How To Mix Music (Part 6): Mixing Vocals & Sound Effects

How To Mix Music (Part 6): Mixing Vocals & Sound Effects

Have you ever realized this? It sometimes seems ridiculous for music-fanatics like us, but to the average listener the single most important element of music… is the vocal. Always! If you are working on a mix that includes a vocal, it is therefore very important you get it right.

In this episode I explain you step by step how to mix vocals and make sure they sound great every single time. Also, I will show you how you can mix your sound effects so that they don’t mess up your mixing space (which they quickly do!).

How To Mix Music is our essential guide to becoming a music mixing professional. With this series I help explain and teach music mixing to you – musicians, producers, and aspiring mixing engineers.

I share our years of experience and insight on music production, mixing and mastering. Covering the necessary preparations, tools, underlying physics and insider tips and tricks to achieve the perfect mix and master.

The first episode covers setting yourself up to become a great engineer. We discussed monitoring, DAWs and plugins, composition, and stem preparing.

The second episode covers organizing your mixer, setting up your signal flow, and understanding the essential plugins (EQ, compressor, reverb, and delay).

The third episode covers how to improve your stereo image and make your mix sound wider. Also, we covered how to use the essential plugins to mix kicks and snares, the backbone of a song.

The fourth episode covers how to mix drums and how to mix bass. We covered how to mix bass sounds, claps, percussions, toms, crashes and hi hats.

The fifth episode covers mixing instruments and synths. We covered how to mix saw synths, lead synths, pluck synths, atmospheric synths, pianos, guitars, strings and horns.

We start this episode with some simple steps how to mix vocals. We go over stereo placement, equalizing, compression and de-essing.

After that, I share my best mixing techniques for mixing the three main sound effects: white noise, risers and impacts.

Excited to share this with you. Hope you are too.

Ready? Let’s go!

BTW, If you’re rather looking for quick fixes for your vocals, consider grabbing my free cheat sheet. In this cheat sheet I outline easy step-by-step solutions to the most common problems for mixing vocals:

How To Mix Vocals

Before we go into the fine details, a quick reminder that for the best mixing results you can use the following workflow for every element in the mix:

  1. First, place the element (vocal) in the stereo field
  2. Then, cut out unnecessary frequencies with an equalizer
  3. Then, if applicable, enhance with a compressor
  4. Then, if necessary, boost frequencies with an equalizer
  5. Then, if necessary, send to reverb bus or other effect bus.

Read Part 2: Signal Flow & Plugins if you want to learn more about this.

Place your vocals in your mixing space

Like I said before, vocals are the most important element of the song.

Sidenote: >>> Seriously, for music nerds like us it is almost ungraspable how important vocals are to the average listener. Where we hear a killer snare or a great bassline, the vast majority of listeners just hears “the singer” and perhaps a “fun melody”.

That is not to say that making a good production, mix and master does not matter. All listeners will still recognise if it sounds good or bad. If you aim to receive reactions like “This sounds so good”, “This song massages my ears”, “This part sounds so beautiful”, “This song just lifts you up” and so on, the mixing and mastering of your song need to be on point! <<<

Since vocals are most often the most important element of the song it is best to place the lead vocal in the center of the mixing space.

Backing vocals often sound great when panned on the sides of the mixing space.

A classic vocal setup is a lead vocal in the center, one backing vocal on the left side and another backing vocal on the right side, like here:

Heroic Audio: How To Mix Vocals & Sound Effects - Mixing Framework

Heroic Audio: How To Mix Vocals & Sound Effects – Mixing Framework

If you are still unfamiliar with this image, make sure to grab my Mixing Framework here for free:

By using two different recordings of the backing vocal and place them on either side of the mixing space, you create a difference between left and right. This creates a very nice stereo sound for your vocals.

This is one of the most common setups, you can’t go wrong with this.

If you are looking for a more creative approach, try experimenting with different stereo placements of the vocals. Just make sure that the vocals have enough room to be clearly audible in the mix.

Cut out unnecessary frequencies with an EQ

After placing the vocal in the stereo field, it is important to remove any unnecessary frequencies to ensure a clean mix.

As vocals are an important element of the song, they need their full frequency spectrum. However, you can set a HPF (high-pass filter, also known as low-cut filter) to remove unnecessary low frequency rumble.

Cheatsheet: Quickly solve the most common sound problems of
your vocals.

You can set the HPF right at the base frequencies of the vocal. This is often somewhere between 100Hz and 300Hz, depending on the vocal. Female vocals often start at a higher frequency than male vocals.

How To Mix Vocals - EQ (Cut)

How To Mix Vocals – EQ (Cut)

How to compress vocals smoothly

Vocals sound best when compressed delicately. If we would compress vocals too hard, they will sound squashed. It would sound like the singer is having difficulty breathing.

Use a soft knee and a ratio of around 1,5:1. Both the attack and the release time can be mid-long, about 30 to 130 milliseconds.

We often compress vocals by 1 or 2dB. However, instead of applying this compression at once with one compressor, we will do this in two steps, with two compressors, one after another.

How To Mix Vocals - Serial Compression

How To Mix Vocals – Serial Compression

This technique is called serial compression and can be used to delicately compress fragile sounds (like vocals), while still achieving the same gain reduction.

Here is how it works.

Say we want to compress a vocal by 2 decibel. We add a compressor, set its attack, release, ratio, a soft knee and bring the threshold down until the sound is compressed by 1dB. Then we bring the make-up gain (or output gain) to +1dB.

When this is set, we add a second compressor and follow the exact same steps.

Both compressors apply 1dB gain reduction, resulting in a total of 2dB gain reduction.

How To Mix Vocals - Serial Compression 2

How To Mix Vocals – Serial Compression 2

By applying this compression in two less aggressive steps, you can compress vocals much smoother than if you would apply the same gain reduction at once with a single compressor.

Try it, you’ll love it.

Enhance with an equalizer

Only boost if necessary. However, in many cases unprocessed vocals can use more clarity and a boost in the higher frequencies.

You can boost vocals around 150Hz for a fuller and rounder sound. Boost slightly at around 4kHz to bring the vocal a bit forward in the mix. Boost vocals at around 8kHz to 14kHz to enhance the brightness.

How To Mix Vocals - EQ (Boost)

How To Mix Vocals – EQ (Boost)

A great way to get the vocals to sound right is to compare them to a reference track of your choice that contains vocals the way you want yours to sound like.

De-essing: 3 solutions for loud “s” sounds

A problem that can occur when mixing vocals, especially when boosting high frequencies, is that the “s” sound of the vocal gets too sharp. Here are three solid suggestions on how you can solve this problem.

1. Slightly cut the annoying frequency away with an equalizer. This frequency is often somewhere around 8kHz.

How To Mix Vocals - De-Essing EQ

How To Mix Vocals – De-Essing EQ

2. The problem with the first option is that you will also be filtering out the same frequency for the rest of the vocal. This could cause it to loose its brightness.

To solve this, you could use a dynamic equalizer instead. With a dynamic equalizer you can cut or boost based upon a threshold and an attack and release – very much like a compressor.

Dynamic EQ

A dynamic equalizer is an equalizer that can alter frequencies based upon their volume.

Similar to a regular EQ, it has a high shelf, low shelf, bell, notch filter, and an adjustable Q knob.

However, a dynamic EQ reacts based upon volume threshold, attack and release – similar to a compressor. It also has an ”inverse” button.

The threshold determines how loud a sound has to be to be cut or boosted. By adjusting the attack you determine the time it takes before the equalizer starts cutting or boosting after detecting volume peaks above the threshold. The release determines the time it takes before the equalizer stops cutting or boosting after the peak of a loud sound, when the volume is below the threshold again.

Cheatsheet: Quickly solve the most common sound problems of
your vocals.

The inverse button allows you to switch between two modes. With inverse off, the volume of the set frequencies will be decreased when the signal goes over the threshold.

With inverse on, the volume of the set frequencies will be increased when the signal goes over the threshold.

This allows you to alter frequencies in 4 different ways:

Inverse Off & Cut

The more the volume goes over the threshold, the more is cut from this frequency group.

How To Mix Vocals & Sound Effects - Dynamic EQ 1

How To Mix Vocals & Sound Effects – Dynamic EQ 1

Inverse Off & Boost

The more the volume goes over the threshold, the less is boosted from this frequency group.

How To Mix Vocals & Sound Effects - Dynamic EQ 2

How To Mix Vocals & Sound Effects – Dynamic EQ 2

Inverse On & Cut

The more the volume goes over the threshold, the less is cut from this frequency group.

How To Mix Vocals & Sound Effects - Dynamic EQ 3

How To Mix Vocals & Sound Effects – Dynamic EQ 3

Inverse Off & Boost

The more the volume goes over the threshold, the more is boosted from this frequency group.

How To Mix Vocals & Sound Effects - Dynamic EQ 4

How To Mix Vocals & Sound Effects – Dynamic EQ 4

It is likely that the “s” sounds of the vocal are the loudest moments of those frequencies. This means that you can set a threshold that way that only when the “s” sound appears those frequencies get slightly filtered.

3. The most accurate, but most time consuming method is to automate the volume of the vocal. Bring the volume down slightly every time the “s” sound occurs.

You can do this best by automating the output gain or volume gain of one of the plugins used on the vocal, such as the equalizer. This way you can still move the channel fader later on without it being stuck to the automation.

How To Mix Music - De-Essing Automation

How To Mix Music – De-Essing Automation

Reverb for vocals

Vocals often sound great with the main reverb. You can also choose to try out more creative reverbs specifically for your vocals. This is up to your preference.

Mixing Sound Effects

We qualify anything that is not a drum, synth, instrument or vocal to be a sound effect. Therefore, there is an infinite amount of different kinds of sound effects.

Though, there are a three that are used in almost every song: white noise, risers, and impacts. Here I will explain how to make these types of sound effects sound great in your mix.

How To Mix White Noise

Place the white noise in the stereo field

White noise is often used to create impact in the high frequencies. It sound great on the sides of the mixing space.

Cut out unnecessary frequencies with an equalizer

White noise can use the full frequency spectrum. However, it is most often only used for it’s high frequencies.

Depending on the song you can set a high-pass filter somewhere between 800Hz an 2kHz, to get rid of all unnecessary lower frequencies. Doing this will prevent the white noise from making your mix sound muddy or too busy in the mid frequencies.

Compressing your white noise?

White noise generally does not need compression.

However, if you want to enhance the initial impact of the white noise sound, you can set the attack time of the compressor right after the attack time of the white noise. This that is often somewhere between 20 milliseconds and 40 milliseconds.

Experiment with the release time of the compressor to listen what sounds best for the song. We often compress by 3dB with a ratio between 3:1 to 4:1.

Enhance with an equalizer

In some occasions you can boost frequencies around 10kHz to enhance the brightness of the white noise.

White noise and reverb

Wait until the end of the mixing stage to evaluate whether your white noise needs reverb. For a cleaner sound, do not use reverb. For a more spacious sound, you can use a little of the main reverb.

How To Mix Risers

Place your risers in the stereo field

If they do not have too many low frequencies – say frequencies below 350Hz – risers can sound great anywhere in the mixing space. If they do have low frequencies, it is best to place them in the center of your mix.

Cut out unnecessary frequencies with an EQ

Risers often use a big part of the frequency spectrum. Often the lower frequencies are unnecessary for the song. Set a high-pass filter right before the first important frequency.

Some risers can get quite sharp in the high frequencies, set a low-pass filter at around 17kHz to define its highest frequency.

Reverb and risers

For a clean sound, do not use reverb on your risers. If the song allows however, risers can sound great with the main reverb. It can create a grand sense of spaciousness.

How To Mix Impacts

Place your impacts in the stereo field

Impacts often have an impact in the low frequencies. Therefore, it most often sounds best to place impacts in the center of the mixing space.
Cheatsheet: Quickly solve the most common sound problems of
your vocals.
Unfortunately, impacts are often quite messy in their stereo image, you can control their stereo image by using a multiband stereo imager.

In this example I use the iZotope Ozone 6 Stereo Imager. I make sure all frequencies below 100Hz are completely centered (mono), and frequencies between 100Hz and 500Hz are not too much on the sides. This prevents the mix from sounding muddy.

Cut out unnecessary frequencies with an EQ

Impacts often have an impact in the bass sounds, but also some rumble in the sub-low frequencies. To maintain the impact of the bass sound, but cut out the rumble of the sub frequencies, set a high-pass filter at around 50Hz.

Depending on the sound of the impact you can set the low-pass filter at the highest frequency that you see fit to the song. When you set a low-pass filter on a lower frequency, the impact will appear to sound from a further distance.

You can often clean up unnecessary loud rumbling sounds of the impacts by cutting frequencies between 200Hz to 500Hz.

Enhance the punch with a compressor

With a compressor you can enhance the punch of the impact by setting the attack time of the compressor right after the attack time of the impact, this is often somewhere between 20 milliseconds and 50 milliseconds.

To create a dynamic separation between the initial punch of the impact and the tail rumble after it, set a short release time between 50 milliseconds and 70 milliseconds.

If you prefer the impact to be more glued together as a whole, set a long release time of around 200 milliseconds to 300 milliseconds.

We often compress impacts by 2dB to 4 dB, with a ratio of 3:1 to 4:1 with a hard knee.

Shape the sound with an equalizer

With some impacts you can enhance the bass by boosting around 50Hz.

If you want to make the impact have a clearer sound you can slightly boost the frequencies between 500Hz and 1kHz.

How To Mix Vocals & Sound Effects: Impacts EQ (Boost)

Impacts and reverb

Impacts often already have an atmospheric feature. Therefore, they rarely need reverb.

If the mix allows however, you can use a little of the main reverb to glue it slightly together with the main space. Be careful though, as this can quickly clutter your reverb.

That concludes this episode of our How To Mix Music series. You can comment and ask any questions below.

If you haven’t yet, make sure to grab my free cheat sheet on fixing the most common mixing issues with vocals:

The plugins I used for the examples in this articles are: Fabfilter Pro Q, Fabfilter Pro C, iZotope Ozone 6 Dynamic EQ and iZotope Ozone 6 Imager.

Next episode we continue with mixing reverbs and delays, side-chaining, and mixing the whole song. The final pieces of the puzzle how to create good sounding mixes and how to glue all elements of your song together in a clean and bright mix – exciting stuff!

Thanks again for reading the articles, for sharing the message, and all the kind emails I keep receiving. Everything is much appreciated and I am very happy these articles are useful to you guys.

Keep learning, and stay motivated to improve your sound.

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