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In today’s audio industry you’ll come across many mastered instrumentals.
Often when producers are making their tracks they master them at the highest output volume that they can get away with before the track starts clipping.
Of course, that makes sense right? You wouldn’t want your tracks to sound softer than your competitors’ tracks. Right?!
But the even more common scenario is when you’ve picked someone else’s beat and you want to lay down your own vocals.
Whatever the situation, when it comes to laying vocals down and mixing to these mastered instrumentals things can get a little tricky. You might find that the artist’s vocals are competing with the music instead of seamlessly meshing with it.
So what can you do here and how can you mix vocals to an already mastered instrumental?
- Reduce the output volume of the mastered instrumental
- Set the input gain at the correct level
- Apply effects
- Mix your project
- Create the final master
It’s a simple process but of course, it’s easier said than done! That’s the quick version but we’ll explain all these steps in detail below. You can also check out this video which shows you how to pull this off in FL Studio but even if you’re not using FL Studio the same technique can be applied to your preferred software:
Step 1: Reduce the Output Volume of the Mastered Instrumental
As we mentioned in the introduction to this article, the mastered instrumental will likely be at the max volume level that it can be before it starts clipping.
To combat this you can simply reduce the volume of that track. We’re off to a good start!
Step 2: Set the Input Gain at the Correct Level
Unfortunately, we’ve seen many engineers who do not know what they are doing when it comes to setting their input gain. They press record and the artist’s vocal level is at -30db or the opposite at -2db.
To fix this, they simply slide the fader up or down and think things are good to go because of what they hear. This couldn’t be more incorrect. Your input gain is one of the most crucial elements of recording.
If your artist’s gain is too high and the mixing fader shows clipping, 0, or nominal then the input gain is set too high. On the contrary, if the mixing meter is barely moving and displaying -30db then your input gain is to low. Another thing that engineers often do is match the mic to the few words the artist says during the mic check.
This can be an issue because artists change their intensity when it comes to actually recording. When doing your mic check make sure your artist voice is close to its peak in energy before adjusting your gain and volume.
Here is a general workflow you can use:
1. Do a mic check
2. Adjust the microphone gain to an appropriate level (-13db to -18db is a nice sweet spot)
3. Try not to allow the gain to go above -13db. Anything above these levels may cause clipping.
4. Adjust the volume level
Step 3: Apply Effects/FX
Assuming we have all the recording takes we need, the next step is to apply effects. Applying effects can be done in various ways including the following:
1. Duplicate vocals tracks several times, apply different effects to each track, and mix those several tracks together to create the desired result.
2. Apply effects on inserts while the artist is singing as well as after the artist is finished.
3. Apply effects on auxiliary buses sent to the vocal tracks.
How you route or use your effects is entirely up to you, but adding EQ and compression is a must in our option. Here are some additional effects that you can include:
– Reverb: This is great for creating ambient room in your mix
– Delay: This is great to add some flare. Make sure you use it sparingly though because you don’t usually want to slap delay across your whole mix. (Although doing that can sometimes sound great)
– Distortion: This can be great to put on vocals to give it a grungy feeling or to make a sentence or two stand out from the rest.
– Flange and Chorus
– Auto Tune and pitch corrections: This is great to fix an out of tune word and it is also often used across whole vocal tracks.
Step 4: Mix Your Project
We all know this is a very important part of the recording and producing process. You could have the greatest recording in the world and that great recording can be mixed incorrectly and sound absolutely horrible.
Check your mix on studio monitors, give the mix a listen on headphones, hop in a car and give your mix a listen on those speakers. You may even want to give your ears a rest and come back to the project with fresh ears. We’ve all had projects that we thought were phenomenal, but then we heard that same project the following day and it just didn’t sound as good as we thought.
Try not to rush, we understand that people have deadlines, but once it’s published there’s no going back. Just make sure you’re entirely satisfied with your final mix.
There are absolutely no set levels or parameters we can give you that will apply to every mix, but we do recommend that you avoid clipping. Your vocal tracks mixing fader should never hit 0 or nominal because that is where it begins to distort.
Step 5: Create the Final Master
In the earlier steps, we suggested reducing the output volume of our instrumental and recording the vocals at a level that is several decibels under 0 or nominal. To get the track back up to a sufficient loudness level, we want to get all the tracks combined back to the original 0 or nominal db level.
This can be done several ways including the following:
1. Applying the mastering effects to your project as a whole. This is often frowned upon but at same time, we’ve seen it done before with no issues
2. Opening a new project and working on the exported WAV file like we created in Step 4.
If you were serious about a track or song that you had mixed, we would recommend opening a whole new project and mastering the mix there.
Here are some steps you can follow to do that:
1. Import the mixed WAV file
2. Bus the WAV output to AUX send
3. Create as many auxiliary sends as desired
4. Create a master track output
5. Bus the last AUX send to the master track
6. Apply EQ, compression and/or A leveler to AUX sends until the mix is brought back to nominal or 0. We recommend that you apply minimal compression and EQ in this step because doing this might cause you to overdo it.
These 5 steps should help you streamline your mixing process in a way that you may never have thought of. The main thing we need to do is simply bring the instrumentals down a few notches to give us room to mix these vocals in. Once we do that, we can add effects and other elements, and then bring the overall mix back up to 0 or nominal.
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.