EQ Vocals: The Five Primary Areas of Modification

EQ Vocals for a cleaner vocal line.

Photo provided by i images

Let start off with the basic vocal eq settings and the details behind them. Then, let’s dig deeper.

  1. General: Roll off below 60Hz using a High Pass Filter. This range is unlikely to contain anything useful, so you may as well reduce the noise the track contributes to the mix.
  2. Treat Harsh Vocals: To soften vocals apply cut in a narrow bandwidth somewhere in the 2.5KHz to 4KHz range.
  3. Get Brightness, Not Harshness: Apply a gentle boost using a wide-band Bandpass Filter above 6KHz. Use the Sweep control to sweep the frequencies to get it right.
  4. Get Smoothness: Apply some cut in a narrow band in the 1KHz to 2KHz range.
  5. Bring Out The Bass: Apply some boost in a reasonably narrow band somewhere in the 200Hz to 600Hz range.

This is all well and good, however, using vocal EQ isn’t as simple a a+b = great vocal EQ.  Therefore, let’s dig into the details behind vocal EQ.

The Reasons For Using Vocal EQ

When a voice is recorded through a microphone, we need to add a bit of EQ to the voice to bring out its natural qualities.  For example, when you hear me talk in a room, you hear some natural reverberation in the room.  In EQ’ing, you can add that natural reverb back in because the microphone might not pick it up in your particular recording environment.

Additionally, vocal EQ’ing is performed to enhance the vocals so they sound best in our environment as well as within the band and within the song.  And this is where most of your work is focused.

The Details Behind the List

Let’s start with the first point listed above:

1. “General: Roll off below 60Hz using a High Pass Filter.” 

Each channel on a mixer usually has an HPF (high pass filter) button.  By pressing this button, we are dropping all audio frequencies below a certain level.  As an example, I’ve got a Yamaha mixer with a “/80” button – which means HPF and drop all freq’s below 80 Hz.  Freq’s this low are typically your low bass notes and kick drum.  If any low frequencies seep into the vocal microphone, they can muddy up the sound.  So, it’s good to use a HPF on any channel that’s not dealing with low-end frequencies.  With experience, you might find some vocals sound better without the HPF but if you are new to sound, HPF is a good place to start.

2. “Treat Harsh Vocals: To soften vocals apply cut in a narrow bandwidth somewhere in the 2.5KHz to 4KHz range.” 

This is where a lot of what is being done is dependent on the type of mixer you have.  For example, if you run an analog mixer, you most likely have a semi-parametric EQ.  This means you EQ via knobs on each channel with control for gain (amplitude) and the center frequency, however, you can’t control the width of the affected frequencies – the bandwidth.  Thus, your EQ adjustments affect a wide range of frequencies at once – like moving a mountain peak back and forth – it means you have to move a lot of the mountain with it.

Some EQ’s allow the user to work on EQ like a surgeon, making freq cuts/boost in very specific ranges. Harsh vocals can be reduced by sweeping over the mid/ high-mid frequencies until you hear the harshest vocal sound.  Then you cut (reduce) those frequencies via the EQ.  This would be the case with a parametric EQ where you can control the center frequency, the gain/amplitude cut or boosted, and the bandwidth, sometimes known as the Q.

3. “Get Brightness, not harshness”

As for “brightness,” much of your high frequencies control how bright and airy a vocal can sound.  For example, crank the high EQ all the way up during a practice on a vocal mike.  It will be very airy and then you can reduce it to where it sounds good.  So much of what sounds good comes with having a good ear and knowing your music.

4. “Get Smoothness”

Smoothness” – much of the natural freq’s of a voice are in the mid-range freq’s.  By cutting or boosting in the mid-range, we can optimize the sound so it sounds best.  We can also boost or cut to separate it out in the mix from other vocals and or instruments that might be vying for the same frequencies.  Think of it like this, a bass is low end.  A flute and even a drum kit’s high hat are on the high end.  You want to fill up the sonic space (freq’s) with as much as you can over the whole range.  When you get a bunch of stuff in the same place, that gets you a muddy sound.

Same with bass, boost a little or cut…or not.  Here’s the thing…the best thing you can do is get a solo track of a vocal on CD (or do this during practice).  Move the EQ dials, one at a time, to an extreme.  Once you hear what is bad, it’s easier to then move the dial until you hear what sounds good.  We just need to know the bad to help identify the good.

Additionally, if you have singers with slightly wavering voices or young singers – teenagers, you can add a little vocal reverb effect that will even out their vocal fluctuations.

Maybe it’s something deep within our minds that says “if there is a problem with the sound then we need to boost the problem area.”  However, when it comes to EQ and even cross-channel balancing, this is not always the case.  Cutting frequencies is often the cure.  For example, if two instruments are sharing common frequencies and you want one to stand out, don’t boost the frequency for that instrument.  Cut the frequency of the other.  Lowering other channel volumes can bring the boost to the single channel that you need.  Louder isn’t always better.

One last VERY HELPFUL TIP!  If you are having troubles with cleaning up a male vocal, take a 3-6 dB cut in the 325 to 350 Hz range.  this is where a lot of the muddiness in a vocal can be found.

Lastly, vocal eq is where the science of audio manipulation is surpassed by the art of audio manipulation.  The above tips I mentioned might get you exactly what you want to hear.  But more than likely, they will only point you in the right direction that will eventually lead you to the sound you want.  Listening to several genres of music, you can hear the different types of vocal EQ for that style of music.  Then you add in individual taste in EQ.  You might think that a singer’s vocal EQ is perfect but they think it needs more breathiness or more brightness or more bass.  It’s quite subjective, sorry to say.

The Take Away

Anyone new to vocal eq’ing should remember the following points:

  1. Using some foundational eq’ing to get started.
  2. EQ in a way that matches the style of music you are mixing – listen to the same song from a professional recording to hear it.
  3. EQ to match what you want to hear.  Don’t ask the question “does this sound good?”  Ask the question “does this sound like I want it to sound?

In time, you will find yourself performing less of #1 and #2 and more of #3.

Do You WANT TO LEARN EVERY ASPECT OF MIXING VOCALS?

Check out my FREE 10,951 word Vocal Mixing Guide!

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone
Subscribe to our mailing list

Comments

  1. says

    Some great points here. I have been running sound for around 30 years at a professional level. All of the equipment and thought process really boils down to three things, in my experience:

    1. What do you have in hand. Everyone likes to look through the latest book of goodies, but you still have to “run what you brung”. Learn the EQ curves of your mics (the little sheet of paper that comes with most mics will help you here) and set your PA accordingly.

    2. What does the venue require? While it looks impressive to have a zillion watt system in the venue, typically, a small system, properly optimized and rung out, will sound BETTER in the room than a large, overpowered feedback generation device of a system. Makes for less to haul, too.

    3. Gain, Gain, Gain. Gain structure is the single most overlooked component of EQ’ing anything. If the gains are set correctly, you can almost avoid any EQ really….and allow the sweet tones of the voice/guitar/whatever to come through and sound natural….which, at the end of the day, is the goal – isn’t it?

    Lastly, when we say “do what sounds good to you”, we may have an issue of “evil ear” – an operator who’s ear is not tuned to a real sound palette that has anything of substance to it – the result will be a muddy mess or the sonic equivalent of an am radio played through a tin can…..so research and a LOT of listening to great sound systems is a HUGE benefit in this area…..

    John Woolard
    Sound Mangler and Mercenary Engineer for over 30 years

  2. guest says

    Freddie Mercury, Madonna, Bono, Meatloaf have all used Shure 57/58 dynamic mics in the studio.

    I found the article to be very helpful (despite its apostrophe catastrophes) and will be trying some of the hints and tips provided.

    Thanks!

    [chris: thanks for the note on the apostrophes. fixed.]

  3. ikonoja michael oji says

    pls,am a young upcoming produer and am having problem EQ pls can u help me with tips and guides,I use sonitus to mix,bt I jst need anything that’s internationally acceptable,pls i’ll so appreciate it if you help me with images and pictures…thank you,may God bless you

  4. Joe Morris says

    Chris, thanks for your tip. I was kind of leaning in the same direction. Two questions: In your opinion, what would you advise for an adequate equalizer? And number 2, are you saying that maybe I don’t need a feedback destroyer? I guess I don’t understand “pitch shifting.” Thanks again, Joe

  5. Joe Morris says

    Chris, PS — I forgot to tell you that my mixer is connected to a feedback destroyer and then a crossover — if that matters. Anyway, my main question is to either go with an Equalizer, or a Vocal Processor for my next step. I’ve tried one TC Helicon Voicetone T1 product already — but I got alot of feedback, so I just went back to the basics. So, do I just live with it; or can you aim me in the right direction for what I should do next? Thanks again.

    • says

      I tend to say go with the multi-band EQ. Go for the “big picture” sound and you’ll likely get a better vocal sound as well. One thing to note about feedback eliminators is they work by temporary pitch-shifting. As you can imagine, pitch-shifting is not a good thing all the time. Nail down the feedback problems and you’ll also likely get better tone.

  6. Joe Morris says

    Chris, If I had a choice between a 31-band equalizer for my jam room, (even though I already have a built- in 7 band EQ on my Behringer mixer), and a vocal processor (such as the TC Helicon products or a Boss VE-20) — which way should I go? I’ve been trying to get that perfect vocal tone for 2 years — and even though I’m getting close — I think I’ve maxed-out all my options with what I have, and I’m getting frustrated. Any advice or help? i’d appreciate it very much. Thanks.

  7. Anonymous says

    Most boards have EQs that are too generic for all instruments. In the studio it’s not uncommon to boost vocals at 15k. I’ve also seen a few studio engineers who weren’t so great at live sound especially when mixing the bass. A good bass player will have a preamp with eq setting specifically for that instrument. Learn those frequencies and use them on you live PA rig. Most rock guitar sounds great coming out of a guitar amp through 12′ inch speakers, with the eq settings on the amp. Get to know what freqs a guitar amp uses.

    Bass freqs do tend to take up a lot of sound space, but instead of cutting the lowest frequencies, yo can give the effect of huge bass drum and bass sounds by using something like the Earthworks Kick Pad which cuts a wide band at 300hz or so. Sometime it’s more about subtraction that addition. And don’t be afraid to try messing with extreme freqs with vocals.

    Check out the freq chart on microphones. The audix encore 300 stage condenser boosts at around 15k.

  8. Jason says

    Sorry to say, I don’t quite agree with this. I tend to find that many vocalists want a ‘breathy’ tone, especially female ones.

    You find the breathyness at about 1.6KHz, so I generally give it a boost there and leave the rest flat…that is on an SM58, so different mics may have different responses, but I’ve also applied this to male worship leaders too and got a great tone.

    And, no, this isn’t limited to one system, I do know what I’m doing.

  9. Chris says

    Jason, good point.  It’s so much more of an art than a science.

    I’ve extended the post to talk about the eq tips as more of general guidelines and that vocal eq is so much more of an art. 

  10. Mike says

    I found the article very useful, as I used SM58 and never had problems with EQ-ing mics, and then got into the studio with flat responde Mic’s and the headaches started. basically SM58′s are built with an audio response designed for lead voices, thus any EQ-ing can ruin the vocals.
    http://shure.com/stellent/groups/public/@gms_gmi_web_us/documents/web_resource/site_img_us_rc_sm58_large.gif

    however, when it comes to recording audio, Flat response Mics are needed, and no matter how much i play with the EQ, the voices keep sounding up front, or if they blend with the mix they get muddy. i just can’t make them clear and loud, and at the same time, in the perfect place in the mix…

    if i’m making a mistake somewhere that is common, please help. Maybe it’s not about the eq, maybe i’m using compression wrong?

  11. Jon says

    Why would you use an sm58 to record studio vocals? Most professionals use condenser mics ex: Neumann U87. Dynamic mics should be limited to drums (not overhead mics) and SOME guitar cabs. Also, if you’ve ever had any sort of vocal lesson, the goal of a vocalist should be to have a clear robust tone. Breathiness is often a characteristic of an inexperienced singer who doesn’t have a clear strong voice.

    Jon
    10+ years recording
    Bachelor of science in audio engineering

  12. Musique says

    Hi there,
    I found your comment very interesting and informative.
    I am hoping you might give me some advice.
    I am a female who is buying my first equipment to gig on my own in small venues and have purchased a QSC K 8 and an AKG vocal mic that needs phantom power. I would like to buy a small mixer with some reverb effects that would also supply the needed phantom power.
    Can you recommend a mixer that services female vocals nicely, or will any mixer do?
    Thanks,
    Musique

  13. Terry says

    in my opinion, vocals need to be the last thing mixed in to a recording as well as the last piece recorded in a band. Once all the instruments have been compressed, EQ’d, and leveled, then bring in the lead vocal with its compression added to your desired level, if the vocal needs more then create a duplicate track with the lead vocal and pan them accordingly eg. 60 L and 60 R.(this is with SW like Protools)
    If you are using analog gear then try stereo pairing a vocal with two mics and use a polar switch if needed and follow the same steps beside the duplicate track.
    Lead vocals are important and in my opinion need to be full and dynamic therefore recording duplicate leads are important.

  14. Christian says

    Interesting way to look at this. I personally would never do it this way. I am more of a fan of mixing the kick, snare, bass, and then the lead vocal. everything else gets mixed in from there to support the lead vocal. adjust accordingly.

  15. Anonymous says

    because he’s probably mixing for a live application. you dont use condensors or neumanns when you’re mic’ing a choir at a church. and yes breathiness can be a characteristic of someones voice, inexperience doesnt necessarily have to have anything do with it.

    geoff emerick
    50+ years recording
    Married to the art of making music

  16. Anonymous says

    one thing i noticed about people in the music field whether it's performers, producers, managers alike they're all narcissistic and cocky. 10 years ain't ****. People have dedicated their whole lives to learning various things about music like me and there is still an infinite room for improvement.

    [edited by admin: please tone down the language.]

  17. Tony Woods says

    Chris –

    I don’t know what I hit but I lost the beginning of my email. I hope it went to you. My question is . . . after reading your article on Vocal EQ it ended by saying “don’t try to make it sound good, make it sound the way YOU want it sound.”

    I have been wanting to gain greater control over how my guitar sounds in live PA situations. Currently I only plug my nylon string acoustic directly into the mixer, tweek 3 eq knobs, add a little reverb.

    My question is, if I wanted to buy some rack mount things to begin customizing my sound what are a few things I might want to look into. I read articles on Leo Cotkee, James Taylor, Phil Keaggy and things I’m seeing are: tube compressor, D/I box, aural exciter, 31 band eq, tube pre-amp, and of course all of these go for around $300/ea.

    If I have a budget of around $600.00 what should I start with? I think I’m just looking for a beautiful acoustic sound and something to control volume because in the same song I might quietly pluck a single string and then go into a flamenco percusive rythmn.

    I appreciate any advice.

    Tony

  18. Chris says

    I didn't get the email.  As an acoustic guitarist, I can tell you what I use and absolutely LOVE.  I use the LR Baggs Para DI. I checked out a bunch of pedals and electronics and nothing beat the LR baggs product.  Once I got it, I took it to church and set up in the middle of the sanctuary – with a very long XLR cable to get me into the house system.  Then I would play and tweak the settings (rince, repeat).  The beauty of it is the house EQ for the guitar don't need tweaked (or at least minimal) because the Para DI already brings out the sound of the guitar.  Check out the reviews on musicians friend.

    Some of what you mention does get into the realm of compression.  You could go a guitar-specific rack mounted product.

  19. Tony Woods says

    Chris –

    I’m wondering about EQ during a live situation using a PA on a stick. If you are trying to EQ the vocals, EQ an acoustic guitar, EQ the room (to flatten frequency response, stop ringing, etc.)and then using EQ to ‘fill up sonic space’, so on and so forth. It seems you would need several EQ racks. I just bought a DBX 231. I’m plugging it in after the mixer and before the power amp to eq main speakers and monitors on the second channe.. However, I’m seeing I’ll need another in my guitar rack to help me get the sound I want from my guitar and posibbly another to tweek the vocal mic? ? ?

  20. Chris says

    Tony, it's really not that complex when you break it down into the components;

    1. House EQ.  If the system is in the same room, the house EQ shouldn't chance much if the usage is same.  It is nice to tweak if necessary but don't make it a primary focus.  That being said, I've just worked two live venues where we hauled in the artist's equipment (mains, sub, amps, everything) and in those cases, yeah, the house EQ got more tweaking because the "house" was a new location.

    2.  Next we go to EQ'ing vocals and instruments using channel EQ.  I want them to sound great.  Bring out the singers best vocal qualities and all that.

    3. But now we move into sonic space.  #2 was just "step one" for this process.  Now that I've got everyone sounding great, I have to ask the question "where do they fit?"  Drums and a bass in use might mean I roll off some low end from the guitar channels.  Or maybe the piano is playing primarily in those center octaves and therefore I boost the high end of the guitar channels to get some sparkle.

    After a while steps 2 and 3 might be done as one step because I already know how that band plays and the sound I need. 

    I hope this helps.

     

     

  21. Danny says

    Hey, talk to your worship director/leader about it. But if your new to sound, just remember that it’s better to listen to your authority. They might want it a certain style as the Holy Spirit leads them. I have plenty of ideas and talked to my worship director about it. Just work with what you got and that’ll mean your being faithful and God will see that and honor it.

  22. Razor says

    At my church we have the high pass filters all the way up at 200Hz on all vocal mics.

    Even the bass and kick drum have HPFs on. I have one at 40Hz for the kick drum and 60Hz for the bass guitar.

    I’m still learning when it comes to EQing vocals, these guides have helped.

    The one thing I do know how to EQ is the bass guitar. I have a hump at around 500Hz to make the notes easier to hear and a cut at about 2KHz to cover up string noise. I prefer to hear the bass as opposed to feeling it, so while I do have the bass guitar in the sub-woofer. I try to put more in the mains than the sub.

    The guitar players all have their own amps, effects, and EQ, so I bypass the EQ on the electric guitars and just put a HPF at about 125Hz.

    With keys I use minimal EQ, just to cut any obnoxious frequencies and I have the HPF set at about 80Hz.

    The things I’m trying to learn now are how to improve the clarity of everything. Starting with vocals.

  23. Cajundaddy says

    Re vocal EQ I am a big believer in the “less is more” approach. This of course is all very subjective but I often hear amazing vocalists who sound like they are singing through a cel phone during worship due to heavy handed EQ and compression behind the mixer. Even very experienced sound techs often go too far in attempting to shape a vocal performance that no longer resembles the artist’s natural vocal qualities. My approach is always to make sure the FOH is properly EQed, the vocalist is singing through a mic that compliments their voice and the gain structure is right. Then and only then will I apply EQ to bring out the best in that vocalist’s performance. I will usually “fill sonic space” with any other instrument but leave the vocals as clean natural as possible.

    Of course this is just one opinion from one set of ears:)

  24. Anonymous says

    Hello,

    I have a Tascam 2488 and I have an effects processor hooked to it for my vocals. It seems I have to use it to give me more volume, but at the same time it also gives me a buzzy sound in my ear, more like compression sound I guess than a buzz. If I cut down the slight reverb, I loose my output volume. I even tried not using the processor but again not as much volume as I would like. I dont see a filter area on my machine, not sure what I should do. Its not extremely bad, I just know I can get a better sound, I feel its affecting my singing. I have the EQ Hz set to 1.6. Slight reverb. Also I have a shure mic, bought it 10 years ago. Do mics after a certain dollar value really matter much. Its just a small home studio. Any tips? Thanks David

Leave a Reply

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.