When it comes to mixing live music—whether you’re working alone in your local club or with a team of professionals on a large touring production—it’s essential to have a game plan that helps you prepare, build and prioritize the most important aspects of the mix.
In most music genres, including pop, your number one priority will be to ensure that the vocals are heard loud and clear, and that the artist’s vision comes across to the audience. In this article, we’ll share tips and techniques for mixing great-sounding vocals that cut through a full mix in any setting.
Select the Right Mic
The first decision to make when working with an artist for the first time is choosing which microphone is right for the situation. Unfortunately, there isn’t one microphone that’s perfect for every artist and scenario. So how do you learn which microphone is best for an artist you haven’t worked with before? Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help you with this process.
- What is the register and tonal quality of the singer’s voice?
- Does the artist have a natural baritone, tenor, alto or soprano register?
- Is their singing voice articulate or raspy?
- Are they lacking low-mid “body” or top-end “air”?
- If you can pick a mic that accentuates the strengths of the artist’s voice while de-emphasizing their weaknesses, you’ll be one step ahead before you even touch the console.
- What is their performance style?
- Does the singer stay stationary with a mic stand, or do they jump around the stage energetically with a handheld mic?
- Do they only sing, or do they also accompany themselves with an instrument?
- Do they have great mic handling skills, or do they have a tendency to cup the mic?
- Generally speaking, a dynamic mic with less handling noise will help if the singer mishandles the mic.
- A condenser mic can yield a more transparent and open vocal sound, but requires more careful handling.
- How loud is it on stage?
- Is there a live band with loud guitar amps and crashing cymbals, or does the production use more direct inputs like keyboards and drum machines?
- Does the show feature big explosions and cryo jets?
- If there’s a lot of onstage noise to compete with, a microphone with a tighter cardioid pattern will pick up more of your singer’s voice while rejecting the unwanted sound.
- However, the tradeoff is that if your singer moves off-axis, you risk losing their voice in the mix.
Do Your Research
Trying to answer the previous questions may raise another question: how are you supposed to find this stuff out before you work with the artist for the first time? This brings up the importance of doing your due diligence and conducting some research beforehand.
- If you have the option, the best way is to attend or get involved with the band’s live rehearsals before the tour starts.
- If you can’t do that, ask management if they can provide multitrack recordings from a previous tour.
- And if that’s not possible, you can either try to scope out a live gig if they’re playing in your area or find some recent live performances on their website or YouTube.
Talk To the Artist
Very few artists have perfect mic technique, and not every singer understands the relationship between what they’re doing on stage and how it affects the sound that reaches the listeners’ ears. With every artist you work with, the way they perform and how it interacts with your job is an issue that needs to be addressed—no matter their level of experience, discipline or skill.
You don’t want to come off aggressive and demanding, but you need to find a way to have constructive conversations so that you can both achieve your common goal: a great mix with amazing vocals that blows the audience away.
When you first start with an artist, it may take a while until you can gain their confidence. A great way to break the ice is to point out what they’re doing well. For example, if they have an exceptional performance on a certain occasion, you can mention it to them: “Hey, I thought you sounded incredible last night. I noticed you did X, Y and Z particularly well.”
This will help reinforce good habits subconsciously, whether it’s a specific warm-up technique they did that night or a new approach they’re trying out. And it may help them open up to you in the future. On a human level, most artists will be grateful that you care and take the time to talk with them honestly. When you connect like this, you’re not just doing a technical job—you also have the ability to help the artist improve at their own job. How cool is that?
For better or worse, pre-recorded tracks are becoming increasingly common for touring artists of all levels and genres. And they’re not just used in pop music—many rock, rap, country, and indie artists utilize playback tracks to varying degrees. Whether it’s just an extra harmony that pops in for the chorus or a full-on lead vocal replacement during a choreographed dance routine, you need to be prepared to incorporate them into your live mix.
As with all things in your mix, there’s an art to finding the proper balance between the pre-recorded material and the artist’s live vocals. The last thing you want is for the chorus to hit and your singer’s live vocals are being overpowered by these shiny, studio-perfect tracks.
Here are two ways you can overcome this challenge:
- Re-record the playback tracks – If you have a good relationship with your artist, you may be able to ask them to re-cut their playback vocal tracks using the same microphone that they use live. This will help you achieve greater consistency between their live vocals and prerecorded tracks.
- EQ the playback tracks – Pre-recorded vocal tracks tend to be very compressed and have a lot of high end, which can be challenging to compete with. If you filter out some of this high-frequency content with a high shelf EQ, it will make it easier to get your artist’s live vocals in front and keep them from being drowned out.
Making Space for the Vocals
While the goal is always to make sure the vocals cut through the mix, there are many different approaches you can take. Do the vocals actually need to be the loudest thing in the mix? Not always. Listen critically to most Motown recordings and you’ll notice that, even though the vocals are always clear, sometimes they’re not the loudest element in the mix—it might actually be the bass, snare drum, or a tambourine.
Because mixing isn’t fully automated yet, your job is to think creatively to direct the audience’s attention throughout a performance. Sometimes it’s just as important for the vocals to feel like they’re part of the whole, instead of just riding on top of the mix. You can make space for your vocals in a busy mix by using EQ or multiband compression to carve out other instruments that compete with the vocal without diminishing their supportive role.
If you really want to get surgical, you can insert a multiband compressor on your instrument bus and sidechain it to the vocal bus. This way, you can selectively duck the low-mids of the bass and guitars to make room for the singer’s lower register, or duck the high-mids of crashing cymbals to allow consonants to cut through.
Get a few veteran FOH engineers in the same room and it won’t be long before they start comparing their signal chains. The signal chain for a vocal refers to the order of operations regarding each processor that affects the overall sound. It will take some experimentation to find which signal chain works for your personal workflow, but here’s a great starting point:
- Subtractive EQ – The first step is to clean up and remove unwanted frequencies from your vocals. This includes a high-pass filter to get rid of low-frequency rumble, and potentially a low shelf for removing muddiness.
- Compression – Pop vocals tend to be on the dry end of the reverb/delay spectrum, which is why it’s common to use aggressive compression as its own effect. Set your attack time fairly fast, adjust the threshold until the consonants are getting through safely, then play with the release time until the compressor feels like it’s breathing to the tempo of the song.
- De-essing – If your artist’s vocals are sounding harsh, especially in the high frequencies on “S” and “T” syllables, you may want to use a de-esser. A de-esser is a specialized dynamics processor that only attenuates a certain frequency range (usually in the 3 kHz – 6 kHz range) when the vocal’s hard consonants exceed the threshold you set for that range.
- Final EQ Touches – Now that your vocals are cleaned up and the dynamics are under control, you may want to boost the high-mids for lyrical clarity, or lift the very top end to add some air around the voice.
- Pitch Correction – It’s helpful to have an insert with vocal pitch correction that you can easily turn on and off. Pitch correction can be used as a creative effect for specific phrases, or just to help your singer out if they’re having an off night. This can be a touchy subject with vocalists, so be sure to have a conversation with the artist before you decide to make them sound like the next T-Pain.
Always & Never
Possibly the most important tip we can share is to learn when to use and when not to use each of these techniques. It’s easy to get into a routine and think that you have to use every tool, every time to be a good mixer. But the truth is, there’s no one-size-fits-all method to mixing.
You need to make sure that every step you take is actually improving the overall sound and not just something you’re doing out of habit. Every now and then, take a full step back from the console, and just listen. Don’t touch any faders or knobs, just really listen and ask yourself, “What does this mix actually need?” Then, step back up to the console with a fresh mindset and only do what needs to be done.
Watch the Full Video
I hope you enjoyed this article, but I also invite you to view the full JBL Learning Session webinar video replay that this article was sourced from: ‘Mixing for Pop Vocals with Vincent Casamatta’.
We invite you to view all our upcoming JBL Learning Sessions and our recorded JBL Learning Sessions Playlist. Our complete audio, video and lighting Learning Sessions Calendar and our library of all recorded learning sessions is available as well.