The right vocal level

It’s not always easy to find the right level for a vocal. It’s common to feel the need to mix the vocal low (especially if it’s your own vocal!), burying it among the other instruments. It’s also common to mix the instrumental backing first, and the find that either the vocal rides unnaturally over the top or is unintelligable. Sometimes it might seem that the vocal doesn’t fit in – no matter what EQ, compression or reverb you use.

The trick is to acknowledge that the vocal is the most important part of the song, and the most important part of the mix. That means it should be in the foreground. If you start with the vocals, you are free to use as little EQ as necessary – ensuring you have as natural a sound as possible.

Then build up your mix around the vocal, bringing in instruments in order of importance. In a mainstream pop/rock mix this order would be something like: drums, bass, guitars/synths, backgrounds. The relative levels of each group of instruments should be determined by the style of music. For a lot of pop music, the vocal should roughly be at the same level as the snare (with the sibilance at roughly the same level as the hihats). Bass is next and guitars are usually further behind, but in rock the bass is further back and the guitars are closer to the front.

Reverb should be added later – it’s not a fixer! The vocal should have the right tone, dynamics and correct level relative to the rest of the mix before any reverb is added. The reverb merely adds ambience and makes the vocal sound less naked. If the vocal doesn’t fit in the mix without reverb, then adding reverb won’t help.

-Kim.

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