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Here’s the challenge for musicals - to mix singers and blend them with a band or backing track. Singers produce a range of sounds, good and bad, and no two voices are alike. This means for good results each vocal must be mixed in it’s own way. What works for one person's vocal is rarely right for another actor.
We can reduce the difficulty this poses by concentrating on the following Seven Not So Deadly Sins.
#1 Roll Off the Bottom End
There's no reason for low-end frequencies to be in a vocal channel. For the most part musical instruments - drum kits, bass guitar, double bass, keyboards and to a lesser extent some electric guitars should be the only things that need the sub-200 Hz frequencies.
A vocal microphone can pick up these low frequencies, as well as any extraneous low end from the singer.
These are best removed these by using a high-pass filter (HPF). The higher the roll off point (below 200Hz) usually the better. If you have a variable cut-off HPF then adjust it as high as possible until it starts to affect the sound of the vocal, then back it off a little.
Do the bass and baritones sound a little bit muddy? This is because a lot of male vocals have too much mid-bass energy. To clean it up you will need a mixer that has parametric or semi-parametric style tone controls – if so set an EQ point at 250-350 and slightly roll of between 3 and 6dB of the mid-bass.
#2 Get rid of any Harshness
There's no such thing as perfect singing voice. (Except maybe Whitney Houston.) Even the best singers have slight imperfections in the sound they pro duce. These imperfections are almost always in the 2.5kHz to 4 kHz band.
You need to find the sweet spot to remove the harshest frequencies. With an analog console with a swept mid EQ control or a digital mixer with a parametric mid - Start at the 4 kHz point and apply about 6 dB of cut. Then slowly sweep that frequency down until the vocals clear up. Next, decrease or increase the cut as required. With a simple analog board you may have to use the system’s Graphic Equalizer to achieve this smoothing.
Analog consoles have a fixed bandwidth and therefore the cut will affect frequencies centered on the primary selected frequency, though in lesser amounts, like an upside-down mountain. However, this bandwidth (Q) can be altered on digital consoles. The tighter the bandwidth for cutting the better, because harsh frequencies are best removed with surgical.
#3 If needed, Brighten Up the Mix
Add brightness to the vocal with boosts to select high-end frequencies. The boost creates a bright and sometimes airy sound. The amount to add depends on the style of music, the song arrangement, the vocal, and what sounds good in the room.
Apply a gentle boost of 3 to 4 dB above the 6 kHz point. Sweep this point up until it produces the desired results. This is easy with consoles that have more than one sweeping mid. In the case of consoles without, use the peaking high-end EQ control to increase that boost for all the high-end frequencies.
#4 Smooth it Out!
Despite the previous steps, a vocal mix can still be wanting. The bad stuffs gone, and it's got some sparkle, but it's not quite there. Enter Mr. Smooth. There's a danger zone in the mid-range. One wrong move and the vocals can sound flat and dull or harsh and annoying.
The problem is generally with the 1kHz to 2 kHz range. Sweep a tight cut in this range. This can be more of a problem area than the 2.5 to 4 kHz range, so when limited to the number of frequency manipulations, opt for which has the greatest impact.
#5 Give it some Bottom End
Some lower-mids might be needed to add substance to the voice. Boost in the 200 to 600 Hz range. As noted earlier, vocal characteristics vary widely, so while some singers might have plenty of energy in this range, others might be in desperate need of it. Don't make them sound like someone they're not; rather, the goal is to make them sound like a better version of themselves.
Earlier, I mentioned cutting in the 300 Hz range for male vocals. This may seem to contradict this idea of boosting – maybe.
Mixing is a process of additive and subtractive measures. The difficulty is in deciding what to do first.
I've found the most success in removing as much of the bad as possible, and then listening to what remains and boosting where appropriate. A vocal that's devoid of much in the 300Hz – 400Hz range is a vocal that's not going to have the natural “muddiness” and therefore might be a prime candidate for such a boost. This doesn't mean “muddiness” is added – just lifted to a natural full sound. It just depends on the specific voice characteristics as well as the style of music.
#6 Oops … what about the music channels?
Time to work on the other channels. Much of the natural voice is in the mid-range frequencies, and so are the fundamental frequencies of most other instruments. Part of mixing a good vocal is making room for it in the mix. The vocal needs to own the primary area where it shines through. This doesn't come by boosting only the good - it also comes by carving out space from the instrument or tracks channels.
Look to other vocal and instrument/tracks channels that clash with the vocal. Determine which vocal "owns" that primary frequency area, and then adjust the others by applying a slight cut in that area.
#7 Does it Sound Like I Want it to Sound?
Audio production is part science and part art where too often the scientific mind is allowed to dominate. This happens a lot with EQ work. During any of the above processes, you might ask the question, "Does this sound good?" The question (and the answers) come from trial and error. Boost here, evaluate. Boost there, evaluate.
There is another way. During the vocal mixing process, imagine how the vocalist should sound. Ask these questions:
Then go to those key mix areas, such as using the high-pass filter or adding brightness and apply the aforementioned techniques so they meet the sound in your head. A great vocal mix can be imagined and then worked towards. It's much harder and less likely to be obtained through trial and error.
This process isn't easy for those new to the EQ process and frequency band characteristics. But learning is just a matter of time and practice.
The key is asking the one question that matters: "Does it sound like I want it to sound?"
Address these seven areas to improve vocal mixes. Once the vocal channel is sounding great, reach for the reverb. Or don't. It depends. Hopefully I’ll address that another time.
Thanks to Chris Huff and Church Sound who inspired this post.
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