Updated: Feb 3
Hey, is this vocal loud enough?
We’ve all been there at some point - the instrumental track is sounding great, we have a professional vocal sound, the best vocal performance ever, everything’s fallen into place but then we are suddenly struck with this common vocal mixing paranoia... that the vocal is either too loud or too quiet and we can't decide which. At this point, everything goes off the rails and the joy we were feeling goes out the window as we spend the next hour noodling trying to convince ourselves it’s fine playing with eq plugins, compressors and who knows what. I once had an artist make me change the level of the lead vocal in 01.0 dB increments, doing ten passes of a mix in which the vocal changed the amazing amount of ONE db. Needless to say, I don’t tolerate that kind of nonsense anymore, much as I love to please clients, it’s a good example of just HOW paranoid people are about getting the vocal level right. To help you avoid that - here are seven of the best vocal mixing tips I can think of regarding getting the level right.
Listen to more music
You’re not listening to enough music on your studio monitors. Now I don’t mean YOUR music or projects you are mixing, I’m talking about music that is out there, mixed, released, and ideally successful. Spend some downtime hanging out in the studio listening to commercial releases to re-learn how commercial tracks sound and you’ll gain confidence. The goal here is to just know. Now that may sound like some weird woo-woo nonsense to you, but all of this is about getting you to just KNOW when things are right and the vocals sound professional and balanced in the mix.
Listen to the mix from the next room
Get your mix to a point you’re happy, turn the monitors to a medium level, then exit the room, and leave the door open a crack. You’ll hear the mix in mono from the next room, and be very aware of anything that isn’t balanced in your mix - especially the level of your vocal. This is a tried and tested technique, and if I’m having any doubts at all, it’d be my go-to.
It's a worldwide thing
The right vocal level and right vocal sound can be genre and even culture-dependent. By culture-dependent, for example, India and France like the vocal to be what I would consider loud. If I am working on tracks from those countries I can almost guarantee that the vocal needs to be louder than usual. Same with some genres. Ever listened to Country Pop? LOUD vocal. So pay attention to the style of music, and potential changes in trends, and add that to the list of things to just know.
Ask the artist
If you’re mixing for another artist do the first mix, then ask them. Yep, it’s that simple, though sometimes you have to protect the artist from themselves - one of the main things you hear that separates amateur mixes ( especially done by the artist themselves ) is the buried, over-effected vocal. So you may have to rescue them on occasion and steer them onto the right path
Don't stress - compress
Compress that mutha. Pretty often, if you’re losing words it’s just a compression issue, or failing that you may need to go in and do a little editing with clip gain to get things just right BEFORE you compress . Many beginners don’t know their way around decent vocal compression or automate effectively.
Watch the chorus
75% of the time vocal choruses need to go up a teeny bit in volume at that point. Most songs get denser as the chorus kicks in, and if we don’t automate or make some kind of tweak the poor vocal gets pushed back a little more in the mix level than we’d probably like. So - pay extra attention to the Chorus!
Check the master bus
Don’t over-compress your master bus. If the vocal is doing weird things - check how hard you’re hitting it. Super heavy master bus compression can sometimes make the vocal do things you don't expect it to, so be sure to check how much gain reduction is happening on the stereo bus - people often add vocals in last and it pushes things in an unpredictable manner.
Well, that wraps it up! I hope that you will find each of these ideas useful and remember to believe in yourself, and develop confidence. The first tip was maybe the most important - so be sure to invest the time into listening before getting technical. If you enjoyed this maybe check out another article: The Magic Of The First Listen