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This is an interesting question which does not have a definite answer. There are many factors that can influence the placement of vocals in a song’s mix, such as the genre, the singer, their emotions and even the mixer themselves.
Today I would like to talk about some of these influences and some tips for your own vocal mixing.
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.
Another example is Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. The backing track is not complex, so his vocals stand 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.
How Do You Control Vocal Mixes?
In addition to the above factors, you still need to be able to manipulate the vocal track to suit the song’s needs.
A single dry vocal track may get drowned out in your mix or lack the effects you feel it should have. Luckily, there are many techniques for helping your vocals stand at the front of the mix, giving you better control of your vocal loudness.
Depending on your level of experience with singing, you might find it harder to hold a strong note at the same volume every time. Using a compressor is a common addition to a vocal track and will help even out the levels.
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.
Here is an example stock compressor from Ableton Live. There are a few parameters to take note of for our purposes:
- Threshold – The first parameter of compression. 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.
There 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.
- Whilst the vocals are playing, raise the threshold value until you feel it is pumping 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 the sound and allowing the vocals to shine through better.
Here is an example sidechaining compressor from Ableton Live.
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.
What if I Don’t Have a Compressor?
If you don’t have one, here are some that will add character to your vocal tracks.
This is a great compressor that is very easy to use.
It only gives the user three parameters to play with:
- Compress – Controls both the threshold and ratio of the compressor.
- Time constants – Controls the attack and release.
- Makeup – Controls the output volume.
Do not be fooled by the low parameter count — this analogue simulation compressor is amazing for smoothing out vocals with a slow time constant or creating powerful pumping vocals with a faster setting.
The API compressor from Waves is versatile and allows you to shape the punch and tone of your vocals with high accuracy.
It features “auto-makeup,” which will automatically make up for the drop in volume as you apply more compression and it utilizes a dual-channel design, which lets the compressor function as two mono-channel compressors with the same settings.
In general, it boasts a wide range of musical parameters, which makes it a favorite amongst engineers around the world.
What Is the Best Compressor?
There are a multitude of compressors out there, but there is no one single compressor that fits perfectly to every situation! Different vocals may sound great with different compressors, so you will have to try out as many as you can get your hands on to see which works for you.
How Loud Should My Vocals Be?
As originally stated, there is no definite answer! That said, compressors are an effective and easy way of giving your vocals the volume control they may need so you can mix them into your vocals properly.
If you are creating a pop song, or are confident in your voice, you may want your vocals right at the front of the mix so they can be easily heard. Burying your vocals in the mix is never a bad thing, as long as it suits your song and you’re happy with the end result.