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How to Mix an Instrumental & Vocal

When mixing an instrumental and vocal you’ll typically process the vocal how you normally would in a mix; however, it may be helpful to learn how to blend or how to separate your two signals. Side-chain compression, side-chain saturation, and dynamic EQ are some great options.

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Side-chain Compress Instrumental

For this video, I don’t want to focus on how to just process the vocals, since this would be more or less the same as creating a vocal chain in a regular mix session.

Instead, I want to look at ways I can either separate or blend the vocal and instrumental given the limited control I have with just these 2 tracks.

For this first trick let’s get the vocal to sit on top of the instrumental using side-chained compression - I’ll insert a compressor on the instrumental, and then side-chain the vocal, making the vocal the compressor’s trigger. If possible, I’ll isolate the triggering to just the mids and highs.

Then I’ll compress the instrumental by about .5 to 1dB. Let’s listen to the effect but with more aggressive settings so it’s a little easier to hear.

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Side-chain Saturate Vocal

Next, I want to cause saturation to the vocal whenever an instrumental has a transient - this will help the vocal through. To do this I’ll need to use Saturn 2, side-chain the instrumental, and create an envelope follower, before switching it to transient mode.

Then I’ll click the side-chain icon to ensure it’s triggered by the side chain and link the follower to my drive dial. To make this effect even better I’ll isolate the saturation to my vocal’s presence frequencies.

Let’s take a listen and notice how the vocal cuts through more.

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Send Both to Ambient Reverb

If the vocal and instrumental sound like they were recorded in different spaces or just don’t match, try sending both to an ambient room reverb. I’ll create sends from both the vocal and instrumental and on the aux track insert a room reverb that I like the sound of.

Then I’ll blend the effect in with the aux track’s channel fader.

Let’s take a listen and notice how they feel more cohesive.

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Boost 3.5kHz on Vocal

The easiest way to get your vocal to stick out or not be buried by the instrumental is to amplify 3.5kHz on the vocal, and dip a little of this frequency on the instrumental. You could also do the opposite if you want the vocal to sit back in the mix.

Doing this by only a couple of dB is best, but let’s use slightly more aggressive settings so it’s easier to hear.

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Dynamic EQ on Vocal

With a dynamic EQ, I can do something similar to what I did in the last chapter, but this time, create a dynamic band that responds to the side-chained signal. Similar to the follower used in chapter 2, this will cause dynamic amplification to my vocal’s presence based on the instrumental.

Let’s listen with a few dB of expansion whenever the instrumental is present, and again, you can do the opposite if you want the vocal to sit back.

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Use Side-chained Gullfoss EQ

For this chapter let’s use the Gullfoss EQ on both the vocal and instrumental. I’ll side-chain the instrumental on the EQ inserted on the vocal, and side-chain the vocal on the EQ that’s inserted on the instrumental - this way they create space for each other.

Let’s listen and notice how both signals now have room in the mix.

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Use side-chained Soothe 2

Soothe 2 will reduce unwanted resonances causing whatever signal it affects to be balanced. That said, if we place it on the vocal and side-chain the instrumental it’ll become balanced based on what resonances are too aggressive on the instrumental.

This is a great way to have the vocal sit into the mix.

Let’s take a listen.

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Separate with Saturation

If we use 2 different types of saturation, one on the vocal and one on the instrumental, we’ll impart unique harmonics on each - in turn varying the frequency content of each. This helps to create space for the vocal and instrumental - however, we can use uniform saturation to blend.

Let’s take a listen to varying saturation and notice how the 2 separate.

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De-ess Vocal, Boost Instrumental Highs

Sibilance helps the vocals stick out, but not in the best way - that said, I’d recommend using a de-esser to attenuate this on the vocal, but then replacing these frequencies on the instrumental. This way the overall mix stays spectrally balanced, but doesn’t sound harsh.

A couple of dB of attenuation on the vocal and 1dB added to the instrumental with an EQ will work well. Let’s take a listen.

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Boost Instrument Side, Vocal Mids

Affecting the stereo image is another good way we can create space for our 2 signals - on the instrumental I’ll boost 300Hz and 8kHz and above on the side image - in turn widening it. On the vocal, I’ll boost its fundamental and 3.5kHz on the mid image making it focused.

Let’s listen and notice how some of the instrumental gets pushed to the side while the vocal has a more prominent place in the center of the mix.

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Transient Expansion and Suppression

This trick is a little less common but let’s try it nonetheless. With a transient expansion and suppressor, I’ll expand the transients on the instrumental-only slightly - then I’ll suppress these same frequency bands on the vocal - this will work almost like a dynamic EQ but on a larger scale.

Let’s take a listen and notice how the vocal sits back in the mix a little, whereas the instrumental moves forward whenever a transient occurs.

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