Here’s a little bit of mixing advice for you: no matter how awesome your mix is, if the lead vocal doesn’t shine through and sit beautifully from start to finish, you don’t have a good mix.
This is something that I’ve had to learn the hard way over the years.
The good news? There are many techniques at your disposal to help, including one that doesn’t even require compression.
Today my buddy Rob Mayzes of Musician on a Mission shares a super practical and powerful technique to getting upfront, and consistent vocals.
Rob is a super talented and humble guy. Not only does he have a great knowledge of real world audio strategy, he’s a great teacher. Listen to his approach to vocal mixing – it’s different than mine, but it makes total sense – and then go check out his site for all kinds of awesome free content.
Take it away Rob!
For years I used compression alone to control the dynamics of vocals.
In most cases, I felt that the vocals were consistent enough to sit on top of the mix.
But I knew there was something missing. The vocals I produced never quite sounded like the songs I heard on the radio. I spent hours comparing my mixes to my favourite records, focusing on the dynamics of the vocals. That’s when I discovered something…
Crazy levels of consistency are required for vocals that sound modern and radio-ready. Every single word needs to be clear, audible and loud.
Suddenly, compression felt inadequate. When I tried to create the same level of consistency with compression, the vocals sounded over-compressed and lifeless.
That’s when I started exploring other ways to control the dynamics of the vocal…
The Most Important Element of Your Song
Imagine if there was one element of your mix that could make or break your song.
If you knew what that element was, you would focus the majority of your time there, right?
Let me tell you – that element exists, and it’s the vocals.
Get the vocals right, and the whole mix will improve. When your vocals sound professional, the mix becomes more musical, emotional and accessible.
But vocals are hard to mix.
The human voice is incredibly dynamic, and a singer can go from a whisper to a shout in seconds. That’s exactly why I stopped entirely relying on compression and started looking for better ways to tame the vocals.
The Little-Known Automation Trick For Killer Vocals
I quickly discovered that most engineers use detailed volume fader automation to manually smooth out the vocal.
Volume fader automation is great, but on vocals there is one small problem… this type of automation comes at the end of the signal chain, AFTER the compressor and other plugins.
This means it’s still possible to over-compress the vocals, or at least struggle with fine-tuning the compressor. The threshold will never be quite right, because the level coming into the compressor will be all over the place.
I continued searching and experimenting, until one day I stumbled upon a much better solution that immediately improved my vocal mixes. It all started with a simple thought…
What if I automated the level of the vocal before the compressor?
Think about that for a second.
In this case, the compressor wouldn’t have to work as hard to control the dynamics, so the vocal would sound more natural and musical.
Additionally, adjusting the settings on the compressor would be much easier.
You can easily achieve this by automating the gain at the beginning of the channel and BEFORE your plugins.
This works better than automating the volume fader to tame the vocal, which is at the end of the channel and AFTER your plugins.
To help you visualize this, here’s the standard signal flow for a channel in your DAW:
Gain > Plugins/Inserts (top to bottom) > Pre-Fader Sends > Volume Fader > Post-Fader Sends > Output
By automating the gain at the beginning of the mix you’re also going for the big wins early on. The vocal will sound great as soon as you bring it into the mix, which will increase your confidence and ultimately lead to a better mix.
Plus, automating the gain will allow the vocal to consistently sit around that -18dBFS sweet spot.
How to Automate Gain in Your DAW
So, there are several benefits to pre-plugin gain automation, but how do you do it?
If you use Pro Tools, there is a great function called ‘clip gain’. One technique is to cut the vocal into individual clips and manually adjust the gain of each section.
Another technique is to use the ‘clip gain line’ to draw in your automation. Right click on the clip and go to ‘Clip Gain’ and ‘Show Clip Gain Line’.
Depending on how consistent you want the vocal to be and how much time you have, you could apply clip gain automation by the section, phrase, word… or even syllable.
If you aren’t a Pro Tools user, most DAWs will allow you to cut the vocal into sections and adjust the gain of those individual parts. Alternatively, you could add a gain plugin at the beginning of your chain and automate that.
There are many ways to automate gain and you will find a method that you prefer. Regardless, the end result is the same.
No Technique is Perfect
Discovering this technique made a significant improvement to my mixes. I have been using gain automation on the majority of lead vocal parts for years now.
But there are times when this technique is not appropriate.
Heavy processing isn’t needed for softer and rawer genres, such as jazz, acoustic, and alternative rock. It’s often important to maintain the original dynamics of the performance when mixing these genres, so detailed automation isn’t appropriate.
Also bear in mind that you will probably need to use compression to add even more dynamic control after applying gain automation, especially if you want your vocals to sound modern (I recommend using stacked compression for this).
You might also need to use volume automation to match the volume of the vocal with the dynamics of the song. For example, after leveling out the dynamics with gain automation, you might need to bring the loudness of the vocal down for a quiet verse or middle 8.
Alternatively, you could avoid applying gain automation to the quieter sections of a song so that the dynamics remain intact.
Most of the time I combine gain automation with a small amount of volume automation. I use gain automation to smooth out the levels and control the dynamics, then I ride the volume fader to add character and enhance emotion by increasing certain syllables, words or breaths.
Perhaps the biggest issue with this gain automation technique is that it can take quite some time when applied to individual words or phrases of a vocal.
This conflicts with the fast approach to mixing. You run the risk of getting bored of the song and doubting your decisions.
Take regular breaks to help prevent this and practice applying gain automation with speed and precision.
How Do YOU Like to Mix?
This is my first time posting on The Recording Revolution (thanks again for having me Graham), so I’d like to interact with as many of you as possible and get to know you all.
As this technique requires more time than using compression alone, I’d love to know…
Are you a fast mixer, or a slow mixer?
Perhaps you think automation like this is an essential part of mixing vocals.
Or maybe you prefer to use compression to quickly control the dynamics, and don’t feel that you need your vocals to be too consistent.
I’m extremely excited to be here and will respond to every comment. Let’s chat.
To get started, leave a comment below starting with “I’m a fast/slow mixer because…”
Rob Mayzes is an audio professional, musician and educator who has helped thousands of home studio owners produce better music and mixes through his website Musician on a Mission.