Are you wrestling with the sound level on your vocals? The voice is, more often than not, the most important part of a song so mixing it correctly can make or break a song.
If your vocals are too quiet they may be forgotten by the listeners; but, if you mix them too loud, then they overwhelm the entire track. Where is the middle ground? In this article, I want to discuss how loud your vocals should be in the mix.
Should Vocals Be Louder Than the Beat?
In general, yes; your vocals should be slightly louder than the beat for modern styles of music like rap and pop. But there is no set level of decibels that you should aim for: mixing a vocal should be done by ear, not by numbers. Every voice, song, and vocal delivery will be different and therefore will require a personalized mix.
Let’s talk about the usual practice used for pop, indie pop, rap, etc. For those styles, the voice ought to sit just slightly in front of the backing music so the listener is drawn to it first. If you mix the vocals too loud, then the listener will notice a definite separation between the singer and the beat.
And that’s a telltale sign of an amateur mix. When the voice takes up too much of the mix it will stop sounding like a polished song and start sounding like a karaoke session.
Should the Vocals Be Louder Than the Instruments?
If you are working with individual instrument tracks, the same guidelines apply: the vocals should usually sit slightly ahead of the instruments in volume. This will keep the listener’s focus on the voice, as most genres consider that the most important part of a song.
But some instruments tend to share the same volume level as the singer. If you have individual stems for a beat, or you are recording instruments for a song from scratch, then here are some guidelines on which instruments to place where (in terms of volume):
- Snare drums are often the loudest part of a mix for pop and rap; they will sit near the same level as the main vocals;
- kick drum and hi-hats come next in volume;
- Guitars, synths, piano, or any other support instrument should sit behind the vocals;
- Bass will usually inhabit a completely different frequency range than the voice, so it can be mixed a bit higher than the guitars, etc. without sounding as intrusive as the latter.
Some Genres Break the Norm
As I mentioned, the genre of music and style of vocal delivery play big roles in determining where your vocals should sit in volume.
If you want to produce a pop track in line with mainstream sentiment, then (again) you’ll probably want your singer to sound a little louder than the backing track. Trap vocals are often the loudest part of the song apart from the drums, louder so than the average pop track.
But there are always exceptions to the rules. Maybe you aren’t aiming for a quintessential radio-friendly sound. In fact, some genres actually prefer the vocals to melt into the mix, like they are just another part of the music. Here are a few examples of genres and artists that intentionally under-mix their vocals:
- Shoegaze (artists like: my bloody valentine, slowdive)
- Lo-Fi & Dream Pop (artists like: CASTLEBEAT, Men I Trust, Eyedress)
- 90s Alternative Rock (Nine Inch Nails, The Jesus Lizard)
How Do You Mix Vocals Into a Song?
So we know that vocals should be louder than the other parts of a song. How do you go about finding the balance between your voice and the other instruments?
Here are a few tips for getting the right volume level on your vocals:
- Compress your main vocals first
- Mix around the vocals
- Wait a day, then listen to your rough mix-out on a cheap speaker
Compress Your Vocals First
Compressing your vocals means to reduce the dynamics: it makes the loud parts a bit softer and the soft parts a little bit louder. Doing this will ensure all parts of the song have clear and legible vocals.
This involves the use of compressors and limiters to smooth out the highs and lows. It could also mean you manually ride the fader or volume automate the track. Either way, your vocals should be consistent enough that the same mix will work during both the verse and chorus.
Let’s say your verse parts are sung very softly and quietly, but the same vocal take gets very loud on the chorus. If you try to set the volume based on the soft verse, your chorus is going to come out over-blown. Just the same, mixing to the chorus will lead to verses sounding too quiet to understand.
If your vocals are very dynamic, then consider splitting them into multiple tracks: one for the loud sections like choruses, and another for the soft sections. Then you can mix and level them independently, retaining the dynamic tone of both without sacrificing how audible they appear.
Mix Around the Vocals
Since your vocals are the centerpiece of the song, try mixing the other instruments around them (rather than fitting the vocals into the rest of the mix last).
This would involve leveling out the vocals first, then applying EQ and compression to find an appropriate volume for the lead vocal tracks. Then leave the vocals alone as you bring each instrument into the mix and set it’s respective volume to complement your voice.
Once the first pass of mixing is complete, listen back to the whole mix. If your vocals sound like they are floating (too loud compared to the rest of it still), then start pulling down the vocal volume fader.
Don’t go by the numbers on the fader, though. Close your eyes, play the track, and listen to the changes as you adjust.
Test a Rough Mix
This tip has proven most helpful for my own songs. Mixing for long periods of time can cause ear fatigue. So give your song a break, export a rough mix, and come back to it tomorrow.
Listening with fresh ears will let you know if the vocals sound too quiet or loud.
And, when you do listen to it the next day, go with your initial reaction to the volume levels. Your gut feeling is usually the best. Because that’s how a casual listener will gauge your mix: how it sounds in the first few moments on their first listen.
Lastly, I suggest that you demo the track using some cheap headphones, earphones, or speakers. That way, you’ll hear what the average listener will hear (most casual music fans don’t own expensive studio headphones).
How Loud Should Vocals Be Recorded in A Song?
After all this talk about levels on pre-recorded tracks, it leads us to a final question: how loud should you record your vocals to begin with? Your vocals should generally be record below -10 dBs. This level will prevent clipping and give you room to add compression.
Remember that any sounds that go over 0 dBs will start clipping, which sounds bad and ruins the integrity of an audio file. If your audio clips (goes over zero) during recording, there is no amount of mixing that will remove that digital distortion.
Furthermore, home studio technology has advanced dramatically in the last few decades. It’s entirely possible to take a quiet track and make it sound huge using effects (compression, stereo width, EQ, reverb, etc).
So it’s always better to record with headroom (that is, with a few decibels of space between the peaks and zero)
For most genres of mainstream music, the vocals will carry the song. For that reason, your vocal track should sit ahead of other instruments in your mix. Thank you for stopping by and I hope you found this guide helpful. If so, then here are a few more articles you may like: