Vocal EQ work can make or break your mix. A solid vocal mix will capture the listener’s ear. Don’t think vocal mixing is hard. EQ vocals using these six easy steps. Oh, you might have one particular singer that has a difficult tone to perfect but as long as you follow these six steps, EQ’ing even the hardest vocal will become much easier.
EQ Vocals with these Six Steps
1. Select the Right Microphone
Properly EQ’ing vocals begins before you ever touch the EQ knob. It begins before you turn on your first microphone. It starts on the stage. Microphones differ in many ways, from type (ribbon / dynamic / condenser) to sensitivity to polar pattern to where I’m focusing this first part; microphone frequency response.
Each microphone make and model treats frequencies differently. For example, some microphones will boost certain frequency ranges while other might cut them or not affect them at all. Let’s look at the frequency response charts for a few popular vocal microphones from Blue, Shure, and Sennheiser.
As you can see, each of these microphones varies in how it treats the audio frequencies. For example, look at how the SM58 severely cuts frequencies in the 7 to 8 kHz range. This means that you can have your vocalist sing into each of the microphones and get a different tonal sound. If you have several vocal microphones that are different makes and models, have the singer test each out with your EQ set flat or to the standard noon position on your analog board. Once you have found the microphone that gives the best natural tone for their voice, you can move onto number 2.
Before moving on, if you want to learn all about microphones, check out my Vocal Microphone Resource page.
2. Start your sound check with the lead vocalist in mind.
The standard sound check involves setting your gains and then EQ’ing your band going from low-end up to high with your singers on top. For example, you set the gain for the drums, then bass, electric guitar, etc. until you end with your vocals. You then do the same with the EQ process until you reach the point where you start EQ’ing across channels. EQ’ing across channels would be like setting the EQ for the bass so it sound different than, yet fits with, the kick drum.
After you finish with your gain setting and are ready to turn to your drum EQ (low endders), keep in mind the sound of the lead vocalist. Let’s say the band is starting the sound check by playing their first song. While you can work on the EQ of the different instruments, keep in mind the sound of the lead vocalist. The thought is that while you are EQ’ing the instruments, you are consciously carving out a bit of room for the lead vocalist to sit in the mix. By the time you are up to the lead vocalist, you already have a spot for them to sit in the mix. All you need to do is tweak their vocal EQ settings. This leads us to point number 3.
3. Cut Where You Can
Often, you’ll see reference to cutting out a lot of the low-end frequencies in the lead vocal. Let’s dig into why this would be. The worship band has several instruments that create low-end sounds to some degree. The drums and bass are full of low-end frequencies. Then we move up to electric guitars and yes, even acoustic guitars. Add to this the presence of stage amps and even floor monitors and the stage is being filled with a lot of low-end frequencies. Is that bad?
A good mix will have proper levels of low-end frequencies that benefit the song. But try this; during the next sound check when the band is playing a song, put on a pair of headphones and solo the lead singer’s microphone. Listen to all of the different sounds the microphone is detecting. While you can’t filter all of them out, you can do a bit of cutting. Oh, and the closer the singer’s lips to the microphone, the greater chance to getting excess bass due to the proximity effect. Anyone say this was supposed to be easy?
Start by applying a high pass filter (HPF) to the lead vocal. If you can control the frequency point of the HPF, then increase the frequency level until you can hear the filtering make an impact. Then, decide how much of an impact you want. If you only want to eliminate the background low-end frequencies, then turn back the frequency filter level once it’s noticeable. You can’t filter out everything but this will help a lot. I have seen some suggest rolling off everything below 150 Hz. While that might be a good place to start, let your ears determine where to draw the line.
While you are down in that low-end area, turn your attention to the 325 Hz – 350 Hz area. This is the frequency area that can commonly muddy up a male singer’s vocal sound. Cut 3-6 dB and listen to the difference it makes. I used this trick just this evening when i had a vocal that wasn’t cutting through. It instantly popped out in the mix.
Moving up, if your vocalist sounds a bit harsh, look to make cuts in the 2.5 kHz to 4 kHz range. Note that the more mid and upper frequencies you cut from a vocal, the more clarity you lose. Some singers make EQ’ing a chore and others make it very simple.
Knock out any sibilance with cuts in the 5 kHz to 7 kHz range. You can find frequencies in that area that benefit from boosting. You just have to use your ears and find the right spot.
Once you’ve made these cuts, listen to the overall vocal. Before you start boosting frequencies in the next step, listen for instruments that might filling a lot of your desired vocal frequencies. I occasionally think that mixing isn’t about boosting and cutting but instead about cutting out as much as possible. Cut back those instruments.
4. Boost Where it Works
“Boost in the 8-10 kHz range to add some air or breathiness to their voice,” is a sentiment often shared when it comes to lead vocals. That sounds good and for the most part, I’ll do that type of boosting myself. But today, I’m going to include a warning; be careful of the cymbals. Just as mentioned before, the vocal microphone can pick up a lot of sounds, even when you have the gain at a seemingly optimal level. Drum cymbals can be plain LOUD on the stage and boosting a vocal microphone that’s picking up a good bit of cymbals means you are now boosting the presence of the cymbals in the mix.
Backing down a bit from that top-end area, let’s look at getting a nice bright sound. Start by applying a boost in the 6 kHz range. Careful you don’t bring in any sibilance. It’s important to note that a general mixing rule is boost wide and cut narrow. Cutting is removing only what’s bad, much like a surgeon works. Boosting will normally involve a much wider frequency range. If you have a mixer with Q values for your EQ controls then you can control how wide/narrow your EQ changes will be around your frequency point.
Backing down a lot more, if you want to add more bass into the vocalist’s mix, then try applying a narrow boosts in the 200 Hz to 600 Hz range.
5. Vocal compression and other effects processing
This is last for a reason. Several reasons, to be exact. Compression, reverb, or any other audio effect should never be used before your initial EQ work. Not only does its use hinder your ability to perform optimal EQ’ing, you might think it’s a way to mask a problem sound. You always want to modify the raw sound before you add any other audio processing. Compression is covered in a full chapter in my guide, Audio Essentials for Church Sound. Remember that audio effects are used for a purpose. Don’t use them because you have them. use them because they improve the sound or get the sound to meet the needs of the song (which means you are improving the mix to meet the song…you get my meaning, right?)
6. Don’t forget this big one!
Once your vocal mix is dialed in, go sit where the congregation sits. Each sanctuary is different and I know quite a few where the sound booth is not in the best of locations. Therefore, make sure the congregation is hearing what you are hearing, If they aren’t, tweak your vocal EQ accordingly. I know one sanctuary where the vocals sound bland in the sound booth but as soon as you step out, the vocal sound pops out in the mix.
The Take Away
Vocal EQ work, if you haven’t guessed by now, isn’t about what you can do to the singer’s voice. It’s about what you do with your microphones, your instrument mixing, and finally the vocal mixing. Pick the right microphone, mix all of your instruments with the lead vocal in mind, then turn your attention to the lead vocal and your EQ. Vocals can be a challenge to mix but you can master them.
Want more on EQ’ing vocals? Check out my 10,951-word post on mixing vocals.
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