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How to Mix Vocals in Ableton

When mixing vocals in Ableton, start with EQ and then compress with a quick attack and makeup gain to bring the vocal forward. With the dynamics controlled, introduce temporal processing like a chorus effect, various reverbs, and delays, before finishing the chain with slight compression and EQ.

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Gating to Reduce Noise

For this video let’s create a complex vocal chain using only stock plugins. Also, we’ll do some demonstrations of the effects, starting more aggressive and then being dialed back to how I’d personally mix it.

For this vocal in particular, and in a lot of home recordings, there will be noise picked up in the background or from the electronics used. I’ll use a gate with a low threshold, quick attack, moderate release, some lookahead, and a high-pass internal side chain to attenuate it.

The noise was so quiet that a demonstration really isn’t needed, so let’s move on to the next insert.

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EQ Eight to Balance Vocal

Next, I’ll use 7 bands in total to cut out all frequencies below the fundamental with a high-pass, accent the fundamental and 2nd ordered harmonic with bells, dip some nasal tones, boost vocal presence around 3.5kHz, and boost air but balance sibilance with a shelf and bell respectively.

Let’s listen and notice how the vocal is clearer and more present.

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Compressor for Vocal Presence

Next, I’ll a compressor with peak detection to bring the vocal forward significantly. With a 5.5:1 ratio, the quickest attack possible, a release of 17.5ms, a hard knee, and 1ms of lookahead, the vocal is attenuated by about 3dB, as makeup gain retains the originally level.

As you’ll hear in a moment, by compressing the entirety of the vocal then bringing the signal back up, the vocal greatly moves forward. Let’s take a listen.

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Glue Compressor for Cohesion

Now that the vocal is forward, I’m going to smooth out the dynamics a little more with the glue compressor. I’ll use a quicker attack, 4:1 ratio, and automatic release similar to an optical compression - then I’ll attenuate by a few dB, and makeup this change.

Let’s listen to how this compressor creates a full, slightly soft sound.

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Dynamic Tube Saturation

Tube saturation will introduce harmonic distortion to fill the sound, slightly emphasize the initial transient, and add a little warmth by emphasizing the 2nd order harmonic. I’ll increase the drive until I find what works best for the vocal, then blend the effect in with the Dry/Wet dial.

Let’s listen to the effect.

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Chorus-Ensemble for Thickness

The chorus-ensemble plugin is going to duplicate the vocal cause mild timing modulations to these duplicates. I’ll select the ensemble option, ensure the lowest frequencies aren’t included, add a little warmth, and blend in the effect until I can no longer immediately tell it's there.

Let’s listen and notice how it makes the vocal thicker when used at low settings.

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Spectral Resonator to Fill Vocal

This is a unique plugin that’ll create multiple vocals and then tune them to a specific note. First, I’ll find a note that is in key with the vocal performance, I’ll adjust the number of voices, and then I’ll reduce the wet/dry until, like the chorus effect, it’s just barely noticeable.

Let’s listen to understand what this plugin does, and then how it sounds blended in.

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Short, Mid Frequency Reverb

A short reverb is going to thicken and fill out the vocal - this is especially true if those reflections are focused on the mids. I’ll reduce the room size, reduce the decay time, and then isolate the reflections to my mids and high mids while using high-quality processing.

With a shorter pre-delay, we’ll capture a good amount of the vocal, and the maxed-out density will help fill the vocal. Let’s listen to the effect.

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Stylized Convolution Reverb

Next, we’ll use the Hybrid Reverb to create a longer, more stylized effect on the vocals. I used a Hall impulse response, 50ms of pre-delay to let the transients pass unaffected, made the bass frequencies mono, and then blended in the effect to preference.

In the EQ section, I cut out the lowest frequencies and boosted presence and air.

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Quick Mid-Side Echo

A quick delay, after our stylized reverb, is going to duplicate the reflections, making that reverb more realistic and impressive. I’ll set my reflection time to a short one, isolate the reflections to the mids, enable mid/side reflections, and add some subtle modulation, before blending in the effect.

Let’s take a listen and pay attention to what this plugin does to the last reverb’s reflections.

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RMS Compressor for Reverb Detail

I’m going to use one more compressor, but this time make it RMS to capture quicker parts of the vocal, mainly the temporal processing that we just introduced. With the internal sidechain, I’ll isolate the detection to the mids, use a soft knee, and achieve a few dB of attenuation.

I’ll again use auto-make-up gain to return the signal to its original level.

Let’s listen and notice how this pushes the reverb and other temporal effects forward.

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EQ Eight for Final Shaping

Last up, I’m going to insert one more EQ to finalize the frequency balance of my vocal. I’ll keep this EQ simple and reduce the lows some of the temporal processing added, boost a little of the fundamental, add a little presence and a little more air.

Let’s listen to how this EQ finalizes the signal, and then let’s listen to a full AB of the vocal signal chain.

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