Mixing a lead vocal isn’t always an easy process in music production. It often comes with an enormous amount of pressure to get the best sounding results as lead vocals can either make or break a mix.
Developing the skills to mix a great vocal track each and every time can take years to achieve, which is a bitter pill to swallow for those currently working on productions that need top sounding vocals now. Luckily there are several plug-ins that simplify the process of vocal mixing and can take lead vocals from zero to hero in a matter of minutes.
How To Get A Great Sounding Vocal Track In Your Next Production
Mixing the perfect vocal track is only ever one part of the music production puzzle, in order to get a great sounding vocal you need to make sure that the vocals you intend to process already sound as good as they can beforehand. A term often used in audio production is “Garbage in, garbage out”, this definitely applies to vocal production.
If a vocal track you are mixing sounds bad then there’s little chance of saving it in the mix. A bad sounding vocal can refer to:
A performance sounding weak or uncertain
The tone of a vocal sounding thin, boomy or distorted.
A vocal sounding poorly recorded.
In short, there are plenty of things to take into consideration in vocal production well before any vocal mixing take place if you really want to achieve the best possible sounding vocals in your music.
We’ve published several helpful tips, tricks and tutorials to help you learn how to pre-produce, arrange and record great sounding vocals at the tracking stage. Learning how to get great sounding vocals at source is really important as the better the vocals sound down the microphone the better the results will be later when you come to the mix.
Check out our Vocal Production Handbook to learn some fundamental pre and post production vocal techniques.
These tutorials are arranged in order of workflow to help you develop an understanding of the entire vocal production workflow from tracking, through to editing, tuning and mixing.
What Processors And Effects Are Commonly Used To Mix A Vocal?
There are no hard and fast vocal mixing rules nor any one-size-fits-all mixing techniques as different genres and vocal styles demand different mix approaches. That said, there are a number of common tools for the job that help us to achieve the desired results when processing a lead vocal track.
The plug-ins we have featured in this article are plug-ins we feel can make vocal mixing easier for you. Many of these bring together more than one module or processor in a single plug-in.
We have listed a number of modules and effects commonly used in vocal mixing and explained how each are used to process a vocal to help you understand what the following plug-ins in this article provide in terms of processing:
These are referred to in two different ways, but are essentially the same thing:
Low and high cut filters
High and low pass filters
Filters are essential tools that shape the tone of vocals. Use filters to either cut away the low end tone (using a high pass/low cut filter) or attenuate top end sizzle and air (using a low pass/high cut filter). You will typically find filters in EQ modules or plug-ins, though there are plenty of plug-ins out there that provide only filter shaping.
EQ is used to adjust a vocal’s timbre by changing the level of certain frequencies. EQ is the tool to use to change the colour of a vocal, may it be to brighten/darken a vocal or thin out/warm up a track.
Pitch And Time Correction
There will be times when a vocal needs some tuning applied. Some genres, such as EDM or Hip Hop, often demand a vocal’s pitch to be tuned heavily for creative purposes, while other styles of music require transparent tuning that goes largely unnoticed by listeners. Both tuning approaches are fine and should be experimented with to suit the style of music you are working on.
Compressors reduce the dynamic range of audio between its loudest and quietest parts by attenuating louder signals. The results of compression provide vocal tracks with a levelled sound which is considered by many engineers to be necessary for helping to sit a vocal in a mix.
Sibilance is a the name given to “ess” sounds common in recorded vocal tracks that if left untreated can upset the overall presentation of a vocal in a mix. De-essers are the tool for attenuating sibilance though not all vocal tracks need it. Sibilance is caused by a number of factors coming together including the vocalist’s sound and style as well as the type of microphone they are using. Sibilance has a distinctive sss or shh sound in the high end around the 2kHz to 5kHz range. This sound can be exaggerated if the vocal has also been heavily compressed. DeEssers can be used post compressor to reduce this. They’re super simple to use. Think of DeEssers as a single-band from multiband compressor that focuses only on one specific area in the frequency spectrum. Set a DeEsser’s range to the area of the harsh sound and manipulate the compressor like controls to taste.
Plug-ins That Simplify Lead Vocal Mixing
There are two main types of plug-ins that you can use to mix your lead vocal tracks with that produce amazing sounding results. One being a channel strip style plug-in. These often combine several traditional modules such as EQ, dynamics and ambiences that together help users produce classic “radio ready” results. The other form of vocal production plug-in in this list are creative suites that enable users to stamp a synth like or heavy tuned sound signature to vocal tracks.
Antares AutoTune EFX+
Auto-Tune EFX+ is one of those creative suite style plug-ins produced by the kings of melodic tuning, Antares. The latest version of EFX+ combines several new processors, which are great to use for producing unique ear catching vocal effects. At the heart of EFX+ is Antares famous Auto-Tune engine which is used by countless producers around the world but what makes EFX+ unique is its creative tone shaping credentials. Auto-Tune EFX+ provides so many amazing vocal tones that at times you will feel as though you are using a VI or soft synth. This is very much a plug-in you will want to experiment with in both tracking and mixing, as well as in initial top line writing.
The effects in Auto-Tune EFX+ include:
Pitch and Throat: Real-time pitch shifting and throat modeling
Duet: Dial in realistic doubling, with adjustable pitch and timing variation
Vocode: Instill vintage analog vocoder emulations
Tube Amp: Warm up vocals using analog tube distortion modeling
Mutate: Ring modulated audio mutation
Filter: Dial in high-pass filtering for special effects
Check out our video test of Auto-Tune EFX+ to hear a selection of the presets in action on a lead vocal.
Visit Antares for more information.
iZotope Nectar 3
Nectar 3 is iZotope’s all-in-one solution for vocal production. It features a suite of essential modules for the job of lead vocal production including EQ, pitch correction tools, dynamics and ambiences. iZotope also includes a copy of Celemony’s Melodyne 4 Essential, which is considered by many to be the industry standard pitch and time correction plug-ins as Melodyne provides an intuitive and transparent pitch tool for processing vocal performances. Nectar 3 also includes iZotope RX Breath Control, an intelligent tool that automatically detects and attenuates breaths in dialogue and vocal recordings.
The standout feature in Nectar 3 is the Vocal Assistant, another iZotope machine learning tool that on this occasion offers up vocal mixing suggestions based on what you play it. It’s very smart indeed.
Nectar is available in three versions. Nectar 3 Elements provides a limited set of controls, Nectar 3 provides all the bells and whistles you could possibly need for all styles of vocal mixing. Check out our reviews of Nectar range below:
Nectar Elements: $129
Nectar 3: $249 (Includes Nectar 3 plug-in, Melodyne 4 essential, RX 7 Breath Control)
Vocal Bundle: $299 (Includes Nectar 3 plug-in, Melodyne 4 essential, VocalSynth 2)
Visit iZotope for more information.
iZotope VoiceSynth 2
VocalSynth 2 is another of iZotope’s vocal mixing plug-ins, this one being geared solely towards the creative aspects of vocal production. Like Antares EFX, VocalSynth is also on the borderline of being a synthesiser or virtual instrument. Voice tracks can be taken from clean sounding through to otherworldly melodies within a handful of choice mouse clicks. Being able for users to be creative quickly is something VocalSynth 2 provides throughout its UI.
You are only a ever a simple click away from achieving the wow factor as the vocal sound you’ve just produced in VocalSynth 2 sounds more impressive than the sound you initially heard in your head and set out to produce. Check out our review of VocalSynth 2 to learn more about what it can do…
Price: VocalSynth 2 $199, also available in The Vocal Bundle which includes Nectar 3 plug-in, Melodyne 4 essential $299
Visit iZotope for more information.
Toontrack EZmix 2
EZmix 2 is a preset based effects engine plug-in by Toontrack. Each preset name has been cleverly thought out to describe each preset’s style of sound. The presets can easily be filtered through to narrow down the search results and find the most tasteful presets. EZmix only provide two controls per preset that are unique to the preset you have selected, which you may think is an intentional limitation by Toontrack, but it isn’t. Only having two controls to adjust is actually liberating as often less options can make it easier to get a sound working in a mix.
Price: EZmix 2 $179, Lead Vocal EZmix Pack $49
Visit Toontrack for more information.
Waves Greg Wells VoiceCentric
VoiceCentric is one knob solution from Waves for vocal mixing that includes three effects. It provides a user-friendly interface with the majority of the EQ and dynamics processing taking place under the hood by use of the main dial. The delay, doubler and reverb effects are great for adding instant gratification to any lead vocal track. Once you’ve experienced VoiceCentric you may find it hard to ever put it down.
Visit Waves for more information.
Each plug-in price listed in this article are stated on developer websites as of June 2019. These prices may change overtime, or better still, be less depending on promotions and deals in the future.
What Plug-ins Do You Use For Vocal Mixing?
This list is by no means complete, its 6 tools we find ourselves using over and over. We would love to find out what plug-ins you use and trust for vocal mixing.