EQing Vocals: Introduction
Achieving a balanced and clear vocal sound is a hallmark of professional-sounding audio production. Equalization (EQ) plays a pivotal role in this process, allowing you to enhance vocal clarity, remove muddiness, and ensure your vocals sit well in the mix. This guide provides practical steps and tips for EQing vocals effectively.
Understanding EQ Basics
What is EQ? Equalization is tonal balance. You balance frequencies within an audio signal when you equalize. With EQ, you can amplify or attenuate specific frequency ranges to shape the sound of your vocals.
Frequency Range Guidelines for Vocals:
- Low Frequencies (20 Hz - 150 Hz): Often contains rumble and mic handling noise, as well as fullness.
- Lower Mids (150 Hz -800 Hz): Can add warmth but may cause muddiness.
- Upper Mids (800 Hz - 5 kHz): Essential for intelligibility and articulation.
- High Frequencies (5 kHz - 20 kHz): Adds airiness and brightness.
This frequency ranges are somewhat arbitrary and are not set in stone. They will vary from voice-to-voice. As the image shows, they roughly correspond to areas in my voice. Use these ranges as guidelines.
When balancing frequencies in vocals, it's best to follow a couple of suggestions . . .
Step-by-Step Guide to EQ Vocals
Step 1 - Apply High-Pass Filter
Use a high-pass, or low-shelf filter to reduce low-frequency rumble. A good starting point is around 80 Hz, but a lot depends on the singer, microphone, the room, and the vocal technique.
Step 2 - Remove Muddiness
Identify and reduce frequencies between about 150 Hz and 500 Hz if the vocals sound muddy.
Step 3 - Enhance Clarity
Boost in the upper mid-range frequencies (around 1 kHz to 5 kHz) to enhance vocal clarity. The human ear is very sensitive to this frequency range, so you can make the vocal sound louder and cut through he mix without boosting the overall level much, by boosting these frequencies.
Step 4 -Control Sibilance
If sibilance (harsh 's', 'ch', 'sh', and 't' sounds) is present, use a de-esser, dynamic EQ, or multi-band compressor to attenuate frequencies around 5 kHz to 8 kHz.
Step 5 - Add 'Air'
A subtle boost above 8-10 kHz can add a sense of airiness and openness to the vocals. Boosting this range can help to make a cheaper mic sound more 'expensive'. This range of frequencies is often above where you'll find sibilance. I often use a high shelf EQ for this purpose.
Equalizing vocals is a balancing act between the lows, lower-mids, upper-mids and highs. So, you'll often work in these areas -- but not always. Remember, if it sounds great, leave it alone! There's no rule that says you must EQ in every range I've mentioned here.
- Use Dynamic EQ: Dynamic EQ is a versatile tool that can address problem frequencies only when they are problems. As an example, if you EQ out sibilance, your vocals may sound dull. But if you duck those frequencies only in the places in which they're 'spitty', then the rest of your vocal track will still be clear.
- Dealing With Unpleasant Resonance: As a general guideline, keep EQ on vocals broad and gentle. However, if there are resonances you don't like, consider using an EQ with a narrow bandwidth (a high Q), centered on the problem area.
- Avoid Over-EQing: Subtlety is key. Drastic changes can make vocals sound unnatural.
- Context Matters: Often check your vocal EQ in the context of the full mix.
- Experiment With Mic Placement: If you can find the sweet spot for the mic, you'll need less EQ. Many microphones sound best 12-18 inches away from the person singing. However, in a home recording environment in an untreated room, you might want to be closer than that. Try tilting the mic slightly away (off-axis) to reduce sibilance.
- The Proximity Effect: In any directional mics (cardioid, hyper-cardioid, and figure-8 mics), the closer you get to the mic, the more bass frequencies will be emphasized. Use this to your advantage.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
- Extreme EQ: This can lead to unnatural sounding vocals.
- Neglecting to Cut Frequencies: Sometimes, cutting frequencies is more effective than boosting.
- Ignoring Room Acoustics: The recording environment significantly impacts the quality of the vocals. In home recording situations, it can be better to sing closer to the microphone and deal with the extra bass with EQ, as being close to the mic gives you less 'room sound'.
Q: What is the best EQ setting for vocals?
A: There's no one-size-fits-all setting for EQing vocals. It depends on the vocalist's voice, the style of music, the microphone, the room, and the desired effect.
Q: Can EQ fix bad vocal recordings?
A: EQ can improve certain aspects of a vocal recording, but it's not a miracle fix. Always aim for the best possible recording quality from the start.
Q: How do I know if I've EQed too much?
A: If the vocals start sounding unnatural, too harsh/bright, hollow, muddy, or thin, you might have applied too much EQ. It's often better to make gentler changes.
Q: Should I EQ vocals differently for live performances?
A: Yes, live environments have different acoustics and require different EQ approaches. Focus on ensuring clarity and reducing feedback.
Q: How do I do 'telephone voice'?
A: Use a band-pass filter and EQ out anything below about 400 HZ and anything above about 5 kHz.
Q: How do I do EQ women's and men's voices differently?
A: It's the same process with different voices. You may be able to have your high-pass filter a little higher with a woman's voice (depending on the voice). The clarity may be in a slightly different range. I'd advise you not to think about it in that way. Simply look for pleasant and unpleasant sounds, and balance things to your liking. And use a reference voice that's similar to the voice you're working with, of course.
Q: When do I cut EQ and when do I boost?
A: EQ is short for equalization. Initially, it meant balancing tone across the frequency spectrum. In most cases, that's still what we want to do. So it's about the relationship between various frequencies. If you cut the lows, it accomplishes roughly the same thing as boosting the highs.
If there's an area around 400 Hz that's too prominent, you can solve it by either cutting 400 Hz, or boosting the areas below and above 400 Hz. But by boosting the areas above and below, you have to introduce 2 bands of EQ, whereas cutting only introduces one. So my general rule is to boost when something is too low and cut when a frequency band is too loud (duh!).
Q: At what point in the recording process, do I use vocal EQ??
A: I like to get a rough EQ for the vocals right away. I don't print it. I just use it as an effect on a track. If you're somewhere in the right ballpark, it helps you make better decisions about lots of things. And you can always tweak it later, in the mix.
Q: Do I EQ before compression? After Compression?
A: Yes! My suggestion is to do some general sculpting of the vocal EQ before compressing and then EQ for enhancement after compressing.
Well, let's suppose you have a vocal with a lot of low-frequencies in it. When you try to compress the vocal, you'll find the low frequencies may trigger the compressor. With a more balanced tone, the compressor will trigger more evenly and not have to work as hard. It will sound more natural.
Compressors can have an effect on the tone of a voice, so you can adjust and enhance after the compressor, as well.
Q: Do I EQ background and harmony vocals differently from the lead vocals?
A: You can. You're probably looking for the background vocals to be heard, but not dominate the lead vocals. But background vocals can have different roles in different arrangements. Sometimes they're there to add fullness and fill up the mix. Other times you use them for width, or to give a particular part of the song a lift.
Q: What are vocals sometimes labeled as 'Vox'?
A: It's from Latin, home-slice. Vox means voice. Audio engineers can be smart and lazy. 'Vox' is shorter, and can fit on the pieces of tape we used to use below faders to keep track of things. And imagine what we accomplished with all the time we saved not writing those extra letters!
Effective EQing is essential for professional-sounding vocals. If you're an indie musician, you can enhance vocal clarity, balance, and presence in your mixes by following these steps, guides, and tips.
Voxengo Span: Voxengo Span is a free, useful frequency analyzer which includes a peak meter. Windows & Mac.
Rea (Reaper) Plugins: ReaEQ, ReaComp, ReaXcomp, ReaDelay, ReaFIR and others come with Reaper. If you don’t have Reaper, you can download the VST versions of ReaEQ, and these other useful plugins here. If you want to follow along with my tutorials, it will be good to have these. VST/VST3 versions available for separate download (Windows & Mac).