Feb 21, 2012
When building a mix we often start by shaping the tone of each instrument so that it is to our liking. We place mics, work with musicians and EQ each instrument until it sounds like what we think it should sound like. We probably do this listening to just the instrument at first and then hopefully with other instruments in the mix too. After we have the band sounding good, we add the lead vocal and EQ it a bit to make it sound good. It is a common understanding that the vocal is the most important thing in the mix and that it needs to be heard above all other instruments. We normally do this using volume for the most part and sometimes end up adding some “cut” (high-end clarity) to the vocal using EQ. It is not uncommon to sacrifice the tone of the vocal in order to get it above the mix so that it can be heard. This strategy may be the norm, but I happen to think there’s a better way.
It may be a hard pill to swallow at first, but what if you made tone decisions for EVERY instrument based on the vocal? You sacrifice what you think are ideal drum, keyboard or guitar sounds in order to make room for the vocal in the mix. Then, when you get to the most important thing in the mix, the vocal, you EQ it to actually sound good and nothing else. You begin with the vocal in mind.
One way to force us to do this is to start a mix with the vocal. Turn it up and make it sound good first. Then turn up other instruments and work them around the vocal. This approach works well for some people. Others, myself included, still like to build a mix starting with the drums and bass and then add keys and guitars and the vocals come in last. There is nothing wrong with this method, we just have to be more intentional about how we EQ things.
Here are a few things that I have noticed that help me when building a mix. The vocal primarily resides around 1k. It can take up a lot of space above and below too but that’s an idea of what to be aware of in other instruments. On snare drums and electric guitar, go for “beefier” tones. Be careful not to have too much upper-mid energy in the 1k-5k range, it a real vocal clarity killer. Keyboards vary greatly depending on the patch but I tend to find them interfering in the 1k and below region.
The bottom line is that we should sacrifice the tone of instruments before sacrificing the vocal. If we do this not only will it sound better, we can also turn the vocal down and still clearly hear every word.
Prioritizing vocals isn’t just a technical philosophy in our churches, it’s also a corporate worship philosophy. In most cases, we as churches are leading crowds of people in a Sunday environment by using songs that have strategic lyrics to glorify God. Lyrics, therefore, carry a heavy weight in corporate worship. With that in mind, Dustin’s technical pointers are a means to put real value on the relationship between vocals, the music, and the crowd you are leading.
I think there are some other sub-points we can make about this, too. There are special times when we should value lyrics even more than normal. First, when we introduce a new song, the melody and lyric should be featured even more. If we want our new songs to go over well, it’s important that we stack the deck in our favor. The people in your crowd aren’t trying to learn the guitar parts, the keyboard parts, or drum rhythms. They’re trying to learn the words and melody. New songs should feature slightly hotter vocals to accomplish that goal. At Buckhead Church, I’m always bringing this idea to the forefront with our staff and volunteers. It’s directly correlated to the song’s effectiveness.
Another important time to feature vocals (even more) is when doing a “special” song. These songs are the ones that are bringing a special message: opening songs, closing songs, or songs that create tension before the sermon. I almost feel silly stating this obvious point; however, we as technicians often forget these small details in the heat of the moment. Featuring vocals is crucial for all of us, but becomes even more critical if you don’t use image magnification (IMAG) or lower-third-lyric-preview. Bottom line, without clear vocals, your message won’t be transmitted.
If you’re introducing new songs, featuring a song with a special message, or simply leading any song, corporately, vocals are the priority. Now…the challenge becomes finding great vocalists.
For you vocal folks celebrating a victory for turning the vocals up even louder, please see the following disclaimer. With all audio concepts, we must find the balance. This vocal concept can be used to an extreme degree, where the mix becomes awkward, lacking in musical energy. Remember the “boat in water” analogy. Your vocals should rest in the mix like a boat floats in water. Two-thirds of the boat is out of the water, while one-third remains submerged.