The ability to EQ vocals is a part of being able to listen critically. Each recording will be unique. There are some steps that you will always follow, regardless of what. Vocal equalizing can be described as a combination of science and art. I will show you the science, and then guide you in the arts.
Even if your skills in recording and DAW software are good, mixing can be difficult if not impossible. There is a lot to absorb. It is easiest to begin with EQing vocals, as it is easiest to understand and hear the changes being made.
Each plugin has its own learning curve. This is not just about understanding how they interact with one another, but also the general order of operations. It doesn’t have to be complicated, I’ll break it down and simplify it.
This step-by–step guide will show you not only what to do but also how to do it. Every bit of this guide is valuable when you move on to more complex tasks such as compression, limiting and adding reverb or delay.
The 6 VocalEQ Steps
Before we get started, I want to emphasize that the quality of your recording will affect your results. Your equalization will be clearer if you have the best microphone, preamplifier and converters in your audio interface.
Equally important is the acoustics in your room. It doesn’t matter if you use acoustic treatments or a DIY voice booth, you must take care of it to some degree. This is a simple problem that can be fixed, but it’s one you must address if you want professional equalization results.
A parametric equalizer is the only tool you need to EQ vocals. This article assumes you are familiar with the basics of a DAW, and what it is (your recording software). A parametric EQ plugin is a must in top DAWs. Place it on the vocal track of your mixer and you’ll find it.
Note: You’ll be given frequency bands that you can work in. However, you will need to adjust those frequencies or reduce them depending on whether you are working with male or female vocals. It also depends on how dense or sparse your mix is. An audiobook narration will not require equalization for a full song.
You can also view a visual analysis on your vocal’s frequency waves using the EQ plugin, as shown in the above image. It’s located in the bottom left corner of the Logic Pro. It can be helpful for beginners, but it should be abandoned once you feel confident. You run the risk of mixing your eyes with your ears, which can lead to confusion.
1) ROLL OFF THE LOW END BASS FREQUENCIES
Rolling off low-end frequencies is the first thing to do with any vocal track. This is where most noises reside, including electrical static, 60Hz hum, rumblings coming from the desk or mic stand, self-generated microphone noises, and air conditioner noises.
Both male and female vocals can reach this level, but they will not contribute to the overall song, podcast, or audiobook. The proximity effect will make your voice sound even more bassy if you are too close to the microphone. Let’s get rid it.
The left-most band of your parametric EQ will be set up as a low end roll off. It should be a rolloff and not a low shelf filter or high pass filter. As you get deeper into the bass frequencies, you want to hear a gradual lowering in the volume.
Start Settings: Set the main frequency at 90 Hz using a 24dB per octave rolling off. The 0.71 Q creates an asymptote that doesn’t give rise to frequencies higher than 90 Hz. To find the best setting, move the main frequency up or down.
2) REDUCE MUDDINESS AND BOOMINESS
No matter how great your room’s acoustics are, there will be some “mud” somewhere in the 200 Hz-500 Hz frequency range. While it may not be obvious when you listen to vocals in solo mode only, it will with as many as five tracks and as many as 30+ tracks become apparent.
Mud happens when you record indoors in a small space and sound bounces off of the walls. This frequency range is louder in small rooms. It is possible to decrease it slightly. The actual middle frequency of your Q setting will change depending on where you are in the room.
Volume will be reduced in this range. However, we prefer to use a large Q to ensure a smooth transition for the listener. It is important to note that you should not cut or boost more than 6dB unless there’s a roll-off.
You can make things sound unnatural if the volume is increased or decreased beyond that. You will need to fix your acoustic problems and/or get a better microphone if you require more than 6 decibels. This may not be possible for you but it is something I want to let you know.
Start Settings: I have yet to find a space that is the same size as a standard bedroom, but larger than a living room. It’s not 250 Hz that is the problem, but all frequencies. You should start with a width of 0.70 Q. You can reduce the problem frequency ranges by using a narrower width, but not much. A cut of -3 dB to -5 dB is recommended.
3) BRIGHTEN THE VOCALS TO AIR & SPARKLE
Let’s now focus on the high frequency range, with two goals. We want to give the high frequency range some sparkle and air. This is a mix of jargon to describe how the vocalist sounds, as well as adding some high-pitched character. We want to eliminate the highest frequencies completely.
The image shows that the rightmost frequency band of the image is a high end rolloff and the one to its left a high shelf filter. Both will be used. The shelf will be used to increase all the higher frequencies, and the roll-off to remove the extreme piercing frequencies.
This is where you want to be subtle. Too much boost can cause too much harshness, which can be harmful to the ears for some sound systems. Because of how small the car’s “room”, car speakers can often be too bright.
Start Settings: For the high shelf, try starting at 8 kHz and increasing 1 dB or 1.5 dB. With a 0.70 Q width, 18 kHz is the best main frequency for high rolloff. It has 24 dB reduction per octave and a great main frequency. It is important to keep out any piercing frequencies and make space for cymbals.
4) ADD PRESENCE OVER THE VOCALS
Most vocalists believe that “presence” is located between 4 kHz and 5 kHz. This gives the vocals a feeling of solidity or firmness. This makes it easier to understand the words being spoken or sung.
This frequency is called a harmonic frequency. It’s higher than the fundamental, core frequency of the vocals, which we’ll discuss next. It can be targeted very precisely (but not surgically) by using a narrower Q width. When you go too far, you’ll be able to hear it. You can find the setting that suits you best, then adjust half a decibel or more.
This is a great place to cut out other instruments such as rhythm guitar or keyboard/synthesizer when youEQ them. This will allow for more vocals and make them easier to understand.
Starting Settings: Start at 5 kHz. You should be able to do it, but it may require you to adjust the frequency between 4 kHz and 5.5 kHz in order to find the right balance. You should be able to achieve the desired results with a 2.80 Q width, 2.5 dB boost and an average of 2.80 Q. You can adjust it to your taste, based on your recording.
5) BOOST CORE VOCAL FREQUENCIES
This may be something you need, but it is not a necessity. Sometimes, boosting or even cutting the core frequencies can improve the quality of your vocals. The range will vary depending on whether it is a male or female vocal take.
Below we’ll talk about the differences between males and women, but for now you can hunt in the 1 kHz-2 kHz frequency range for this core frequency. It should improve the clarity of the spoken words, making it easier to hear and retain the vocals.
Start Settings: A wide Q width of about 1.20 is recommended to get a smooth boost. To find the most suitable center frequency for your voice, you can use a range of 1 kHz-2 kHz. I would keep the boost at or below 2 dB maximum. There is no need to do too much and there are many options.
6) REDUCE SIBILANCE BY Using a DE-ESSER
Final step is to eliminate instances of sibilance. These are high-pitched, piercing sounds that you might (or not) hear when the vocalist makes the “S” or “T” sounds. This is a rapid burst in air that our sensitive microphones pick-up more than our ears.
These sounds can be EQ’d with an equalizer. However, this will only reduce the overall frequency of the sound. A deesser is better. This is a compressor that is sidechained to an Equalizer. You can only lower the frequencies if they become too loud.
These frequencies are typically found in the 5 to 8 kHz frequency range. It will vary depending on gender. To locate them, give your EQ a boost and then enter that information in the de-esser.
Start Settings: After you have identified the problem frequencies, set them up as the target frequency and the reduction frequency in the de-esser. The threshold should be set at around -25 dB or -30 dB. Next, set a volume reduction. There, try a range of -10 to -15 decibels. It will sound strange if you use too much.
Best EQ Settings For Vocals
Now, I’d like to show you how much cumulative work you have done. Each step doesn’t require a different parametric EQ plugin. You can do the first five steps with one plugin. It will look something like this image. This can be used as a starting point for your vocal EQ settings.
For a quick recap, here are the steps and values.
- You can roll off the low-end at 90 Hz.
- Reduce the mud to 250 Hz
- A high shelf of 9 kHz and a high rolloff of 18 kHz are recommended.
- You can also add a presence boost of around 5 kHz.
- The core should be boosted from 1 kHz up to 2 kHz.
- Reduce the sibilance from 5 kHz to 7 kHz.
This tutorial is a good starting point. Once you know how to use the Q and what amount to boost/cut, you can follow it. You’d still get pretty good results even if you did the same thing for every track. Each track will have its own specifics.
EQ FREQUENCY RANG CHARACTERISTICS
You can think of the frequency spectrum in terms of six segments, each with its own characteristics. Although there are some differences between them, most problems will fall within the ranges listed below.
- Low-End Noise – 20Hz to 80Hz
- Boominess 80 Hz to300 Hz
- Muddiness 250 Hz to 50 Hz
- Nasal Honk 800 Hz to 1.5 KHz
- Presence — 4.5 kHz up to 9 kHz
- Breathiness 10 kHz to 15. kHz
These characteristics can be described with other words, so you may choose to use any of them. You should be familiar with all of them as other professionals might use different terminology. For example, “Breathiness”, “Presence”, or “Clarity” could be called “Air”. Mud is sometimes called “Boxiness.”
Conclusion: How to Professionally EQ Vocals
It is really that simple. Although there are decisions to make in each step regarding how much to boost/cut and which frequencies to target at, the six-step guide will give you guidelines to follow and a starting point.
Even if you don’t achieve perfection, the information above will help you get to about 80%, which is a lot better that nothing. You’ll learn the art with practice and time. These steps are what every professional uses to EQ vocals.