Mixing Vocals in Pro Tools

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Open the Lesson File

Open the Session File
Open the Session File. Joe Shambro - About.com

A few words before we jump head-first into the mixing process.

Whenever recording something complex, such as vocals, there's a few things to remember. First, make sure you're using a good-quality microphone -- some engineers believe that as much as 90% of your overall vocal tone comes from the microphone, alongside recording in a good-sounding room. You won't like your results, no matter how much mixing you do, if you don't record properly first.

In this lesson with Pro Tools, you'll be opening the session file I've provided for you with both the sound files and the session layout files. 

Once you've opened the file, you'll notice that I've given you two tracks. One, on the left, is a piano track -- it's there to help you practice mixing vocals against something with a similar sonic range. The second track is the actual vocal track itself. The vocal track was recorded with a Neumann U89 microphone through a Vintech 1272 preamp.

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Compressing The Vocals

Mixing Vocals - Compressing
Mixing Vocals - Compressing. Joe Shambro - About.com

Our first step in mixing vocals in Pro Tools is to compress the vocals. Let's take a listen to the files are naturally, with no editing or processing whatsoever. The first thing you'll notice is that the vocals are quite a bit softer than the piano track. For the sake of editing, let's go ahead and move the fader down on the piano track so that the vocals are slightly on top of them.Play back the files again with the piano brought down. Compare the vocal sound to that on a commercial recording you like. Notice that the vocals sound very "raw" in comparison? That's because they're not compressed.Compression does two things for vocals. One, it can help a vocal track stand out better in the mix by sitting better within the overall mix itself. By compressing, you're making sure that the loud and soft parts of the vocals are even. Without it, the soft parts will get buried in the mix, and the loud parts will overpower the mix. You want the vocals to have a nice, smooth sound in the mix. Second, compressing brings out the tone of the overall vocal sound better, allowing it to make a better impact.Let's click on the insert area above the track, and insert a basic compressor. Select the preset "Vocal Leveler", and look at the settings. This is a great preset to help you with compressing vocals. If your singer is very dynamic, like the one we have in this recording, you'll want to bring the "attack" - how fast the compressor kicks in on peaks/valleys - a little lower.Now, you need to compensate for the volume loss you incur when you compressed. Anytime you bring a compressor into the mix, you're changing volume, and you need to compensate for it. Move the gain slider up until you're satisfied with the added volume. Listen to the mix now. Notice that the vocals lay much better in the mix?Now, let's move on to the next step.

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Equalizing - or "EQing" - the Vocals

Mixing Vocals - EQ
Mixing Vocals - EQ. Joe Shambro - About.com

Our last step in mixing vocals in Pro Tools is EQing. Listen to both the piano and the vocal track together. You'll notice two things. One, you can hear a lot of extra low-end information in the vocals. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if it's just a solo performer. But since this is a rock-style recording, we don't really want that. You'll also notice that, when next to the piano recording, there's a little bit of intelligibility lost. Let's fix that with equalizing - or EQing.When EQing, there's two types of EQ. One is


EQ, where you boost frequencies to help the overall mix. Personally, I prefer relying on subtractive EQ for the lower frequencies, since additive EQ on the lower end tends to color the other frequencies in a way that's not too pleasing to the ear.Insert a simple EQ plug-in on the vocal channel. Let's remove that low-end noise by putting a gentle slope on the low end, around 40 Hz. Then, let's add a little bit of air to the vocals by adding about .5db of 6 Khz to the mix.Now it's time to fix the intelligibility issue. Most human speech, including singing, is centered around the middle frequencies, and area between, say, 500 Hz and 10 Khz. Let's add a gentle, wide boost to 2 Khz. Now listen -- sounds much better, doesn't it?Now bring up the piano to where it sounds right, and there you go! Vocals mixed perfectly.Of course, you could add some reverb (try a short reverb at 90% dry, 10% wet signal), or a tap-tempo delay if you can find one. Your options are limitless!