So you’ve recorded great vocal takes, edited them and now you’re mixing your song, but the vocals won’t shine out as much as you’d like them to. No problem, but it’s not just about frequencies…
You might know that you need to clean up your frequencies in the mix, and of course to make the vocals stand out, you shouldn’t have too much other stuff (read: instruments) going on in the same frequency range as the singer is in – at least not while they are singing. And sure, you can boost the range around 1-2 kHz to make the voice more understandable and shiny. But don’t overdo this or it will sound tinny, unless you go for that effect.
But if it’s not all about the frequencies, what else can you do? Well, think of your mix like a stage with all the musicians on it. They don’t all stand in one spot in the middle of it, do they? I sometimes use the panning knob pretty harshly and I have no problem with a guitar panned very far to the right and maybe some synth arpeggio very far on the left side of the stereo panorama. Don’t be afraid to stretch it all out in front of you (and the listener). Of course you should always listen carefully and not overdo it, but you shouldn’t be too shy either. Sometimes it’s already enough to just go a little and suddenly there’s room enough for the voice.
The singer stands front and center, but of course there are some instruments that are usually located in the center too, especially things like drums (think of a live stage: drums are usually located behind the singer). But you can still spread the drums a little bit: Kick drum in the center or very close to it (this usually doesn’t interfere with the vocals), snare a little bit to the left, hihat a little bit to the right (or vice versa – depends on your taste, although there might be some purists who would only want these to be panned like a real drumset).
Here’s an example for the panning in a recent mix I did: Some of the tracks that appear to be centered still have some kind of panning effect on them, like AutoPan or the Waves Doubler with which certain sounds can be made fuller (see my post about Rises and transitions and how to make them more epic) but also spread them in the stereo panorama, especially if you turn down the original, centered signal and mainly use the doubled ones that are located to the left and right.
This room is too big
Two other things that can make your vocals vanish in your mix are too much reverb and delay. This might seem obvious, but sometimes we all tend to go a little bit too strong on these. So don’t overdo it unless you want your singer to be far in the back like they’re in a big, empty room. But then again if the singer is in an empty room, how come the instruments are all up close?
Louder and louder
Don’t make the mistake of mixing the vocals louder and louder just because there are more instruments coming in for the chorus or even more and louder ones towards the end. Of course the singer sings louder in the chorus and at the grand finale, and this should reflect in the mix, but if the singer stsill can’t get through the instrumental playback, it’s better to lower the instrumental playback a bit instead of making the vocals even louder (and maybe starting to get some distortion problems). If the vocals are an important part of your song (and in my opinion they should be), give them not only the frequency room and stereo space, but also make room for them in the volume range.
One last tip: While mixing, mute and unmute the vocals every now and then to see how they fit in the mix. You don’t want them to stick out too much, but they should also not be to quiet. When you mute and unmute the vocal track you’ll hear right away how they fit in the mix.