Mixing lead vocal tracks can be a challenge as we often put ourselves under immense pressure to get them balanced tastefully within a mix. Mixing a lead vocal track is generally one of the last processes that most producers and engineers address in a mix as it’s the cherry on the cake, the feature, the main element that our listening audience’s ear will latch onto, sing along with and most importantly connect with emotionally. Those points together illustrate how pressure can start to build up when we mix lead vocal tracks but what can we do to make our lives easier when all we want is to get a great sounding vocal sound?
Setting a tasteful amount of compression is more often why many struggle mixing vocals. Too much compression and a vocal can sound strangled and lifeless, too little compression and a vocal can sound dynamically intermittent or disconnected from a mix. How then can we process the dynamics of lead vocals outside of traditional approaches that can help us sit vocals purposefully in a mix?
In this article we explore four different ways you can use to process the dynamics of your lead vocals. Each of these approaches can be used individually on a lead vocal track, you could also blend several of these together to produce great sounding vocals in your next mix.
The term riding the faders describes a technique used by mix engineers who constantly adjust a channel’s gain on a physical fader in a mix. This interaction can be used to mimic the effects of compression. Fader riding was used frequently in the early days of music production as it helped engineers to prevent signals from overloading their equipment and remains to this day a useful technique to help us sit tracks in a mix.
In the advent of DAWs the real interaction of fader riding has moved from manipulating a physical fader to drawing in lines in volume automation lanes. This approach is fairly similar but drawing in automation into a track using a mouse is very much guess work at best whereas fader riding feels more natural and instinctive but what if you don’t have a control surface to hand to be able to ride a fader?
Waves Vocal Rider is a clever solution as it brings together both the methodology behind the physical art of fader riding and the power of DAW automation within one plug-in. It is designed to work hard at preserving the natural dynamics of audio while performing some degree of dynamic processing true to real fader riding. This is a quick plug-in to set up and sports a handful of simple controls for setting the aggressiveness of the fader riding.
Watch our tutorial below to see how Waves Vocal Rider works and to hear it in action.
Double Bagging Two Different Styles Of Compressor
Do you struggle with getting your lead vocal tracks to sit front and centre in a mix with a just a single compressor? If so, you should try stacking two compressors in your vocal plug-in chain by feeding one into another. Some lead vocals have wide dynamic ranges which can cause a single instance of a compressor plug-in to work too hard which can result in overly squished sounding loud sections and tame softer sections. Two compressors helps to spread the load… as we’re speaking compressors here… spread the loud.
In this video we demonstrate double bagging to compressors on a lead vocal track. The plug-ins we used to process this vocal are Waves amazing sounding CLA-76 and CLA-2A plug-ins. Both apply levelling like compressors should but both clamp down on the vocal’s dynamics in different ways. The trick here is to use two compressors with different attack timings, one slow, the other fast.
Waves CLA-76 Fed Into Waves CLA-2A
Waves CLA-2A Fed Into Waves CLA-76
There are some compressor plug-ins out there that provide dual compression within the same UI such as Waves MV2. In the previous two videos we showed you a way of mixing your lead vocal tracks with two compressor plug-ins, Waves CLA-2A & CLA-76. In this video we show you an alternative way to double dip the dynamics on your vocals using Waves MV2.
The MV2 plug-in is a very simple plug-in to use featuring two compressor fader controls and one output level control. The two main compressor faders provide:
High-Level Compression: Performs how you expect a traditional compressor to work when signal passes a threshold. Attack and release times are fixed and taken care of behind the scenes but what makes this control very useful is that it automatically compensates the level difference when compression is applied.
Low-Level Compression: Performs in an opposite way. Signal below the threshold is compressed upwards adding more gain to low level audio.
In this video we use MV2’s low and high level controls to level the dynamics of a vocal track that was performed hot in the entry of the first line and softer in the second.
Transient designers are a cool form of dynamics processing that are commonly used to enhance or soften the attack of percussive tracks such as drums. They work equally as well on some styles of vocal tracks, especially if you want to bring out some aggression in the performance. Wave Smack Attack is a transient designer with many cool features such as the ability to set sensitivity and duration settings individually for both attack and sustain controls. Watch our video to hear how transient shaping a vocal helps to bring out an edge and bite from a short section of a percussive vocal line.
Multi-band compression works well on lead vocals if several issues need to be tackled in one hit such as harsh sounding sibilance and mid range boxiness. Multi-band compressors are exactly that, multi, as in more than one compressor. They’re easy to set if you know what you are listening for.
Watch our video to see how multi-band compression tames a lead vocal’s top end as well treating the boxy sounding lower mids while leaving the airy highs alone.
Visit the Waves website for more information on the plug-ins used in this article