How to Remove Vocal Breaths in Mix the Right Way

Pronounced vocal breaths can distract your listener to the point that it’s the only thing they can focus on in your mix. On the other hand, you don’t want to remove breaths from the vocal altogether as this will sound unnatural and robotic. With that in mind, I put together this tutorial on how to remove vocal breaths in your mix the right way.

Vocal Breaths

When I think of an example of a song with vocal breaths which take me out of the song, I always go to Hootie and the Blowfish’s “I Will Wait” from their solid 1998 record, “Musical Chairs”.

I’ve linked to a section in the final chorus where you can hear what I’m talking about. Be warned, if you love this song like I do you’ll never NOT be able to hear it again:

I get it, Darius Rucker is human and needs air like any of us do, particularly when singing what is seemingly one single take. The breaths add to the performance to an extent, but I would’ve liked to have heard them attenuated a bit so that they’re not all I can focus on during that chorus.

That’s an important distinction to make – removing these altogether will squeeze a major part of the humanity (if that’s not too grandiose a term) of the performance. Admittedly it’s a tightrope we have to walk as the mixer in removing the vocal breaths without COMPLETELY removing them.

So how do we do this the RIGHT way?

How to Remove Vocal Breaths

vocal breaths

Like other aspects of mixing and specifically vocal production like vocal automation, there are two ways to do this: manually and automatically (with a plugin).

Similar to vocal automation, the manual way requires more work, but is typically more worth the effort. Again and as I said in opening, the more you put into mixing, the more you’ll get out.

Volume automation actually is the key to removing vocal breaths the right way, or better said attenuating them. Here is the simple three step process.

Step 1 – Trim Your Vocal Clip to Start of Breath

First, let’s focus on a vocal clip where a prominent breath needs to be fixed.

Sometimes the breaths occur at the start of a section, sometimes they happen in the middle of a take, or both (like in the above example).

If the breath is at the start of the clip, you simply need to pull the start of the clip to the start of the breath. In the case of the breath being in the middle of a vocal clip, you need to delete the part of the clip right before the breath.

If the breath is jam packed between two vocal parts rather than there being any space, you should just cut out a few milliseconds before the breath to ensure that you’re not taking away from the vocal itself.

The point is to create as innocuous a cut so as not to cut out the end of the vocal part which precedes the breath you want to attenuate. As long as you have even a TINY gap of even a few milliseconds before that breath, you can move on to the next step.

Step 2 – Fade to Start of Vocal

While you can manually create volume points from the start of the breath to the start of the vocal, an automatic fade works much better.

Auto-fading is a specific type of volume automation which creates a dynamically changing yet smooth roll up to full volume. This ends up sounding a lot better than a static silence to whatever dB manual automation you would create.

Not only does an automatic fade work better, but it’s also easier to do.

Virtually all DAWs have shortcuts which enable you to create an automatic fade from the start of the clip to the point you have selected, or in this case the start of the vocal.

In my Ableton Live in Windows, Ctrl+Alt+F creates an automatic fade and applies it to the section you have selected.

I simply highlight from the start of the trimmed part (the start of the breath) to the start of the first note in the vocal and create that auto fade. This creates a seamless attenuation of that breath to where it’s still there, just not as pronounced.

clip trimming

The beauty of this method in particular is that it’s always in relation to the size of the breath itself. In other words, larger breaths will still be more pronounced than smaller breaths rather than outputting them all to sound exactly the same.

This is important because a long vocal line will understandably be followed by a larger breath before the next line, so this method applies a relative attenuation as necessary to maintain the natural quality of the vocal.

Step 3 – Repeat as Necessary for Remaining Breaths

Rinse and repeat, it’s as simple as that.

Note that not ALL breaths will need to be attenuated. If one sticks out to you, then apply steps one and two to get it under control.

If you ever need more or less attenuation, simply adjust the fade to the left (to keep more breath) or to the right (to keep less breath) as necessary.

If moving the fade to the right is removing the bite of that vocal transient or it’s just not getting you the results you want, you may need to trim into the breath more to remove more of the breath and thus make that fade swallow up more of the remaining breath.

Vocal Breath Plugins

I mentioned the automatic way to remove vocal breaths. There are a number of plugins which are trained to identify and remove or simply attenuate breaths on your vocal.

When I don’t have time or feel it’s necessary to go the manual route like in the case of a lower priority mix of mine, I’ll outsource this to Izotope’s RX Breath Control.

izotope rx breath control

You simply drop the plugin on the vocal you want to control the breaths for, most likely your lead vocal, and adjust the target level and sensitivity to taste.

The “level” parameter should be set roughly to the average volume of your vocal’s breaths themselves, and the “sensitivity” is essentially how much you want to attenuate them.

More sensitivity will essentially remove the breaths altogether which, similar to taming them too aggressively manually, will sound unnatural and robotic.

While you COULD apply this to your entire vocal bus, you would likely get too much or too little attenuation on different tracks which would just do more harm than good.

Removing Vocal Breaths Reviewed

When it comes to removing vocal breaths in your mix, it’s more about attenuating rather than suffocating them altogether.

There’s a sweet spot where you get a little bit of the breath leading up to the vocal, and doing this manually via trimming and adding fades will always yield the best and most natural results.

In a pinch you can use a plugin to do this, but when I’ve got a high priority mix I’m working on, I don’t trust a macro “set and forget” approach of automation.

Remember your listener should always be able to hear the breaths if they’re listening for them, but the breaths should never be prominent to the point of drawing the listener’s attention to them.

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