vocals

When balancing vocals, we're trying to find the right level of the vocal when compared to other instruments or the instrumental in full. This can be done by changing its volume; however, it's best to affect the frequencies, dynamics, and spatial characteristics of a vocal when balancing it.

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1. Making the Vocal Stick Out with EQ

Let’s spend the first 2 chapters talking about how to bring a vocal forward, or move it back in the mix, by using EQ

With an EQ, we can bring our vocals forward by increasing the area to which the ear is most sensitive or reducing the area that masks or covers it. So if we amplify 2.5 to 4kHz, we’ll make the vocal cut through and sound more intelligible.

If we reduce 200 to 400Hz, this will have a similar effect by reducing masking.

Let’s take a listen to this.

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2. Making the Vocal Blend In with EQ

Similar to our last chapter, we can use these same frequency ranges to pull the vocal back a bit. If we reduce 2.5 to 4kHz, and/or amplify 200 to 400Hz, we’ll reduce the parts of the vocal we’re most sensitive to, making it sit further back in the mix.

Let’s listen and notice how this pulls the vocal back

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3. Mask Vocal with Instrumental

For these next 2 chapters, let’s look at balancing the vocal by affecting the instrumental.

Similar to chapter 2 in which we used aspects of the vocal to cover up other parts, we can use aspects of the instrumental to cover up the vocal. This time around, let’s boost both 200Hz and 2.5-4kHz on the instrumental to mask the vocal’s most important frequencies.

As you’ve probably gathered, this will bury or cover up the vocal - which is helpful if the 2 are sounding too distinct or separate.

Let’s take a listen to it.

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4. Reduce Masking of the Vocal

For this one, I’m going to use a unique technique in which I dynamically reduce frequencies on the instrumental that would normally cover up the vocal. I’ll place an EQ on the instrumental, create 2 dynamic bands at 200Hz and roughly 2kHz, and then side-chain the vocal.

For these dynamic bands, I’ll set the trigger as my external side-chain or the vocal. As a result, whenever the vocal is sung, the frequencies of the instrumental that would normally mask the vocal are reduced.

Let’s take a listen and notice how the vocals are brought forward.

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5. Bring Vocals Forward with Compression

For the next 4 chapters, let’s consider how dynamics affect balancing your vocal.

Compression is used to reduce dynamics, which seems like it would make the vocal be pulled back; however, with the right settings, we can make the vocal significantly more forward and present. We’ll use a quick attack, quick release, about 5dB of attenuation, and auto-make-up gain.

This will compress the majority of the vocal, but keep the detail, while bringing the level up to where it was originally with the auto-make-up gain.

Let’s take a listen to how the vocal moves forward.

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6. Saturate and Upward Compress for Fullness

Sometimes the vocal doesn’t sound balanced simply because it isn’t full enough - in other words, it’s getting buried by all of the other information in the song. A good remedy for this is to first use saturation to introduce harmonics, then use upward compression.

The harmonics will fill gaps in the spectrum while improving the signal to noise ratio - after this the low-level compressor will amplify from the noise floor up, taking all of the small details and bringing them forward.

The effect is similar to bringing the vocal forward with compression-like in our last chapter but has a unique timbre.

Let’s take a listen to it and notice the vocal being moved forward.

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7. Expand and EQ for Dynamics

If you’re having the opposite problem as our last chapter, and your vocal is so dense that you can’t get it to blend in with the mix, there are some tricks to increase its dynamic range. First, reduce its level with clip gain, then insert a dynamic EQ.

With this EQ, expand some of roughly 200Hz to 400Hz to mask the vocals presence, while simultaneously making it more dynamic.

Let’s take a listen to a super dense vocal as we described, and then the expanded version, and notice if the vocal becomes more balanced with the mix.

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8. Dynamic 2.5kHz Saturation

Next, I’m going to use 2.5kHz to make the vocal stick out or to bring it forward - but instead of compression or EQ, I’ll achieve it with modulated saturation. I’m going to use Saturn 2, and create an envelope follower, which I’ll edit for the quickest response.

Then I’ll create a band that isolates 2.5kHz, and the frequencies around it, and attach the follower to the drive dial for this band.

Now whenever this range is present in the vocal, it’ll be very quickly distorted, increasing the transient of the vocal in this area. Subsequently, it’ll cut through a mix.

Let’s listen and notice how this quick distortion amplifies this area and increases vocal presence.

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9. Blend Vocal with Mid-Centric Reverb

For our last 2 chapters, let’s look at how reverb can be used to balance a vocal

The frequencies we reverberate determine if the vocal blends in or stick out - if we focus on the mids, we can glue the vocals to the instrumentation. So let’s reverberate the vocal a moderate amount, and isolate the reflections to the mids while reducing pre-delay to a low amount.

The short pre-delay means transients and consonants of the vocal will be reverberated as well, reducing intelligibility, causing the vocal to blend in.

Let’s listen and notice how the vocal blends

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10. Separate Vocal from Track with Reverb

Sometimes it’s in a mixer’s best interest to separate the vocal from the instrumental, even if it sounds slightly unbalanced. One of the best ways to give the vocal a unique identity is with longer, high amplitude, and high-frequency reverb, with a longer pre-delay to let transients through.

The best way to do this is to set up a send and insert the reverb with the aforementioned settings, then insert a compressor with makeup gain to amplified and bring the reflections forward.

Let’s take a listen to how this separates the vocal by giving it a distinct sound.

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