How to Mix Live Vocals: 9 Steps to the Perfect Vocal Sound


Do you ever struggle with the vocals in your mixes? No matter what you do, you can’t seem to get them to sit right in the mix? Well, I know I I’ve struggled with that in the past, but with a lot of practice and tips from others I’ve greatly improved over the years. And now, it’s something I get asked about a lot.

How to Mix Live Vocals:

  • Step 1: Analyze the Vocalists Tone
  • Step 2: Choose an Appropriate Microphone
  • Step 3: Ensure Proper Microphone Technique
  • Step 4: Isolate the Vocalist
  • Step 5: High-Pass the Microphone
  • Step 6: EQ the Vocal
  • Step 7: Compress the Vocal
  • Step 8: Add Effects to the Vocal
  • Step 9: Ride the Faders

Over the years I’ve found myself mixing in a routine way much of the time, especially when it comes to vocals. I do many of the same things in the same order to get a clean and defined vocal sound. Keep reading to find out how you can do the same!

How to Mix Live Vocals

Before we jump into the steps on how to mix vocals, I want to talk first about a few things.

Vocals are arguably the most important part of any mix. We can apply all the tricks and effects we know and have music that sounds great. But if the vocals aren’t clear, defined and pleasant to listen to – well, then none of the other matters. It is for this reason we need to master the art and science of mixing vocals.

That said, it is important to note that you and I as mix engineers can’t change the performance of the vocalist. We can’t change the passion and emotion (or lack thereof) the vocalist delivers. We can’t make a bad singer sound like a good singer.

We can, however, help deliver a transparent and sonically pleasing sound quality to the audience that accurately represents the singers tone and performance while also enhancing some desirable characteristics of the vocal.

In short – We can mix it, not fix it!

This may sound obvious to some of you reading this, but maybe it’s not. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken with who get so discouraged because their “vocals don’t sound good”. But when I listen, they’re actually not half bad – sonically, that is. Many of the problems they’re having are coming from the vocalists themselves. This is an unfortunate situation to be in, but it happens quite often.

So now that we understand that we can’t fix “bad”, let’s talk about how we can mix some great sounding vocals!

Note: In this article, I will teach about how to use basic audio tools. There are many other helpful tools that can be used, such as multi-band compression, de-essers, etc… but the goal of this article is to provide information that anyone can use while utilizing the most basic audio tools.

Step 1: Analyze the Vocalists Tone

The first thing you want to do is analyze the vocalists tone. Listen to the voice and pay attention to its characteristics. This will help give you an idea of how to approach mixing this particular voice. This will give you a goal.

Goals are vitally important if you want a good sounding mix. Oftentimes mix engineers start aimlessly adjusting this and that without taking the time to just listen – to hear the voice and decide on how that vocal should sound through the PA system and how they will get it there.

Is it a female vocalist with a soft, bright and fragile sound? Or does she have a full, clean and rich sound? Or maybe she has a nasally flare to her tone. She may even have a rough, tough and raspy quality to her voice.

Or do you have a male vocalist with an extraordinarily deep voice? Or maybe he has a very loud and high voice. Maybe he’s a heavy rock singer that screams into the microphone. And maybe he’s an opera singer.

The combinations are endless!

So what’s my point? My point is that before you adjust anything, you should simply listen and analyze. Understand the characteristics of the voice and come up with a mental plan on how you will most effectively approach this voice to harness the good and avoid the bad. This only takes a few seconds to do, but can make all the difference.

Step 2: Choose an Appropriate Microphone

After you’ve assessed the qualities of the vocal, the next thing you want to do is choose an appropriate microphone. Many people think all microphones are treated equally, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

There are many types of microphones and pickup patterns. All of them and all combinations of them will have a unique sound. Choosing one that fits the tonality of the vocal is an extremely important part of the process to getting a good vocal mix.

Think about this – You need a new set of tires on your car. And again, some people think all tires are the same, but that’s not true. You must first ask yourself a couple questions – what kind of car do you have and what terrain will you be driving on? Will you be in a car driving on the highway every day? Will you be in a truck going through mud and rocks? Somewhere in between? Knowing this is very important when deciding which tires you need.

This same principal applies when choosing a microphone to use. Now is the time to think back to Step 1. What is the tone of the vocal like? High? Low? Crisp? Raspy? What environment are you in? These are good things to consider when choosing a microphone.

Now, there are hundreds of microphones you could choose from. But there are some industry standards you can help base your decisions off of.

Dynamic vs Condenser Microphones

These are the two most common types of microphones used for vocals in live sound. Dynamic mics are great all-rounded mics that you really can’t go wrong with. Condenser mics are fantastic when going for an extra level of clarity and detail, but can be harsh if on the wrong vocal.

Pickup Patterns

The pickup pattern of your mic is important, especially in live sound. Almost every microphone you will use in live sound should have a cardioid pickup pattern – notice I said “almost”… there are always exceptions to any rule.

Mics with a cardioid pickup pattern will help reduce the amount of background noise you get bleeding into your vocal microphone. This is vitally important to the quality of your vocal mix. There are three you can choose from – Cardioid, Super-Cardioid, and Hyper-Cardioid. These all have varying degrees of focus.

Click HERE to see what vocal mics I recommend!

Step 3: Ensure Proper Microphone Technique

Once you’ve decided on a mic to use you need to make sure your vocalist knows the proper way to use it – we call this microphone technique.

I can’t tell you how many singers I’ve worked with who were mind-blowingly good! But unfortunately, many of them don’t know how to use the microphone properly. And as a result, their talent doesn’t show like it could because of poor mic technique.

It is our job as the sound engineers to talk with the bands we work with and help them know what they can do to sound their best. After they know what to do, it’s up to them to do it. Sometimes they do great, and sometimes they don’t.

What is good microphone technique?

Good microphone technique is actually quite simple. The microphone should be anywhere from touching the lips to about 2 – 3 inches from the lips of the singer. Any more than that and you will start losing the fullness of the vocal and start getting a lot of bleed from other things on stage, especially the drums.

When this happens, the clarity of the vocal is lost and in many situations a live sound engineers worst nightmare… feedback.

I can’t tell you how many singers and speakers I’ve worked with who thought just because they were holding a microphone that they would be heard – no matter if it has pointed sideways or held down by their waistband.

Like I said earlier, I can’t blame them because they don’t have the knowledge of how microphones work like I do. So it is my job to let them know. And it is your job as well.

Step 4: Isolate the Vocalist

As you can see, up to this point we haven’t touched a single knob or control on the console, and Step 4 will be the same. After you’ve been through the first three steps, you will then need to make sure you’ve isolated to vocalist the best you can.

Many people aim to get a vocal sound live like they hear on a recording. This is a great goal to have, but physically impossible at a certain point. Why? Well, most vocals you hear on recordings today are done in complete isolation. The vocalist is put in a soundproof room with headphones and they sing along with the song. The mix engineer then has complete control over every aspect of that vocal recording.

As live sound engineers, we don’t get this luxury. But that’s not to say that we can’t do our best!

Isolating our vocalists the best we can will help dramatically improve the clarity and quality of our vocals. So how do we do this? Aside from mic choice, we do this by being smart about where they are placed on stage.

For example – a terrible place to put a singer is in close proximity to a drummer. Drums are the loudest things on stage, and every mic within 10 feet of them are bound to have some issues. So keeping your vocal mics as (reasonably) far away from them as possible is a good idea.

Instead, put your vocals as far forward as you can. And if you have vocalists on the sides, try to put other instruments, like bass and keyboards, between them and the drums.

Obviously, there’s only so much that you can reasonably do, but do your best to make smart decisions about where you place things on stage.

Step 5: High-Pass the Microphone

Now that we’ve talked about all the preliminary steps we can take to getting some great sounding vocals, let’s talk about what we can do on the technical side of things.

Before you touch anything else, you need to apply a high-pass filter to your vocal. This will be something you won’t hear a huge change after doing. But don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s insignificant.

What is a high-pass filter and why do you need it?

A high-pass filter (HPF) is an EQ filter type that attenuates all frequency content below a specified cutoff frequency. For example – If I set a HPF at 100Hz, then everything below 100Hz (starting at 100Hz) will be attenuated at a certain rate, depending on the curve of the HPF. This can also be referred to as a low-cut.

This is not to be confused with a low-pass filter (high-cut). A LPF works in the exact same way, but on the opposite side of the frequency spectrum.

Why is a HPF so important?

The reason you should use an HPF is that it removes unneeded frequency content. Applying this to a single channel might not make a huge difference. But applying this to 5, 10, 25, 50 or more channels can make a world of difference. If not dealt with, the low frequency build-up across many channels can result in a very muddy and muffled sound with no definition or clarity – not to mention destroying any needed headroom in your system.

Where to Start?

While HPF’s are very important, they can also be taken too far. So it’s important not to overdo it. Otherwise, you may end up with a thin and weak sounding vocal because you took out too much body.

100Hz is a good starting place for most vocals. Certain male vocals may need to be brought down to about 80Hz. Or a bass singer in an acappella group may only need the HPF set to about 30Hz, while a female vocal may need to be bumped up to 110 – 120Hz.

This is where listening and trusting your ears comes into play. You want to cut enough, but not too much.

Step 6: EQ the Vocal

Step 6 is where we start getting into the fun part of mixing! In this step you will EQ (equalize) the vocal.

What is EQ?

Some of you may already know what EQ is and understand how to use it. But for those of you who don’t, let me explain.

EQ is a tool we use in sound production (live, studio, post, etc…) to balance out, or “equalize”, the frequency content of a signal – at least, that’s its primary use. It can also be used drastically to create a unique sound or effect. It is arguably the most important tool you will learn to use as a sound engineer. The reason we have this tool is to overcome the imperfections of the gear and environment around us.

Each piece of equipment the sound has to pass through will ultimately alter the sound, whether big or small. The 3 biggest contributors to that are the microphone, speakers, and the room/environment. We use EQ to correct any undesired affects these things may have on the sound.

How to EQ Vocals

EQ’ing vocals can be difficult if you’re not sure exactly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And while I can’t tell you exactly what settings you should use on your vocal, because every vocal is different, I can share with you how to make the right decisions for your situation.

Goal – To get a full, clear, and balanced sound.

To reach this goal you always want to remove (cut) problem frequencies, instead of boosting other frequencies in an attempt to “hide” the problems. Don’t sweep the dirt under the rug, just clean it up and throw it away.

I’ve divided up the frequency spectrum into sections below. I will explain to you how each frequency range will sound and how you should deal with it.

Here are the two techniques we will use to make adjustments:

  1. Make a Cut: Take the parameter, set it about an octave wide, boost about 4 or 5dB (just to exaggerate the sound) and sweep back and forth within the range until you find an undesirable resonant frequency that sticks out the most. When you find it, make a cut at that frequency of about 3dB – then listen. If you need to cut more, then do so. If you need to cut less, then make that change.
  1. Make a Boost: Take the parameter, set it about an octave wide and boost about 3 or 4dB. Sweep around within the range until you find the frequency you like. If you’ve boosted too much, bring it down 1 or 2dB. If you need a little more, you can boost another 1 or 2dB.

Note – It is easy to get carried away and start making drastic EQ moves. While this isn’t “wrong” per se, it can easily get out of control and begin to sound very unnatural. For a natural sound, it’s best to make small adjustments when possible.

Low: 20 – 100Hz

Most of the time you will not need any of this frequency content in your vocal – unless you have a man will a really low voice. You should set your HPF at around 100Hz to start with. Then, you must simply listen and adjust according to the vocal.

I suggest slowly moving the HPF up in frequency until you begin hearing the vocal lose it’s body. When you reach that point, bring the HPF back down about 10 or 15Hz. This should help bring clarity and cleanliness to the vocal.

Low-Mid: 100 – 300Hz

This is where the body of the vocal lives. Too much in this range and your vocal will sound “boomy” or “muddy”. Too little in the range and your vocal will sound “weak” and “thin”.

So, if your vocal isn’t sounding very clear, but a little muddy – Make a Cut.

If there isn’t enough body, and your vocal is sounding weak and thin – Make a Boost.

Mid: 300 – 2000Hz

The mid range holds a very wide range of frequency content. At the lower end of this range is where it sounds “boxy”. Getting up into the higher end of this range is where a lot of the nasally sound comes into play. Think of the word “watermelon”. Now think of the first syllabol “wa”. Now say it over and over – wa, wa, wa, wa…

Saying this into a microphone will help exaggerate those mid frequencies. Many people think when we say the words “boxy” and “nasally” that they are a bad thing, but that’s not true. It’s only too much of these things that is bad. A good balance in the mid-frequencies will help your vocals be fuller and upfront. Not enough content in the mid range could cause your vocals to sound hollow and far away.

So, if your vocals are sounding too boxy and nasally – Make a Cut.

If your vocals are sounding hollow and far away – Make a Boost.

High-Mid: 2000 – 5000Hz

The high-mid range is what will give your vocal clarity and intelligibility. However, too much of this range and your vocal will sound harsh and ear-piercing. This is one of the toughest ranges to get right.

There are two common mistakes people make in this range. One of them is boosting this range, trying to get more clarity, when maybe they should have made a cut in the lower end. And two, cutting out so much of this range that the vocals loses its clarity and intelligibility. So be careful when adjusting in this range.

If your vocal clarity is good, but it’s a little harsh and ear-piercing – Make a Cut.

If your vocal is needs a little more clarity and intelligibility, try cutting a little in the low end first, otherwise – Make a Boost.

High: 5000 – 20,000Hz

The high-end of the vocals is important for capturing the feeling of intimacy of the vocal. The lower end of this range is where you where get most of your sibilance – meaning the sound of the letters “s” and “t”, for example. The higher you go in this range is where you will begin to hear all the small and quiet nuances; such as breath and mouth noises.

Like the other ranges, if balanced well these things are a good. But, if balanced poorly, it can lead to a bad sounding vocal.

So, if your vocal is overly sibilant or “breathy” – Make a Cut.

If your vocal is lacking sibilance or “breathy” emotion – Make a Boost.

Step 7: Compress the Vocal

Now that we’ve applied our EQ settings to the vocal, it’s time to work on compression!

But be aware – compression can be a life changing tool, in regards to mixing, when you learn how to use it properly. However, you can also easily destroy a wonderful sounding mix with compression if you don’t know what you’re doing.

So, what is compression?

In audio, a compressor is a tool that helps limit the dynamic range of a signal. This is especially helpful on vocals. Vocalists are very dynamic singers – sometimes nearly whispering and in the same song could be belting their lungs out. Musically, this can be a very good thing. However, as a mix engineer it can make getting a consistent balance quite difficult.

Using a compressor can help us make those quiet parts a little louder, and those really loud parts a little softer, resulting in a more dynamically consistent signal.

With that said, let’s briefly go over the parameters you should be familiar with. After you understand the parameters, I will give you some good starting points and teach you how to adjust accordingly.

Compressor Parameters

Threshold

The threshold is the level a signal must exceed in order for the compressor to begin working.

For example – If I set a threshold of -10dB, then the compressor will only activate when a level of -10dB or higher is reached. Anything below that level will not activate the compressor.

Ratio

The ratio, in direct relation to how far the signal has exceeded the threshold, will determine how much compression takes place.

If I set a 3:1 ratio, that means for every 3dB the threshold is exceeded, it will be compressed down to 1dB of output.

For example – If my threshold is set to -10dB and the signal reaches -7dB, with a ratio of 3:1, my resulting output will be -9dB.

Attack

The attack time (measured in milliseconds) determines how quickly the compressor reaches full compression based upon the set ratio.

For example – If I set the attack time to 20ms, once the threshold is crossed it will take 20ms for that signal to go from full volume to full compression. If I set the attack time to 0ms, it will reach full compression instantly.

Release

The release time (measured in milliseconds) will determine how quickly the compressor fully disengages itself from the signal once it’s fallen below the threshold.

For example – If I set a release time of 100ms, after the signal has fallen below threshold, it will take 100ms for the compressor to fully stop compressing.

Knee

The knee will determine the transition curve from uncompressed to compressed, and vice versa.

For example – A “hard knee” will prompt full compression as soon as the threshold is met and only when the threshold is met (yielding only to attack time). A “soft knee” will spread the ratio to below and above the threshold. This will cause small amounts of compression to happen as the signal approaches the threshold and more compression as the signal exceeds the threshold (to a certain point).

The point of the knee control is to get the same amount of compression, but in a more “disguisable” way; in a way that’s not as noticeable.

Makeup Gain

The makeup gain adjusts the level of the overall signal after compression has occurred.

Since you have now limited the dynamic range of the signal, you should now have enough headroom to bring up the overall level. That is what we use makeup gain for.

Compressing the Vocals

Now that you understand the parameters I will give you some good parameter settings to start with. It is important to remember though that every vocal is different. And while these may be a good starting point, they will probably need to be slightly adjusted to the vocal you are working with.

Very Dynamic Vocal

  • Threshold: Adjust until averaging 3 – 6dB of compression
  • Ratio: 5:1
  • Attack: 5ms
  • Release: 200ms
  • Knee: Soft Knee
  • Makeup Gain: 3 – 6dB (based upon average compression reduction)

Average Dynamic Vocal

  • Threshold: Adjust until averaging 3 – 4dB of compression
  • Ratio: 4:1
  • Attack: 5ms
  • Release: 200ms
  • Knee: Soft Knee
  • Makeup Gain: 3 – 4dB (based upon average compression reduction)

Dynamically Consistent Vocal

  • Threshold: Adjust until averaging 2 – 4dB of compression
  • Ratio: 3:1
  • Attack: 5ms
  • Release: 200ms
  • Knee: Soft Knee
  • Makeup Gain: 2 – 4dB (based upon average compression reduction)

Step 8: Add Effects to the Vocal

At this point you should be about 90% there. Your vocals should sound crisp, clear and cutting through the mix. If you’re not happy with them at this point, don’t move on. Figure out what’s not sounding right and fix it; whether that be the mic technique, EQ, compression, etc… But once you are happy, we can start Step 8!

Adding effects to a vocal is not necessary, but it’s always nice to have. It’s like the cherry on top of your ice cream. Using the effects can add a sense of space and realism to the vocal, and any instrument for that matter. This can give your vocal that extra 10% of quality and satisfaction. And this last 10% is more “feeling” than hearing.

There are many effects you can add to a vocal – delay, chorus, reverb, flangers, phasers, pitch shifters, etc… But we will just talk about 2 of them here since they are the most common and most practical – Reverb and Delay.

Reverb

Have you ever been in a large building and clapped your hands really loud? And that clap created a long wash of sound that went on for 2, 3, 5, 7 seconds? That is reverb. Our ears are accustomed to hearing this room noise, even if it is very small and you don’t pay attention to it. If you were to walk into a room with zero room noise, you would notice it immediately and probably feel a bit uncomfortable.

This is why we use reverb on a vocal. To combat the unnatural feeling created by the vocalist singing just an inch or two away from the mic. Applying reverb to that vocal can give it a sense of space.

Basic Reverb Parameters:

Depending on the reverb being used, there can be dozens of parameters available to you. We won’t go over all of them here. We’ll just talk about the few most important and most common.

Reverb Type: There are many reverb types. And which one you choose will determine the texture and feel of the reverb. There are rooms, plates, halls, springs, and chambers.

Room Size: The room size will determine how large or small of a room you want to emulate.

Pre-Delay: Pre-delay is the time between hearing the original sound and the beginning of early reflections and reverb tail. This setting will determine how close or how far away your vocal sounds.

Decay: Decay is how long the reverb tail lasts.

Vocal Reverb Settings:

  • Reverb Type: Plate
  • Room Size: Medium
  • Pre-Delay: 50ms
  • Decay: 2000ms (2 seconds)

The above settings are a great start for a vocal reverb. Plates always have a nice shimmery quality to them. The room size is typical for vocals. The pre-delay is just enough so as to not “push” the vocal back too far. The decay is a good all-rounded number.

Of course, you can (and should) adjust these settings how you like and however fits best for the vocalist and music, but this will be a good starting point.

Delay

For all intents and purposes, you could think of delay as “echo”. Like when you scream “hey!” into the Grand Canyon, and then you hear it echo 2 or 3 more times.

Delay, much like reverb, can also help add another dimension to your mix, helping the vocal to not sound so dry and unnatural. Delay blended with reverb can really help your vocal to “feel” good.

Much like reverb, delays can have dozens of controls, but we’ll focus here on the most important ones.

Delay Parameters:

Time: The time parameter will determine the time between the original sound and the start of the delay, as well as the amount of time between delays. This is measured in either milliseconds (ms) or note values (1/4 note, 1/8 note, 1/16 note, etc…) and can usually be assigned to a tap-tempo button the on the console.

Feedback: The feedback parameter will determine how many delays or “echoes” you will hear. This is normally a percentage value.

Vocal Delay Settings:

  • Time: 1/4 note (tap tempo)
  • Feedback: 25%

DELAY TIP: Set a high-pass filter at about 800Hz and a low-pass filter at about 4kHz on your delay send. This will make your delay very midranged, which will help keep your delay from clashing with your original vocal.

Again, you can (and should) adjust these settings how you like and however fits best for the vocalist and music, but this will be a good starting point.

Overall Effects

Overall, your effects shouldn’t be too loud, unless you’re going for an exaggerated sound. In fact, they should almost not even be heard. Like I said before, your effects are meant to be felt more than heard. So when applying these effects, send your vocal slowly to them and once you begin hearing the effect, back off just a touch. This should leave you with a nice “feeling” vocal.

Step 9: Ride the Faders

Step 9 is very important and very simple. But unfortunately, it is one that I see many people skip. At this point, your vocal should be sounding and feeling great! The only thing left to do is make sure it’s consistently heard. This is when you ride the faders. That means keep your hands on the vocal faders. As the dynamics of the singer and the band changes, you should be moving the vocal faders accordingly to make sure the balance stays correct.

Many people think this is solely the job of a compressor, but that’s not true. A compressor is there to help tame the vocal dynamics. But you are there to mix the vocals.

So ride those faders!

Conclusion

As you can see, there is a lot that goes into getting a great vocal sound. It all starts with the vocalist and their technique. From there you must know how to use the tools at your disposal properly; such as EQ, compression and effects. I hope I’ve helped you understand these tools and the steps you should take in using them to improve your vocal mix!

Please come back here anytime to refresh your memory! Thanks for reading!

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