Mixing vocals to an already mixed instrumental and making it sound natural is not always an easy task but if you implement all the tips and tricks in this article, you might just get there. This is really not rocket science. Recording a vocal on an instrumental is very common in Hip Hop. There are a lot of very talented producers who send beats to rappers all over the world. First, we have to understand the steps you need to take and we’ll go thru them one by one.
Note: You don’t have to execute every recommendation I make on this page to achieve a good sounding mix. Instead, just go over the titles and try to understand what issues you need to address in your mix and fix them.
Of course you have to lower the instrumental in order to blend in the vocal properly. The problem is that every time you decrease the level of an instrumental it’ll sound like you’re losing quality. Don’t worry about it, most DAWs of today are mathematically built in such a way that low level is not your problem.
I found that setting the RMS level around -18db is a good starting point.
Creating Space For The Vocal
Ideally, you’d want the instrumental only mixed and not mastered or too compressed. That way it’s breathing and still has enough room for mixing in the vocal. But most times we would get a fully mastered instrumental without the vocal taken into consideration. In such a scenario, we have to start “massaging” the instrumental a little bit.
Although it appears pretty early on the list, EQing shouldn’t be the first step you take. So let’s say the instrumental sounds amazing and it’s mixed and mastered by a pro and we don’t really need to change anything in its frequency response. We should only create little pockets for the vocal based on the vocal itself.
I would highly recommend you use a Mid\Side EQ and start digging in only on the center channel, mainly because the vocal lives in the center.
Example, if the vocal’s main energy is located on a specific spot on the frequency spectrum, you can cut a little bit out of the instruments just in that area to make the vocal sit nicely in that pocket.
The instrumental and the vocal should live in the same neighborhood in terms of the frequency response curve. For example, if the instrumental is light on low-end frequencies and your vocal is too heavy on low-end frequencies, you should boost a little bit of low end on the instrumental and cut the same frequencies on the vocal channel to match them. Every production has its frequency response curve.
match the tonal qualities of the vocal and the instrumental. If the instrumental is slightly distorted, add some distortion to the vocal track. That way they will have the same “flavour” and not feel disconnected from each other.
When reducing the instrumental level in general, you can risk getting a “disconnected” effect of the vocal from it. So that is a great opportunity to utilize the Mid/Side leveling method. You can lower only the Mid channel a little bit to make some more room in the center for the vocal without taking a chunk of energy out of the whole mix.
The best way to do it is with a mid/side EQ, this tool allows you to reduce the midrange frequencies only in the center, where the vocal usually lives.
If the instrumental is only mixed and not mastered, this is great because then you can just mix the vocal in and master everything together. But in many scenarios, this is not the case. I will talk about every situation and what to do in every one of them. You can use a Multiband Compressor to gain more control over everything.
If the instrumental is not mastered and not too compressed, it’ll be a good idea to compress it a little bit, just to get a more controlled dynamics that will allow us to mix in the vocal more easily. This is a great opportunity to use a bus compressor on the instrumental’s channel and work that bus compression magic.
Sometimes the instruments will be so compressed that you can’t add even a pins head into it, let alone adding the final master compression, you’re going to end up with a squashed, claustrophobic and a non-professional result altogether.
Here you can use certain methods to bring back or even create some of the original dynamics with tools like Expander and Transient Designer. Or just try to get a better-mixed version of the instrumental.
In this scenario, where you want to preserve the dynamic properties and the overall sound of the instrumental you can use it as a reference to every process you do on the vocal.
Start with lowering the level to where the RMS is around -18db and continue from there to processing the vocals using all the tips I gave you on this article.
Using simple words, this tool works as a negative to the compressor. Instead of squashing the signal and reducing the dynamics, the expander expands the dynamics buy doing the exact opposite.
It simply means that it recreates some of the dynamics by increasing the level of any signal that goes above the threshold. You have to use the expender very lightly, or else you’re going to mess up the entire dynamic flow of the instrumental.
With this tool, you can rebuild a little bit of the lost peaks shaved out by the limiter. The subtle use if the expander and transient designer can bring back the livelihood to the track and make it sound somewhat similar to the original non-compressed version of the instrumental.
Sometimes the instrumental is so dynamically squashed and practically not usable and no other version of this instrumental can be found, then you have no other option than to add your own drum samples into the mix. You do it by taking some time and digging in your samples library until you find a matching kit.
In most cases, a snare and a bass drum will do the job. But the more you do to rebuild the production, the better final result you get. If you do that, make sure your instrumental and BPM are nailed to the DAW’s grid so you can place the samples with maximum accuracy.
I also recommend using tools to check the phase to make sure you’re not losing anything in the process.
It’s all about consistency. A great way to “mix” a stereo channel instrumental is to ride it with automation. Levels, EQ, Send Effects and anything you need to use in order to get a more controlled instrumental. You’re practically massaging the channel with all kinds of automation to get more consistent and professional output.
If the production uses any Reverb, or a room simulation, you can try creating the same space and send the vocal over to it, to create the feeling that the vocal and the instrumental are “living” in the same space. This will also help to “glue” the instrumental and vocal together.
Don’t use that method if you’re going for the “Vocal is disconnected from the instrumental” kinda sound. You can also EQ the Reverb return to match the tonality of the instrumental’s overall ambiance. In many cases you would want to use a delay instead, or in conjunction to the reverb.
These are the best Delay plugins for vocals.
This is a very simple and straight forward tip and yet it’s very easy to overlook it. It also works with any element in any mix situation. If the vocal’s level is mixed higher than the instrumental’s, It’ll give the sense of the disconnection between the two. Make sure the RMS levels on both of them are not too far off of each other.