How To Make Room for Vocals in a Mix


Vocals are a significant part of any track. The popularity of any project relies heavily on just how well the vocals resonate with the listening public. This is why sound engineers spend as much time as possible to get the perfect vocal sound. They achieve this by making room for vocals after creating a mix, but how do you do this?

To make room for vocals in a mix, you can use specialized EQ (equalizing) techniques by inserting an EQ on any element that may mask the vocal and attenuating the major vocal frequency using a bell filter. You can also use sidechaining by placing a compressor on the elements you want to move.

The rest of the article will look at these techniques in closer detail.

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Making Room for Vocals With EQ Techniques

You can clear up some space in a mix by properly equalizing non-vocals. The entire mixing process mostly involves EQ and level, so you can count on EQs as a major tool when you need to allow vocals to cut through other elements in your mix. 

One of the best ways to make room for vocals in the mix is to create space for the main frequencies found in the vocal, especially the fundamental frequencies covering the range of notes the vocalist can deliver.

The fundamental frequency will fall between 100-300 Hz for male vocalists, while the range for female vocalists is typically between 200-400 Hz. Ensuring that these frequencies are built into the mix is important for a vocal segment’s weight. These mid and low-mid frequencies all help the vocals sound as full as possible because the frequencies are located on those notes. The notes rendered will also feel reinforced.

To find the approximate range of the vocal frequency you’re making room for in a track, you should use a spectrum analyzer on a sample of the vocal. Finding the fundamental frequencies is usually straightforward because they register the highest amplitude of any other harmonic when you’re looking at the analyzer. With the frequencies sorted, the next step is to continue with space creation. 

Below are some of the EQ techniques you can use:

Using Static EQ Attenuation on Non-Vocal Tracks

When static EQ attenuation on non-vocal tracks is in use, the vocal will no longer compete with other elements for the vocal frequencies. This approach will make the vocals more audible without losing any weight.

Here are the steps:

  1. Insert an EQ on any element that may mask the vocal.  
  2. Once done, attenuate the major vocal frequency using a bell filter to complete the process. 

EQing Non-Vocals To Create Room for Vocal Sibilance

Sibilance refers to the high (and sometimes harsh) high-frequency sounds that come from singing words with the letters X, S, SH, and F. These may be hard and distracting (typically addressed by de-essing). 

However, they still need to be heard cleanly through any mix if you want the vocals to be intelligible and have a presence. Sibilant sounds often occur between 3-8 kHz. Clearing up non-vocals around these vocals will ensure adequate room for these sounds. With the sounds coming out clearer, it will be easier to see if de-essing is necessary and to what extent.

Sidechain Compression

We have looked at static EQ methods that can help you create room for vocals in a mix, but they are not always the best approach. This is because once vocal frequencies are attenuated over non-vocal elements, they will remain that way—even when the vocal isn’t playing. The result is gaps that sound unnatural when reviewing the frequency content for the non-vocal bits.

This can hold a disadvantage for melodic elements and mixes with chords. Certain notes in the melodies around the EQ dips may become quieter, making it harder for listeners to enjoy the full melody as originally intended. Similarly, chords played near the EQ band may sound unbalanced if some of the voices within the chord are attenuated a bit too much.

To avoid these problems, it’s often best to use dynamic solutions to create the room so that non-vocals will only be influenced when the vocals are actually playing. Sidechain compression is the most basic example of these solutions.

Here are the steps:

  1. Place a compressor on the elements you want to move around to make room for the vocal. 
  2. Select the vocal as the sidechain input. If this is done correctly, the affected elements will be compressed anytime the vocal plays, ensuring that the vocal can shine through.

Stereo Placement and Panning

It’s also possible to create room in a mix for vocals using panning. With this approach, the vocal is placed in the middle of the stereo field, allowing you to remove other elements from that environment. This way, the vocals will have enough room inside the mix. 

For elements in the mix that have to stay centered in the stereo field, you can use Mid/side EQing to work on them. These include sounds from chord-playing instruments, which are important for maintaining harmonic progression.

Countermelodies, supplementary layers and other such bits can be panned right or left to free up space for the vocals to take center stage. This approach will also give you the added benefit of having a freer stereo replication for your mix. It will sound much more interesting this way, compared to having everything centered with the vocal.

Tips To Keep in Mind When Adding Vocals to a Mix

  • Make sure the vocals are dead-center of the mix. This should be the first thing on your mind. When the track contains some back-and-forth, use light panning to add separation.
  • Avoid adding too many vocal effects. You should remember that the vocal is the main human element in a track. In many cases, it’s the only element that resonates with the audience. Don’t hamper the connection with too many effects. Keep things simple.
  • Don’t fixate on compression too much. Compression is a good approach to go with when you want to even out the dynamic range. However, if you’re not getting the results you need, it’s best to use the fader.
  • Don’t go overboard with the EQ when working on vocals. If the main recording was good enough, you won’t have a lot of work to do. It’s always a good idea to cut the vocals first before boosting. The first part to cut is the low end because these will be masked in the mix and get in the way of other elements. You should focus on cutting everything below 100 Hz.
  • Deal with vocal problems manually. Don’t make wholesale changes across the entire track. Remember that some so-called problems like paper rustling, sibilance, and breath noise may have some relevance on the track. Removing all of them can make the vocal sound excessively processed. Only use a de-esser if you have to cut really high frequencies. For excess breath noise, use de-breathing plugins.

Check out this article about the best DAW for recording vocals.

Conclusion

Making room for vocals in any mix is a straightforward process. It’s all about freeing up the frequencies around the vocal range. As with all things mixing, your results will depend a great deal on your technical skills and your equipment quality. Top engineers can complete this process in a few hours, but it could take much longer for beginners.

Always remember to store away a backup of the mix so you’ll have a fallback file to work with in the event of accidental alterations to the mix. 

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Vinnie

I'm Vinnie, and I'm here to support you to create your own studio at home, whether it’s for photography, recording audio, podcasts, or videos!

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