You have to approach EQ with care when processing vocals. If you are too aggressive, the vocals can quickly start to sound unnatural and over-processed. But it’s rare that a vocal part won’t need any EQ at all.
With the proper use of EQ you can shape the vocal to perfection. You can help the vocal to cut through the mix whilst improving the tone. As the vocal is often the most important element in a song, a well-mixed vocal can make a significant difference to the end mix.
Sometimes, though, EQ alone is not enough. Vocals are a complicated thing. The tone of a vocal varies wildly as a vocalist changes register, sings different words and adds vibrato.
For this reason, multiband compression is the perfect tool for further shaping the tone of a vocal part. With multiband compression, you can reduce and control certain elements of the tone only when the issue appears. EQ, on the other hand, is static and affects the whole track.
In this guide, you will learn how to use EQ and multiband compression to control and shape the tone of a lead vocal part.
How to EQ Vocals
Step 1. Remove the Low End
The first step when mixing vocals is to remove any low end rumble and noise with a high-pass filter. You have two approaches here:
- Only remove low end noise without affecting the tone of the vocal
- Use the high-pass filter to cut out more low end and brighten up the vocal
If you don’t want to affect the tone, engage the high-pass filter at 20Hz and bring up the frequency until you notice a change in tone. At that point, back it off a touch. This will probably be around 60Hz.
This approach is best in mixes where there are very few parts. For example, in a piece with just vocals and an acoustic guitar, you will want the vocal to sound full and war—so don't remove too much low end.
Approach two is better for busier mixes. By removing some of the low end content of the vocal, you will create space for the mix for the bass and kick.
At the same time, it will make the vocal sound brighter and help it to cut through the mix. With this approach, your high-pass filter could sit anywhere between 100-200Hz.
Step 2. Surgical EQ
With the same EQ that you used to remove the low end with a high-pass filter, you can now remove any ugly elements of the tone and any room resonances.
The easiest way to do this is to engage a narrow 10dB boost with one of the bands on the EQ—use a full parametric EQ for this. Now sweep the frequency up and down between 300Hz and 1kHz until you notice a sudden increase in volume.
This increase in volume usually represents a room resonance. Leave the EQ band where it is and lower the gain to apply a 2-5dB narrow cut. Bypass the EQ to check the difference and you should notice that the vocal sounds cleaner and clearer with the cut engaged.
I normally find at least one resonance between 300Hz and 1kHz to cut. You might also find some nasty resonances in the upper mid range worth cutting. Apply the same process again but sweep between 1kHz and 6kHz.
Step 3. Tonal EQ
I recommend applying compression to the vocals after your surgical EQ plugin, and then using a second EQ to apply subtle tonal corrections. This time, try to avoid sweeping around with a strong boost. Instead, think about how you want the vocal to sound.
Avoid the solo button and listen to the vocal with the whole mix in. Consider whether the vocal get buried, sounds thin or sounds dull and lifeless.
Load up a professional track in a DAW or another audio player and compare the track to your mix. Consider how the vocal sounds different, whether the vocal needs more air and brightness or if it sound muddy and undefined.
Once you have an idea of what you want to achieve, you can start experimenting with subtle cuts and boosts. Wide bands sound more musical and natural, so avoid narrow boosts/cuts here.
Don’t be too aggressive with your adjustments either—if you are cutting or boosting by more than 5dB you are probably being heavy handed. I find that 1-3dB is usually enough.
For example, if you decided that the vocal got lost in the mix and could do with more aggression, you could remove some low mids around 300Hz and boost the vocal in the high mids around 5kHz.
Step 4. High-Shelf Boost
Although this differs between genres, most vocals need quite an aggressive top end boost to make them sound modern.
High-end studio microphones sound much brighter than most affordable microphones. This silky top end makes the vocal sound expensive and bright. You can replicate this character of sound by using an analogue modelling EQ to boost the top end.
Analogue modelling EQs tend to sound more musical when boosting the top end, whereas most digital equalizers sound sterile and harsh. But, that doesn’t mean you need to spend a fortune. Slick EQ is a great free plugin for this purpose.
Start with a 3dB high-shelf boost at 12kHz. Bring the frequency down until the vocal starts to sound harsh—and then bring it back up a touch. This is usually a good starting point. Now compare the vocal to the reference track to dial in the right amount of top end.
Using Multiband Compression on Vocals
Now that you've shaped the general tone of the vocal, have a break before coming back to listen to the entire track again. Turn the monitor off or close your eyes. Listen out for any tonal inconsistencies, or moments where the vocal starts to sound muddy, sibilant or thin.
There are a few common problems that can be treated with multiband compression:
- The vocal sounds thin when the vocalist moves to falsetto
- The vocal sounds muddy when the vocalist applies vibrato
- The vocal sounds sibilant and harsh when the vocalist sings ‘t’ and ‘s’ sounds.
The most common problem is sibilance in a vocal. To fix this, you should use a de’esser which is a form of multiband compression.
De’essers work by only compressing the sibilant frequency range anywhere between 4-10kHz when the frequencies become too loud. This is the easiest form of multiband compression to use.
The other two problems are slightly harder to fix, and will require a dedicated multiband compressor. Still, don’t let this scare you—it’s a simple process that’s easy to master.
The first step is to find the offending frequencies. Loop the section where the problem appears and use the same boost-and-sweep technique to find the frequency range where the problem occurs. As before, you will notice an increase in volume when you find the bad range.
Once you know the range, remove the EQ and load up a multiband compressor. Bypass all of the multiband ranges until you are only targeting the problematic frequency range. Apply 2-3dB of compression using similar settings to your main compressor, with one important exception—don’t apply any makeup gain.
Bypass the multiband compressor and then bring it back in to check that it properly controls the problem. If it doesn’t, you might need to experiment with the boundaries of the frequency range to get it right. If multiple frequency ranges need controlling, engage another band on the compressor and repeat the process.
If the vocal sounds thin when the vocalist moves to falsetto, compress the low end to make it more consistent and then bring up the gain a touch.
For example, compress everything below 100Hz with 2-3dB of gain reduction, and then apply 2dB of makeup gain. This will make the low end more present when the vocal sounds thin.
With EQ alone, you can craft the tone of the vocal in various ways. By removing the ugly stuff, and then exaggerating the good stuff with tonal EQ, you have all of the bases covered.
Once you get to grips with EQ, start experimenting with multiband compression. It doesn’t have to be complicated—just use one frequency band to compress a specific range and ignore the rest.