The process to EQ vocals isn't hard when you look at the primary areas to change and proceed from there. Let start off with the basic vocal eq settings and the details behind them. Then, let's dig deeper.
The Basic Steps (A Review)
01 Drop the Very Low
Roll off below 100 Hz using a High Pass Filter. Anything below this isn't going to benefit the mix. We'll look at rolling off even higher.
02 Tenderize Harsh Vocals
To remove harshness from a vocal, apply a narrow bandwidth cut within the 1 KHz to 4KHz range. We'll look at how to find the right frequencies to cut.
03 Brighten the Vocals
Apply a gentle boost using a wide frequency band above 6 KHz.
04 Smooth it Out
Experiment with a narrow cut in the 1 KHz to 2 KHz range to smooth out the voice.
05 Bring out the Bass
Apply some boost in a reasonably narrow band somewhere in the 200Hz to 600Hz range. Look for adding a little power behind the vocal.
This is all well and good, however, using vocal EQ isn’t as simple as A+B = C.
The Reasons to EQ Vocals
Vocal EQ work 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.
Let me put it this way...not every singer has a golden voice. Adding to that, you have to modify the vocal to fit with the song. For example, a lead singer must stand out from backing singers and the instruments. Backing singers must blend together.
The Vocal Mixing Details
Drop the Very Low
Each mixer channel has an HPF (high pass filter) button. By pressing this button (or engaging it on a digital console), we are dropping all audio frequencies below a certain level. As an example, a Yamaha mixer with a “/80” button is the HPF and it rolls off 80 Hz.
Freq’s this low are typically your low bass notes and kick drum. Also general stage noise rumble. If any low frequencies seep into the vocal microphone, they can muddy up the sound. So, it’s good to use a HPF on vocal channels.
If the HPF is controllable, roll off the lows starting at a higher point, such as 120 or 140 or 180...until you hear a negative impact on your vocal, then back it off.
Tenderize Harsh Vocals
This is where a lot depends on the type of mixer; analog or digital. For example, most analog mixers 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 - and moving a lot of the mountain with it.
Some EQ's allow the user to work on EQ like a surgeon, making frequency 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.
Look to sweep from 1 KHz up 4 KHz
Brighten the Vocals
As for “brightness,” much of the 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 mic. 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.
Smooth it Out
Much of the natural freq’s of a voice are in the mid-range frequencies. 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.
Check out the 1-2 KHz area. I've had to cut there and I've found boosting to me helpful. Try both and find out what works for you.
You also want to work that vocal into the music in a spot that fits. This means you might need to cut some frequencies from an instrument that seems to conflict with your vocal, such as acoustic guitar or piano.
Bring out the Bass - sort of
While the low end can muddy up the vocals, there are some valuable frequencies down there for use. Roll up a little boost in the 300-600 range and find a spot that adds to the vocal. You might find it doesn't add anything or it hurts it. That's possible. It all depends on the frequency characteristics of the singer's voice.
Other Vocal Mixing Tips
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. Reverb and effects weren't mentioned here as those only happen after doing all your EQ work.
Know The Microphone
I play golf and I used to smash the ball as hard as possible with whatever club I used. Because of this, my accuracy left a lot to be desired. One day, a pro told me to use the next club up and swing easy. As he put it, “let the angle of the club do the work.” My accuracy increased and my score dropped – a double win!
I’ve adapted this idea into microphone selection. I pick the microphone that does some of the work I need. For example, I pick a vocal microphone with a natural EQ bump or cut that is what that singer needs.
Maybe it’s something deep within our minds that says “if there is a problem with the sound then we need to boost the good frequencies to makeup for it.”
However, with EQ and even cross-channel balancing, this isn't always the case. Cutting frequencies is often the cure.
For example, if two instruments share common frequencies and you want one instrument to stand out, don’t boost the frequency for that instrument. Cut that small frequency band in the other. Also, lowering other channel volumes can bring the boost that you need. Louder isn’t always better.
One last VERY HELPFUL TIP! Clean up a male vocal by cutting 3-6 dB in the 250 to 350 Hz range. Look around for the sweet spot. This is where a lot of muddiness in a vocal can be found.
"Vocal EQ is where the science of audio manipulation is surpassed by the art of audio manipulation."
The tips mentioned might get you exactly what you want to hear when you EQ vocals. But more than likely, they will only point you in the right direction that will eventually lead you to the sound you want.
Listen to several genres of music and you can hear the different types of vocal EQ for that style of music. That's how you start going from the science of EQ work to the art. 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. But in the end, the creativity is in your hands.
Take it to the next level
Are you ready to learn all the nitty-gritty details about mixing vocals? What if I said it's not as hard as you think?
The Take Away
Start with foundational EQ work. Cut before boosting. Roll off excess low end. Keep the mindset of cleaning up the vocal first.
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.
The Next Step
Do you want to learn even more about mixing vocals? If you do, check out my massive article on mixing vocals!