How to handle criticism on your mix…

Let’s talk mix criticism! If you have ever mixed anything for anybody, even a friend, you know all about mix critiques! Mixing is very subjective and everyone hears things differently! It’s artwork and there’s not necessarily a right or wrong way to do it.

Feedback on your mixes can actually be a really good thing. If you are humble, you can really start to learn what people want. For the longest time I would really try to get the vocal to sit inside the mix but time after time the client would want the vocal louder and more on top of the mix. So this taught me to be extra careful and to really make sure that the vocal is cutting through the mix. Sometimes it can help if you pretend you are the artist listening to it, sounds silly but it has worked for me! Critiques should always be expected. All the times I have really thought that I nailed it and there was no way they would come back with changes, sure enough….a whole list of them! Other times I thought I didn’t do the greatest in a mix…zero changes. It’s impossible to tell what you will get, just always be open to feedback.

Lastly, I want to talk about how feedback from the client can sometimes ruin your mix. In some cases, the client wants something way different than you gave them. This can take you out of your comfort zone which can sometimes be good, but other times it can make you really not understand how to make it sound good while completing the client’s requests. Here’s an example… maybe you were forced to cut some high mids because the way the vocal was recorded was really harsh and the mic was very brittle sounding. You cut the frequencies, compressed the frequencies with a multiband compressor, and have done automation on the volume to get the vocal to sound right. The client says the vocal sounds muffled and wants a boost in the high end. This ultimately will work against all the hard work you have done. The client may love the mix but you now hate it. Sometimes we go through this as mixing engineers. Comment your thoughts! Happy mixing!

Dynamic songs call for vocal automation.

I was working on a piano style pop track this week and it made me think of a great blog topic! This seems obvious but with very dynamic songs like piano songs or ballads, there is a need for vocal automation. Most likely the song starts off lower in volume so the first vocal section will probably need to be turned down if you set the volume for the vocal at the loudest and biggest part of the song. This is normally how I approach the vocal level anyways. Find the loudest section which most times is the chorus, and set the volume fader to cut through the mix.

Now that the chorus is set, the quieter sections like the verses are going to sound overwhelmingly loud. Use your ears and play the parts over and over to set automation to turn down just those vocal sections. Once that is done, now there’s another challenge! Does it sound right blending from the quiet section to the loud section? It should sound like the vocal is one volume throughout the song. So now use you ears and loop the playback where it transitions from the quiet section to the loud section. Sometimes a slight gradual increase from the end of the soft section to the beginning of the loud section can do the trick! This way we can have the level we set for the quiet section, but then transparently fade up the volume into the louder part. If you can’t get that to sound right, keep playing and experimenting with the volume of each section until it blends beautifully! I hope this was helpful! Look out for video tutorials on the Perfect Vocals Academy youtube channel in the near future that will go into more detail!

Can some simple encouragement result in a better vocal performance?

Let’s talk about something not so technical. Let’s talk about something psychological. Have you ever recorded a singer or yourself and felt like the singer was getting stuck in a rut? Like no matter what each and every take is progressively getting worse? This happens folks. Singers lose the energy mentally. They can even start to question their purpose of being a singer. Their mind can be telling them “just give up, no professional singers have to try this many times!”

Unfortunately this is a real thought that happens for the artist and it’s very common. Here’s the bright side, your opinion as a recording engineer or producer is very valuable! Sometimes it can even act as the key ingredient to change their mindset completely. Maybe the singer hasn’t heard the words “hey, you are really great at what you do, and what you offer is very authentic! No one can replicate what you do!” A little pep talk, it can be very short, can shift the singer’s mindset and give them rocket fuel!!

On the other hand if you are recording yourself, you could try bringing a friend in the studio to give their opinion or email the track to them. Tell them “it’s not a finished product but overall what do you think?” Odds are, they will give you a positive response that will recharge your battery! You could also take a long break and watch some live videos of singers you look up to and realize that they don’t even sing perfectly! Rather than being perfect, it’s about the heart you put into your vocals. When you watch your favorite singers live, it won’t be perfect, but 9 times out of 10, their heart is in the right place and passion pours into the mic! If you have any other ideas to encourage a singer or yourself in the studio, please leave a comment!

Panning techniques can create tons of width in your vocal mixes!

I was hesitant writing a blog about panning because it’s a no-brainer. Most of you are probably like “yeah yeah panning is easy”! It is very easy but let me open your mind a bit!

In my early days of mixing all I ever seemed to do is hard pan everything. One vocal all the way to the left, one all the way to the right, and one up the center. Although there are times I still do this, there’s a lot of experimenting that can be done with panning less than that. Sometimes panning hard left and hard right can be a little distracting to the center vocal. Also, don’t forget that hard panned vocals need turned down because they cut through way louder once panned. Here’s a couple methods to try…

Panning 50 percent each way can sound nice and full. 30 percent each way can sound nice too! If you have a lot of vocal layers to play with, you can have hard panned and less panned! This is actually the best because it fills out the whole stereo field! Imagine 1 vocal and a vocal double panned to center, 1 vocal hard left, 1 vocal hard right, 1 vocal at 50% left, 1 at 50% right, and a couple vocals panned 30% each way or 70% each way for a wider sound. With this method you will create a “wall of vocals”! Try it out and tell me how it goes!

Sticky subject, but what do you do when you are recording someone that can’t sing very well?

First off I want to clarify that this isn’t coming from a disrespectful place. There has been times a singer has sang completely off key and completely off time. I’m talking about drastically off, not something subtle. Everyone is off a little bit, we aren’t robots. I want to share my experience with recording artists that need a lot of help. The first thing to do in this situation is be accountable towards them. Pretending that they sound good and just hitting record isn’t the right thing to do. I understand you may not care at this point but this is where the producer has to dig in. You do however need to except that even after pushing them and coaching to your best ability that it still may sound very bad. That’s okay, you tried. Try things like record one small line or section at a time and sing or guide them through the take over the talk back button. If you are a producer that can sing… another trick you can try is to go sing the part then they can sing along to your take as a guide. If you are a producer that cant sing, use the program Melodyne to drastically correct the pitch and timing to what it needs to be and use the drastic edited voice as a guide they can sing along to. This is a great method. It works almost every time! Lastly the easiest approach can be to describe to them exactly what they are doing wrong. Saying something like “you are singing too high on this word and singing too fast through the section” can really let the singer understand where to improve. Some people do great with this approach, while others need to hear a guide to sing a long to. Leave your comments below!

This is the best way to trim and edit background noise in vocals…

When recording vocals there’s always going to be some background noise. Noise gates can work but are hard to set to a good setting if the singer has any sort of dynamics. Gates can work well for rap music usually or for rock/metal singers who are always loud. I want to talk about manually editing the background noise out of the vocal tracks. Hopefully this is self explanatory if you are experienced at vocal production but if not then today is the day that you learn to clean up those vocals really nice! What I like to do is obviously cut all the parts of the vocal out that is empty space or any sort of noise that’s not a vocal or a breath. I wouldn’t advise cutting out breaths unless it’s a really bad sounding breath or if it sounds better without the breath. Most of the time you can just manually turn down the breath and it sounds better than being cut. Next, we want to use fade ins, fade outs, and crossfades. Putting a fade-in at the beginning of the clip (in Protools you can place the cursor on the clip of where you would want the fade to be completely faded in, then hit the letter D) is what is needed after cutting out background noise. This is sort of a visual thing and hard to explain over a blog but I will release videos in the near future. Using a fade out (place cursor where fade out on clip should start then hit G) is used when you need to fade out into the part you cut out. Lastly, cross fades (highlight over a section where 2 clips meet and hit F) is used to blend to different vocal takes together that are touching. This quickly fades out of one clip and into another. Crossfades take away the “pop” sound when 2 audio clips meet that were recorded at different times. When an audio waveform doesn’t line up perfectly it creates a “pop”! It’s science!! Please feel free to put your questions below!

Expensive tube microphones can be great…but watch out for this one thing!

I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone cover this topic but I’ve been doing a lot of recording at The Record Shop in Nashville and this always comes across my mind. Every time I use a really expensive tube microphone I notice there is an abundance of low mid frequencies! So much that it makes the vocal muddy and requires a lot of eq and multiband compression. I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad thing, it’s better to have the frequencies there to subtract than try to add something that’s not there…but it could push you to do some mixing moves that you aren’t use to doing. This is where trusting your ears is huge! I record with a Neumann Tlm103 and Neumann U87 all the time and don’t experience an excessive amount of low mids and lows, but when I bring out the tube microphones like the Neumann M149 or Korby tube mic, it’s overwhelming! Tube microphones are known to sound warmer and warmth lives in the low mids so I am not surprised, but when I started using tube mics occasionally I started to be aware of the difference. So when approaching mixing vocals that were recorded with a tube mic, it’s okay if you have to cut more low mids or compress them harder with a multiband compressor or dynamic eq. Not all of us get to use tube mics because they can be expensive but just remember this advice when renting a fancy studio! Comment your thoughts!

So you want to start recording at home?

I figured I would give some suggestions for someone starting out in home recording! First off you will need a laptop or desktop computer. Windows or Mac is fine. The more current the operating system on the computer the better! Software developers seem to lack compatibility with older systems. How inconsiderate of them! Once you have your computer, now you will need an audio interface. Since you are only recording vocals you can get away with a cheap interface! I have used Motu for the passed 8 years and I am very pleased. For $169 at Sweetwater.com you can get the Motu M2. This is all you need to get your voice into the computer! Next is going to be a recording program. They all work, so any will do. GarageBand is free with Mac computers, Windows I think Mixcraft is free but I’m not sure because I use Mac. You can use a program called Reaper for only $60. Many people like Reaper. For mac users you can download Logic for $199. I use Protools, and have for 12 years but they have switched to monthly subscriptions and to buy it upright is $700 I believe. There are many other programs so just go search Digital Audio Workstations on Google. Lastly you need some isolated headphones and a microphone. A dynamic mic will be great for louder singers, because it will reduce the background noise. A Shure Sm7B or an Electrovoice RE20 are great. For softer singers you may need to stick with a condenser mic. Look up the Audio Technica AT4040. Cheaper mics will do the trick too! Pick up a nice XLR mic cable and a mic stand too! Comment questions below!

Why should all vocalists record themselves at home?

If you are a vocalist, I’m pretty sure you practice for your live shows right? Band rehearsals, stage moves, vocal warm ups etc. Do you practice recording your voice? This is an entire skill on its own! Recording and live are two different animals. You don’t know how many times someone has told me “I sound so good at shows but my voice right now in the studio is horrible!” This is normal. The pressure of singing in the studio is way different. You can hear everything from a windbreaker jacket making noise to your sneakers squeaking on the hardwood. This sets up a way different feel! Now as a singer you are nervous because everything is under a magnifying glass now!

So how do you get over this sort of thing? The answer is to do it a lot! If you have a mic, interface, and a laptop you can record all the time! The nerves will get less and less because you will build a confidence. You will also learn certain mic techniques like how to get closer and further away to get desired tones, how to breathe less intense because you will find that breaths can sound very aggressive, and you also might find that one headphone off makes it easier to hear your pitch because it’s more in “real-time” than going through the computer and back to the headphones. You will obviously learn more than that but those are just a few examples.

Another great reason to record at home is to save money on studio costs! If you get really good at recording your self then odds are when you send it to a good mixing engineer, they will be able to get great results! Think about how much more consistently you can put out music without having to book time at a studio. I would say over 50% of my clients that I mix and master for record themselves at home. These same clients put out 2 to 3x the amount of music than those going to pro studios.

Do you need help knowing what you need to record at home? Comment below and I’ll be sure to write more about this in a future article!

Performance vs Pitch

I wanted to talk about a very unique outlook on vocal recording. Many singers will hate almost every take that they record. Why is this? Simply because of pitch. It is extremely hard to stay close enough to perfect pitch that we are satisfied as humans. Our ears can sense if it’s off pitch, even if it’s 10 cents off. I’m here to to tell you that the BEST singers out there are still off pitch. They may not be off pitch as often but it happens, because they too are humans. We as humans are imperfect. As a producer I choose performance over pitch. This means if the singer is really performing an emotional take with lots of passion, but there are spots that are off pitch, it’s okay!!! I mean it, it’s really okay. You don’t want it to be way off, but odds are…it isn’t. It’s just off enough to notice it. The vocals are getting pitch corrected regardless so you might as well keep the passion-filled emotional take and pitch correct instead of making the singer redo the take and replace it with a passion-less cold performance that has better pitch…So trust the process people! Get a passionate performance and pitch correct that thing!