Vocals are often the most important element of a song and mix, while EQ is certainly one of the essential mixing tools. When it comes to EQing vocals, there are no simple step-by-step instructions; no vocalist, performance, or mix is the same. However, there are certain considerations we should take into account when EQing vocals, which is what this article is all about.
Before we go any further, I should state that there are no hard rules with EQ or any other mixing process. The tips mentioned in this article are simply suggestions and techniques worth considering when EQing vocals. There are no procedures that work 100% of the time, and every mix is unique in its own needs.
Here are 11 pro tips for EQing vocals:
- Consider the role of the vocal in the mix
- Consider how the vocal was recorded
- Consider the genre
- EQing vocals in the context of the mix
- Dealing with competition
- Eliminating low-end rumble
- Sibilance and dynamic EQ
- The “expensive” top-end frequencies
- Cutting nasality and boosting intelligibility
- Automating against plosives
- EQing male vs. female vocals
Let's discuss each of these tips in more detail to give you important considerations when EQing vocals in your mixes.
If you're just starting out in your mixing journey (and even if you've been mixing for a while), I think you'll dig my 55 favourite music mixing tips, which you can check out after reading articles in in the following link: 55 Music Mixing Tips For Beginners (What I Wish I Knew)
Consider The Role Of The Vocal In The Mix
The first tip I have for you when it comes to EQing vocals (and processing vocals in general) is to consider the role of the vocal in the song.
Is it a lead vocal that demands the listener's attention?
Is it an ad lib or a doubling of the main vocal performance?
Is it one of many background vocal tracks?
What part does the vocal track play in the greater context of the song? This is an important question to answer because it will help determine our EQ moves.
For example, the lead vocal may benefit from attention in the 3-5 kHz range, where intelligibility can often be enhanced. It's also worth paying special attention to the 800-1,000 Hz range, which can sometimes sound nasally, as well as the sibilance in the 5-7 kHz range. Additionally, a slight boost in the 10-12 kHz range can add a bit of added air or brightness to the vocal.
On the other hand, background vocals likely won't demand as much attention and may even benefit from a cut in the “intelligibility range” of 3-5 kHz to allow the lead vocal to shine. They can often be band-passed, cutting the low and high extremes to make them sound further away and less focused compared to the “shiny” lead vocal.
Ad libs and doubles may benefit from the same or similar treatment as the lead vocal or may profit from alternative EQ moves to make them sound different.
Without giving any specific EQ moves (remember that every vocal, song and mix is different), it's paramount to consider the role of the vocal in your mix.
Consider How The Vocal Was Recorded
This one's super important. Knowing how the vocal was recorded gives us valuable information regarding how we should (or shouldn't) go about EQing it.
Where was the vocal recorded?
If the vocal were recorded in an acoustically-treated iso-booth, there likely wouldn't be any issues of resonance frequencies to be fixed with EQ. If the vocal was recorded in a specific room for colouration and natural reverb, we might want to enhance or pull back certain aspects of the environment.
Conversely, if the vocal was recorded in a less-than-ideal environment, we may have a more significant clean-up to do with EQ. There are often resonances (buildups of unnatural-sounding frequencies) that need cutting with notch filters.
Beyond the acoustic environment, we ought to know what the vocal was recorded with. In other words, what was the signal chain?
What microphone was used, and what is that microphone's frequency response? Does it cover the entire audible range evenly, or are there peaks and valleys in the response that we may consider addressing with EQ?
Was there any processing on the signal chain that's been printed to the vocal? Sometimes vocals are recorded through EQs (and other processors) and may sound perfect as they are.
Consider The Genre
Though every mix is different, there are certain genre-specific trends when it comes to processing vocals and mixing more generally. Therefore, tip number 3 is to consider the genre of music you're mixing when EQing the vocal.
Not only are the common vocal processes different between genres, but the other common instrumentation and arrangement will often be different. This is an important point to ponder, as EQ helps all the different elements of a mix come together with appropriate separation and cohesion.
As an example, it's common for pop vocals to be upfront and centre in the mix, with polished presence and high-end air. Conversely, many metal mixes have the vocals lower and more integrated with the other instruments.
Consider how EQ could help push the pop vocal forward in a pop mix and how EQ could help glue the metal vocal in with the rest of the instrumentation in a metal mix.
I talk about the concept of glue in more detail in this video:
Furthermore, keeping with our examples, pop arrangement varies wildly, and it's important to separate the vocal from other instruments as naturally as possible. Metal, on the other hand, has the notorious “scooped mids”, where the vocal may or may not be pushed to achieve some amount of separation.
The point here is not to give you specific instructions (again, every mix is different). Rather, it's to encourage you to think of the genre in question and study it if you need to gather knowledge on what can be expected of the vocal. Once equipped with that knowledge, you can use EQ with a greater sense of direction.
EQing Vocals In The Context Of The Mix
One of the most important lessons I learned early in my career was that a great mix is often a collection of mediocre-sounding parts. It took me some time to understand this concept and its profoundness.
Yes, when recording, it's important to track every element to the best of our abilities. It's worthwhile to get every single track sounding as good as we can.
However, when we're mixing, it's not at all about making each track sound perfect by itself. Beginners often spend so much time tweaking a vocal in solo, only to have the mix fall apart when all the tracks are playing back at once.
That's not to say we should never solo our tracks. Soloing is a powerful tool for fixing issues. Rather, it's to say that certain processes may cause a track (in this case, a vocal) to sound “bad” in solo while allowing it to fit perfectly in the context of the mix.
So, to make a long story short, EQ vocals in the context of the mix.
I have a YouTube video on the importance of mixing in the context of the mix rather than in solo. Check it out here:
Once we've cleaned up the vocal resonances and low-end rumble (if necessary), it's worth making EQ moves in the context of the mix rather than in solo.
If EQ is necessary, adjust the parameters while the vocal is playing back with the rest of the mix. Adjust until you believe the vocal has been improved upon. Be sure to A/B the EQ processing by turning the EQ on and off. Bypass it for a few seconds and turn it back on again. Repeat the process a few times and make an objective decision about whether the EQ improves the mix or not.
If the vocal EQ improves the mix, move on. If it doesn't, consider adjusting parameters and repeating the process. In some cases, EQ will not help the mix, and it's likely best to scrap it altogether and move on.
To learn more about A/B testing, check out my article A/B Testing & Its Importance In Mixing (With 5 Best Tests).
Dealing With Competition
This tip has as much to do with EQing vocals as it does with EQing the elements that compete with the vocals for space in the mix.
To understand how and why we should separate vocals from the competition, we should discuss the psychoacoustic phenomenon known as frequency masking.
Frequency masking happens when two or more sounds compete for certain frequency bands and become ill-defined within those bands. They effectively “mask” each other, and our ears have difficulty perceiving them as distinct sound sources.
Frequency masking desensitizes our hearing and causes us to lose separation and balance in the mix.
As we mentioned earlier, the frequencies most concerned with the intelligibility of a vocal (and the human voice in general) are between 3-5 kHz. If there's a lot of competing information in the range (other instruments that are particularly well-represented in this range), then the vocals may lack clarity in the mix.
In this case, we can opt to boost the EQ of the vocal within this range to varying degrees of success.
In the case of bad frequency masking, perhaps a more effective strategy is to cut the same range in the competing tracks.
This “mirrored EQ” approach, where a band is boosted in one (or more) tracks and cut in one (or more) tracks, can prove a more natural-sounding solution to the issue of frequency masking.
But frequency masking doesn't only happen in the “intelligibility range” of a vocal. Consider the other frequencies where the vocal may be masking another element or masked by another element. EQ (along with faders and panning) is a primary tool for reducing such masking and giving the vocal some separation within the mix.
I have a YouTube video dedicated to frequency masking. Check it out here:
Eliminating Low-end Rumble
This is EQ 101. Low-end energy in audio signals is often unmusical noise that eats up headroom and worsens the clarity of the overall mix. This is certainly the case with vocals.
Low-end rumble often refers to low-frequency mechanical noise (like bumping the mic stand, footsteps around the mix stand, ventilation systems, traffic, etc.) and electrical noise (electromagnetic interference/hum).
Microphones will capture this noise, though in most cases, the vocalist won't be producing those low frequencies.
An EQ's high-pass filter is the easiest way to eliminate low-end rumble.
We can start with an HPF cutoff frequency of 20 Hz (the lower limit of human hearing) and work our way upward until the vocal becomes noticeably thin in the context of the mix. From there, we should back up about 15-20% and set the filter.
By bringing the cutoff frequency down, we can mitigate any phase shift issues that may arise from the high-pass filter. As a byproduct of altering frequency-dependent levels, EQ will cause frequency-dependent phase shifting, which can lead to poor clarity in the low-end. It's, therefore, best, when possible, to roll off the vocal a bit below when the bulk of the vocal frequencies are.
By high-pass filtering the lead vocal, we can eliminate a lot of the low-end rumble from the mix, reduce competition in the lows and low-mids, and clean up a mix considerably. We can generally be a bit more aggressive with background vocals and other vocal tracks, though it's important always to consider what's best for the mix and not follow “rules” blindly.
I also have a video on mixing background vocal you can check out here:
We'll discuss different vocal types later in this article, but I'll mention here that, in general, HPFs can be pushed a bit higher on female vocals than male vocals due to the differences in frequency makeup.
To learn more about high-pass filters, check out my article Audio EQ: What Is A High-Pass Filter & How Do HPFs Work?
Sibilance And Dynamic EQ
Sibilance can be quickly defined as the hissing sound. In English, sibilance happens on the consonant sounds of S, Z, Sh, and Zh (as is “leisure” – lei-zh-ure). Though sibilance is a necessary part of speech intelligibility, it can often be overly harsh in a vocal track.
Sibilance is typically in the frequency range of 5-8 kHz (though it may occur below or above that range).
It's often worth addressing the issues of sibilant harshness in a vocal. I've found it easiest to tell if the issue is present by listening at high volume levels.
Related article: What Volume (In Decibels) Should Audio Be Mixed/Listened At?
If sibilant harshness is a problem in the vocal, a static solution could be to use EQ to cut a narrow band at the problematic frequency. However, this will cause a persistent cut at these frequencies, which may sound unnatural, especially considering phase issues of deep cuts.
I discuss the relationship between EQ and phase in my article The Complete Guide To Audio Equalization & EQ Hardware/Software.
The more effective (and popular) method of fixing sibilance issues is with a de-esser.
A de-esser is effectively a multiband compressor with a band dedicated to the sibilant range. As the sibilance of the vocal exceeds a certain level threshold, the compressor only kicks in at that band and reduces the gain.
With a de-esser, we have dynamic control over vocal sibilance. In other words, the sibilant range is only attenuated when the sibilant frequencies are overly represented (when a sibilant sound is made by the vocalist).
Now for the cool part: there's such thing as dynamic EQ that can act as a de-esser.
Dynamic EQ is a type of equalization where the EQ of certain frequencies is triggered dynamically as those frequencies surpass a set amplitude threshold in the audio signal. Dynamic EQ, like a compressor, will have threshold, attack and release settings to alter the EQ of a signal dynamically.
A dynamic EQ can be used similarly to a multiband compressor or a de-esser. Set a cut at the frequencies you want to be dampened and set a threshold so that the EQ is engaged when the energy at that frequency band surpasses a set level.
The interesting thing about dynamic EQ (other than it fitting into this EQ-centric article) is that it offers dynamic control over specific frequency bands (in this case, the sibilance range) without relying on crossovers to split bands (as is the case with multiband compression).
The result is that there's no crossover distortion, and the sound of the “de-essing” is arguably more natural.
Note that we can use dynamic EQ (like we can use multiband compression) for more than just reducing sibilance. If there are other unruly frequency bands in the vocal track, we can also set up a dynamic EQ to keep them in check. This can be the case for low-end plosive energy, though we'll get to a more intricate and manual solution for plosives shortly.
The “Expensive” Top-end Frequencies
This is a tip I first picked up recording voiceover and mixing for advertising, but it applies to music as well.
Giving the top-end a little bell peak boost of 3 dB or so around 10-12 kHz can give a vocal a bit of extra brilliance and air without affecting its tone. This can help add a subtle brightness to the vocals and make them sound more “professional”.
Of course, be as objective as possible. A/B this EQ move and listen critically to judge whether it improves the overall mix or not. If this boost doesn't help, forget it and move on!
Cutting Nasality And Boosting Intelligibility
This 2-for-1 tip is about as straightforward as I feel comfortable sharing.
Nasally vocals often have too much energy in the 800 – 1,000 Hz range, so consider cutting here if it's an issue.
Intelligibility is often enhanced with a boost in the 3 – 5 kHz range.
Automating Against Plosives
A few tips ago, we discussed the usage of dynamic EQ for reducing sibilance and how it could also be used for plosives.
However, plosives are a bit more difficult to tame than sibilance as their effects are slightly more varied.
Plosives are strong blasts of wind energy that come from a vocalist's mouth. Plosives happen on certain consonant sounds when a part of the mouth gets closed (lips, tongue and teeth, or the back of the mouth).
In English, plosives happen on the following 6 hard consonant sound:
- P: from the lips
- B: from the lips
- T: from the tip of the tongue and teeth/palate
- D: from the tip of the tongue and the teeth/palate
- K: from the mid tongue and the back of the mouth
- G: from the mid tongue and the start of the throat
Related article: Top 10 Tips For Eliminating Microphone Pops And Plosives
Plosives often cause large peaks in the low-end frequencies. One effective strategy for reducing the effects of plosives is to automate a high-pass filter's frequency upward during a plosive and automate it back down immediately after the plosive.
Note that we'll likely already have a HPF engaged (see tip 6: Eliminating low-end rumble).
This way, we can remove just enough frequency content to reduce the overloading effect of the plosive while having the smallest effect on the tone of the vocal.
EQing Male Vs. Female Vocals
Just like every mix is different, we can argue that every voice is different. However, we should be aware of certain commonalities and differences between male and female vocals.
The most obvious example is that male vocals tend to be lower in pitch than female vocals. This applies to the fundamental frequencies (the musical ranges of the vocalists), the harmonics and the formats.
When it comes to EQ, it means we can push HPFs a bit higher on female vocals.
It also gives more context to the frequency ranges mentioned throughout this article. Let's take the “intelligibility range” between 3-5 kHz as an example. In general, male vocals will have more character in the lower end of this range than female vocals. Put differently; female vocals will have more important information in the top end of this range than male vocals.
In addition to treating male and female vocals differently, we should also consider the natural range of the singer (bass, baritone, tenor, alto, soprano, etc.) and be aware of this range when making EQ decisions.
Other EQ Tips For Common Elements
- Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Bass Guitar
- Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Electric Guitars
- Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Acoustic Guitars
- Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Kick Drums
- Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Snare Drums
- Top 7 Best Tips For EQing Drum Overheads
- Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Pianos & Keyboards
- Top 11 Best Tips For EQing The Mix Bus
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Make the right decisions at the right times to craft professional mixes!
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