How To EQ Vocals Professionally

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Hello, my EQing friends! If you’re looking to learn the basics of professional EQing, stay right where you are because I’m going to show you a lot of cool things that will help you improve your vocal sound by the end of this post! The EQ is like a sharp knife to a decorative salad. This is the only tool that will help you cut and arrange your veggies on the plate like a pro. Now let’s try to understand it from the basics all the way to the pro tips.

First! a quick EQ lesson from the great Dave Pensado

How Important EQ Is?

Although EQ is a very basic tool and one of the first audio tool that was ever invented, it is still to this day, the most important tool of any audio project. I can get a mix to work and even sound fantastic, using only EQ! You can’t say that about any other audio processor and I don’t care what tool it is. That’s how important EQ is.

What is an EQ?

As we all know, in our physical world, audio is made out of different frequencies. The higher the frequency, the higher the tone. The human hearing In general ranges from 20hz to 20Khz. EQ is the one tool we use to boost or cut any frequency on the spectrum and this is the only audio tool that does that. Any other tools that do the same have EQing abilities built into them. For example, with only an EQ we can turn a boomy vocal into a decent sounding one, and a muffled voice into a bright, airy and angelic vocal. The other most important tool in the audio processing world is of course the Compressor. You can learn more about that here >> How To Use a Compressor On Vocals

What Are The Main Uses For An EQ?

Cutting stuff out, adding stuff in, fixing a specific frequency problem, shaping a signal source, giving character to a flat source and even completely change the way it sounds. Much like a sculpting tool for a sculptor. We can take a shapeless stone and turn it into something we recognize and even love.

Where Do I start EQing?

A real audio pro knows that EQing doesn’t start with an EQ but with the recording method at the beginning of the process. In the case of vocals, the first thing we have to think about is what microphone are we using and what character does it have. Learn more about how to make your voice sound better when recording.

In general, Dynamic microphones and Ribbon microphones have a tendency to sound less bright, with an emphasis on the low end and a sensitivity to how close are we from it, it’s called the proximity effect. A condenser microphone in most cases will sound a lot brighter, it will be much more sensitive to every little sound we make and will sound more bright and detailed.

Basic Rules We Don’t Always Follow But It’s Good To Know Them

In most cases of using an EQ, we will cut more and boost less. It’s easier to cut out things from a source than to add things to another one. This will keep the source sounding more natural. That’s the right way to go about it, but as I said, no rules. 

The other thing we always do is filtering. The human ear has a natural filtering system. If you’re a kid with good hearing, you can probably hear all the way from 20 hz to 20Khz and in the top and bottom, you’d have your natural filter. You probably won’t be able to hear above and below that. With EQing an audio source we will cut the head and the tale of any source. 

Let’s say you have a female vocal that rarely goes lower than 100hz, you don’t need the information that’s been picked up by the microphone under that frequency. It’s the same with the top end, we usually cut the super high frequencies because we don’t really hear them and they might interrupt other critical things in the mix.

 

EQ Basic Features

  • Cut – Lowering a selected group of frequencies.
  • Boost – boosting a selected group of frequencies.
  • Low Cut (High Pass)  – Cutting out everything BELOW a selected frequency.
  • High Cut (Low Pass) – Cutting out everything ABOVE a selected frequency.
  • Slope – How many DB’s per octave we cut after the selected frequency point.
  • Shelf – A shelf shape cut or boost at the edges of the spectrum. High shelf, Low shelf.
  • Bell Width (Q) – Determines how wide will be the frequency range we want to work on.
  • Frequency Band or Select – Selecting the fundamental frequency of the range we want to work on.

Different Colors On The Spectrum 

Every area on the frequency spectrum has a different character, I’m going to give you some general guidelines for how to emphasize or to blur a certain feature in the human voice. I’ve made a basic chart just to get you in the right direction.

Low Cut –  Cut from that point and down.

1. Fullness – Boost to give low-end body to a vocal.

2. Boominess – Cut to get rid of low-mid boomy sound and mud.

3. Warmness – Boost to make a vocal sound warmer.

4. Midrange Bite – Boost to make a vocal cut thru the mix.

5. Presence – Boost to give a vocal high-frequency clarity.

6. Air & Details – Boost to give a vocal air and openness.

High Cut – Cut from that point and up.

Dynamic EQ

I won’t go too deep on dynamic EQ’s but I will talk about the basic form of it, and it’s the mighty De-esser. Many times, after boosting a vocal’s high range, there will be some side effects. The Sibilance, high frequencies that jump out every time the singer uses the letters “S” “T”, will come out and poke holes in your eardrums. This is the perfect time to drop a De-esser on the channel and set it up to compress the problematic areas. Usually, it’ll be between 5Khz and 8Khz, depending on the singer.

Mix With Your Eyes

Sometimes using a frequency analyzer can help you find a certain problem a lot faster than if you were using only your ears. A lot of EQ plugins these days has that feature and I definitely recommend using it. 

But be careful, these tools can easily get you deep into the lazy zone and before you know it, you’re trying to make a whole mix with your eyes, and that won’t cut it. Trust me. A frequency analyzer is only a tool that helps to get you in the right direction and the real secret is to work with your ears and with your eyes at the same time.

Bell Width “Q” – How Wide Should It Be?

As a general rule that’s not written anywhere, you want your boosts to be wider and your attenuations to be narrower. Somehow the when you boost with a wide Q it sounds more natural.

Shelf EQ

“Shelving” is a term used to describe a boost or a cut from a certain frequency by the same amount. Shelving is done in the higher or lower edges of the spectrum, this gives it the shape of a shelf. 

Sometimes we tend to use shelving EQ when we want to create a high-frequency boost, but that’s the wrong way to do it. 

If you want to boost the high end of a vocal, it’s smarter and more natural sounding to use a band EQ and just work with the bell width to determine the range of frequencies that will get affected by the boost. That’s how you don’t just boost a bunch of high frequencies that you don’t even hear and your mix is better off without them. Here you’ll find 19 mixing tips that you must have.

Cut When You Need To Boost

Many times we feel the urge to boost the highs to give a certain vocal more air or to make it sound more detailed. But the thing is that when you have a tendency to boost every time you lack some information on the track, you pay for it with sacrificing other precious frequencies on your track. So my suggestion is before you boost the highs, try to cut the lows first. And only then boost the highs accordingly. This will give you a more natural sound. Especially with vocals.

Always Filter

No matter what vocal you mix, you always have two ranges of frequencies you don’t want in your mix. These frequencies are on the edges of the spectrum. This is where we use the filters. A low cut filter on a vocal track alone can save a whole mix. Under a certain frequency, depending on the singer, you’ll only get that low rumble and unnecessary low-end information. It’s the same with the high edge of the spectrum. Take a look at my charts and find out exactly where to place the cutting points.

Sweep For Gold

These next two tips are very important if we want to learn how to eq vocals professionally. Sometimes boosting a specific frequency in a vocal can bring out hidden magic you didn’t even know exists. The way to find this lovely magic frequency is to do a frequency sweep. In most cases, you’ll find this hidden magic spot between 500Hz and 8Khz. How to do a sweep you ask? You just boost a certain band by 5 to 10DB and drag it across the spectrum. In the first sweep, everything might sound cool and you’d want to boost it all, don’t do it. Just pick one spot out of the whole range and give it a touch. Then click the band On and Off and see if you like the difference. If you like it, great! If not, sweep again. It’s ok to not find the golden frequency. It just means you have a well balanced vocal recording and a good vocalist.

Sweep For Dirt

The same as sweeping to find the golden frequency, you can also sweep to find problems in the vocal track. Here the problem can be everywhere on the spectrum. It can be an annoying frequency, a weird overtone that clashes with the song key, or any unpleasant tone somewhere along the spectrum. Again, you boost a certain band by 5 to 10db and you just drag it across the spectrum. If you hear something you don’t like, just cut it. In most cases, a 1 to 3db cut will be enough to balance it out. You might find more than one problematic spot on the track. Do it with as many bands as you need. I usually open a separate EQ instance just to fix the problematic frequencies on a track. But make sure to not get dragged into a “fix fest” where everything sounds like it needs to be fixed. If you do that, you can easily take the life out of a track. If it’s a decent recording, you won’t have to fix more than two or three problematic areas.

Check It On Headphones

Here you can find a lot of information about Mixing On Headphones. If you really want to be on the safe side, double check everything you do on a good pair of headphones. Sometimes an unbalanced room or the wrong monitor can cause us to make faulty decisions along the way, so always double check your mix on more than one reference source >> Best Headphones For Mixing

What EQ should I Use?

Different tasks require different tools. In general, digital EQ types are good for fixing stuff in the vocal track, Finding the gold and taking out the dirt. Every vocal track can use a good surgical treatment with a digital type EQ. For “coloration”, “vibe” and “mojo” on the other hand, it’s much cooler to use an analog emulation type EQ. So I’ve made a list of the best EQ’s that I’ve ever worked with and that I recommend using.
The list >> Best EQ Plugin For Vocals

Practice Practice Practice!

Like with any craft, practice makes perfect. The more you do it, the better you get. With EQ, at some point, you’re not even looking at what you’re doing because your intuition and ears are getting so good it becomes second nature to you. Just keep doing that more and more and the whole EQing process will get almost completely automatic.

Thanks for reading and happy EQing guys.

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