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How to Sit Vocals in a Mix

Getting a vocal to sit in a mix has a lot to do with amplifying or attenuating 2-5kHz to make the vocal stick out or pull back respectively. Compression and a compressor’s attack and release times are also big components in having a vocal sit in the mix.

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Using EQ to Place Vocal

A vocal can be brought forward or pushed back in a mix by utilizing equalization and masking - for example, if I amplify 2-5kHz on a vocal the vocal will stick out. If I reduce this range or amplify frequencies that mask it (roughly 250Hz) the vocal will sit back.

You can use this concept for any instrument you want to bring forward or have sat back. If you want the signal to sit back in the mix, but it doesn’t have the lows needed to mask it, amplify this range on another instrument or the full mix.

Let’s take a listen to these ranges being affected on a vocal, and notice how it moves forward and back in the mix.

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Compression Timing and Vocal Placement

The attack and release of a compressor determine where the vocal sits in a mix - with a quick attack, release, and corresponding makeup gain, the vocal moves forward in the mix. With a moderate attack and slow release, the vocal moves back and has its timbre smoothed in the process.

If we time the compressor’s release to the tracks BPM and don’t enable any automatic makeup gain, the vocal’s amplitude coincides with the mix’s timing, making it sit back.

Let’s take a listen to quick compression that brings the vocal forward, and BPM synced slow compression that makes the vocal sit back.

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Using Reverb to Pull Vocal Back

I’ve said this before, but reverb that’s isolated to a vocals mids helps it blend - but let’s also consider how 2-5kHz can play a role. When I reverberate the vocal, if I increase the decay time and reverb’s EQ within 2-5kHz, it lessens the range’s impact.

That said, if I decrease the reverb on these frequencies, either by reducing the decay or the reverb’s EQ, the range retains its impact or transient response.

Let’s listen to reverb that makes the vocal sit back, and reverb that helps the vocal come forward.

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SC Resonance Reduction on Vocal

Resonances are bands of frequencies that are amplified too aggressively to sound balanced, but since they vary with each note change, they’re hard to pinpoint and attenuate. With Soothe 2, I’ll reduce these dynamically to balance the vocal, but also, side-chain the mix and use it as a trigger.

This means that any resonances that are aggressive on the mix, will attenuate those frequencies on the vocal - causing overall spectral balance and helping the vocal sit back into the mix.

If I want the vocal to be brought forward, I’d just need to reverse the process by inserting the processor on the mix, and sidechaining the vocal.

Let’s take a listen to this effect on the vocal, and with the mix side-chained.

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SC Intelligent EQ Balance

Intelligent EQs work in a similar way to Soothe 2 in that they dynamically alter the frequency response to match a pre-determined ratio of frequencies. Let’s do the same thing we did the last chapter but with the Gullfoss EQ to make more generalized changes instead of pinpointing resonances.

Let’s listen to this effect on the vocal with the mix side-chained, but notice this processor amplifies the vocal as well , meaning it’ll move forward and back depending on the incoming signal.

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MB SC Compression on Mix

In chapter one I mentioned how the frequency response can be used to bring a vocal forward or back, then in chapter 2, we discussed compression timing’s effect on vocal placement. So let’s combine these 2 concepts and use multi-band compression to expand and compress specific frequencies.

To make the vocal stick out, I’ll expand 2-5kHz and compress 250Hz, using quick settings on the high band and slower settings on the lows. To bring the vocal back, I’ll do the opposite by compressing the highs slowly, and expanding the lows quickly.

Let’s take a listen to both settings to get a better understanding.

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Vocal Melody Matching with Pad

This is more of a production trick, but its usefulness or lack thereof is usually discovered when mixing. In short, if you want to blend the vocal into the surrounding instrumentation create a pad that matches the vocal’s melody, ensure the timings match, and blend it in.

So long as the pad’s attack is quick enough, it’ll sound like the vocals melody is occupying more time - similar to how reverb softens and blends a vocal.

Let’s take a listen.

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Small Room Emulation and PreDelay

Most of our vocals are going to be pretty dry, since we’re recording them at home more often than not, and trying to minimize reflections. Although the convenience of this is great, pleasant room reflections give the vocal a space to occupy and help it sit in the mix.

I like to use room emulation for this - usually with a shorter setting. Additionally, I’ll affect the pre-delay to determine how much I want to the vocal to sit back. A shorter pre-delay causes transients to be reverberated, resulting in a subdued sound, and a longer one does the opposite.

Let’s listen to a vocal with and without room emulation, and then reduce the pre-delay to 0ms to hear its effect.

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Time-Specific De-essing

Sibilance makes your vocal stick out, but not it a good or enjoyable way. Unfortunately, most microphones are sensitive to them, causing distortion when they occur, which only makes them sound more aggressive - so let’s de-ess to ensure the vocal sounds balanced and fits in the mix.

We can use a regular de-esser, but let’s use a multiband compressor, isolate the band to the sibilance, and compress. Additionally, we’ll time the release to the BPM, and use a quick attack and some lookahead to capture the transient.

Let’s take a listen to how these settings balance the vocal and help it sit in the mix.

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Filling Vocal with Layered Harmonics

Vocals can get lost in a mix if their frequencies are reserved for only a few sections - in other words, if we fill out the frequency spectrum, we can get a more powerful and upfront vocal. Each saturation type introduces a specific formation of harmonics.

Meaning if we use multiple instances of varying saturation, we can combine these harmonics and get a truly full and impressive vocal sound. Let’s try this and observe how it affects the vocal.

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Separating Vocals with Saturation

Let’s combine the concepts from the last chapter and chapter 1, and saturate the frequencies that help the vocal cut through a mix. So I’ll isolate 2-5kHz, and saturate it to cause this frequency range to be filled out, increasing it’s amplitude, and pushing the vocal forward.

If we were to saturate the lows around 250Hz instead, we’d mask these highs, making the vocal sit back.

Let’s take a listen.

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