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.
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 full 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.
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Thought? Questions? Comments?