As most of you know, I’m currently mixing my album. As I was telling one of the members of Mix With Us, I learn something new every time I mix a song…and I imagine that will always be the case.

Mixing is such a wild task. It’s exciting, tedious, invigorating, and depressing…all at the same time. But there’s nothing like those final stages of a mix, when everything is finally coming together.

One of the biggest hurdles you’ll run into is the lead vocal. Your goal is to have an awesome lead vocal that sits just right in the mix. However, this proves to be more difficult than it seems.

Sometimes the vocal track has too much low end. Sometimes it’s too harsh or thin. Sometimes it disappears in the mix. Other times it’s overpowering the mix. Be patient. Give it time. If you smack the vocal around enough, it’ll behave. 🙂

As I’ve been wrestling with my own lead vocal tracks, I’ve come up with a couple tips I’d like to share with you.

1. Use a Low Shelf

I talk a lot about getting rid of excess low end by using a high-pass filter. Sometimes, though, this can be too drastic of an effect, especially on something so prominent in the mix like a lead vocal.

If you’re having a hard time finding a good balance between too boomy and too thin, try using a low shelf instead of a HPF.

Turn the low shelf down by 6 dB or so, then roll it up from 100 Hz as high as you want, until the vocal stops being boomy but still retains its fullness. I just mixed a song today, and I think I did a 9 dB cut with a low shelf at 300 Hz on the lead vocal. Sounds extreme, I know, but it sounded right. Had I tried a HPF at 300 Hz, it would’ve sounded WAY too thin.

2. Ease Up the Compression

Compressing a vocal is a great way to tighten it up and help it sit in a mix. However, it’s really easy (especially if you’re new to mixing) to over-compress the lead vocal.

Remember, if you remove all dynamic range from an instrument, be it a lead vocal or a guitar, you lose some of its musicality. Too much compression can kill the life of a vocal.

If you’re having a hard time getting the vocal to sound right, try dialing back the compression a bit…or perhaps don’t use any compression at all.

3. Use a De-Esser

You’ll run into this scenario quite a bit. You’ve dialed in the perfect lead vocal sound. It’s EQ’d perfectly, with just the right amount of compression, then….SSSSSSssss…The vocalist sings a word like “Mississippi,” and the S’s chop your ears off.

That’s a byproduct of compression. It tends to increase the volume of the sibilance of a vocal. The solution? A de-esser.

A de-esser is simply a compressor that only compresses a specific frequency range. It’s decided to compress (i.e. turn down) the sibilant frequencies of a vocal track without affecting the tone of the rest of the track. If dialed in correctly, the de-esser will turn down those S’s in Mississippi…and your ears will thank you.

(Be careful, though. If you overdo de-essing, the vocalist will sound like he/she has a lisp.)

4. Turn the Vocal Down

Sometimes the simplest solution is the one we don’t think about. It’s really easy to make the lead vocal TOO loud in the mix.

It’s understandable, you’ve crafted this exquisite lead vocal sound. You want the world to hear it, right? Right. But turn it down. The vocal should sit in the mix, not on top of the mix.

Hope these tips help you out next time you’re mixing a lead vocal. What do you think? Share your tips/comments below.

6 Responses to “4 Tips for Mixing an Unruly Lead Vocal”

  1. Luca R

    Add also some reverb which make vocals less in-you-face.. When I mix, I make groups for each instrument (bass,gtr, vocals, drums), I get the right sound for each one, and than I adjust more easily the level using the groups.. with this method I can always make vocals sit in the mix.. One mix engineer one day told me to export 2 tracks, one for vocals and one with the other instruments.. then import in your DAW and use some compression (SSL compressor glue a lot)! I’ve never tried this method!

  2. Randy Coppinger

    Once you have everything recorded, it may be too late for any of my suggestions. But for what it’s worth…

    I think the mix starts as soon as you start recording. So if the vocal doesn’t sit in the mix when you’re tracking it, it’s going to be really difficult to mix. I find that choosing the right mic and mic placement is VERY important. If you get that right, problems with EQ, compression and especially sibilance will be minimal. I like to audition at least 3 mics for a vocalist and pick the one that works best in the track. I also HIGHLY recommend tracking with a good analog rolloff (most mics have one built in!) in front of an analog compressor before you ever hit the AD converter. A rolloff also GREATLY reduces p-popping. A singer with good mic technique can make your job so easy recording and mixing. And if you ride the fader BEFORE the AD converter, especially pulling up the ends of phrases where we humans naturally lower volume, what you present to your AD converter (and ears) is a much more fully formed and present sounding sounding signal.

    Someone used a great metaphor for compression… It’s like painting a wall: several layers tend to work better than one thick application. So compress a little on the way in, compress the track a little, compress a vocal buss a little, etc. And parallel compression works really well for mixing vocals.

    Another great recording trick for dynamic singers / passages it to put up two mics: one up hot for the quiet parts and another 10dB or more down for the loud parts. Cut back and forth as makes sense, then mix that comp edit.

    Thanks and happy mixing.

  3. @iamjosephkim

    Thx, very helpful since I’m laying down the vocal on one of my tracks right now; however, I’m doing all of these things but wish for you to go little more on “sitting on the track” detail. I like the way I EQ’ed and compressed, but still it sounds like it’s not sitting on the mix well. I lower it and it too far back. Are there, possibly, other tips on sitting the vox?

    As always, love your blog. Thanks again!


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