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Imagine a band you’re working with came in to record with you and their singer absolutely nailed the vocals for the band’s next track. Before they can drop it, though, it needs to be mixed, and you need to do it.
So how loud should vocals be in a mix?
There isn’t one answer to how loud vocals should be in a mix, but producers of every genre could take a lesson from hip-hop. For ultra-present and punchy vocals, mix your vocals lower than the kick drum and bass line, but higher than the rest of the instruments.
The fact is, though, the level at which you mix your vocals will depend on everything from the genre of the song to the performance itself and the creative decisions of the band.
With that said, there are some universal tricks that can give you a good foundation when it comes time to make the right decisions for your mix.
Let’s look at how to get exactly the right vocal mix, starting with the beginning of the process.
What dB Should Vocals Be Recorded At?
Before you can worry about mixing anything, it needs to be recorded. For now, let’s assume you’re involved in the process from the start, so you can get a good recording to begin with.
Later on, we’ll look at some things you can try if that isn’t the case, but you’ll always get the best results if you start with a good vocal track.
There are a lot of people who will insist you should record vocals at -18 dB, and there are some compelling reasons to use that as a starting point.
If you’re using a digital recorder with 24-bit resolution, that would generally put the very lowest volume parts around -24 dB and the loudest at around -10 dB.
That leaves you a lot of headroom to increase volume without distorting but also making sure people can hear all of the vocal track.
In the end, though, the exact dB level you choose for recording the individual tracks doesn’t matter as much as having a clear sound with a lot of clean headroom. That makes the -18 dB idea solid advice, but not something you should obey at all costs.
Headroom is important in case you need to increase the volume of the vocals during the mix, but having a clear sound is essential so the vocals will be intelligible even if the volume is lowered.
How Should You Record Vocals?
One of the best ways to get the right balance and levels for your mix is to spend the time to get your levels right when you have the band record the scratch track.
You’ll probably end up replacing all the performances with individual tracks recorded later, but balancing things with the entire band performing has some advantages.
First, you get a better sense of how the band intends the track to sound. And more importantly, you can balance your levels, so when you record individual tracks you know at what level to record them so the mix can have the right balance.
What dB Should You Mix Your Vocals At?
Just like with the recording, you want to start with something that gives you the ability to both increase and decrease loudness as needed.
And just like with recording, -18 dB is probably a good place to start, since, again, assuming you’re using a 24-bit system, it will make sure you have plenty of room to increase the volume without clipping or distortion.
There are a few things that can change how you might want to mix the vocals.
The genre of the mixed music will probably have one of the greatest influences on vocal loudness in a mix.
In many current pop songs, you will notice that vocals will often sit right at the front of the mix, with great focus on the clarity of the lyrics.
When you have a song with intentionally catchy lyrics, you want them to be heard loud and clear, and pop songs will play on this. It is usually quite simple to figure out their lyrics by ear, as they lay unobstructed right in the middle of the mix.
One example would be Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse.” The drums and rhythmic chant heard throughout the song do not encroach on the vocals here. Even during the build up to the chorus as the accompanying audio tracks ramp up, Katy’s voice is doubled to widen the stereo field, keeping her at the front of the mix.
We’ll talk more about how stereo can affect your mix below.
Another example is Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” The backing track is not complex, so his vocals stand out. You can see some examples (like many Elvis tracks) where slapback delay is added to create more depth to vocals.
We’ll also look at how effects can be used a bit more later.
And as I mentioned in the very beginning, if you want to make your vocals stand out, the hip-hop driven convention of mixing the vocals higher than everything other than the kick drum and the bass is worth trying out.
Singer and Emotions
When you’re not listening to mainstream pop songs, there are some artists who produce and mix their own music, allowing them to have control over the whole process from start to finish and present their true representation of their song at the time.
One great example of this would be Tame Impala’s album Lonerism. Kevin Parker has stated in interviews that he decided to bury his vocals into the mixes to hide them, matching his shy personality at the time of mixing. He did say later that if he could make a change to Lonerism, it would be to raise the vocals to the front of the mix, matching his newfound confidence in himself.
During the height of the grunge sound in the 1990s, vocals were often deliberately kept pretty low in the mix. Listen to a song like Stone Temple Pilots’ “Plush,” and you’ll hear Scott Weiland’s vocals at almost exactly the same level as the guitars.
That was a deliberate artistic decision because bands considered all the parts important. It can definitely work — think of how many classic songs come from this genre and era — but it can also backfire.
If you’ve ever been completely unable to understand the lyrics of a singer in a 1990s song, part of the problem might be awful mic technique, but the way the vocals are mixed definitely makes the problem worse.
Where Should Vocals Sit In My Mix?
One of the obvious ways to change the emotional tone of a song is to increase or decrease the volume of the vocal track. It’s the difference between a whisper or a shout.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of tricks you can do to increase emotion without increasing volume, such as adding a reverb. This technique can work in more genres than you might think too.
And just like with emotion, you can change the perceived loudness of a track without changing the volume at all. That’s because there’s a lot more to the way humans hear than just decibel level.
Humans are particularly sensitive to frequencies between 1 kHz and 4 kHz, the lower end of which corresponds quite well with the upper end of human singing.
You’re using this perceptual quirk to your advantage when you set the kick drum track and the bass as the loudest part of your mix. Because low sounds have to be louder to appear the same volume, they don’t overpower the vocals or other instruments, which produce higher frequency sounds.
Don’t forget that you have more than just levels at your control when it comes to the mix, though.
How Do You Control Vocal Mixes?
In addition to the above factors, you still need to be able to further manipulate the vocal track to suit the song’s needs.
For example, no matter how perfectly you match the relative volume, a single dry vocal track may get lost in your mix or lack the effect you’re aiming for. There are a lot of techniques for helping your vocals stand in exactly the right place in your mix, giving you better control of your relative vocal loudness.
How Does Stereo Placement Change A Vocal Mix?
Don’t forget that you have an amazing tool at your disposal: the ability to change the stereo position of a track. It’s easy to take for granted, or even forget entirely, but using the pan control is a big part of your vocal mixing.
One thing to remember is panning allows two instruments to take up the same frequency range without clashing. For a straightforward pop song, you’d generally leave the main in the center and pan other tracks.
That keeps the vocal track right in the center of the audio, making it more prominent. If you have a part in a song where the vocal part becomes less important than something else, though, you could consider panning it for part of the song.
Backing vocal tracks can be panned to give a sense of space and to make room for other instruments or the main vocals.
This video from Steinberg features its DAW, Cubase, but the basics of panning it lays out are universal.
How Does EQ Affect A Vocal Mix?
The core frequencies of the human voice are mostly between 100 Hz and 300 Hz. You have to balance them in this range, because too much boost can make them boomy, but not enough leaves them thin.
Many of the highest tones and overtones from the human voice come in between 1 kHz and 4 kHz — the same very sensitive area for human hearing we talked about above. Some boost can make them stand out, but it’s also going to be a crowded part of your mix, so plan for vocals accordingly.
If you run into sibilance, you can tame that in the 5 kHz to 8 kHz range.
How Do Effects Change A Vocal Mix?
Both of those can make a vocal track stand out in a mix. Other effects, from using a touch of guitar overdrive on the vocals to a chorus effect to thicken the vocal tone can do the same.
In the modern age, you have access to an almost unlimited number of effects to choose from — you can try just about anything, but before you fall in love with experimenting for its own sake, remember to keep your goal, to make your vocals stand out, in mind.
How Does Compression Affect A Vocal Mix?
There are a ton of reasons to use a compressor. For one, it’s hard for some singers to hold any note at the same volume for long. A compressor can help even out the small dips and rises in volume some singers experience.
You are able to sit the audio more precisely in your track when you use some compression on your vocals. Without any compression, you may have moments where you would raise the fader a bit because it’s too quiet, and moments where you would drop the fader because it is too loud.
Compressors limit the dynamic range, so be careful not to go too heavy. A compressor can thicken a vocal sound, but it can also flatten out a nuance vocal performance.
Using a stock compressor from Ableton Live as an example, here are a few parameters to take note of.
- Threshold: This determines over what dB of audio that the compressor will kick in.
- Ratio: The ratio will decide how much compression to apply per dB once the audio breaks the threshold level. At a 2:1 ratio, for every 2dB the audio goes above the threshold, it is reduced to 1dB.
There are many different compressors you can get, but the main parameters available will tend to be these two above.
Here are some other important parameters here that you may or may not find in other compressors:
- Attack: This determines how long compression takes to reach its highest after breaking the threshold value.
- Release: This determines how long compression takes to completely stop after lowering below the threshold value.
- Knee: This determines how smooth the compression effect enters. The softer the knee, the more subtle the compression applies to the audio. Alternatively, a hard knee will sound snappier.
- Makeup: Due to the natural tendency of compression to reduce volume, you can use makeup to compensate for this by raising the output.
Certain compressors are known for the particular characteristics they bring to a mix. These compressors might exclude some of these parameters above, as they would have their own distinct settings.
Using a Compressor
When adding a compressor to your vocals, there are many approaches you can take to see which settings will fit best. Here is a simple approach you can take to ease your compressor settings into your mix when adding them to your vocals:
- Turn the ratio all the way to the maximum value to hear exactly the compression you are adding.
- While the vocals are playing, raise the threshold value until you feel it’s at an appropriate level.
- Adjust the makeup to keep the overall volume the same.
- Adjust attack and release to preference.
- Repeat step 2.
- Now lower the ratio to 5:1, or any lower ratio you think sounds fit.
Bear in mind that the less harsh you are on the settings, the more natural the vocal recording will sound. If you have the opportunity, it may be better to run another take of the vocals to achieve a more level vocal track.
Certain compressors come with a sidechain option, which allows you to compress an audio track using the output from another track.
If you feel your vocals are loud enough but are also competing in the mix with another instrument, you can sidechain that instrument to your vocals. In other words, when your vocal audio begins, your instruments will compress via the compressor’s settings, reducing that instrument’s sound and allowing the vocals to shine through better.
You are given some more parameters to mess with, but bear in mind that, in our case, we would place this compressor on the vocal track:
- Audio From: The track whose audio the compressor will now use for the compression parameters.
Gain and mix are not so important but allow you to control the volume of the sidechaining audio, and how much sidechaining is happening.
You even have the option to sidechain via EQ settings. For example, you may only want to sidechain a drum buss’s hi-hat frequency, so you can hi-pass the sidechain to ignore other instruments to some degree.
How Loud Should My Vocals Be?
Like I said at the start, there isn’t just one answer to this, and you should be wary of anyone who tells you there is. There are a lot of rules worth following, but there isn’t really a rule in the first place for that.
Instead, you need to be guided by the context of the song.
What is the vocal performance like? What other instruments are the vocals in the mix with, and are they real or virtual?
Are you trying to stick with one genre, mixing conventions between different genres, or trying something new altogether?
All of these things are going to guide your decision when it comes to where to place the vocals in your mix and how to treat them.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.