How do I get my vocals to sit well in a mix?
Volume automation, EQ, Compression and effects such as reverb and delay will help your vocal sit nicely in any mix.
Easily my first tip when mixing vocals is that its ok to have a reference track in terms of overall approach but if you’re trying to get one persons vocal to sound exactly like another, then you are going to be sat there a very long time and perhaps forever as its pretty much impossible.
The tonal characteristics of a persons voice are so nuanced that you really have to do your best to deal with and enhance the vocal you are working on in context with the song and instrumentation behind it,
A good place to start especially in a busy mix is to set the vocal to 0 and temporarily group the rest of the tracks and slowly bring down the fader until the vocal is sitting on top of the mix in a way that it is slightly too loud. This way you already have a great starting point so you don’t have the vocal not present enough down line as you can now bring up other parts of the mix that you want to be prominent.
A lot of budding mix engineers would probably reach for the compressor first as a means of controlling the loud and quiet parts of the performance but a better way is by automation. In your DAW you have the ability to draw in the volume curves to smooth out the performance and make sure the quiet passages are inteligible and the loud bits don’t over power the track too much.
EQ is almost always used to place the vocal nicely within the context of the track. If its a busy track you will almost likely add a high pass filter to take out some unnecessary low information, where this high pass starts depends on the recording and the track itself but starting from 200hz, move it around to find the sweet spot where it has nice body but doesn't get in the way of the low end of the track.
In order to smooth out any harshness higher up the frequency spectrum, tight cuts (high Q value) can be used to tame any over prominent parts of the overall tone, these could be caused by the room/microphone and vocalists and are usually a combination of the three.
You can now add your compressor as an effect, higher gain reduction and attack can make your vocal sound more aggressive if you like or slow attack/ slight gain reduction can be more subtle and transparent. The decision is taken by the engineer base don how it suits the track.
Effects are commonly used to add excitement and drama to the recording and again these will depend on the track itself and the overall sound you are going for and this where your reference track can come in handy. Modulation effects such as doublers are very common to add depth to the sound and of course the almost ubiquitous ’Reverb’ and ‘Delay’. Both of these effects add a false space’ to the recording as normally you would record ‘dry’. This helps smooth out the vocal as well provide our brains an exciting space for it to live. Delay helps drama and best used when automated to emphasise certain words or lines.
You can of course continue from here and explore many other processes that are based along these main steps or go beyond but if you are just starting out then this is a good basic guide to get your vocal sitting nicely in a mix.