A common question I am asked is, “With which instrument should I start mixing?”
Well I can think of at least four good answers to this, and possibly a fifth. Yesterday, I covered the drums and I will cover the other options over the course of this week, which just happens to be Audio Masterclass's Enrollment Week (at the time of writing).
The argument for starting to mix with the vocal is that since the vocal is the most important component of the song, everything else should fit around it and support it. It's a logic that is difficult to flaw.
But before any mixing can begin, you have to decide what you want from the vocal. For instance, do you want it to sound like a real human being, singing a couple of meters (six feet) in front of you?
Well you might, but since very few recordings attempt to achieve this, you might be trying to sell into a market that doesn't exist. It's a shame that the natural sound isn't popular, but that's the way things are, and probably will be for some time to come. (Classical music is different of course – so different that I will consider it separately at a later time.)
Taking the above into account, what you might want from a vocal is a clean sound. A sound that doesn't obviously appear to be 'messed about with'. The best option for capturing this is to use a small-diaphragm capacitor microphone at a distance of 30 – 60 cm (one to two feet), with a pop shield.
Once recorded, then there shouldn't be any necessity to do anything other than add a little reverb to put the vocal into a believable acoustic space. Unless you have used a poor quality microphone then there should be no need for EQ. If the vocal varies in level, then the cleanest way of handling this is to use fader automation, or clip-based gain, rather than a compressor.
So if you start mixing from this point, you should be trying to achieve a clean, not-messed-about-with sound, consistent in level with a little reverb. Everything else needs to fit in with that.
A clean sound can be good. However a 'fat' sound is often preferred in modern production technique. Fattening starts by using a microphone with a large diaphragm. A tube microphone will be fatter still. A large-diaphragm, tube microphone through a tube preamp should be positively obese. A close microphone position will help even further.
If the sound is still not fat enough (or you are trying to fatten up a vocal that was originally recorded cleanly), then you can use a tube compression plug-in and perhaps some EQ. A short but rich reverb can take fatness to the outer limits of possibility, and panning the reverb center so that it is not spatially separated from the vocal will help too.
When you have achieved the desired degree of fatness, you can start mixing in the instruments to complement your by-now full, thick vocal sound.
Occasionally a vocal seems to call for a processed sound, taking it far away from the natural sound of the human voice. A distorted telephone effect would be one example.
Since the possibilities of processing the vocal are limitless, once you have decided to go this route there will be a lot of things to try out. This is a time for not being in a hurry. The vocal is all-important and has to be just the way you want it before adding any instruments.
Starting with the vocal is a great way to work, and because you will fit the instruments around the vocal, there is no point of difficulty later in the mix when the vocal and instruments don't seem to gel together, as can often happen otherwise.
My comments on drums are still relevant, as treating them as a single instrument makes mixing much more straightforward. Once you have achieved a great vocal sound and a great drum sound, you might make blending them the second stage of your mix.