Arguably the most important aspect of any given mix on any given Sunday in any given church is the vocal. I know some guitar players will disagree here. And drummers. Drummers will definitely disagree.
But when people can’t hear the vocal, they won’t sing along. A nice, bright vocal that jumps out above all else in the mix encourages participation and participation encourages MORE participation and on and on it goes.
It’s worth it to spend some time crafting the vocal part of your mix. No matter if you are an experienced engineer or a once-a-month volunteer, this post should help you achieve a great vocal sound that will encourage participation in the worship service.
There are very few “hard and fast” rules when it comes to mixing. The tips below are designed to help you get 90% of the way to a perfect vocal mix, 90% of the time. Starting with the end in mind, here is what this article will expand on:
- Vocals In The Center
- EQ Gently
- Compress Gently
- Add Effects Sparingly
- Mix Actively
PLACING THE VOCAL
The lead vocal should generally be the loudest part of your mix. It should float above the instruments and be clear and articulate. Use your ears here to make sure that you can hear words clearly. The EQ section below will talk a bit about how to get more definition from your vocals if necessary.
If your church has a stereo PA or speaker system, you can mix with some panning to let each instrument breathe and have space. If you have this luxury, the lead vocal should sit right in the middle so that no matter where someone sits, the vocal is right there in front of them.
If your church (like most other churches) has a mono PA system, then you will need to apply some EQ to make everything “sit in the mix” well.
APPLYING EQ TO THE VOCALS
It’s generally a good idea to apply some EQ to each instrument, but don’t overdo it. If you find you need to boost or cut by more than 6dB, there is likely some other issue that needs addressing (mic selection, room treatment, stage positioning, etc.)
I like to apply a high and low pass filter to the vocals to cut frequencies that might sneak into the microphone and cause problems. You want to cut frequencies that are outside of the vocal range of the performer, keeping in mind that the range will change as song keys change.
A HIGH PASS FILTER (HPF) is a type of EQ that allows the HIGHS to PASS and cuts off the lows. A LOW PASS FILTER (LPF) allows the LOWS to pass. It can be a bit confusing because a HPF is applied to the low end to cut the lows letting the highs pass though (conversely with a LPF). Just remember that the result is in the name.
GENERAL VOCAL EQ GUIDELEINES
- It is generally safe to use a High Pass Filter to cut frequencies below 100Hz for males and 300Hz for females.
- Use a Low Pass Filter to cut frequencies over 12-16kHz.
- To increase articulation and let the vocal float over the mix, the 2-4kHz range can be adjusted.
- Consonants and sibilance live from 4-9kHz so watch this, reduce if necessary.
- You can also increase intelligibility by cutting a bit in the 400-600Hz range.
ADDING COMPRESSION TO VOCALS
Compression is an essential and powerful tool if used right. If used wrong, it can utterly destroy a listening experience. Time doesn’t allow us to dive deep into what compression does, but in short, compression reduces the louder parts of a sound so it more even and controlled.
Compressors have a few different controls. Typically you have a ratio, a threshold, an input and an output.
The Threshold is the point at which the compressor starts working or “compressing” as signal. Set the threshold too low and it will squash the daylights out of the whole signal. Set it too high and it wont compress at all.
The Ratio is how gentle or aggressive the amount of compression will be. A very gentle compression will have a subtle effect, where a high ratio will sound more squished or distorted when it kicks in.
Input controls how much signal you feed TO the compressor.
Output (sometimes called Makeup Gain) allows you to amplify the compressed sound so that it matches the pre-compressed volume levels.
Some compressor designs have fewer controls, maybe replacing the Threshold and Ratio with ONLY Input and Output controls. In this case, the Input serves as all three, with a higher input also resulting in higher ratios.
For our purposes, lets use a compressor that has the standard Threshold, Ratio, Input and Output controls.
I recommend using a sparing amount of compression. Modern music does NOT use sparing amounts of compression, but they also have resources, tools, and experience most churches do not. We want to smooth the vocal out but keep the dynamics.
It might not be a popular view in today’s world, but NO compression is better than too much compression. Especially when it comes to letting vocals dynamically float over the mix.
For vocals, use a very gentle compression of 2:1 or 4:1. Listen to the vocal while you are adjusting the input. Then adjust the output to replace the gain lost with the compressor input. When you start to HEAR the compressor working, back off a bit. The goal here is to tighten and control the vocals but not to use the compressor as an effect.
GENERAL COMPRESSION GUIDELINES
- Adjust until you hear the compression and then back off.
- Don’t go over about a 4:1 ratio for vocals.
- Use the output to make up gain lost in compressing, NOT as an additional source of gain.
Modern mixing consoles give us access to all kinds of effects. Reverb and Delay are the most common effects added to vocals. As with compression and EQ, we want to be sparing here. The more effects you add, the more muddy the vocal sound can be.
When we add reverb in a studio environment, we do it to simulate a live space. Since we are IN a live space, we don’t need to add loads of reverb to make it feel live. If you are adding reverb to vocals, remember that the room is adding reverb naturally so be cautious with how much you add.
I tend to like a gentle plate reverb with some rolled off low end, personally. Use the reverb to help a vocal sound a bit more natural not for it to sound dripping wet and cavernous.
Delays also can make a vocal come alive, but like Reverb too much can result in loss of intelligibility or make a mix muddy. And since Delay is a time based effect, be careful what you select and know that you might need to adjust the delay time for each song.
GENERAL EFFECT GUIDELINES
- If using a delay, you MUST sync the delay with each new tempo.
- Use reverb sparingly.
- You might need to adjust the reverb for each song if you have a heavy pre-delay. A long pre-delay on the reverb will sound like an echo and depending on the song tempo could add mud to your mix.
In many cases, if not MOST cases, lead vocal duties will be shared by several folks on stage. When the lead vocalist changes, so should your mix. This is what we mean when we say, “mix dynamically.” Your mixes should never be “set it and forget it.”
We always encourage the music leader to make sure the booth has copies of the song charts. During rehearsal, note on the charts who is doing what and where so you can adjust your mix accordingly.
Also, during rehearsal, observe mic technique. Many vocalists tend to move the microphone around and you will need to “ride the fader” to even that out.
There are no scenarios where we can give you a DO THIS EVERY TIME AND IT WILL WORK. But the tips above will allow you to walk into any church and develop a great vocal mix on nearly any console. One of the biggest challenges we have with modern technology is too many options and choices. You don’t need to use everything you have access to. Keep it simple, let the congregation hear the vocal clearly and watch as participation in the worship service increases.