By definition, the vocals are the focal point of a ‘vocal’ song. But getting a good vocal mix and a good vocal sound that cuts through isn’t always easy—especially when a lot of electronic sounds are being used. So here are a few quick eq tips and techniques to help achieve a better vocal mix
As a preface, remember the garbage in/garbage out rule: it all starts with a good recording of good vocals. But we’re not here to coach your singer or nag him or her to cut down on the cigarettes, booze, and so on. Nor are we discussing mic and mic preamp selection, compression, reverb, or delay. This is just about eq.
Beyond the performance
Unless you’re after an extreme vocal effect such as a supremely squashed vocal, rough edge/low tech sound, or that long-distance telephone sound, judicious use of eq can enhance your tracks tremendously. As a starting point, my preference is to start with a slight rolloff around 125 to 240 Hz, a few dB removed at 2.5 to 3.5 kHz to cut piercing frequencies, and a boost at 10 to 15 or 16 kHz to bring out the air.
All of the usual variables (singer, mic, etc.) will ultimately guide exactly what eq you use, but here’s the rationale for that starting point. Today’s trend is toward a very crisp lead vocal, crystal clear on top with nice unobtrusive bottom.
When trying to keep lead vocals proportionate to the band mix, for starters I roll off some bottom with a highpass filter. Some mics and most consoles have this built in; common frequencies range from 60 Hz to 200 Hz, depending on design or manufacturer, with varying degrees of sloped attenuation (example: 6 dB per octave rolloff, from 100 cycles down).
This filtering keeps excessive bass out of the vocal track and helps it fit in its proper frequency spectrum to make room for accompanying instruments. It also helps keep plosives (popped Ps and other hard consonants) from being obvious; that and a pop filter should eliminate them altogether. Most human voices don’t usually have a lot to offer below around 160 cycles anyway, so you’re not losing much by cutting in that range.
Next, the reason for removing 4 to 6 dB at approximately 125 to 240 Hz is to keep the vocal out of the upper bass drum/bass guitar/fat drums area. You always want to be aware that cutting too much out can result in a thin vocal, so take it slowly and remove a little at a time.
Again, the exact frequencies and cut amount will vary from singer to singer, even throughout a song. On some mixes a totally flat vocal or one that’s only been eq-ed slightly on input has worked as the main track. But there may be a section that changes drastically and the singer drops down or jumps up an octave for a few lines, requiring additional eq to match the rest of the song.
There are several ways to make eq changes on the fly that way, depending mainly on the type of equipment you’re using. With an analog board, the usual method is to mult (“Y”) the vocal track to two console channels, each with the different eq (and often volume fader) setting. Then you simply mute the appropriate channel while unmuting the other, or crossfade them.
If you run out of channels, it’s also feasible to insert outboard equalizers with the alternate settings. Inserts can easily be switched in and out from either the channel insert switch or the eq unit’s bypass control.
All this is a lot easier if you’re using an automated digital console, because you can automate the eq changes—it’s not necessary to mult the signal to two channels. Same with digital audio workstation software, which is how most of you will be working these days.
Regardless of the equipment, you want to pick a clear place in the music (if there’s no rest, the spot where the singer takes a breath is the most likely candidate) to make the change so there’s no pop or click. This can be done numerous times throughout the song as needed.
Whether you’re eq-ing vox or instruments, the goal is to help the part find its space in the tonal spectrum and try not to step on it with too much other information. The top end poses its own series of challenges.
Some recordings just have this incredibly bright vocal that’s still smooth and warm without being harsh. Others have this great edge, almost like a cliff, that pokes the vocal through even the thickest mix, yet sounds totally natural.
There are many ways to eq a track, but I like to approach it from two directions. One is a smooth shaping curve using a wide bandwidth (a.k.a. “Q”—the lower the Q number, the wider the bandwidth), very evenly boosted across the top. The other is to boost one or more frequencies in a tight bandwidth so the edge is purposeful and creates a bite.
For the wide bandwidth boost I generally use a shelving eq to add a few dB very high, somewhere between 7 and 12 kHz. Shelving eq starts at the selected frequency and continues out to the end of the spectrum, so if you ad d 3 dB at 10 kHz, from 10 kHz out to 20 and beyond the eq will be even in gain. This creates a nice, smooth, almost ethereal top end that brings the vocals up into an area where there’s less competition from other instruments.
Hopefully the whole top end is very smooth with no frequencies sticking out. Note that we’re safely above the sibilance (“ess” sounds) frequencies, which are usually around 5–8 kHz. Sibilance is a separate problem for another article, but once in a while you can just cut specific frequencies on singers and tame slight sibilance without having to use a de-esser (or de-essing technique). Usually the eq approach to this will bring too many side-effects, but it’s worth mentioning while we’re discussing eq.
The second high-end eq approach is to zero in on a couple of key frequencies, boosting or dipping them a few dB with a peaking eq. Peak eq centers around the selected frequency and slopes off on either side depending on what bandwidth you select. You can create an edge that just sounds incredible if you find the right places to boost. Unfortunately there’s no magic number here—you just have to listen to the vocal in context and find the spots. Sometimes the mic has an inherent boost, so you may not even need to do this.
Life and larger
Male and female vocals present different problems. In most cases I’ll leave the bottom untouched for female vocals unless they really need a corrective boost or cut to deal with a tonal problem.
With male vocals, some engineers like to get a larger, fuller sound. That’s okay too, but I’d still recommend a rolloff at least from 80 or 100 and below. Keep in mind that the big fat vocal track can eat up almost everything in its path, from kick drum to cymbals, and it may be harder to pull into the mix than a vocal that’s been eq-ed to fit a narrower frequency spectrum.
If you like to mix vocals first and then balance the band in around the vocal, a big fat sound could be the one for you. My preference is to go for fairly natural instrument sounds, though, and a singer has nowhere near the bottom end of a bass guitar or chunky Marshall.
When you’re dealing with a superstar vocal or an act whose focus is the vocal and nothing else, then a much larger-than-life sound is appropriate. With this sound the lead vocal is huge and full-bodied with lots of warm bass and clean high end, so it really stands above everything.
Some of the better tube mics available today will help fatten your track naturally, as will classics like a Neumann U87 or old U47. But if a flat recording yields a thin vocal take, you can try adding a few dB around 160 up to 300 Hz to thicken it up. Rolling off some upper mids may also be a good course of action, depending on whether you hear the problem as being a lack of certain frequencies or too much in one area.
Cutting and boosting both work, but remember to adjust the gain accordingly. If you boost 6 dB at 1 kHz on the track, for example, you may need to pull the track down to compensate and avoid distortion.
The best way to develop these skills is simply to listen to a lot of recordings and try to emulate the sounds you like (and avoid the ones you don’t like). Just remember to go slowly with eq—a little bit goes a lot farther than one tends to think.
Geno Porfido (firstname.lastname@example.org) is currently living and recording in San Francisco. He’s looking for projects to produce in the Bay Area, as long as they pay ridiculous sums of money or are located near a decent pizzeria.