When vocals are mixed low – not always by mistake
What, softly mixed vocals? Most of the time you want to hear those voices pretty loud, at least in pop/rock music. People like to hear the singer singing the listeners’ heads off, carrying one of the most important parts of the arrangement: the melody (Da Melody! In da moooovies). So the rest of the music only gets a minor role, if I want to exaggerate. But I don’t, and even then, it still remains true, more or less. If your vocalist is good or if you at least succeeded in auto-tuning the living shit out of the vocal tracks so it sounds in tune, it’s ok to show it off (the auto-tune part is not ok, but most n00bies will use it anyway). But if you take the vocal level down a few dBs, you’ll notice how much of a “boost” the other elements get: your snare, your kick, your guitars or keyboard pads, or rat farts will suddenly be well audible and start carrying an aesthetic meaning that will highlight your mix and the song itself.
So to sum it up: sometimes it’s perfectly okay to mix in the vocals. It’s possible to get the vocal levels a bit lower than you would think they should be at, with the proper use of EQ and compression. All you need to have is a fukken good arrangement. And that is the key to it, and the hardest thing to achieve unless you really know what you’re doing. Chances are you don’t. But let’s see a few examples where the vocals were mixed into the tracks with reasonably lower levels than usual.
When Stipe was still mumbling
This first song is off R.E.M.’s 1982 “Chronic Town” album, and Michael Stipe’s eccentric edge still didn’t show as much in his vocals as it already did in his stage image. Not only that, but the mix exaggerates the above with the pretty low lead vocal level. So much so that the jangly guitars and the snare almost bury it into the discrete shades of unintelligibility (yes, that’s a word). Not a problem, is it? Nah. (Notice that there are almost no cymbals detectable, and the very soft, pillow like kick drum is actually very nice).
R.E.M. – “Gardening At Night”:
Voice embedded into the music
The following track is how it should be done. The “Rumours” album by Fleetwood Mac is Ken Caillat’s masterpiece as far as mixing goes, and you can hear how one can make a good arrangement work with everything having its own space, but without having to push the lead vocals (or lead guitars) right into your face and screw up the perfect balance with it. Careful, well planned out recording and creative panning are your friends.
Fleetwood Mac – “Second Hand News”:
Now let’s take another 80s gem, a pretty big hit by REO Speedwagon. Notice how nicely embedded Kevin Cronin‘s vocals are, in the middle of BIG drums with bold cymbal hits, BIG, distorted guitars and some keyboards. Yet it still only sounds big together, but not overly crowded. Very uplifting sound. Of course the shitloads of reverb helps in moving stuff back a bit, but that’s what the 80s were about, so no complaints. O.K.?!
REO Speedwagon – “Keep On Loving You”:
Subtle vocals still work perfectly
And finally, for a more recent example, check out this Gotye tune. His vocal performance itself is laid back (or rather held back) as well, but the mixing accentuates that even further. The electronic drum tracks and the forest of all kinds of synth sounds and effects surround his low key voice nicely, creating a cozy mood.
Gotye – “Giving Me A Chance”: