A great mix without a great vocal sound, is no great mix at all. Maybe you think the key to great vocals is a better channel strip plugin or a secret compression technique. Ironically getting killer vocals starts not with gear or technique, but rather a simple philosophy.
Via Rick Harris Flickr
No One Hears Anything In Solo
If you’ve listened to any major rock mixes in the past 20 years you’ve likely heard a Chris Lord-Alge mix. The guy is a monster mixer who always seems to get the punchiest mixes with in your face vocals and drums and I’m a huge fan of his work. Recently on the every insightful Pensado’s Place, Chris said something that is critical for us as mixers to understand if we want great sounding vocals.
No [listener] ever hears anything in solo. Period. So the only way to get a great vocal sound is when it’s competing with everything else in the mix. – Chris Lord-Alge, Mixer (Foo Fighters, Green Day, Dave Matthews Band, Switchfoot)
It’s so simple that it might not be obvious at first. What CLA is saying is that we have to think like a listener. The end “user” of your mix (your audience) will never, ever hear your vocal soloed, by itself. They will hear it sandwiched between the rest of your tracks. This begs the question: Why spend anytime at all mixing your vocal in solo?
Don’t Start With Your Vocal
By way of preface, there are no hard and fast rules in the art of mixing. That being said, it seems that the first thing you could do to improve your vocal sound is to stop mixing it first. If you fire open a mix and start tweaking the vocal in solo (because it’s easier to do that), then when you bring in the rest of the instruments your EQ and compression moves might just fall apart in context.
Mixing is hard enough as it is, let alone if you spend time on something only for it to not work in reality. This is a big reason why I prefer to mix vocals last. It’s the best way I’ve found to help them sit “on top” of the mix in the prominent position they deserve. If you at least have the majority of your band mixed before you bring in the vocal, then you’ll know that whatever vocal treatment you are doing, will sound good in context of the mix.
Don’t Be Tempted To EQ In Solo
It is so natural to want to solo a track in question when administring surgical EQ moves. Why? Because we’re having a hard time hearing things for crying out loud! But ironically that is the point. If it’s hard to hear what the EQ is doing to your vocal in context with the rest of the mix, you’ll be forced to listen harder and EQ smarter.
To get better mixes and grow as a mixer, you’ll need to fight with all that you have that urge to hit the solo button. It’s generally a fruitless endeavor. Learn to train your ears to hear things in context. If it’s not making a difference to your ears then you likely don’t need to use that plugin. You will hate working this way, but it’s the smartest thing you could do.
Have The Big Picture In Mind
My final thought regarding CLA’s point about no one hearing anything in solo is that it’s a mindset that would serve us well if we applied it to all aspects of the mixing process. In essence CLA is saying, “Think like a listener hearing the entire mix as a whole.” Think big picture. We spend so much time and energy zooming in on the smallest details of our mixes that we can miss the forrest for the trees as the analogy goes.
Don’t lose sight of the big picture. Try to think of our mix as a whole, and not as tiny parts. You’ll get farther, faster.