How to EQ Vocals in Six Easy Steps

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EQ vocals starting with the microphone.

EQ’ing vocals starts with the right microphone.
Photo provided by davidchief

Vocal EQ work can make or break a mix. A solid vocal mix will capture the listener’s ear. Follow these six steps to create a better mix with vocals that pop.

EQ Vocals with these Six Steps

1. Select the Right Microphone

Proper vocal mixing begins before ever touching an EQ knob. It starts on the stage. Microphones differ in many ways, from type (ribbon / dynamic / condenser) to sensitivity to polar pattern to where step one is focued; 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. Look at the frequency response charts for a few popular vocal microphones from Blue, Shure, and Sennheiser.

Blue Microphone's Encore 200 Microphone frequency response.

Blue Microphone’s Encore 200

 

Shure's SM58 Microphone frequency response.

Shure’s SM58

 

Sennheiser's e835 Microphone frequency response.

Sennheiser’s e835

As shown, the microphones vary in how they treat the audio frequencies. For example,  the SM58 severely cuts frequencies in the 7 to 8 kHz range. This means vocalists singing into each of the microphones will get a different tonal sound. If you have several vocal microphones that are different makes and models, have each singer test each out with the EQ set flat or to the standard noon positions on an analog board. Once the right microphone is paired with each singer, giving the best natural tone for their voice, move  onto number 2.

To learn all about vocal microphones, check out:

2. Start the sound check with the lead vocalist in mind.

The standard sound check involves setting gains and then EQ’ing the band, going from low-end up to high, with singers on top. For example, setting the gain for the drums, then bass, electric guitar, etc. until getting to the vocals. The next part would be doing the same with the EQ process until reaching the point oft EQ’ing across channels for blending. EQ’ing across channels would be like setting the EQ for the bass so it sound different than, yet fits with, the kick drum.  But before touching the first EQ knob…

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 working on the EQ of the different instruments, keep in mind the sound of the lead vocalist. The thought is that while EQ’ing the instruments, you’re 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 to point number 3.

3. Cut Where Possible

Often, low-end frequency cuts are referenced in relation to vocals.  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 move up to electric guitars and yes, even acoustic guitars. Add to this the presence of stage amps and 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 extra sounds the microphone is detecting. While they can’t all be filtered out, a bit of cutting will help. Oh, and the closer the singer’s lips to the microphone, the greater chance of 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 the HPF’s frequency point is variable, increase the frequency point until the filter is making an obvious impact on the house mix. Then, decide how much of an impact is needed. For only eliminating background low-end frequencies, turn back the frequency filter level once it’s noticeable.

Some people 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.

Next, turn your attention to the 325 Hz – 350 Hz area.

This is the frequency area that commonly muddies up a male singer’s vocal sound. Cut 3-6 dB and listen to the difference it makes. I use this trick on a regular basis so vocals easily cut through the mix. They will instantly pop out in the mix.

Moving up the frequency range, if your vocalist sounds a bit harsh, make cuts in the 2.5 kHz to 4 kHz range. Note the more mid and upper frequencies cut from a vocal, the more clarity is lost. 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.

Just to complicate things a little, there are frequencies in that area that benefit from boosting.  Use your ears and find the right spot.

Once all these the cuts are made, listen to the overall vocal. Before boosting frequencies in the next step, listen for instruments that are covering a lot of the desired vocal frequencies. Mixing isn’t about boosting and cutting but instead about cutting out as much as possible and then working with what’s left. Cut back those conflicting frequencies on 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 do that type of boosting. But today, I’m including 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 an optimal level. Drum cymbals can be LOUD on the stage and boosting a vocal microphone that’s picking up a good bit of cymbals means 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. 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 your analog mixer has Q values (bandwidth) with the EQ controls then you can control how wide/narrow the EQ changes will be around the frequency point.

Backing down a lot more, for adding bass into the vocalist’s mix, apply 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 the initial EQ work. Doing so hinders the ability to perform optimal EQ’ing.  Effects are not for masking a problem sound.

Modify the raw sound before adding any other audio processing. Compression is covered in a full chapter in my guide:

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.

6. Don’t forget this big one!

Once the vocal mix is dialed in, 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 is heard in the booth.  If there is a difference, tweak the vocal EQ accordingly. I know one sanctuary where the right vocal EQ sounds great in the seats but bland in the sound booth.

The Take Away

Vocal EQ work, if you haven’t guessed by now, isn’t all about vocal EQ work. It’s about what is done with microphones, instrument mixing, and finally the vocal mixing. Pick the right microphone, mix the 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.

*This article not available for syndication.
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Comments

  1. says

    Little late on finding this, but hopefully I could get a little assistance.
    I currently made some changes to my home studio & I’m trying to get comfortable with it.
    I had an Mbox2 mini, but changed that to a Digi002 console, running Pro Tools 8.0.4 le on an iMac.
    I had a Rode NT1-A microphone but swapped it out for a Blue Spark microphone which in my opinion sounds “clearer” but not as “thick”.
    I also had to take a major loss, I had an Avalon 737 preamp but spilled a drink all over it & was fried almost immediately ;( So within my budget purchased a Behringer ultra pro preamp to suffice until I can upgrade my preamp again.
    My question is, I’m having a real difficult time dialing in my preamp for the Blue Spark microphone. Any suggestions to start out with that I can play with from there?
    I record & mix hip hop as well Soul records if that would help with suggestions.
    Thank you in advance!

  2. Isreal says

    Hello Chris I sincerely have to thank for the platform you provided, it’s really helping, God bless you, more of you. Regards

  3. Dominik says

    Hey Chris, thanks a lot for the detailed article! I agree, boosting 8 – 10 kHz can be pretty dangerous. I usually follow a tip I found in an ebook called “Audio Effects, Mixing and Mastering” (Bektas) and boost from 10 kHz upwards instead. This is not as problematic when it comes to cymbals as boosting between 8 – 10 kHz.

  4. says

    From personal home-recording experience, cutting a vocal from 2.5k upwards is likely to impact clarity, but once you get over 3k you’re a bit safer. (I’m mainly into noisy, layered guitar music, and between 3.5-5k is reserved for top-end fizz boosts.:-) ) An invaluable technique I learned recently for vocal clarity is to compress the 1-3k range separately, quite heavily but without raising the maximum level, as that brings out the vowels. I’m not a live engineering expert but I imagine compressing just a narrow band like that would be less feedback-prone than compressing the whole signal?

    If you’ve got a couple of EQ units to play with, then another thing I do at home is to siphon off a lot of the signal below 500-1k and delay it by 30-40 milliseconds. The delay is barely audible, if at all, bit it gives the “information” part of the sound (the vowels and sibilance) a very slight head-start over the body. It also gives you a hint of a double-tracking effect, so you might be able to get away with less reverb, which again is a good thing for clarity and for preventing feedback.
    (I tend only to put reverb on the low-frequency output, but that’s getting into the realms of personal taste rather than audio problem-solving.)

    • says

      As far as wireless microphones go, it all depends on the type and your price-range. If we are talking about a handheld microphone, some nice Sennheisers runs in the $400 range. But you can find everything $150 on up to the thousand-dollar point. A rule of thumb I use is I don’t look at anything under the $350 price point.

  5. john arikpo says

    Every mail sent to me has made me very different in my mix and I want to say thank for this helpful tips and let’s say I feel like am in class each time I go through the mails. Thank very much chris

  6. Ntege Eric says

    Thank You so much for all this information it is very helpful; a quick start for us who have not been in the field for so long but yet feel the need to become professionals soon, Thank you Chris

  7. says

    Chris –
    Thanks for this post. I have to disagree with you comp section though. You made a strong statement that “comp… Should not be used before your initial EQ work is done”. With today’s modern consoles, most people have access to multiband compressors like the Waves C4 & C6, etc. This is generally where I start with vocals simply because if I can manage the dynamic range lightly first, I find it helps clean up some of my EQ “carving” that I would normally have to do. And the I’m not robbing that vocalist of some of them emotion found In their vocal, just because I started with EQ.

    I don’t believe you are wrong in analog world or even for someone who has no access to useful tools, but to say “never” gets a bit strong.

    Your ears should always be your rule, not the “rules”. Every engineer out there, from the novice to the expert should have the ability to try things, regardless of what the rules are. If you’re an engineer out there, you should see yourself as a technical artist, not just a button pusher and rule follower. Rules are meant to be broken, especially in audio world.

    Cheers!
    Tb

    • says

      Tim, hmmmmm, “never” was a strong word for me to use. :) That is a great point on the benefits of multiband compressors and the benefits of tools like the Waves plugins.

  8. says

    Chris,
    Thanks for this website. I stumbled upon it tonight looking for reviews on DI boxes, and I appreciate your effort and experience. It’s a blessing.
    Jeff

  9. Quaid says

    Some more questions Chris,

    What microphones do you use at your church?

    As an engineer, what would you say is your mic of choice? In your opinion, what makes that mic a “winner”?

    • says

      Quaid, at my current location, they are pretty set on all of the same Shure wireless mic’s for vocals. It would be nice to upgrade and add a bit of variety, but that’s another story. As “mic of choice,” most tech would agree, it’s the one that sounds the best for the person that’s using it. A $200 vocal mic can sound better than a $500 vocal mic if the $200 one produces a better tone given the combination of the tonal characteristics of the singer and the mic’s frequency response.

      • Quaid says

        I’ve recorded on an Audio Technica AE 5400 ($379), and when switching to an EV ND 767 ($129), the 767, for me, makes the 5400 sound bad.
        My mic of choice now is a Heil PR 35… for my voice, it exceeds both of the mics listed above.

        I know a traveling group that uses the Neuman KMS handhelds… there are 5 vocallist in this group, and we had 4 “offical” vocal mics set up. One man used an Audio-Technica PRO 37, which we use primarilly as instrument mics. He really liked what he was hearing.
        I’ve never yet came to him and asked for a microphone trade, though.

  10. Quaid says

    Let me ask you this…
    Would you apply the technique of “cut narrow, boost wide” as a philosophy to speaker tuning also?

  11. says

    Very good article!

    Listening to what the majority of the congregation is hearing is absolutely the key…I greatly prefer to mix/EQ remotely (Presonus lots of Studiolives round here). As soon as my gains are set I’ll go sit right in the middle with the iPad and get things dialed in, then walk around and tune for the best possible compromise of sound everywhere.

    The only thing I would add, is that you should be mindful of how the singer is addressing the microphone. This can make even more difference than mic selection, and make it near impossible to get a good balanced sound with EQ. Sometimes even a seasoned singer won’t bother to adjust the microphone if the stand is to high/low or at an odd angle. I like to educate singers (if they seem not to know) on how to address a mic and the difference angle and distance make in tone, and also give all singers permission to adjust the mic if needed.

    • says

      Stephen, addressing the mic is a huge issue and I’m glad you brought it up. I had to laugh at myself when I was at the Gurus conference. I was being interviewed for the church tech arts podcast and I found myself lowering the microphone from my mouth the longer I talked.

        • Quaid says

          And the soundman at that event might have thought “…and this man writes a blog on church sound reinforcemnt?”

          I’ve done some unbecomming things too.
          Just today, a church had scheduled our singing group to come to their 175 Anniversary service. We were scheduled to sing after their AM service downstairs as the congregation was eating. After we finished setting up and doing a soundcheck, I started playing some background music, then I eventually went to the men’s room.
          While I was gone, a song that was louder than the others started playing… just as the pastor started praying.
          We use Emcee Pro for our soundtracks, and Windows Media Player was the program playing the background music. When somone tried to stop the music with the “Esc” button, like you do in Emcee Pro, it didn’t work. So she just muted the channel.
          If I had been there….. but I wasn’t.
          Do you want to say “Tisk tisk ” back to me?

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