How Loud Do Record Labels Want The Lead Vocal In Your Song To Be?
2nd May, 2019
How loud should the lead vocal be in your song? I won't be lazy and just say "it depends", but instead try and come up with some useful pointers you can use in your next mix, whether you're engineering yourself or working with a producer.
Let's start with the low end of the spectrum: the quiet lead vocal. This can be very appealing in certain indie styles where the voice is more of an atmospheric instrument or the band wants to appear "cool" and bury the lead vocal by keeping it low in the mix and clouding it further with lots of reverb, delay and chorus/doubling effects until it's really hard to make out what the singer is saying and what their real vocal personality is.
Maybe shyness is the reason for this, or maybe there's a genuine artistic concept behind it. But it's probably fair to say that a singer with great vocal ability would never deliberate bury their vocals in the mix—Mariah Carey and Jessie J fans please confirm this.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are tracks where there's absolutely no way you can miss the lead vocal, especially in pop/Top 40 styles released by major labels. The top mix engineers know that when they deliver a mix that they think is in perfectly good taste, the record company will probably ask for—and ultimately release—a "vocal up" mix because they want to make sure listeners can understand every word and aren't distracted too much by other elements like guitar, piano and synths.
I remember reading an interview with Mark "Spike" Stent who has mixed the likes of Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé, U2, Coldplay, Muse, Spice Girls, Madonna etc. He said that labels want the lead vocal to be "louder than God"!
But is there a downside to very loud lead vocals? Surely the vocal is the most important part of any song so should be pushed up, up, up. Well, there is.
Because the louder the vocal is in a track, the quieter the instruments are going to sound because at any given listening volume there is only so much "sound" that can flow through the pipeline. So if you allow the vocal to "boss" the instruments too much, they will start sounding feeble and thin, especially in frequency areas like the low mids(200-500Hz) where the body of the lead vocal lives.
Yes, the engineering types among you will know that you can use a lot of fancy tricks like anti-masking EQ, (side-chain)compression, stereo placement etc. but there's a limit to how much you can "protect" the instruments this way—plus if the lead vocal is so loud that it totally dominates the mix, it's the aural equivalent of having the singer singing right into our eardrum while the musicians are somewhere backstage as if they were still waiting to come on. Not very natural and not very pleasant.
So for all you singers, managers, publishers and record labels out there(all reading this blog as a matter of urgency first thing on a Monday morning), there is such a thing as a lead vocal that's too "loud and proud" which can take away some of the sonic impact the backing instruments could have if you only let them. Ok, it's 2019 and we'll call them "beat".
As for God? Don't mix for Him. He already knew the words before you'd even started writing them...
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