Nine times out of ten, vocals are arguably the most important part of a song. They are what convey the message of the music and pull the listener into the story being told. Unfortunately, properly EQing vocals can often present many problems to the recording engineer.
I struggled a lot with this when first starting out as a mixing engineer. Vocals in my tracks were either buried under other elements, unintelligible as to what was being said or just downright unpleasing to listen to.
After years of mixing and learning from industry pros, I discovered that vocals weren’t as tricky as I thought. With just a handful of changes to my workflow I was able to EQ my vocals with a professional edge.
I’ve touched on some of these tips before in past guides but never went too in depth. So, I decided to write this guide to take beginner mixing engineers from start to finish on the process. Once you apply them to your own work the daunting task of EQing vocals won’t be nearly as scary anymore.
Before You Start
You’re probably excited to reach for that equalizer and get started carving out a vocal tone. However, before you do there’s a couple of things we need to clear up first. Without the right mindset or preparation, EQing vocals can be an uphill battle.
1. There Is No Real “Definitive Guide To EQing Vocals”
Before you get upset and hit the back arrow on your browser, let me explain. No two voices are the same, so you’re never going to use the same approach for every vocal that you EQ. However, there are common practices that go into mixing vocals and that’s what I try to cover in all of my instructional guides.
Below you’ll find tips for every aspect of EQing a vocal and the most common scenarios that will arise. But take them all with a grain and treat it as a starting point. Always use your ears as the primary judge and if one of the tactics is hindering your track, it’s not needed for that particular song.
Speaking of which, that leads me to my next tip…
2. How Should They Sound?
Always listen to the vocals and make changes in context with the rest of the track. Before EQing anything listen to the vocals and think about what they need. What can be enhanced or what is hurting the sound of them?
On top of that, think about the role the vocals are taking in the song and the emotion you want conveyed through their tone. This may seem overkill but it’s key to making educated changes to the overall sound of a song.
3. Do Your Session Prep
Any track will sound bad if it’s badly performed. In the same way, bad session prep can make a song extremely difficult to mix. You want the vocals and everything else to sound as pristine as possible before you even start EQing or mixing anything.
4. Less Is More
Too many beginner engineers make the mistake of feeling like they have to add a bunch of EQ bands on a vocal to get a good sound. The ironic fact of it is that this may actually be the thing hindering them.
If the rest of the track is mixed well and the vocals were recorded properly, not much EQ is needed to get a good sounding vocal. More often than not the EQ curve on a vocal may be only 2 – 3 bands, adding a broad boost here and a small cut there.
If you haven’t done a lot to your vocals and they sound great as is, don’t do much more. There’s nothing wrong with your mixing, you’re just lucky enough to have a great vocal track!
5. Mix Around The Vocals
To aid in the whole “less is more” approach, mix everything else in away that supports the lead vocal. A common mistake is to wait until all the instrumentals are mixed before un-muting the vocals but this the wrong approach.
If the singer and the story they are telling are meant to be the focal point of a track, any changes you make to the overall mix should aid in this.
By bringing in the vocal early on during the mix you’ll discover things that are burying it early on. This makes it all the more easier when you finally get to the stage of EQing your vocals.
On that note, there’s also no rule that says you can’t EQ your vocals first. You may need to make the odd change down the line. However, settling on a general EQ curve right off the bat can often make mixing the other elements easier.
6. Boost Wide & Cut Narrow
This is a common rule when using EQ on any instrument, especially vocals. It means that if you are using the equalizer to boost an area of frequencies, keep your bandwidth or “Q” very wide. This shapes the sound in a way that seems natural and transparent.
On the other hand, when you’re using the EQ to cut a specific area, a tighter bandwidth is usually preferable. This ensures that the majority of the frequency spectrum goes untouched and is once again, less noticeable.
Frequencies To Remove
Now that we’ve gone through the initial considerations, it’s time to start EQing your vocals. A general rule when EQing anything is to remove problem frequency content before adding anything.
Once you’ve removed content that’s hurting the sound of the vocals, you may find that nothing is needed to enhance it from there.
An example would be where a vocal sounds lacking in high end content. At first you may decide to add something in the upper-range. However, the real problem may actually be a build up of low end content.
With this in mind, removing the low end frequencies will thin out the sound of the vocals and achieve the desired result. It can be hard to think in these terms in the beginning but overtime you will develop an ear that is quick to pick up on problem areas.
7. High Pass Filter Is Your Friend
You would be surprised at how much of an effect a proper high pass filter (HPF) can have on a vocal. Most vocal tracks won’t have any useful content below 100Hz and a HPF is a great way to clean things up.
Often times you’ll be able to set your HPF even higher up, particularly in a dense arrangements. Your average vocal can usually see the high pass sitting at around 150Hz and a vocalist singing in the higher register may benefit from a HPF at 250Hz.
My general rule is to listen to the vocal in context of everything else and begin rolling out more and more low end. Once you hear the HPF having a major effect on the low end content you’ve probably gone too far. Back up until you’re just before this point and you’re probably sitting at a safe starting point.
8. Understanding The HPF Slope
Remember that the HPF doesn’t cut everything out below the given frequency. It actual is a gradual decline in content below the set number. More and more content is removed the further you go down the frequency spectrum. Eventually it reaches a spot where the content below that point is removed.
Most EQs allow you to set this slope and it is a useful feature to keep in mind. A lower number will result in a more gradual curve of how much content is removed. This results in a more transparent sound.
When EQing vocals you don’t want that slope to be too steep. So, use a slope of 6dB/Octave and no higher than 12dB/Octave.
9. The “Mud”
Sticking on the lower side of things, if you’ve noticed that your vocals sound too “boomy”, “boxy” or “muddy” chances are you’ve got to go hunting in the low-midrange.
Clearing up content in the 200Hz – 400Hz range can help to get rid of this sound. While the boxier sound can reside as high as 500Hz.
Be gentle in these areas however. It’s easy to go overkill when you aren’t listening in context of the mix. Removing too much content can have a detrimental effect on the vocal’s power.
10. Harsh Content
If you’re singer has a bit of an aggressive edge to their voice you may notice a build up in the 2kHz – 4kHz area. I often dip a little content out in this range when EQing, as it can give the vocals a more smooth and listenable appeal.
Many beginner engineers tend to do the opposite and boost in this area, as they feel it gives the vocals more “presence.” Though this is true, I often find more than enough of this “presence” in most vocalist.
Often times the reason an engineer may boost in this area is actually because they’ve boosted too much in the same area on other instruments. If this is the case, check out some of the other aspects of your mix that may be conflicting with this part of the voice and pull them back as well.
11. Sssibilant Sssounds
Some singers and certain microphones are notorious for being overly sibilant, with esses, and other consonants. Sometimes, a little EQ is all that’s needed to tame the vocalist’s sibilance.
The harsh presence of these usually lie in the 5kHz – 8 kHz range, while using a shelf at the 10kHz and above range can back off on the “airy” essence of the esses.
More often than not however, you’ll want to employ a vocal de esser, in order to really cut back on sibilance. In these cases the same rules apply as to where in the frequency spectrum you set the de esser to operate.
Where To Enhance With EQ
Once you’ve taken time EQing out any content that may be hurting your vocals it’s time to begin shaping the overall sound of them. It’s important to remind you that any additive EQ should be done using minimal, broad strokes.
Don’t feel the need too add content in all the areas described below. Only if and when it’s needed is it necessary to do so.
12. The Resonant Shelf
A resonant shelf is a small boost at the cut off frequency of a high pass filter. This can compensate for an aggressive cut and help round out the bottom end a little.
It was prevalent in a lot of vintage equalizers and many modern digital EQs have opted to add it as an option. Often times this is achieved by adjusting the Q/Bandwidth knob of the high pass filter’s controls.
If your equalizer doesn’t have these options you can normally achieve similar results by using a second EQ band at the cut off frequency.
In either case, this technique should be used sparingly when EQing vocals. It’s very easy to muddy things up if over done and is often not even necessary.
13. Adding “Body”
The term “body” is kind of an elusive term, it means a lot of different things to different people. Often times it refers to content in the lower to lower midrange of the frequency spectrum.
Adding a small wide boost in the 200Hz – 500Hz range can help to fill out this area if your vocals are sounding a little thin.
As already mentioned every vocal is different, so your really have to use your ears to listen for where your vocalists lower content is residing.
14. Clarity Is Key
“Clarity” is another one of those words that may have different meanings in different situations. For me it’s a presence in the vocals that isn’t harsh and holds the real character of the vocalist’s tone.
It lies usually in the 1kHz – 2kHz area and not a lot of EQing in this area is needed in order to hear its effects on the vocals.
In a strange way, even though you aren’t boosting the high end where the sibilance lies, it will really help make the words more intelligible. It’s a great thing to try if a vocal isn’t quite sitting properly in the mix.
15. Adding Air
If you’re seeking to make your vocals sound breathy or airy without being overly sibilant you may want to add some EQ in the very upper range of things.
Using a high shelf to boost all content above the 10kHz – 12kHz range can achieve this effect. Be careful as too much can actually make things harsh to the listener.
Also, certain EQs don’t handle this type of adjustment well. Using something such as a Neve 1073 style EQ or a high end digital EQ, like the Eiosis Air EQ are a good choice when trying for this sound.
Beware of increasing sibilance when boosting in this area. If you didn’t need a de esser before you’ll probably need it after boosting the highs.
The Secret Sauces
Beyond the basics of EQing vocals here are a few final tips and thoughts. Using them can really help give your vocal a professional edge and bring your mixing chops to the next level.
16. Multiband Compressor/Dynamic EQ
Perhaps one of the biggest game changers for me was when I was taught how strong an effect a multiband compressor or dynamic EQ can have on vocals.
Because of the way the human voice works, when a singer switches registers to sing higher or lower the frequency content in their voice changes. This can make it extremely difficult to EQ a dynamic singer with a wide vocal range.
The solution is to use either of these tools to compress only specific frequency content when it becomes overly prevalent.
For me this usually means placing a band in the 3kHz – 4kHz range. This is because many vocals can get harsh here when the singer is in a higher register. The opposite of this is to use a band around 200Hz – 500Hz to pull back on that area when they are in their lower register.
17. What In Automation?
If your vocalist’s style changes so much that multi-band compression can’t help, automation is your friend. You may also want to utilize this technique when the vocal tone needs to adapt as a songs arrangement progresses.
This may be something as simple as pulling the gain down on a frequency band for a certain section. In other cases it may be as complex as changing the vocals EQ curve entirely.
Using automation on your equalizer can be a bit of a pain as there are so many controls to be recorded. However once you take the time to do it, the results can be very rewarding.
18. Split The Vocal Into Sections
A simpler solution to automating the vocals is to take the vocal regions and split each section of the song onto its own track. This allows you to process things differently as the song progresses.
This is a common reason approach to vocal production that beginners aren’t always aware of. If the singer delivers different sections in different ways, this can really come in handy. It’s even more useful once you’re adding other types of processing such as compression.
19. EQ Isn’t All A Vocal Needs
Don’t forget that the EQ is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to mixing lead vocals. Although it’s often the first thing I will do to a vocal there’s a lot more that goes into shaping its sound.
Using tools like compression, saturation, delay and reverb all can have a really big impact on the vocals final sound. Check out our guide to mixing lead vocals for tips on all of these areas and more.
20. A Talented Singer Trumps All!
At the end of the day if your vocalist isn’t good at what they’re doing no amount of EQing or mixing is going to fix that. Always make sure you take the time to properly record your vocals to make things easier down the road.
Make sure your talent is familiar with the song, comfortable and above all can actually sing and deliver it well. The vocalists emotion is what will pull the listener in more than the worlds best mix ever could.
Microphone choice is also important in the tracking stages. So be sure to check out our guide to choosing the right vocal microphone to make sure you’re capturing things as best as possible at the source.
Always remember to use your ears above all else when mixing. Listen in context to the rest of the mix when making major changes and don’t go overboard with the amount of EQ used. Otherwise you may reach a point where you’re doing more harm than help to the track.
Use the EQ to remove content from your vocals first, starting with a high pass filter and tightly dipping out areas of “mud”, “harshness” and “sibilance”. After this you can shape the EQ by adding content such as the “body”, “clarity” and “air” to a vocal.
If things still aren’t sounding quite how you’d like, don’t stress. There’s still plenty of other tools beyond the equalizer that can be used to shape the sound of your lead vocals.
No two voices are the same, so all of the suggestions in this guide should be used as a staring place. With time and experimentation you’ll soon be able to listen to a vocal and know what it needs right away.