After years of practice, you finally got your lead vocal to sound full, crisp and clear; like a real pro. Just one problem, you add in those pristine keys, rockin guitars, and punchy synths. Suddenly the vocal loses the sound you spent so long trying to achieve. What went wrong?
This happens to all of us at some point, and it is one of the most important lessons to learn when creating an impactful mix. The problem starts by trying to make each individual input sound good on its own. Take some time to listen to some of your favorite songs and you will hear that a couple things get priority in the mix and everything else fits around that. In pop, the lead vocal is king. Everything else is manipulated to fit around and support the lead vocal.
As an example, listen to James Bay’s “Hold Back the River.” If you notice. His voice is the most clear and full sounding source in the whole mix. If you listen closely, though, the way his voice is mixed changes for the different sections to help fit different instrumentation. The majority of the song is his voice clear, present, and strong. The interesting switch is during the second chorus where James’ voice is thinned out, turned to a strong doubled vocal sound that is panned left and right. The vocal spreads to the sides and gets pushed back into the mix while the electric guitar gets pushed up the middle and given a more prominent space in the mid to low mid range where his voice occupied for most of the song. The principle to take away is that one thing will always need to be given priority in each range of the audible spectrum.
So how does this example apply to your mix? Most people spend time listening to each instrument and get the instrument to sound right on its own. Once you put everything together, however, everything starts to clash. Think of the mix like a pie chart. If you give frequency space to the guitars, that takes away available space for the vocals and vice-versa. Perhaps you have the piano and the bass sounding great individually, but put them together and the low end is a mess because the lower octaves of the piano just stomp all over the bass. Individually, the piano would sound thin without the lower frequencies, however, with the bass playing along, the two instruments would sound full and distinct. Allow your instruments to take their respective places in the frequency range of a mix.
So when you mix, don’t make each instrument sound good on its own, but make them all sound good together. Don’t solo unless you have a specific problem you are trying to find. Listen to everything in context and prioritize what gets to be the hero in your song.