Out of all the different tracks you’ll need to work with, vocals are the ones that require the LEAST amount of processing. However, there’ll always be some minor adjustments to take into consideration, so this is why we’re learning how to use EQ on vocals.
If you’re wondering why we should avoid over-processing our vocals, there’s a simple explanation…
The objective is to keep our vocal track sounding as “natural” as possible because our ear will quickly detect any anomalies. Why?
Well, we’ve been hearing voices from the moment we were born… so, recognizing a human voice is deeply ingrained in our physiology.
In other words, what we identify as the human voice can only sound ONE WAY (unless you were going for an extra-terrestrial voice).
That being said, I’m going to ask you to TRY to avoid any additive EQ. By sticking to subtractive EQ, any changes we make will be much more subtle.
However, there’s some debate as to whether any of that makes a difference.
Let me start by clearing that up before we get into any EQing. Ready?
Why Should I Be Using Subtractive EQ
For those who aren’t familiar with the terms… additive EQ refers to “boosting” frequencies while subtractive EQ refers to “cutting” frequencies. However, what we need to understand is that BOTH these methods affect the “signal-to-noise-ratio”.
Is this positive or negative?
Technically speaking, I’d say it’s a negative thing because the “noise floor” will become slightly “out-of-phase” with itself.
Certain frequencies will have more or less “noise” than others, so the ideal scenario would be to use as little EQ as possible.
This can be achieved by using proper sound recording techniques and the best microphone for recording vocals at home.
So I want you to think of this… if you wanted to add some more “brilliance” to your vocal track, you’d apply a “high-shelf” filter, right?
Well, what if you recorded with a microphone that provided you with that “brilliance” without the need for an EQ… Which track would have a better “signal-to-noise-ratio” in the end?
You see, by giving yourself more than you need, you’ll actually be improving your “noise floor”.
By using subtractive EQ, we’re REMOVING noise by “cutting” frequencies exclusively.
If we were talking about amplitude, this wouldn’t matter because we’re working with the entire spectrum, NOT specific frequencies.
Equalizing is all about balance, so take the “noise floor” into consideration.
If you’re working with a track that requires some additive EQ, it’s no problem as long as you are subtle.
Are There Any Differences Between Male and Female Vocals?
Singers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, so you’ll never be working with the same conditions. Gender has a HUGE impact on how you’ll be EQing vocals, but so will the singer’s range.
You’ll probably recognize some of these terms…
- Bass (male)
- Baritone (male)
- Tenor (male)
- Alto (female)
- Mezzo-Soprano (female)
- Soprano (female)
Actually, these terms will also be relevant if we were talking about saxophones.
They basically refer to a vocalist’s/instrumentalist’s range. So how can we identify this?
If you really want to know, you’ll probably want to ask your vocalist to sing their lowest and highest notes.
If you’re working with a pre-recorded vocal track, you can simply identify the performance’s range.
By using a keyboard, you can look for the following…
- Bass (E2 – E4)
- Baritone (A2 – A4)
- Tenor (C3 – C5)
- Alto (F3 – F5)
- Mezzo-Soprano (A3 – A5)
- Soprano (C4 – C6)
Also, keep in mind that this will just give you a general idea of what you’re working with. These ranges are APPROXIMATE.
There are TWO things you’ll need to be aware of… The singer’s fundamental and the key of the song.
If you base yourself on the key (let’s say E major), you’ll assume that E is going to be the fundamental.
However, each range will have its fundamental in a different octave. For example, a “bass” might be centred around E2 while a “soprano” might be centred around E4.
This is important because you MAY want to cut it a little bit to “level out” the rest of the vocal.
Now, let’s listen to some examples to get our ears warmed up.
Vocals With EQ and Without EQ
You” really need to listen attentively to certain aspects of the vocal to hear the difference. It will be incredibly subtle, BUT…
It will make a HUGE difference in the mix.
Most of these manipulations will be strictly “mechanical” to free up some headroom and make our speaker work more efficiently.
I’m actually using a sampled vocal track from Apple’s Sound Library for the example.
This was the unprocessed version and as you can hear, it doesn’t sound too bad.
However, since I didn’t record this myself using this microphone, I had to “boost” the high-frequencies a little bit.
As you can hear, there’s not that much of a difference except the fact that it sounds a bit “lighter” than it was before.
Essentially, this is what we’re striving for since we don’t want our vocal track to clutter our mix… we want it to SOAR!
I really didn’t do that much to obtain these results, so let’s go by them one by one.
How to EQ Vocals Using 3 Simple Steps
As we EQ this track, I want you to keep in mind that boosting anything more than 6 dB will make your vocals sound “unnatural”. You may not hear much of a difference by not exceeding this “threshold” which is perfect.
And remember, these are just general guidelines. Every track you work with will require different things, so use your ears.
Step 1 | Use a “HP filter” around 80 HZ for male vocals, but you can go higher for female vocals (150 Hz in this example)
Step 2 | Use a “notch” around 300 – 600 Hz to cut anything that sounds “washy” (335 Hz in this example)
Step 3 | Use a “high-self filter) around 8 kHz to add some “brilliance” to your track
As I mentioned earlier, I obtained this vocal track from Apple’s Sound Library. I didn’t have much control over which microphone was used which is why I boosted the high frequencies.
If you have the chance, read my review on the best microphone for recording vocals at home.
You’ll never have to boost the “top-end” ever again.
Obtain Professional Results by Using Subtle EQ on your Vocals
Tracking a vocal track can be a challenge, but I urge you to conquer this step before moving on. The more effort you put into the sound recording stage, the less work you’ll need to put into mixing and mastering.
Unlike a drum kit, vocals should sound great on their own without any significant post-processing.
And remember, giving yourself more to work with is better, even if you feel you’ll need to do some “cutting”
Your microphone’s “noise floor” will stay the same regardless of its frequency response, BUT…
“Boosting” frequencies later on will increase your “noise floor”, while subtractive EQ will actually reduce it.
The secret to recording professional vocals at home is covered in another article, so check it out if you’ve got a minute.
I hope this content has been of great value to you, please share it if it has.
What are your thoughts on EQing vocals? Let us know in the comments and feel free to share any of your own personal tips as well.