Now that you’ve cleaned up your tracks, it’s time to start the heavy-lifting of vocal mixing and give them additional polish and clarity by using EQ.
How To EQ Vocals
When it comes to vocal EQ, there is no “one-size fits all” approach. Each vocal is different and requires its own unique settings to fit best inside of your mix.
Sure, there are plugin presets that are labeled things such as “lead vocal” or “background vocal” but I’m here to tell you that presets will simply not work for your specific songs. The reason for this is that presets have been created using very specific material. So unless you are working on the same song with the same singer, in the same room, using the same mic, preamp, compressors, etc., these presets will not give you the ideal settings to make your vocal sound perfect in your mix.
So what should you do instead?
In order to EQ vocals, you first need to get clear on what to listen for. There are six key frequency ranges that you need to pay attention to. Based on what you hear in these ranges, you can make decisions on when to boost and when to cut.
1. Low End (100Hz and below)
Typically, with vocals, there is nothing in the range of 100hz and below that contributes to the clarity and/or tone of the voice. If anything, in the range, you will hear some unwanted low-end noise that should be removed using a high-pass filter.
Vocal mics can be very sensitive and often they pick up all sorts of unnecessary low-end rumble that can interfere with the clarity of the mix. These noises might be caused by the sound of traffic outside or an air-conditioning unit nearby. Regardless of what’s causing the rumble, it is unnecessary for getting your vocals to sound good.
By applying a high pass filter set at 80 or 100Hz, you can clean up the low-end of your vocal and reduce muddiness in your mix. This will also create some more clarity for instruments such as kick and bass, which will primarily occupy this frequency range.
2. Low Mids (100Hz – 400Hz)
When mixing, if your vocals sound thin, you will want to pay attention to this frequency range. Adding a boost of these frequencies can make your vocals sound thicker and fuller; however, you need to be careful not to overdo it.
The low-mids are often the most problematic frequencies in a mix. This is where a lot of muddiness can occur. If you find that you are lacking clarity or that your mix as a whole sounds very muffled and unclear, it can usually be cleared up by applying an eq cut in this range. Just make sure you don’t cut too much or else your vocals will start to sound thin and weak.
3. Mids (400Hz – 900Hz)
When mixing vocals, if you find that the singer has a “boxy” sound, the problem will usually lie in the range of 400Hz – 900Hz.
Boxiness can be the result of many factors. Sometimes it is just the natural sound of the singer’s voice, and other times, it can be caused by poor mic technique or using a microphone that doesn’t compliment the tone of the singer.
By boosting an EQ band with a medium to small Q setting, you can sweep around this frequency range until you find the offending sound. Once found, simply reduce it until it is no longer a problem.
4. Upper Mids (900Hz – 2kHz)
As you get into the upper mid-range frequencies of vocals, this is where you start to hear more clarity and intelligibility of the singer’s voice. This is also where you’ll usually hear more of the unique character of the singer’s tone.
Using a slight EQ boost in this area can help the vocals stand out a little more in the mix, but without sounding too harsh or present.
It’s also important to note that depending on the singer’s voice (and sometimes the quality of microphone used), you may find that some vocals have a nasal sound to them. If you hear lo-fi, radio-like tones in your singer’s voice, you can reduce them by using a slight cut with a narrow Q around the 1-2.5KHz range. Usually, a cut of 1-3dB should do the trick to clean it up.
5. Presence Range (2kHz – 8kHz)
To further add presence to your vocals, you will want to make sure that it has a clear top-end. By boosting around 5-8KHz, it will help bring the vocal more forward in the mix.
It’s also important to note that this frequency range is where the bite of your guitars and attack of drums will be heard as well. In some cases, you will need to make slight EQ cuts on these instruments in order to create space for the vocals to sit. Other times, it’s just a matter of giving each instrument dominate its own space within this region.
6. High End/Air (9kHz & Up)
Finally, using a high shelf boost on anything above 9kHz can add some extra shimmer to the vocal.
By boosting EQ on your vocals in this range, you can highlight the breathiness and airy qualities of a voice. This can work exceptionally well in softer ballads since it makes the vocals feel more intimate.
Just be mindful when boosting in this range that it can cause sibilance to start to poke out in the mix. If you start to notice harsh “s” sounds, you can use a de-esser to soften them.
Vocal Compression Settings
Now that you know how to EQ vocals to achieve clarity and presence, let’s talk about using compression on them.
This is where the real magic of mixing vocals happens. Compression is the key to getting a vocal to sit on top of the mix. Not only are compressors useful for smoothing out the dynamics in a singer’s performance, but they can also be used to infuse extra character and attitude to a voice in order to highlight it better in the mix.
Depending on the compression settings you use, you can really shape the tone so that the vocals sound softer or more aggressive.
Let’s talk about what settings to use when compressing vocals.
The attack time of a compressor can have a major impact on the sound of a vocal.
If you have a singer who really emphasizes the consonants of words, you can adjust the attack time to tame them and make the words sound smoother. To do this, simply use a faster attack setting. This means that the compressor will react quicker to any words that pass the threshold, thus causing them to not be as transient.
On the other hand, if you have a singer who sings very smoothly and does not have much energy in their performance, using a slower attack time can help to add more aggression and punch to their vocals. By using a slower attack time, it allows the initial attack of words to pass the threshold level before getting compressed. Once the compressor engages, this makes for a more percussive sound and can help emphasize the consonants.
When setting the release time of your compressor, you want to make sure that you set it quick enough so that it returns to the point of zero gain reduction between words.
If you set your release time too slow, the compressor can clamp down on certain words and sound unnatural.
Your goal is to set the release speed slow enough that the vocal sounds smooth but fast enough that you aren’t compressing all the time.
The threshold is the level at which the compressor is going to start to compress. As more signal passes the threshold, the harder the compressor will work (in other words, more gain reduction). When the signal is below the threshold, it will be unaffected by the compressor settings.
When it comes to vocal compression, the amount of gain reduction you want is largely dependant on how dynamic your vocals are to begin with. Sometimes, you will just want to tame the really loud peaks to make the dynamic range a little smaller (this could mean only having 3-5dB of gain reduction). Other times, you might want to compress quite heavily (10-15dB of reduction) in order to really control the level and make it very consistent.
The more aggressive you are with gain reduction, the more attitude and character you will start to bring out in the performance.
The ratio control tells the compressor how much it is going to reduce the signal that passes the threshold. The larger the ratio, the harder the compressor is going to work. Common ratios for compressing vocals are 2:1, 4:1, 6:1. Which one you choose will depend on how dynamic the vocal performance is and how heavily you want to control it. Use your ears to determine what sounds natural and best in the context of the mix.