On my weekly live group Q&A call with my Mixing Mastery students last night, we got into a discussion about “what’s the most important thing in a mix.” There were various answers, like getting the balance of all the parts right, or making sure that the volume levels are consistent and competitive, or making sure all of the parts are spread evenly across the frequency spectrum and the stereo panning spectrum.

While those things are all important elements of any mix, none of them is the most important thing.  For me, what’s really most important — not just in the mix, but in every step of the music production process — is the vocal. Or, if you’re doing instrumental-only music, the melody instrument.

Why would the vocal take precedence over everything else? Well, to me, the entire purpose of creating a music production is to make an emotional connection with the listener. And nowhere do we have more power to convey that emotion than with the vocal. The vocal expresses the mood of the song. The vocal, through the lyric, tells the story or makes the point of the song. The vocal tells us how the singer — the one who serves the role of conveying of the song’s point or story — is feeling as he or she is singing it.

Because the vocal plays such a critical role in the song, when we are mixing, we need to take the time and care to make absolutely sure that the vocal takes “center stage” in the production.

I believe that often, the difference between a good mix and a great mix is attention to detail and nuance. And nowhere is that truer than with the treatment of the vocal. With so-so mixes, I often find that the vocal reverb hasn’t been set appropriately for “positioning” the vocal within the overall space of the mix, and/or the vocal reverb hasn’t been set appropriately for the genre of the song.

I also hear in a lot of mixes that little or no “fader-riding” (through volume automation) has been applied to the vocal, so certain words get a little buried, while others pop out too much. This makes the listener have to work harder to hear the vocal, and the result is that the emotional connection with the listener is broken. Often, vocal “fader-riding” isn’t applied because the person who mixed the song believed that all those vocal peaks and valleys could be addressed solely through the use of compression.

Not so!  It’s more often than not the combination of compression and subtle volume automation that makes a vocal really “sit” well across an entire mix. When only compression is used, it’s often over-applied; when volume automation is applied along with compression, then the compression doesn’t need to be as heavy-handed.

There are other areas besides reverb, compression and volume automation that need to be addressed when mixing a vocal, like EQ. And of course, all of these things assume that at the recording stage, that the right mic was selected, it was positioned correctly for the vocalist and the song, and was used in a good recording space.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the video modules in my Mixing Mastery online course that talks about processing the vocal for a jazz mix:

This excerpt is from the very first module in my Mixing Mastery program, and just scratches the surface on the topic. I go into a LOT more detail about mixing vocals (and everything else) in subsequent modules. If you’re interested in this kind of thing (and you need to be if you want to create commercially competitive mixes), then check out www.MixingMastery.com for more info.

Do you have any special techniques that you use on vocals when mixing? There’s certainly no single “right” way to approach the subject, and I always love to hear what other folks are doing, so please comment below. Happy mixing!  🙂