What dB Should Vocals Be in A Mix?
Here's how loud your vocals should be in a mix:
Your vocal level should be lower than the drums, but louder than the instrumentation. Vocal mixing to a professional level, however, requires more nuanced decisions than that to get your vocals levels right.
How Loud Should Vocals Be Compared To Instrumentals?
Like a lot of things in the music production world, there isn't a concrete answer to the question of how loud should vocals be in your mix.
The voice is the instrument, which will inevitably grab more attention from your listeners, compared to bass or guitar. As humans, we've evolved to look for human patterns in anything, whether that's voices, faces or anything else, hence, we're hypersensitive to it.
This in turn means that if your vocal is too far back, listening to your song might become hard on the ears, since your brain will try and hear what the vocal is doing. This brings the focus away from the entire song and forces your brain to try and decipher your vocals.
That also means, on the flip side, a vocal that's too prominent in the mix will overpower your song, and again, your listener will be hard-pressed to focus on the rest of the mix.
It's not a black and white, do this or, do that. A load comes into play, including: genre and style, as well as artistic decision – they all play a massive part in your vocal mix decisions.
The biggest factor in where your vocals will sit, is the genre or vibe of the song that you're aiming for.
Sometimes a song will call for vocals that are buried in the mix, while other songs will need the vocals to overpower the rest. Making this decision is ultimately up to you, but the question still stands, how loud should your vocals be in comparison to the beat?
As a starting point, your vocal should be louder, or more in-focus, than the instrumentals, while being a bit under the drum channels. This kind ofthinking usually results in in a nice balance in your mix, however, different genres call for different approaches.
An EDM track will necessitate balance between your vocals, synths and other instruments, while an acoustic, singer songwriter track will put vocals front and center.
While there are decisions you'll make, guided by the genre or style you're working in, remember that the decision is ultimately yours. If the song calls for buried vocals, do it, if it calls for distorted, frequency hogging screams, do it, serve the song, not the technique.
While Genre tends to be a bigger factor, the artistic decision is the one that's more important. After all, you want to make unique music right?
When usually you don't want to have your vocals sound disconnected from the song, or buried in the mix, sometimes, that's exactly what you want to do.
We can use the negatives of these decisions, to our advantage. In a standard mix, you would try to stay away from buried vocals, because they draw too much close attention to a part of your mix you don't want attention to be paid to.
However, since, quieter vocals will perk up the listener's ears a little, we can use them as a way to create energy. One of our favorite songs does this perfectly. The amazing Brazilian producer Marcioz does this exact technique in his track, “Mate Um Bonito Hoje Mesmo”.
Before the main part of the song, Marcioz inserts a quiet vocal, separate from anything else in the mix. The vocal is in the back of the mix and serves to lower your perceived threshold of loudness.
Putting it in simpler terms, going from a quieter vocal to a loud and dynamic part, creates an extremely powerful, and dynamic transition. The quiet vocal serves to increase the energy of the entire chorus/drop.
That being said, these decisions can only be made when you know what you're doing. Knowing what's “correct”, will help you break the rules in an informed way, leading to more unique music.
To continue this vocal mixing saga, let's look into how you can make your vocals pop out in a mix.
How Do Professionals Mix Their Vocals? (Quick Steps):
Common steps to mixing professional vocals that pop:
- Record your vocals properly with a good mic, good audio treatment etc.
- EQ your audio signal to bring out elements and remove nasty sounds.
- Use compressors to glue vocals to your track.
- Reference vocals in mono.
- Reverb, Delay, Echo. To create space and a sense of immersion for your vocals.
While quick lists like that are helpful, you probably want to know exactly what you should do to start mixing vocals that stand out. Not to worry, we're here to help, so let's start with the most important thing in vocals, the recording.
1. How Should I Record My Vocals?
The most important step of any vocal production is the actual sound recording. A bad recording can't be saved by good vocal mixing.
So how do you get a good vocal recording?
First, is the recording setup. As little acoustic reflection as possible is necessary, to get a clean and dry sound that will be ready to be processed.
The mic in this case is probably the most important element of your recording setup. A better mic means a better recording, it's that simple.
Our favorite vocal mics are the Shure SM7B, as well as the Electrovoice RE20.
No matter how good your mic, the vocal performance is king. If your performer isn't used to recording, it doesn't matter what quality of mic you use, if your performer isn't going to take full advantage of it.
The biggest issue with performers that are new to a recording environment is energy. It's quite easy for vocalists to give a subdued performance if their headphone mix isn't right. The best and easiest way to give more confidence and energy to a vocalist is reverb. This is not the reverb you'll use in the track, you might not want any reverb at all, so why should you use reverb?
If you put a good reverb on the vocalist's headphone mix, they'll be hearing themselves “further away”. This basically makes your vocalist, subconsciously sing with more energy and confidence.
Long story short, never run a dry vocal mix to your performer, it's the easiest way to get a weak performance.
Make them sound good to themselves, and give them a confident head start. It's a very nerve-racking thing.
2. How Do You Set EQ for Vocals?
So you've got your vocal recorded. You've got a great performance, now, how do you take advantage of that?
First of all, EQ. We use EQ, less for shaping the audio on vocals, and more for separation and clarity. Using a precision EQ, like the FabFilter Pro-Q3, we need to create space for the vocals as well as improve clarity and remove unwanted frequencies.
As we stated before, your vocals should sit in the middle ground between your drums and instrumentation. To achieve this, we can do a series of cuts in other instruments, to create space for our vocals.
The frequency range of 2.5-3.5kHz is the most sensitive frequency band to us humans. We've evolved to hear this range more prominently than others because a young child cries at this exact frequency. With that in mind, this band is going to be where all the focus and main transients of your vocal will live.
Creating a dip in the instrumentation at the 2.5-2.5kHz range will create a nice solid pocket for your vocals to sit in. Similarly, the 300-700 Hz range is where the fundamental frequencies of your vocal live, so clearing out space in your mix for these frequencies is a great way to get your vocals sitting perfectly.
Lastly, removing unnecessary low end is necessary to improve clarity and remove muddiness, while taming resonances helps you reduce any harshness in your vocal.
Just in case you need a refresher, here's our guide to fixing resonance.
3. How Should I Compress Vocals?
Vocal compression is less straightforward than EQ. The settings for your compressors are always going to be dependent on your mixes.
In general, we prefer to use medium to light compression on our lead vocals, to preserve as much clarity and tone as possible, while making it glue with the mix. Compression also helps to separate your vocals from the instruments and drums.
We also love using a layered vocal, with strong compression, to add density and a textured tone to the overall vocal. This can also be done with parallel compression.
Separately, backing vocals, and any other additional vocal layers you add, will need different compression settings. A song that needs more intensity, will require stronger compression settings on the backing vocals and layers, while a more intimate and raw piece, requires subtler dynamics.
TIP: Don't just copy the same compressor over to new tracks, use new ones every time, and go through the steps of compression every time. No two tracks are the same, and everything needs a different kind of compression.
4. Using Sidechain to Create Vocal Space in a Busy Mix
If you're really struggling to get your vocals to pop more, there may be times that EQ just won't cut it.
An interesting thing to try for vocals, if you're struggling to fit them in, is sidechain. Sidechaining your vocals to your chords, or any other instrument channels forcibly brings the vocals in front.
This can obviously be done with a standard sidechain, or gain automation, but it's usually best to use more subtle tools when ducking buses or groups of audio.
Our favorite way of doing this is with the Trackspacer plugin from WavesFactory.
Trackspacer takes a sidechain input and ducks the exact frequencies of your audio, based on the sidechain audio. Putting it simply. It's like a multiband dynamic EQ, with a sidechain input.
Drop a Trackspacer on an instrument bus. Usually, it's the richer harmonic sounds (guitar, piano etc.) that overtake your vocal. Sidechaining your vocals to them will create space, without disrupting the original sound of the instruments. It'll also introduce interesting dynamics in gain, and help your mix glue together nicely.
If you don't have Trackspacer, you can achieve a similar result by sidechaining to a multiband compressor, and selecting the frequency bands manually.
TIP: Sidechaining your snare to your vocal can also help to control your vocals and glue them better in your mixes.
5. What Reverb Should You Use on Vocals?
What reverbs you use depend entirely on your music style, as well as artistic decision. Reverb can tend to be extremely subjective a lot of the time, so saying for sure, what's right and what's not, is beyond the scope of this article.
However, the main things are quite concrete. If you want a more claustrophobic, and in-your-face kind of vocal sound – a small room reverb will be perfectly disorienting.
If you're looking for something lusher, and for your reverb to lay down a blanket for the vocals, go for a large hall or plate reverb.
Additionally, shimmer reverbs can bring a lot of nice sparkle to your vocals.
6. Should I Use Echo on Vocals?
Short answer, yes you should. But OH WAIT, what is that more nuanced explanation incoming? Who would've thought??
Echoes can be used in a few different ways, to make your vocal mixes either sound more spacey or provide more width and depth.
Quick echoes can be used to trick the listener into thinking you've recorded way more overdubs than there are. Using a small echo of 1/64, and mixing it in with your original vocal (on a bus), can add a lot of width and depth.
The width in vocals usually comes from doing overdubs, and layering them separately. This means you have two tracks that do the same thing, with minor musical differences.
That's the reason we're using the echo here. It adds a nice thickness to our vocals and helps make them glue better with the rest of the mix.
7. Should I Use Delay on Vocals?
The lack of immersion in vocals usually comes from being able to hear too much of the recording room. Masking it as much as possible, in the context of your mix, is how you'll create the best immersion.
Delays are amazing when you're trying to fill out your stereo image and make the sound more immersive. Think for example big EDM tracks, delay helps with creating a sense of space for the vocals.
Automating your delays is also great when you want to accentuate a part in your song. Having a delay swell up during a B section helps to create movement in your arrangement, as well as create the illusion of grandiose space for your vocals.
To recap: In general, your vocal level should be lower than the drums, but louder than the instrumentation. Vocal mixing to a professional mix engineer's standard, however, requires more nuanced decisions than that, to get your vocals to sit right.
Now that you've gotten this far, we hope you have at least a general idea of how to mix vocals in your music.
It's necessary to state that, as with everything in music, experimentation is key to creating a unique sound. Before experimenting, however, you need to have a solid grasp of the basics to know which rules to break, and which to stick with.
An informed decision will always be better.
Toms is a music producer & DJ, born and raised in Post Soviet Latvia. Currently based in Brighton, Toms has had over 6 years of experience with all things production and in that time, he's done a tonne of cool stuff! He's played multiple festivals, had experience in the field with mixing & mastering and even become a freelance journalist in the music industry.
Toms currently creates music under the alias Sovereign. Producing music that's intimate and subtle, while full of edge and energy, the young producer combines the artistic sounds of Trip Hop artists like Massive Attack, with the energy and youthfulness of producers like Flume, Jamie XX and Yaeji. You can check his stuff on Soundcloud.