The earliest recording consoles had simple EQ controls for boosting or cutting high and low-end. But recording technology has grown so much over the years. And so have our perceptions of what sounds “professional.”
In this blog, we’ll break down everything you need to know about how to EQ a vocal in 2020—from basics like setting the level and getting the right balance to more advanced techniques like adding saturation for color.
Give Yourself A Sonic Target
Over the last 70 years or so, music genres have continued to splinter into new sub-genres with unique sonic textures and tonal tropes. Perhaps the most obvious place to hear this is in the lead vocal. Some genres like indie rock or bedroom pop may call for a darker sound with lots of body, while other genres like hip-hop and house tend to have brighter-sounding vocals.
That’s why it’s absolutely crucial to use reference mixes to help guide your decisions while setting the vocal level and applying EQ. REFERENCE is a plugin by Mastering The Mix that’s packed with powerful tools to help you zero in on what makes your sub-genre unique, and how to make your track and vocals sound comparable.
Drag in a few songs that give a good representation of what you want your vocal to sound like into REFERENCE and engage the Level Match feature to make sure you’re getting a fair comparison. Toggle between each of the reference mixes and check the Trinity Display at the bottom of the plugin for detailed visual insights to help you match the tonal balance, punch, and stereo width of your reference tracks.
Pay special attention to the 1-5 kHz range, where the vocal is most prominent. If the white level line in the Trinity Display is above the center line (as shown below), that means your mix has more energy in this frequency range compared to your reference. This might indicate that your vocal is too loud in the context of the whole mix. Make note, and we’ll circle back to this issue a little later.
How Volume Affects Tonal Balance
Next, listen to the balance of the vocal and the other instruments in the mix to get a feel for how loud the vocal should be. In some genres like punk and metal, the vocal tends to sit a bit further back in the mix, giving more energy to the instruments. With other genres like pop, the vocal is right up in your face.
The level of the vocal has more impact than just how close it sounds to the listener. It can actually affect the tonal balance of the mix too. The human ear actually perceives sound differently depending on the volume.
For instance, at lower levels, bass frequencies are harder to hear. Meaning a vocal that’s too low in the mix can feel weak or thin. Alternatively, higher frequencies become easier to hear at higher levels, meaning if you make the vocal too loud it may sound harsh or shrill.
In most cases, the vocal should be the loudest instrument in the mix—except for the kick and snare, which are only audible in quick, short bursts. Aim for the vocal to “sit on top” of the rest of the mix, meaning it’s just a hair louder than the other instruments. From here, you can boost or cut the vocal by 1-2 dB to move it forward or backward in the mix.
Remove Resonances Using Dynamic EQ
After setting the level, focus on removing any unwanted frequencies. If you noticed any problems in the 1-5 kHz range while comparing to your reference mixes, start by making a gentle cut to reduce harshness.
Next, look for any resonances that may cause your vocal to stick out of the mix. If you’re having trouble identifying additional resonances by ear, use the frequency sweeping technique. Start by boosting a single band with a narrow Q and sweeping through the frequency spectrum. Listen closely for any frequency resonances that hum or ring and use EQ to make a small, narrow cut in this range.
However, the severity of these resonances tends to change as the vocalist moves around the microphone while singing. Cutting enough to remove a resonance issue may cause the vocal to sound thin at other times.
That’s why it’s best to use a dynamic EQ like SurferEQ 2 by Sound Radix or the free TDR Nova by Tokyo Dawn Records. Dynamic EQs are threshold-dependent (like a compressor or gate), meaning they only cut when the target frequency exceeds the designated threshold.
Essentially, it’s an automated EQ that targets specific frequencies when they become unpleasant. Think of dynamic EQ like the best mix assistant you’ve ever had—now if it could only brew up some coffee…
Shape The Overall Sound And Add Depth Using Mid/Side EQ
After using subtractive EQ to remove any problems, it’s time to add depth and dimension using a mid/side EQ. By focusing on either the mid or side channels, you can create separation and space in stereo tracks.
For instance, cutting the low-mids in the center channel can help bring focus to the mix, while boosting the highs on the sides creates a wide stereo image. This can be a very powerful tool when working with busy mixes.
MIXROOM makes it easy to deliver maximum clarity and transparency in the mid and high-frequency ranges with specially designed EQ filters ranging from 300 Hz to 20 kHz. Pull up one of the target vocal presets or create your own using stems from another session and MIXROOM will show you exactly which frequencies to boost or cut to get the sound you’re looking for.
Add Richness and Warmth Using Harmonic Saturation
Classic analog signal processors are often said to make a song sound like a “record,” and are great for adding color and character to vocals. Tube-based EQs like the Pultec EQP-1A and Class-A designs like the Neve 1073 add harmonic overtones that help your vocals cut through the mix.
Thankfully, you don’t have to run out and pick up a vintage tube equalizer to add saturation to your track. There are plenty of great analog emulations available in plug-in form, each with their own unique sound. For instance, try using the EQP-1A to boos the highs for a brilliant sheen, or use the 1073 to boost the low-mids for classic warmth.
Use these tips when EQing your next vocal to dial in a crisp, clean and modern sound!