Turn Up The Vocals!

turn up the vocals

By David A. Barber
Author of Gigging, Everything You Need to Know About Playing Gigs (Except How to Play Your Axe)

We’ve seen this one a million times and so have you. A local band puts out a CD where the bass, drums or guitar overpower the vocals to the point where one can barely hear them, much less understand the lyrics. A glance at the liner notes shows that someone spent a lot of time writing very deep meaningful poetry that nobody will ever hear. Many bands do this live as well. In a few genres that’s the way it’s “supposed” to sound.

Bah! Humbug!

People love vocals. We’re not just talking about musicians here, we’re talking about the general public. One thing that mainstream radio has taught us is that one catchy lyric can make a band (at least a one-hit wonder). And vocal harmonies are even better. Here’s our theory as to why this is:

Anyone who can speak has tried to sing, even drummers. Most of us aren’t that good at it, but we’ve all tried it and therefore, we all know how hard it is to sing well. But, not everyone has tried to play guitar, bass, drums, keyboards or horns. Even if they have and they appreciate the skills of a jazz sax player, they still like a catchy lyric. It’s so obvious that everyone should already know this.

Therefore, when mixing down the tracks on your CD, don’t let the guitar player or the drummer make the decisions. Their input is appreciated, but everyone naturally wants their own playing to be heard loud and clear above the rest. It’s just human nature. Commonly we’ve heard stories from the mix-down where, after hours of going around and around and trying different mixes, the vocalist just gets tired and says “Whatever you want, let’s just get it done.” But, please, don’t be bullied. Don’t quit. Instead, tell them “My ears are tired, we’ll have to finish this later.” Then put the tracks away for a week or a month and come back with fresh ears. Or hire a skilled producer with a proven track record and let him make the decisions.

The same goes for live shows. When the sound guy says “Turn it down,” believe him and do as you’re told. He can’t mix your band well if your amp is so loud that he’s taken it out of the PA mix. Trust us, you don’t know better than him and you probably don’t know how it really sounds out in the room. Just because your monitor mix sucks, doesn’t mean the house mix does. It doesn’t matter if you are a punk or heavy metal act, let the sound guy crank it up. He knows how. The old blues and jazz guys who tour constantly around the country know this. They don’t bring their own sound guy on the road, either, they use the house guy and trust him to mix it as good as the system will allow. They keep their amps turned low and sound really good, most of the time, because of that. Learn from the examples set by the elder generation of players. If it works for them, it’ll work for you.