In this post, we’ll be looking at how one can make vocal harmonies sound big in a mix without causing clutter.
I also used to struggle with getting harmonies to sound full and interesting. So, throughout my journey of learning to mix vocal harmonies, I found out that it’s not always about the mix.
Yes, the mix will play somewhat of a role, but that’s not what often makes them sound big and full.
So, before we get to the mixing part, let’s make sure that you get your vocal harmonies sounding great from the source.
How to Create Vocal Harmonies
To get the best sounding vocal harmonies you’ll have to work on getting the right sound during the recording stage, not so much during mixing.
Depending on the sound that you’re going for, of course. That will play a big role in determining your recording process.
If you’re going for those big RnB and Gospel harmonies then you’ll need to layer a lot of different vocals parts.
When you’re going for a big sound then I recommend recording the vocals as if you are recording a choir. It will sound great if you have multiple singers. This gives you a lot of flexibility and control.
In case you’re working with 1 singer without anyone else to do the harmonies then I would let that one person do multiple takes.
For instance, I would let them record in 3 different tones (tenor, soprano, and alto). This way I’ll have 3 stacks of each part. So, I’ll have 3 takes of the tenor voice, 3 for soprano, and 3 for alto.
That’s how you get big-sounding vocal harmonies. You have to get the right sound straight from the source.
I know that these days you can use tools such as Little AlterBoy, Melodyne, and other tools to fake vocal harmonies, but using these tools will never sound like the real thing.
Panning Before Mixing Vocal Harmonies
One other step I’ll usually do before mixing vocal harmonies is to use panning.
It is crucial to pan vocal harmonies, keeping them in the center might create a build-up in the midrange and cause clutter.
Panning the harmonies will make them sound fuller and create some clarity.
How you pan them will be a matter of taste, but here’s a good starting point.
This way I’m keeping the vocals that have a lower tone towards the center and the higher frequency vocals towards the sides.
That’s how you get harmonies sounding wide and big without clashing with the lead vocal(s) and other instruments.
Beginner mixing engineers make the mistake of skipping vocal editing. This is an important step in mix preparation.
When you start mixing vocal harmonies, you don’t want to be dealing with recording problems such as clicks, pops, background noise, hum, etc.
So, take some time to get them clean and ready for mixing.
Also, do some clip gain automation to reduce loud parts such as sibilance, peaks, or whenever the singer(s) start getting carried away.
Getting your harmonies clean will save you tons of time when mixing. You get to focus on getting the vocals to sit well in the mix without being distracted by recording issues.
If there are any timing issues, you’ll have to deal with that during editing as well. But in some genres, you might want some parts to be out of timing to get that human feel.
So, when you’re fixing timing issues always consider the style of music you’re working on.
To Tune, Or Not To Tune
One of the most confusing things about mixing modern vocal harmonies is whether they should get tuned or not.
This is a subjective matter because it boils down to taste, the end goal for the song, and where the song is going to be played. Among many other things.
For instance, in jazz or classical songs, the musicians want everything to sound as organic as possible. While on a pop track, things have to be on point and in nearly perfect pitch.
So, do what works best for the song.
There’s no right or wrong when it comes to tuning vocal harmonies. It’s all about what the client wants.
If you’re mixing your music then it’s totally up to you to decide whether you want to tune or not.
Even the best singers in the world do get their vocals tuned, so let no one intimidate you or make you feel small for tuning vocals.
Pitch correction tools can also be used for creative purposes such as automating vibrato or making the voice sound robotic, note separation, etc.
One mistake I used to make when I was getting started with mixing vocal harmonies was not to group them and process them as one.
I would add reverb, compression, EQ, and other processing tools on the individual harmony track.
That’s not only time-consuming, it is very CPU heavy and usually unnecessary.
So, group all the harmony vocals into a single channel and process them as one. Especially if they were all sung by one person, same day, and with the same microphone.
If you’re working with multiple singers then you’ll have to decide whether to group them or not, depending on how they sound.
Grouping the harmonies and processing them as one will glue them and they’ll sound like one instrument.
This is not always necessary with vocal harmonies but if there are loud peaks, sibilance, notes, breaths, etc. then manually reduce them by automating the clip gain.
You’ll get better results by doing all this tedious stuff manually as compared to using tools. Instead, use the tools to polish the gain riding.
When the vocal harmonies are clean, dynamic tools such as compressor, dynamic eq, de-esser, etc will sound amazing.
The reason dynamic tools will sound great is that they won’t be overworking, they’ll just be polishing the harmonies to help them blend with other sounds.
This is why gain riding and all the stuff mentioned above is important before mixing vocal harmonies.
How To Blend Vocal Harmonies With The Music
Beginner engineers often rely on tools to blend vocal harmonies with the music.
They don't take mix preparation seriously. Things will go more fluid when it comes to processing the harmonies and get them to sit well in a mix when you put effort into mix prep.
Once you have the preparation stuff sorted, you should have found a good pocket for the harmonies in terms of width and depth.
Now’s time to find a good pocket for the harmony vocals in terms of height. So to do that you can use equalization.
EQ settings will often be different on every mix, unless if you’re mixing an album then you’d use the same (or similar) settings throughout the album to keep the sound consistent.
A good place to start is at the low-end. Use an HPF (high-pass filter) to remove rumble below 80-90Hz. Since harmonies are supporting vocals, you can push the HPF above 90Hz without making them sound thin.
Vocal harmonies are usually layers of vocals and that can cause a build-up in the lower midrange frequencies around the 160-250Hz range.
This might create clutter and prevent the mix from sounding clear and open.
You can use a bandpass filter to reduce that midrange frequency build-up.
Also, check the area around 500Hz because it tends to sound boxy. Create a cut if there are boxy frequencies to reduce clutter in the lower mids.
If the harmonies are sounding too edgy and overpowering the lead vocal then you might want to check the area around 2-3kHz.
I usually stay away from boosting the top-end on the harmonies to avoid making them mask the lead vocal and other high frequency sounds.
When I feel like they do sound dull and need some sheen then I’ll create a boost above 16kHz, might try 12kHz as well but I wouldn’t boost below that range.
These are just guidelines to give you a good starting point. Always experiment because singers a different.
Compressing Harmony Vocals
When it comes to supporting vocals such as harmonies I use compression to put them in a particular space in terms of depth.
I don’t use the compressor to control dynamic range because that stuff was done with manual gain riding during mix preparation.
So, I use compression to keep the supporting vocals controlled and behind the lead vocal. I achieve this by using a fast attack to reduce the transients.
By reducing the transients, the harmonies won’t be punchy. Instead, they will sound smooth and get pushed behind the lead vocal.
The release settings will normally be medium to keep the decay/tail of the vocals well-controlled. An auto-release works great most of the time as well.
When it comes to ratio, I usually use a higher ratio (6:1 to 8:1) to make sure that the compressor catches every transient.
With these settings, I simply use the threshold to find a good pocket for the harmonies. The higher the gain reduction the more the vocal harmonies get pushed back in a mix. The lower the threshold the more upfront they’ll sound in a mix.
That’s how I compress harmonies.
It’s important to mention that I apply compression on the comp (bounce) or group channels, not on the individual tracks. This will glue them together.
At this point, the only thing that’s left to get the harmonies to sit perfectly in a mix is to use time-based effects to enhance the 3-dimensional feel.
To do that, you’ll need to use effects such as delay, reverb, chorus, and stereo image tools.
You can use reverb to push the vocals further at the back of the mix. Find a good pocket and depth for the harmonies utilizing reverb.
Then use the delay effect to add excitement. Delay can also be used to enhance the width of the harmines by using techniques such as slap or ping-pong delay.
To add some ear candy use modulation effects such as vibrato, flanger or phaser. These modulation tools create movement and add some magic to your mixes.
Don’t make them sound too obvious though, and automate all your effects to create contrast and add emotion.
Did you find the strategies listed in this post helpful? Which of these are you going to implement in your mixes right away?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.