This article will discuss how loud vocals should be in a mix.
Vocals are one of the most dynamic elements in any song. However, the balance of the vocals depends upon the kind of arrangement and genre you’re mixing for. For example, vocals must be the loudest in an acoustic/singer-songwriter arrangement. On the other hand, in a pop/hip-hop/R&B arrangement, vocals are the loudest after the kick drum and drums in general.
In EDM songs, the vocals can be below the synth, depending on the EDM sub-genre. Similarly, vocals may not be the loudest element in the mix of jazz and progressive genres with many instrument interplays. So, with that context, let’s objectively answer how loud vocals should be in a mix.
One last thing to consider is the measurement of loudness, which is LUFS: Loudness Unit Full Scale, a standard that the entire music industry follows. The second measurement is TP (True Peak), the loudest point of the audio. Now let’s dive right into the topic of main concern.
How Loud Should Vocals Be In a Mix?
It’s a common practice to keep the vocals at a loudness between -12 and -18 dB LUFS, depending on which stage of mixing you’re in. You should gain stage vocals at about -18 dB LUFS, but you can have it up to -12 dB LUFS by the end of the session, as vocals are one of the loudest elements in the mix.
However, exceed the -12 dB LUFS limit only at your own risk, or if that is the sound you’re going for, else the vocals will sound over-compressed. As vocals are quite dynamic, having them overcompressed will work against most song genres. The over-compressed vocals are desirable for grungy or electronic songs with distorted vocals.
However, otherwise, they are not. Especially in vocals-focused arrangements, the most popular music, whether it is an Adele-type simple piano ballad, a reprised version with a simple guitar arrangement, a Sia-type hard-hitting pop/rock arrangement, or an Olivia Rodrigo-type Pop/Punk/Rock record.
In all these types of songs, the vocals’ dynamics bring out the true expression. So even when you take a hip-hop song like Juice WRLD or Xxxtentacion, the dynamics of the vocals are really important. We recommend the -12 to -18 dB LUFS of loudness range for vocals.
For example, let’s look at the dB LUFS and dB TP ratings of the master bus, the kick channel, and the vocals channel. The image below shows the loudness meter on the master bus of the mix of a pop song by babyface. The master channel has a LUFS rating of -14 LUFS, peaking at 1.6 dB TP.
Now, let’s look at the loudness readings of the vocals (on the left) and the kick track (on the right). The vocals are about -17 LUFS loud, with a peak at -0.5 dB TP, displaying a high dynamic range. The kick is -10 LUFS loud, peaking at 0.1 dB TP. In comparison to the vocals, it has a low dynamic range.
For comparison’s sake, let’s look at the loudness meter for the melody bus (synths + pads + guitars). As you can read in the image below, synths are quieter, with a loudness of -24 LUFS, peaking at -9.9 dB TP.
How to balance vocals?
In the modern Pop/RnB/Hip-hop genres, you should balance the vocals first against the kick, then the instruments and bass, and then against the rest of the drums. After that, you balance the backing vocals against the lead vocals. Finally, for an acoustic/ballad song, balance the vocals against the piano or guitar.
Let’s break the above statement down even further. First, let’s discuss the modern samples-, synths-, and guitars-based arrangements. Then, start the balance by setting the kick’s level first, then listening and balancing the bass/808 against it, followed by the rest drums, the lead vocals, and the instruments.
Then you can revisit and re-balance it as per your taste and sensibilities. For example, for an acoustic song, set the levels of the guitars or pianos first and then balance the vocals against it. However, these are just rules of thumb and not rules. So I recommend creating your workflow.
How Loud Should Vocals Be In a Pop/R&B/Hip-hop Mix?
Vocals are one of the loudest elements in a pop/R&B/Hip-hop mix and can be between -18 and -15 dB LUFS loud (integrated and momentary), such that the mix peaks at -1 dB TP. Vocals are second to the kick drum and the snare/clap in a mix.
Between -15 and -18 dB LUFS is the sweet spot for the vocals, and at that loudness level, they are sufficiently audible with the rest of the arrangement and aren’t too over-compressed either.
How loud should vocals be in a Rock mix?
Vocals are generally about -20 dB LUFS loud in a rock mix and are usually second to drums. Vocals aren’t louder than the rest of the arrangement, unlike pop songs, but it’s not softer either. In rock music, vocals sit in the middle of drums, guitars, and synths/pianos.
The balance of the vocals is not intended to overtake the rest of the song. In some sub-genres like metal or punk rock, drums may be softer than the guitars and drums in some parts. However, some rock songs are pretty vocal-oriented, and in those cases, vocals can be louder, possibly up to -16 dB LUFS.
How loud should vocals be in an EDM Mix?
Vocals are generally about -16 to -12 dB loud in an EDM mix as vocals compete with heavy drums, layered synthesizers, and fat basslines in these songs. To cut through the heavy arrangement of EDM songs, the dynamic range of the vocals has to be reduced sometimes.
In EDM songs, the drums, bass, and synths may be louder than the vocals in some parts and genres and vice versa in others. For example, in drops, the synths take over the vocals; in buildups, the drums take over the vocals; in verses, the vocals usually stay on top.
We have discussed all music genres and the vocals’ exact LUFS ratings. Everything discussed in the article is just observations and general guidelines for balancing and mixing vocals, not hardcore rules. So it’s important to follow your ears, sensibilities, expression, and gut feeling, as music has no rules.
React to the music and make changes, as mixing is the perfect blend of left and right brain (or creative brain) activity. If you’re getting stuck in between, you can follow these guidelines. Alternatively, you can reference songs similar to the song you’re mixing and create a balance based on the songs you’re listening to or hold them as benchmarks.
Hope the article was of help. Thank you for reading.
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Shaurya Bhatia, is an Indian Music Producer, Composer, Rapper & Performer, who goes by the stage name MC SNUB, and is also 1/2 of the Indian pop music duo, called “babyface”. A certified Audio Engineer & Music Producer, and a practicing musician & rapper for more than 6 years, Shaurya has worked on projects of various genres and has also been a teaching faculty at Spin Gurus DJ Academy.