Mixing lead vocals should be fairly easy, right? Well, that’s what most beginners think, and they could be right in one case. It’s when the whole process was planned carefully. I mean, every step from songwriting, arranging, recording to mixing and mastering. It’s often not the case, and in itself, it’s not a problem. Still, the mental image of the final sound should be in your head. Then you can adjust everything to reach your goals. The problem occurs when this mental image isn’t there or not clear enough. That’s when the following mistakes happen.
Compression is your friend: It’s one of those pesky beginner mistakes. If it sounds like the level is right at some parts, but way too low or high at others, you need (more) compression. Interestingly, the opposite rarely happens; lead vocals love compression, so you can hardly overdo it.
Swamp of reverb: It happens in the name of good intentions. You just want to dress those dry vocals in something nice. So you add reverb. A lot of it, so the lead vocals that should be about the most up front part of the track move back to the background. The fact that you often forget to dial in any pre-delay just makes it worse. By then you’ve reached mud heaven.
Louder for what?
The sore thumb effect: It’s okay to mix lead vocals to be relatively loud; they tell us the story and carry the main melody. If you turn it up higher than the sweet spot, it’ll start sticking out like that poor thumb. That’s when you get the “someone put vocals over this backing track” sound.
Bigger is not better: Sometimes people get the levels and compression right, yet the lead vocals will cease to sit perfectly. The reason for this is the lack of roll-off, at both ends of the vocal track. The lows can mask and get in the way of anything that’s supposed to be below. It’s no fun when your proximity effect ridden voice hovers over the bass line. On the other end, overdoing the “expensive high end” thing and boosting too much treble will result in a harsh and fatiguing vocal track.
+1 Hate my voice, let’s hide it: It’s understandable, and needs the peculiar psychological approach of “get the fuck over it”. Once you realize that what you hate about your voice is exactly the special feature others get crazy about, you’ve reached the vocalists’ enlightenment.