3 Simple Tips for Mixing Vocals to Mastered Instrumentals
A lot of newly minted bedroom musicians probably start out this way (those of the rap genre in particular): you find a beat you like, you write a little something to it, then you record it down with whatever gear you have at the moment.
But wait! How come this doesn’t sound anything remotely like the songs I have in my library? The quality is garbage!
The best case scenario is that you have the individual stems to your instrumental, but this obviously won’t always be the case; especially if you’re taking an instrumental of an already made piece of music. Not all hope is lost though — you can for sure, get a great listenable piece of work. These are three steps that will help you get pretty close.
(Quick sidenote, but this won’t be talking about the kind of gear or the kind of plugins you should have. This is a discussion meant for another time, but long story short, your gear does not define your success. Don’t let gear be an excuse to not put out great music.)
Tip 1: Don’t Be Afraid To EQ Your Instrumental.
I was scared of this one for a long time. The instrumental is already mixed and mastered, isn’t that the best you can do? A professional mix engineer and master engineer already took a scratch at it, I should leave it alone.
That’s not necessarily true! There are a lot of differentiating factors that split your recording situation from the studio that the instrumental mix came out from. Firstly, we don’t have the studio that these professionals have. That’s certainly the case for me: I’ve been working out of my bedroom for years and years. Sure, I’ve acoustically treated the room a little bit, but that’s still nowhere near the cost or consideration that went into designing and building a studio.
All that’s to say, the recordings you got of your vocals and the vocals that were mixed into (and then stripped out of) that instrumental probably came from very two different places, with two very different sets of acoustic quality. So what’s the answer here? Best fit your instrumental to the recording you have.
This means notching out frequencies that muddy up your vocal. After cleaning up your vocal track, letting the vocal breathe by freeing up your dominating frequency space is easily the most effective way to let your vocals stay pronounced. This obviously goes the other way as well; if you find your vocals aren’t pronounced enough in the lows or highs for example, making small bumps in the instrumental can help you fill that space and glue it together with your vocal track.
All this is to say that the finished instrumental you have in front of you was mixed to address their recording situation, which may not necessarily reflect yours. So feel free to tweak and change it as it suits you!
Tip 2: Automate Your Volume.
You’ll hear the following as a baseline from practically any mix engineer: Get your EQ and your volume right. That’s 80% of a good mix.
And they’re absolutely right.
EQ and compression will get you very close to that 80%, but it’d be foolish to suggest that they’re silver bullets. Vocal recordings in particular are dynamic and expressive in the ways of volume. Which means, you’ll have anomalies where compression may not completely do the trick for volume control. Automate those parts where you can.
Sure it can be tedious, but it goes a long, long way to smoothing out a vocal track. I recently recorded a rap verse to Joey Bada$$’s Rockabye Baby, and you bet that I automated my vocals there:
I didn’t do anything drastic either. I listened through for parts that were difficult to hear, or too loud and in the way and tweaked them. The difference usually came in the form of 1–2dB.
Automate, automate, automate!
Tip 3: Reference Your Mix.
This one goes in credit to Graham Cochrane of The Recording Revolution. Mixing in isolation, i.e. not referencing your mix to other professional mixes, is a surefire way to get a bad mix. Professional mixes were put through test after test to make sure they translate well across all kinds of speakers, and we should make sure ours do the same as well.
We’ve all done it before, I’m sure — this mix sounds so good, it’s ready to print and ship. We get eager and a bit shortsighted by how good it sounds in our room that we don’t really check how it sounds in any other room.
We can’t always check against all possible speakers — and this is where checking your mix against professional mixes come in play. They’ve already done 90% of the job for you! You just have to sanity check against their brainchild and you’ll be right alongside them as well.
This is particularly true for your mixes when you’re using already-released instrumentals: you have a direct point of reference. They got a tonal quality that works with that instrumental in particular, and checking against that can help you directly get the mix quality that they have!
There’s a lot of restrictions to be had when you’re working with an already mixed-down, mastered piece of work. But you can definitely work within it comfortably for yourself by doing the above. In fact, chances are you’ll probably find that working within those limitations actually helps rather than detriment — working with such instrumentals means a lot of smart, useful mixing decisions were already made for you. So work alongside them, but remember to make some breathing room for yourself when you have to!