Few things have as big an impact on the quality of your final mix as EQ. And few things are harder to EQ right than vocals.
You can ascribe this to the nature of vocal performances. Unlike a guitar, there is no standardized tuning for vocals. Two people can sing the same song in entirely different ways (both of which will have to be EQed differently).
Throw in differences in microphones, the recording room’s acoustics, and small variables such as distance from the mic, and you can see why EQing vocals is so hard.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. While getting the vocals perfect can take years of practice, you can get a reasonably strong mix by following a few basic steps, which I’ll share below.
Step #1: Remove All Harsh Frequencies
The first step in the EQing process – what I call “surgical EQ” – is to comb through the audio to remove any annoying pops, noises, and hisses.
Your goal in this step isn’t to get the right mix. Instead, you’re only trying to remove whatever you don’t want in the final mix. This usually includes:
- All low-end frequencies that add unnecessary rumble to the track
- All pops and noises
To accomplish the first step, simply use a high pass filter to remove all frequencies from the low end, say, somewhere around the 50-75Hz mark. I’m using Ableton’s stock EQ in the example below, but any EQ should be able to do the same.
This not only ensures that there is no distracting low-end rumble, but also makes room in the mix for the kick drums and sub-bass.
For the next step, use a bell-curve filter. Turn the Q all the way up and turn on headphone monitoring. Now pull the curve to the top and sweep around, listening in for any harsh frequencies.
If you find something particularly harsh, suppress the frequency by dipping the curve to the bottom, like this:
You can reduce the Q if you want a wider range of frequencies to be affected. For best results, use good quality studio open back headphones. This will help you hear minute noises and pops you might miss otherwise.
All this will do is clean up your track and make it ready for the next step in the EQing process.
Step #2: Get the Tone Right
Now that the vocals are all cleaned up, it’s time to use the EQ tool to accentuate/suppress the right frequencies to get your desired tone.
There is no right way to approach this. Every voice and every song is different.
However, there are a few things that tend to be common to most vocal performances:
- The 80-160Hz frequency band forms the “meaty” part of the low-end
- The mids tend to be muted since this is also where the bulk of the instrumental sounds are concentrated
- The 4-10kHz frequency band cuts through the most through the mix and forms the foundation of the song
Your EQ curve should follow this pattern as well – accentuate the 8-160Hz band, keep the mids muted, then amp up the 4k-10kHz band, like this:
Create another EQ and follow the curve above. Use a bell filter and boost frequencies around the meaty part of the bass (120Hz). Then use a shelf filter to boost frequencies past 3-4kHz.
This essentially helps you build a strong foundation for the vocals. As a singer-songwriter, it’s particularly effective since it helps the vocals stand out against the guitar, which mostly occupies the mids.
Of course, your EQing job isn’t finished yet. You can multiple additional filters or new EQs to accentuate/suppress certain frequencies.
If you have a very thin voice, you might want to boost up the mids. If it’s too bass-heavy, amplify the high-end. And if it’s too shrill, keep the shelf filter at the 8kHz mark muted.
Feel free to play around. Remember, there is no “right” way to do EQ. Everything will depend on what sounds good to you and fits the mood of the track.
Step #3: Fit the Vocals Into the Mix
At this point, if you listen to your vocals independently, they should sound quite nice.
But the moment you play them with the rest of the track, you’ll find that they just feel a little off. Instead of blending into the mix, they stand out. As if somebody dropped the vocals onto the track instead of into the track.
This happens when there isn’t enough room in the rest of the mix to accommodate the vocals. The vocals have to fight for space within whatever limited frequencies it can still occupy.
For example, here’s the spectrum for a rhythm guitar track – something you’ll likely have in your song as a singer-songwriter. Notice how there is little to no low-end but everything is bunched up in the mids.
If your vocals are crowded in this 4k-8kHz range, they’ll clash with the guitar.
To fix this, you have to first EQ the rest of your track. Use a spectrum analyzer to get a general idea of the frequency pattern.
You want to spot:
- Whether the low end (drums, bass) bleeds heavily into the low vocal range (100-160Hz)
- Whether the mids are amplified to counteract the muted vocals
- Whether there is enough room in the top end for the vocals to cut through
The biggest culprit is usually #3. The vocals don’t have any room because you’ve already packed in too many treble instrument sounds in there.
To help the vocals sit better in the mix, first run a spectrum analyzer on your post-EQ vocals. Get a general idea of the shape of the frequency curve and what bands dominate.
Now go back to your track EQ and suppress all the frequencies predominantly occupied by the vocals. Say, if the vocals rise up sharply around the 8kHz mark, make sure that you dip this band in the rest of the track.
This can be a tedious process, but it’s essential if you want the vocals to not just sound good by themselves, but also sound good in the rest of the mix.
Over to You
EQing vocals can intimidate even experienced producers. The complexities of the human voice and differences in individual tracks ensure that there is no easy “one-EQ-fits-all” solution.
However, as we saw above, adopting a few core EQing principles can at least give you a competent mix, if not an extraordinary one. Follow these tips to get started with EQing. As you get more confident, experiment more with different filters and multiple EQs to get the perfect vocals.
About the Author: Ryan Harrell runs MIDINation, where he shares his insights on music marketing and PR. A former startup marketer, he has a lifelong passion for music and has worked variously as a session guitarist, producer, and club DJ.
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