The key to a hit song ironically isn’t in the music… it’s in the vocal mix. No matter how tight the beat or catchy the hook the average listener is going to identify with the vocalist first and foremost. With the rise of amateur recording many people just slap their vocals over their mix and produce content that would make a karaoke DJ cringe. There are a few simple things you can do to make sure your vocals come out sounding their best.
Don’t settle for one take
The biggest mistake burgeoning producers make is using only one take to cut the vocal track together. If you only have the vocalist for one session it’s important to do several takes (preferably with a break in between) and splice them together once the vocalist is gone. Some producers use their favorite take as a base to build the vocal track on, but one should never stop there. It’s important to have alternate takes to cover audio imperfections such as plosives and over-modulated waveforms.
Clean it up!
While the lyrical content of a song is up to the artist’s discretion, it is inexcusable to leave auditory refuge on the vocal track. This can be anything as small as a bump against the microphone or the sound of breathing. It’s important to completely silence any and all noise between phrases as this will clutter up the mix and make it harder to apply convincing effects to the vocal track. Also, when the singer is not singing the microphone often picks up the sound of the music from the vocalist’s headphones. This can cause incongruity in the sound, especially since most likely the vocal track isn’t being cut over a final mix of the song. You should also be sure to fade words and phrases in and out of the track so the room noise doesn’t startle the listener’s ear.
All in the tune…
Now that you have a clean vocal track that is comprised of the vocalist’s best takes it’s time to make sure it’s not off pitch. Several software companies sell auto-tuning plug-ins. Some of the most popular are Anteres Auto Tune, Yamaha Pitch Finder, and free VST plug-in GSnap. It does take some tinkering to keep the vocals from sounding too mechanical, although some producers have the vocalist perform the song off key and use the auto-tuner to produce an interesting warbling effect.
Put it in the mix
The final step is to put the vocal track in the mix itself. Assuming it’s the main vocal track you should center it between the left and right channels and apply vocal compression and a reverb effect to the track. Feel free to tinker around to create a mood appropriate to the song. For any less-traditional effects such as phasing or distortion it’s a good idea to create two copies of the vocal track positioned directly below the original and apply the effect to the copies. Then simply turn one 50% right and the other 50% left. This will ensure the listener hears the vocals clearly even if they aren’t “in-the-room” natural.
Vocal mixing is an art, and people have many different opinions on what makes a good mix. By following the above guidelines you’ll be sure to have a mix that sounds professional.