Open up the first exercise in Soundation. You'll get best results if you use Chrome.
You’ll find three tracks in this Soundation Studio session. They might sound familiar. These tracks are submixes from Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” from the record So:
The ‘Mix’ - a final mix of the tune using the tracks available here. It places the vocal at a level suitable for the tune, the genre, the radio, and a competitive shuffled playlist. Your mission: use the other tracks to match this reference mix.
The “mix minus” track, which for this exercise is the full mix, minus PG – everything but the vocal, labeled ‘Mix-PG.’
The lead vocal track, labeled ‘PG’ because it is Peter Gabriel himself.
We are using the first verse, pre-chorus, and chorus. Here is a recommended approach to balancing the vocal within the mix.
Balancing the Lead Vocal
Listen to the entire reference mix. It’s just two minutes of the full tune – a good representative cross section of the full work. Listen and acclimate yourself to the relative level of all the tracks: vocal, kick, snare, bass, piano, guitar, and the rest. Focus in particular on how the vocal sits just above the rest of the band, always revealing the intellectual content of the lyrics, and the emotional expression in the performance. It's not too loud, and not too soft. That’s the trick!
So what counts as too loud, and what is too soft? Explore this by following the next steps.
Mute the reference mix and pull up the other two tracks. Raise the ‘Mix-PG’ track until the level in your monitors (loudspeakers or headphones) feels about the same as the reference mix was during Step One. Then raise the vocal track, ‘PG’ to taste. Find a level you like.
You’ll find it helpful to push the level up until it is clear to you that it is too loud. Then gradually back off until you know the level is too weak. Then repeat, pushing the fader up and pulling it back down to define the range of level that seems valid. Above your top fader level is definitely too hot. Below is too cold. But in between? What to do next?
Mute the ‘PG’ and ‘Mix-PG’ tracks and unmute the ‘Mix’ track. Have a listen for the whole duration of the track with renewed focus on the level of Peter’s vocal compared to the rest of the track.
Iterate slowly and deliberately, but don’t quick-match. That is, repeat Step Three above and see if you can’t narrow that fader range between too loud and too soft. Then repeat Step Four above and heighten your sensitivity to
level. And repeat again, as desired. By doing this, you are learning to balance elements of a mix. Congrats!
Reflecting on the Process
Alex Case highly recommends against clicking back and forth quickly between your mix (‘PG’ with ‘Mix-PG’) and the ‘Mix.’ Simply switching back and forth until they match is not going to teach you how to mix. It’s something of a pattern recognition exercise, and not a very useful one.
If, instead, you spend time listening to the reference, through the variety of sonic scenes presented – a verse, a pre-chorus, and a chorus – you will learn what counts as a properly balanced mix. Then, mute that reference and listen only to your mix, and spend time listening and level riding. Do this and try to find a vocal level that feels right. This helps you develop an aesthetic opinion about what sounds right, and what sounds wrong. Keep in mind that, for your own projects, you won’t have a handy mix by the likes of Kevin Killen to reference. You’ll be entirely on your own, left to your own judgment alone to determine what sounds balanced. Quick comparisons back and forth will not teach you how to balance a mix.
Repeating a training loop for yourself from Step Three to Step Four, again and again, teaches you how to place a vocal at the right level.