Are you struggling with a vocal mix that sounds like it was recorded through a tin can? Maybe your vocals are coming across as weak and anemic? In this ambitious guide, we’ll look at the most common reasons a vocal take may sound thin…and how to fix it.
Why Do My Vocals Sound Thin?
Your vocals may sound thin for a few reasons, but the main culprit behind them all is usually a weak midrange. If the mid-range frequencies (somewhere between 350 Hz and 1 kHz) of your voice are not cutting through the mix, it will cause the vocals to sound hollow, thin, or tinny.
A weak midrange can be caused by several factors, such as:
- Too much high-end or low-end frequency information overpowering the midrange,
- Proximity effect (where you recorded too close to the microphone and it over-emphasized the low end,
- Lack of breath support when singing,
- A bad-sounding room (causing phase cancellation),
How to Fix Thin Vocals
The fix for thin vocals depends on what’s causing it. If you already have some vocals recorded, we’ll start with correcting them in the mix. If the mixing tips don’t help, we’ll move onto the physical changes you can make when re-recording.
In the mix, here are the ways you can correct thin vocals (and you can use as many of them as you like stacked together):
- Boost the midrange frequencies (with an EQ or saturation plugin),
- Cut other frequencies in the vocal track (if boosting sounds unnatural),
- Cut the midrange in your other instruments (to make room for your vocals),
Before and during recording, here are ways to prevent thin vocals:
- Dampen the room in which you’re recording,
- Double-track your vocals,
- Change the key of the song,
- Practice breathing exercises on a regular basis
- Use the proximity effect
Now let’s start breaking down these fixes one by one.
Boosting the Midrange
The first way to beef up your vocals is the simplest, but not always the best method. You can start by adding an equalizer to your vocal track and boosting some mid or mid-high frequencies.
- Use a bell curve shape for this approach,
- Increase the gain on this bell by 2-4 db but don’t push it to any extreme,
- Place the bell in the midrange around 350 Hz and slowly sweep it up the range while listening back to your vocals in the mix,
- Listen for a spot where the voice starts to thicken and stand out
Boosting sounds easy enough, but for some vocals this technique could produce an over-emphasized telephone effect that sounds unnatural.
If boosting your mids causing your voice to sound unnatural or unpleasant, then reduce the gain on that bell curve and proceed to the next tip.
Adding Saturation to Your Vocals
A saturation plugin can accentuate your midrange, too. Not only does it provide a boost like EQ, but saturation will add subtle distortion to your vocals that introduces harmonic overtones—those overtones can “excite” the track, making it sound plumper and even energetic.
Cutting Other Frequencies
An equalizer works like a frequency-specific compressor: when you increase the gain on a certain range, it compresses those tones more. But you can get a similar effect by instead reducing the gain in other frequency ranges.
This is called subtractive EQ, and it tends to sound more natural. Because the EQ plugin has make-up gain, cutting problem frequencies can make the midrange sound louder and, therefore, fuller.
Frequency cutting can be done in a number of ways:
- Adding a high-pass filter to remove low-end rumble and room ambiance from your track will allow more midrange to pass through the EQ’s make-up gain. Set your high-pass curve around 100Hz and try adjusting it up and down to taste. Try not to cut any higher than 250 Hz, or your vocals will start sounding even thinner.
- Adding a shelf curve to the high end of your vocals (start around 5 kHz) and pull down the gain. This could help if you possess a very high or nasally voice.
- Applying a notch (narrow bell curve) to highly sibilant areas of your voice. Sibilance usually lies between 3-8 kHz: towards the higher end for most females, lower end for most males.
EQ Your Instruments
Sometimes a thin vocal can benefit from substractive EQ on other instruments. A guitar or keyboard part may be dominant in the same midrange that you need for thickening your vocals.
In that case, reducing the midrange response of the antagonizing instrument might free up room in the mix. Then you can try re-applying a modest boost to the vocals and see if things sound clearer.
Dampen the Room
Room resonance can color your vocals because sound waves vibrate all over your room, causing reflections. If your room has no acoustic treatment, especially if it’s small, those room reflections will bounce against all those hard wall surfaces and be picked up by the microphone. This could cause phase cancellation.
So, to prevent reflections from weakening your signal, you need to dampen the room.
This can be done in a number of ways:
- Buy specialty acoustic treatment that is attached to the walls,
- Record in a closet with clothes hung inside it (the soft clothes will absorb the ambient sound waves),
- Hang blankets or towels on the walls in front of and behind your microphone,
- Throw a blanket over you and the microphone while recording
Going too far with these dampening methods could cause the vocal take to sound dry and lifeless. And, if your vocals still sound thin, that means room reflections aren’t the primary culprit.
Double-Track Your Vocals
Here is a little secret (poorly kept at this point) that will make your vocals sound fuller and bigger, even if you aren’t the beefiest singer:
Record multiple takes of the lead vocals and layer them.
This note only thickens your voice in the mix, but it can also mask imperfections like slightly-flat notes or lisping. A lot of well-known artists have used this trick, including Kurt Cobain and Isaac Brock.
If you want specifics on doubling vocals, check out my article on the topic here.
Change the Song’s Key
Your vocals may sound thin because you’re reaching too high to sing those notes. The more you have to strain for high notes, the less power your voice will have. Try lowering the key of the song to match your natural tessitura. Then more of your chest voice will be present in the vocals and will, hopefully, boost the midrange organically.
Sometimes, the issue comes down to an ill-equipped voice. If your lungs are running out of air too easily, it will make your voice tense and thin. Please don’t let this discourage you, though, because this problem is totally correctable through practice. And I’ll explain the exercises you should be practicing to fix it.
A weak-sounding voice is often just caused by a lack of breath control; and breath control has two major components for singing:
- Volume – the amount of air that you can get into your lungs,
- Support – how much control you have of your diaphragm, which protracts your exhalation
Your diaphragm is a muscle and, like any other muscle, it needs to be strengthened with a workout. By exercising your diaphragm, you can increase the amount of air inhaled and the length of time you can take exhaling it while singing.
Breath support was my biggest struggle with singing. I’ve been using the exercise below for over a year now, and my vocals have gotten fuller sounding. Here’s the breathing exercise that worked for me:
The 4-4-8 Breathing Exercise
- Do this warm-up for 1-2 minutes before your solfeggios (or before singing on a track, etc)
- Take a deep breath through your nose for 4 seconds
- Hold that breath for 4 seconds
- Exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds
When inhaling, expand your diaphragm by breathing deep from your stomach. Your stomach should be expanding; if it helps you get the practice down, put your hands on the sides of your stomach and feel it expand as you breath in.
When exhaling, it’s okay if you cannot go for 8 whole seconds. Just breath out for as long as possible. And use your diaphragm to control the breath, not your throat!
How do you know if you’re using your diaphragm? Imagine that you really have to use the bathroom and you have to hold it by squeezing your stomach muscles. Do you feel that tension in your abdomen? That’s the muscle you want to squeeze when exhaling.
Use the Proximity Effect
The proximity effect is a build-up of bass response caused by the singer standing too close to a condenser microphone. If you move in very close to most types of condensers mic (especially cardioid types), their polar patterns will cause an increase in bass frequencies getting recorded. It’s a reason why radio announcer voices sound so beefy.
You can take advantage of this audio phenomenon to make your voice sound bigger and fuller. Just move in closer to the mic when singing. Also, you need to use a microphone that’s susceptible to this effect, like a cardioid or figure-8 pattern condenser.
But don’t overdo this. The proximity effect is also a common cause for vocals sounding muddy (another common issue that I’ve discussed).
Finding yourself with thin or weak vocals is no laughing matter. But I don’t want the issue to discourage your musical journey, because it’s a common concern. It’s also something that can be corrected with just a few plugins and some basic techniques.
I hope you found this guide helpful. If so, then here are a few more articles to consider: