How to Make a Vocal Up Front in the Mix

The vocal is the star of any mix so it especially needs to sound good, and stay up front in the mix. While I covered how to get your vocal sounding its best in my vocal chain tutorial, that’s only half the battle. Let’s talk about how to make a vocal up front in the mix.

Up Front Vocal Tips

up front vocal

Let’s cover six different ways to keep your vocal up front in the mix. Your vocal might benefit from just one or several of the methods in combination that I cover here.


One of the reasons your vocal can get lost is because it has too much dynamic range, or the difference between the quietest and loudest parts of the vocal.

While you can set the level so that the loudest words or notes fit within the context of the rest of the mix, you may find that the quieter parts are unintelligible under the music.

Compression works to smooth out and ultimately reduce dynamic range for the sake of getting a more consistent volume out of the vocal.

As a rule, we want some dynamic range intact in our vocal as it sounds natural; no one sings at the exact same volume. Certain notes, words, or phrases will have more force behind them either to best convey the emotion of that part or because the note requires more force to hit.

That being said, the easiest way to keep a vocal up front is to be especially aggressive with the compression.

upfront vocal

Taken from my overview on finding the best compression on vocals for different scenarios, when we want our vocal up front in the mix, using a relatively aggressive 8:1 compression ratio works extremely well coupled with setting the threshold at or just below the quietest vocal part.

We’re aiming for over 10dB and up to 20dB in gain reduction which is aggressive for some genres, but you can get away with it in genres like pop or hip hop when keeping the vocal up front takes priority.

It’s a small tradeoff of sacrificing some of the natural sound of the vocal, but in those genres it’s commonplace to ride a vocal a lot harder as the goal more often IS to keep the vocal as up front and present as possible, so you can get away with it.

It’s also worth mentioning that a medium to quick attack of 1-3 milliseconds to keep the transient punch from being swallowed up.

This is something which gets lost when talking how to keep a vocal up front, but the transients of the vocals on most consonants helps to keep that vocal visible in the mix.

Setting the attack on a compressor to be too short/fast will pull down the transients and dull the punch, effectively going against the purpose of that compression in the first place.


This takes that last point one step further.

As I discussed in my overview on what is a limiter, limiters aren’t just for audio mastering.

A limiter is basically a compressor with an infinite (i.e. really big) ratio. When a ratio of +8:1 isn’t cutting it, you can either crank it up on the compressor OR you can just drop a limiter on the vocal.

limiter on bass

You simply adjust the gain parameter with a limiter to get the amount of gain reduction you want.

It essentially acts as the compressor’s threshold, but with a limiter and an infinite ratio, literally anything which exceeds the threshold is output at the same level, flattening the dynamic range which keeps that vocal up front so you can hear every single note or nuance in the vocal at the same level.

Remember to turn the output gain down to match the input level; the idea here isn’t to boost the volume of the track, we just want to use the ceiling of the limiter to keep our vocal present. Turning the output gain back down to the same level of the vocal maintains gain staging for the next plugin.

Speaking of which, check out my complete vocal chain which I use on every vocal in every mix.

When using a limiter or any kind of aggressive compression, it’s important that you trim your tracks so you’ve only got audio that you want in the mix. By the same token, it’s important to remove or attenuate the loudest vocal breaths via fades as I explain in the linked to tutorial.

This is a good rule to follow in general to attain a cleaner mix, but especially when you have a lot of compression which can amplify background noise on a track via make up gain that you don’t want to hear.

Many limiters like FabFilter’s Pro-L 2 have an included attack (and release) control so you can still maintain your vocal’s transients.

But yes, do NOT sleep on the limiter for keeping every note, word, and phrase in your listener’s face.


Compression is basically automated volume tweaking, albeit one with a set and forget configuration.

As I mentioned, in genres like pop, hip hop, really any commercial music leaning mix can benefit from aggressive compression either from a compressor or a limiter

When that’s too blunt of a solution for your tastes, you may need to roll up your sleeves with some vocal automation.

While this isn’t a substitute for compression, following up your compressor at the end of your vocal chain with a gain plugin or vocal rider allows you to dial in less aggressive compression settings for a more natural sounding vocal.

Then at the end of the vocal chain after all other processing, if you find a note, word, or phrase is still a little too buried, simply automate that part up using a gain plugin.

I put together an entire tutorial on vocal automation, so refer to that for tips on how to more naturally keep your vocal up front.

Track Panning

If you still find your vocal disappearing from time to time even when you feel the level is right with compression/limiting or automation, you may have frequency conflicts.

I always liken mixing to solving a puzzle with regards to the frequencies in the mix.

When you have instruments which share similar frequencies as your vocal, the vocal and those tracks will be fighting for the same space in the mix.

An easy way to avoid these conflicts and thus keep your vocal in front of the rest of the mix is to keep these tracks as far away from the center of the mix as possible.

audio panning

While the vocal should always be centered in the mix, refer to my audio panning guide for more information on where to situate the rest of the tracks in your mix.

Don’t forget to keep other vocals out of the way of your lead vocal which I cover in my backing vocal panning guide.

Complimentary EQ

Sometimes you don’t have space to move some conflicting frequency rich tracks far enough away from the vocal, or you’ll find that panning isn’t enough and that the vocal is still fighting.

In this case, you need to make some complimentary EQ moves to carve out space for the vocal which will keep it in front in all of the frequencies it needs.

My favorite EQ plugin, the FabFilter Pro-Q 3 features a “collision” detector as part of its spectrum analyzer:

fabfilter pro q analyzer

Essentially this shows any other tracks which have an instance of Pro-Q on them which have frequency conflicts with your vocal (they show up as red on the mini spectrum).

You can then pull up the EQ on that track or tracks and make the recommended adjustments to create the space which the priority track in your vocal needs, thus keeping it up front as it has dominion over all of its frequencies relative to the rest of the mix.

Sidechain Processing

This takes that last point one step further.

When we think of sidechain processing we typically think sidechain compression.

This can be useful in the case of keeping our vocal up front in the mix because we can sidechain any problem or conflicting frequency tracks with our vocal, pulling down their levels via compression when the vocal is playing.

An extreme example which sometimes works is to sidechain the entire instrument bus or a specific bus within the instrument bus (which is easy to do if you use my mixing template) to the vocal.

This pulls down the entire bus whenever the vocal is playing, and while this sounds like it would be too aggressive or noticeable, you can use a very light ratio of 2:1. This can be enough to duck the music out of the way of the vocal with enough subtlety so that it’s not perceptible but has an impact.

I specifically phrased this as sidechain processing rather than compression initially though because sidechain EQ can work even better and more transparently.

Once again using Pro-Q 3, we can easily target just the frequency in the other track which is causing a conflict with our vocal and set up a sidechain so that only that frequency gets pulled down when the vocal plays, thus creating the space our vocal needs without gutting the other track and maintaining transparency across the mix.

Check out my FabFilter Pro-Q 3 review, by the way, to see why this is my favorite overall plugin.

These six tips should keep your vocal up front in the mix whenever the mix calls for it or you just feel that certain words, phrases, or notes are being lost.

As I mentioned in opening, it may only take one or it may take some combination to get the vocal where you want it, depending on the issue.

Tips for Keeping Your Vocal Up Front

  • Aggressive compression settings with regards to high ratio and a low threshold are the easiest way to ensure that virtually every note in your vocal exists in a very similar dynamic range so nothing gets lost.
  • Even more aggressive for keeping a vocal up front is to use a limiter to essentially completely remove your dynamics completely and output every note at the same level.
  • Automation is a useful tool when you want more subtlety to simply pay attention and raise any words which are being lost in the vocal or keeping the vocal in front of the music.
  • Panning helps to keep tracks with frequency conflicts out of the way of the vocal so it doesn’t get covered up.
  • Complimentary EQ moves are effective when panning isn’t enough, essentially meaning that you attenuate the frequencies on other tracks which the vocal needs. A plugin like FabFilter’s Pro-Q 3 reveals these “collisions” so that you can adjust accordingly on the other tracks.
  • Sidechain processing can duck a bus or the entire instrumental slightly when the vocal is playing, thereby keeping that vocal in front. Sidechain EQ via FabFilter’s Pro-Q 3 is a more transparent way to achieve the same thing, only ducking certain frequencies the vocal needs in other tracks and only when the vocal is playing.

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