Today’s blog post will be a quick look at the most common vocal mixing mistakes that beginner and intermediate engineers make.
You could be making one of these mistakes without even being aware that it’s a mistake, so make sure you check out the entire list.
By avoiding all these mistakes you’ll be able to get your vocals upfront in a mix and have them blend well with the rest of the instrumentation.
Also, note that this list is not sorted in any particular order.
Enjoy the content.
Skipping Vocal Editing
Although vocal editing is not part of mixing, if the recording engineer and producer skipped this step then you’ll have to do it to make sure that you get the best final results.
You’ll need to remove background noise, clicks, plosives, excessive breaths, fix timing, key, etc.
When the vocal is not edited, all these problems may pop up when you start processing the vocal, especially with EQ and compression.
Editing the vocal while mixing drains your energy and that can lead you into making bad decisions.
Think about it this way, instead of removing background noise manually during quiet parts you’ll now be forced to rely on gates, which can mess up the transients.
You won’t be able to manually automate the clip gain to reduce dynamics and fix sibilance. This is why most engineers end up overworking the compressor and de-esser, then wonder why their mixes can’t compete.
Most of the time, beginner mixes can’t compete simply because they tend to take shortcuts. This is why most professional engineers will have an assistant to take care of all this tedious stuff because they know it’s crucial for getting top-quality results.
A well-polished vocal will make the mixing process much easier.
Avoiding Gain Staging
When done right, gain staging will help you avoid digital clipping or overloading your plugins.
You’ll be able to get that perfect -6dBFS peak level that most mastering engineers prefer. This is not a must but most engineers just prefer mixes to be sent at -6dB so that they have enough headroom to work with.
One way to do gain staging is to get a good volume and panning balance then lower down all the faders till the entire mix is peaking at around -12dB.
This way you’ll have enough headroom to work with and even if you don’t gain match all plugins you won’t reach 0dB and end up clipping.
Another great way to do gain staging is to use VU Meters. This will give you more than enough headroom since your entire mix will be peaking at around -18dBFS.
If you’re not using any analog emulation plugins then there’s no need to be using VU Meters, unless you’re just doing it for more headroom.
If any of that is confusing then don’t worry, I’ll do a dedicated post and video about gain staging soon.
But make sure that you never skip gain staging, this is one big vocal mixing mistake you don’t want to make.
Not Keeping The Dynamic Range Well-Controlled
When I started mixing music, the biggest problem I would have with vocals was to get them to sit well in a mix. In some parts, they would be loud while in other sections they would be quieter.
I struggled with that for a minute, till I found out that the dynamic range of a vocal needs to be well controlled to get the vocal to sit perfectly in a mix.
Controlling dynamic range usually sounds great if you do it in stages. The first stage is the clip gain automation to reduce loud peaks and sibilance.
The other stages might include compression, de-esser, and dynamic EQ or even multi-band compression. This way you get transparent compression without overworking one compressor.
Overworking one compressor to try to control dynamic range may introduce problems such as phase distortion and tonal artifacts.
Make it a habit to compress in stages for a much cleaner sound.
Getting the dynamics well-controlled on a vocal will get the vocal audible throughout the entire song.
Over-Compressing The Vocal
Keeping the dynamics on a vocal well-controlled is great, but one thing you don’t want is to kill the life out of the vocals or ruin an awesome performance.
So, when you’re controlling dynamics make sure that you keep the vocal sounding natural without squashing it with compression.
One thing you don’t want is to get the quieter parts to be EXACTLY at the same volume as the loud parts because that's not how the human voice works.
The goal should be to get every word and consonants audible enough without squashing the signal.
Unless you’re doing some parallel compression on a vocal then you can apply some heavy compression on the parallel track to get the entire vocal consistent in volume.
However, on the original vocal track, you usually want to keep things sounding as organic as possible, in most cases.
Using Super Fast Attack Times on Lead Vocals
While we’re still on the topic of compression, let’s talk about another vocal mixing mistake you would want to avoid, which is using a super-fast attack time on a lead vocal.
Using an attack that is too fast on a vocal will destroy the transients and your vocals will lack punch as well as attack.
This will make it harder for you to get the lead vocals to be upfront in a mix.
If you’re working with a particularly aggressive vocalist that’s too dynamic, I would advise you to do some manual clip gain automation instead of using a compressor to reduce the loud transients.
A super-fast attack time works great for supporting vocal parts (backings, adlibs, doubles, etc.) to push them at the back of the mix so that they don’t clash with the lead vocal.
Unless maybe you’re working on a style of music that requires you to make the lead vocal sound smooth and not upfront. Then in that case, by all means, do what works best for the song.
Also, keep in mind that fast attack times tend to cause phase distortion issues, that’s why compressors such as FabFilter Pro-C come built-in with an oversampling feature to help avoid phase issues.
So, be careful with using super-fast attack times on a lead vocal.
Buying Templates and Presets
I know I’m going to get in trouble for listing this as a vocal mixing mistake 🙂
Every singer is different, we use various microphones, recording techniques, mic placement, environments, audio interfaces, pre-amps, pop filters, and many other variables.
That’s why each vocal will require a different approach and that’s why I’m always against buying vocal chains, templates, and presets.
I understand that if you’re a beginner you might think these things will give you a good starting point.
But that’s a bad way to look at mixing. Mixing is problem-solving, you solve the problem that you have at hand and there’s no preset or template which can predict that.
When mixing, you listen to the vocal then find solutions that will help that vocal to fit the particular song that you’re currently working on.
One thing I know for sure is that if templates and presets worked, by now we would have a bot or some artificial intelligence that can mix an entire song for you.
The only time I would recommend templates and presets for a vocal is if you’re mixing an album or EP, to keep the sound consistent from the first track to the last.
Not the ones you purchase though, you’ll mix one song then create a template and presets from that. Then apply that template or presets as a starting point for each song in the album or EP.
This will help you get all the songs on an album sounding the same.
Applying Drastic EQ Curves
This is one mistake that I was guilty of making when I was still learning how to mix vocals.
Depending on the style of music you’re mixing and the goal you want to achieve I would recommend you to keep your EQ moves minimal and subtle.
If you’re going for a certain effect, then you can go drastic. But in most cases, you’ll usually need to keep the vocal sounding natural.
It is always a great idea to get the sound that you want straight from the source. Use different mics and placement techniques to achieve a great-sounding vocal tone during recording. This should help you avoid making drastic EQ moves.
A great plugin that can help you avoid making this mistake is the Blindfold EQ by AudioThing.
Their plugin has no indicators or numbers to show frequency values, gain values, or bandwidth values. It forces you to use your ears and apply EQ only when it's necessary.
So, instead of applying drastic EQ curves to only end up with a thin-sounding vocal, use tools such as the Blindfold EQ to keep your vocals sounding natural.
Overuse of Delay or Reverb
There are certain genres where you can get away with using an excessive amount of delay and reverb.
So, if the reverb is more of a stylistic effect then there’s no right or wrong amount.
However, for most genres, overuse of delay and reverb can drown the vocals and make it hard to get them to sit well in a mix.
Too much reverb and delay will push the vocals at the back of the mix. When vocals are pushed further back in a mix it will be hard to get them to blend with the rest of the instrumentation. The instrumentation will usually overpower the vocal.
To avoid that, apply a good amount of reverb or delay that doesn’t sound too obvious.
These effects usually sound amazing if they’re used to add emotion. You can use them to add emotions such as sadness, happiness, love, rage, etc.
For instance, a dark-sounding reverb will make a mix feel sad and moody, while a brighter reverb will give you a happy feeling.
Before adding reverb, listen to the vocal carefully then use effects to help emphasize the emotion the singer is trying to capture.
Here's a list of the most common vocal mixing mistakes that you don't even know you're making...
Adding Effects Without Good Reason
One of the biggest traps of mixing is to process any sound without a good reason.
I just finished mixing a Hip Hop song today, and the vocals only have a reverb, slap delay, EQ, and a compressor.
Trust me, it is very tempting for me to try adding a de-esser, saturation, parallel compression, multiband, limiter, etc.
But I learned a long time ago that; don’t fix something unless it’s broken. So, I left the vocals with very minimal processing.
It is crucial to have a good reason before applying any effects on the vocals. Beginners get caught up in the trap of trying to apply all the tricks they know, then end up messing up a really good vocal performance.
This is why I always recommend people to stay away from buying vocal chains or using templates and presets. Listen to the vocal carefully, then use effects to achieve the final results that you’ve pictured in your head.
Don’t over-mix the vocals because you feel like you didn’t process them enough.
Not Using References
This is not really a mistake but if you’re not using references you run the risk of mixing the song wrong, more especially if you’re not familiar with the genre.
I bet you’ve also heard a story where a song was released and never got any traction, but then the label decides to send the song to a different engineer then, BOOM, the song becomes number #1 in the charts.
To avoid capturing the wrong emotion with a mix, it’s always a wise decision to have a couple of reference tracks to help you stay on track.
Reference tracks will help you eliminate a lot of guesswork, finish mixes faster, and have a clear goal to aim for.
You can listen to the reference tracks before mixing the song and during your breaks. Or you can keep switching between your mix and the reference tracks in real-time.
Every mixing engineer approaches referencing in different ways, so do whatever feels comfortable to you.
Keep in mind that you just need to get inspired by the reference songs, you don’t have to copy them EXACTLY.
Reducing Sibilance With a Static EQ
This is one of those vocal mixing mistakes that you see even so-called professionals make, even on Youtube tutorials.
The thing about vocal sibilants is that they don’t happen throughout the entire song, they occur when the vocalist sings certain words that have the consonants of S, T, SH, CH, etc.
When you use a static EQ to reduce sibilance you run the risk of making the vocals sound dull unnecessarily.
With a de-esser, dynamic eq, multiband compression, or manual gain riding you’ll have better control over the sibilance. You’re able to reduce the sibilants only when they get too loud without affecting the presence or clarity of the vocal.
Unless maybe the mix does require you to use a static EQ to completely cut that frequency band throughout the entire song, then do what will work best for that mix.
I would recommend starting with automation or dynamic tools before using a static EQ, just to get a feel of how the vocal will sit in the mix.
Compare both static and dynamic, then choose what fits the song and style.
Not Using Automation
This is one of those vocal mixing mistakes engineers don’t even know they’re making.
Automation is a neglected art form that can allow you to enhance an average vocal performance to sound professional.
You can use automation to add impact, emotion, excitement, create contrast, control dynamic range, and a whole lot of other stuff.
You can even be creative with it and do things such as automating panning, delay throws, etc.
But just make sure that you don’t get carried away. Less is more when it comes to automation. You usually want to capture more of a feeling, so minor adjustments can go a long way.
There are cases where you’ll need to go drastic to make the automation heard and obvious, then in that case you’re free to do what feels right for that mix.
Every time you’re finished with a mix, always check for spots where you can use automation to keep the listener glued to the stereo.
This is just a small list of the most common vocal mixing mistakes that some engineers make when trying to get the vocal to sit well in a mix.
However, if you can avoid the common mistakes mentioned above you have a better chance of getting vocals to blend well with the music.
Are you also making any of these mistakes, or know one or two that were not mentioned in this post? Let us know in the comments section.