Bringing Vocals Forward

Last time I told you about my adventures in learning the PM5D-RH. And while there are a few things I don't like about the desk, it's a pretty powerful system. Having 24 mix busses, plus 8 matrix mixes (effectively doubled when you have a DSP-5 as we do), you have a lot of flexibility when setting up your mix.

When we did our last webinar with Dave & Jason, Dave talked about a technique he dubs "the smash mix." He uses it on drums and vocals to help pull them forward in the mix. I was quite intrigued, but never had the free mix busses (or time) to play around with it; until now.

In my case, I wanted to thicken up the vocals and bring them a little further forward in the mix. We are on all wedges right now (hoping to change that soon), so we have a lot of stage wash. Our vocals tend to get lost because we simply don't have the dynamic range in our system. But if one simply turns them up, they stand out too much when they sing out, and still get lost when they pull back. Adding compression helps, but you can't add enough to pull them forward without it sounding unnatural.

Here's how this works: First, set up the vocals like you normally would. Dial in the EQ, apply some mild compression (I normally go for 2-4 dB of gain reduction using a 2:1 or 2.5:1 ratio, give or take) and assign them as you do normally. At this point, they may not have quite the presence in the mix you desire, so here's the secret sauce. Take your vocals and in addition to assigning them to your main mix (or group, or DCA/VCA), assign them to a second mix bus. In my case, I used 24 because it was free and close to me (why reach?).

A quick look at our setup for a smash mix. Using Mix 24 and compressing that heavily before sending it to Stereo. A quick look at our setup for a smash mix. Using Mix 24 and compressing that heavily before sending it to Stereo.On this new mix, apply some pretty serious compression. I went for a pretty solid 10 dB all the time (low threshold, high ratio)--hence the name "smashed." You really want to pull a lot of dynamic range out. Finally, assign this mix to your main outs (LR bus, or however you send signal to your speakers). Start bringing this up behind the vocals. You won't need much before you'll find them really stepping forward in the mix.

The theory behind it is pretty simple. Vocals can be pretty dynamic, with lots of peaks and valleys in the waveform. Those valleys are what tend to get lost. Because there can be a lot of range between the peaks and valleys, it's hard to achieve the right balance between too loud and too soft. Adding in the smash channel keeps the valleys from becoming too deep; the massive compression keeps it from adding much to the peaks. Thus, your overall dynamic range is reduced, without sucking the life out of the sound. Vocals can be brought right out front of the mix without adding additional volume.

One word of caution. This technique works on just about anything. I already mentioned Dave does this on his drums. You could put it on keys, guitar, whatever. However, if you use this technique on everything, you'll find yourself right back where you started. So use it sparingly!

Another word of note. Doing this in the digital domain is really easy, but if may introduce some slight delay artifacts due to the processing time. On vocals, it's fine as the delay simply thickens them up a bit. On drums it might introduce some smear so you may need to get creative to fix it. In the analog world, there's no time lost, however it may introduce some phase shift. So be aware and be prepared to tweak it a bit.

Now go play with your mix!