Mixing vocals is one of the most important parts of music production. Getting a professional sounding vocal mix can take your tracks to the next level.
In this comprehensive guide, I’ll walk you through my process for mixing vocals in Ableton Live 11 from start to finish.
Whether you’re working with recorded vocals or virtual instruments, these techniques will give your vocals clarity, polish and power. Let’s dive in!
Setup Your Vocal Track
The first step is preparing your vocal track for mixing. Here are some tips:
Record In a Treated Space
If possible, record vocals in an acoustically treated space to capture a clean, dry vocal sound. This gives you maximum flexibility when mixing.
Use a Pop Filter
Place a pop filter between the singer and microphone to reduce plosives (popping “p” and “b” sounds). This prevents distortion and lets you use more compression.
Pick a Great Microphone
Choosing the right mic for the singer’s voice type is key. Warm tube mics like the Telefunken ELAM 251 complement deeper voices, while condensers like the Neumann U87 shine on higher registers.
Record Multiple Takes
Capture 3-5 takes back-to-back to comp together later for the best possible performance. Make sure levels are consistent across takes.
Set Levels and Add EQ
Once you’ve recorded your takes, it’s time to balance levels and sculpt tone:
Balance Lead and Backing Vocals
Use clip volume levels to ensure lead vocals sit clearly above backing vocals and harmonies. Backing vocals usually sit around -5 to -10dB lower than leads.
High-Pass Around 100Hz
Add a high-pass filter at 100Hz to remove low rumble and leave room for other instruments. This also increases clarity.
Add “Air” at 10-15kHz
Boost the top end between 10-15kHz by a few dB to add air and presence. This brings vocals forward in the mix.
Attenuate Harsh Resonances
Find any unpleasant resonant frequencies using a narrow boost, then attenuate them slightly to smooth out the vocal tone. Around 700Hz and 5kHz are common problem areas.
Strategic compression is crucial for smooth, consistent vocals. Here are some effective compression settings:
Fast Attack and Medium Release
Set the attack between 10-30ms to control transients, and the release between 100-300ms to avoid pumping. Start with a 2:1 ratio.
Compress With a Soft Knee
Using a soft knee compression curve sounds more natural on vocals. Try a 3-6dB threshold reduction to start.
De-essing tames overly sibilant vocals. Set a tight frequency band between 7kHz-8kHz where sibilance lives and compress 8-10dB.
Create a parallel compression track. Heavy compression (10:1, -20dB threshold) adds density when blended with the original vocal.
Subtle time-based effects give vocals dimension. Here are some starting points:
Add a touch of delay for space and slaps. Try 15-25ms delay time with 30% feedback. Sync to tempo.
Slapback uses a short delay like 50-100ms to “double” the vocal. Great on choruses.
Use a short 0.5-1 second reverb for a little extra bloom. Plate and hall reverbs work nicely on vocals.
Thicken vocals with a modulated chorus effect. Use a medium rate and low depth for a natural sound.
Automating mixer and effect parameters over time maximizes impact:
Boost the chorus slightly and attenuate verses for dynamics. Smooth transitions are key.
Cut lows before choruses and boost them during verses to make room for other elements.
De-ess more aggressively during sibilant syllables and ease off on vowels and lower passages.
Increase delay and reverb during choruses to make them bigger and more emotive. Add space to ends of phrases too.
Final polishing and loudness maximization in mastering takes the mix to commercial quality:
Before limiting, add a “shelf” EQ boosting highs and lows for a full-bandwidth sound. Add a Mid/Side EQ to widen the stereo image.
Use multiple compressors in series for smooth, controlled compression. Opto, FET and VCA compressors complement each other nicely.
Use a Limiter
Add a touch of lookahead limiting. Increase input gain until you achieve desired loudness, usually averaging around -9 LUFS integrated level today. Add any final EQ if needed.
Common Vocal Mixing Fixes
Here are some common problems and how to fix them:
Cut around 200-400Hz to remove muddiness. Compress again with faster attack. Sidechain compress clashing instruments.
Harsh and Sibilant
De-ess the main vocal then duplicate it and high-pass filter above 5kHz for an “air” track. Compress air track heavily.
Compress faster transients first. Boost 1-3kHz for diction clarity. Add 200-400Hz to fill out thin voices. Limit consonants with volume automation.
Vocals Get Lost
Push vocals louder in the mix! Compress with more gain reduction. Don’t be afraid to automate other instruments down under vocal lines to clear space. Add saturation to increase presence. Duplicate wider or in mono below for thickness.
Manually ride levels during recording. In mixing, use clip gain volume automation to smooth out levels. Use a faster compressor attack time.
Lifeless and Flat
Add a little reverb and delay to create space. Use saturation or tube modeling to add character. Use automation to create movement. Pan background harmonies wider to increase width. Sidechain compress against instruments eating up frequency space.
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about mixing vocals in Ableton Live:
Should I use clip gain or a gain plugin?
Use clip gain for adjusting levels between takes/sections and gain plugins for creative/corrective level shaping.
How do I know which frequencies to cut/boost?
Try narrow bell boosts and sweeps to find problem areas. Exaggerate cuts/boosts at first for training your ear.
What’s the best vocal synth VST?
Some great options are SynthVocal, Voicemod, MorphVOX, and Harmony Engine. They offer natural-sounding results if set up right.
Is melodyne or autotune better for pitch correction?
For transparent pitch correction on sustained notes, Melodyne gives more control. Autotune works better for faster passages by locking onto the nearest semitone.
Should I record vocals dry or with reverb?
Record totally dry! You want the most flexible raw vocals to work with in mixing. Only use reverb while recording if absolutely necessary.
How do I get clear vocals in a busy mix?
Carve space with subtractive EQ on instruments occupying the same frequency range. Use sidechain compression on those elements too. Let the vocal shine through using automation to dip instruments under key lines.
What’s a natural reverb time for vocals?
Shorter reverbs around 0.7 – 1.5 seconds usually sound best on vocals. Long or heavily modulated reverbs can make vocals distant. Use a pre-delay of 15-25ms to increase clarity.
That covers the complete process for mixing professional quality vocals in Ableton Live 11. If you follow these tips for setup, tone shaping, compression, effects and final polish, you’ll be able to make your vocals shine in any genre. Don’t forget to experiment – small adjustments to attack times, EQ bands, and effect settings can make a big difference. Mastering these core techniques will take your music productions to the next level.
The key is to trust your ears above all else. Learn what makes vocals sound good to you, and don’t be afraid to break the “rules” if it achieves your creative vision. With some practice and patience, you’ll be nailing pristine vocal mixes in no time. Happy Ableton Live mixing!