Music would not be music without the vocals. When your favorite song comes on the first thing you do is sing along to the vocals. If the vocals aren’t properly equalized in the song. Then the success of the song is questionable.
There can be 100 good things about the song, however if the song isn’t properly optimized with an equalizer, you will end up having a song that you can not listen to more than once.
When you take your time to notice all the widely popular songs they will all have one thing in common, great equalization that pushes the vocals in front of the mix.
Equalizing vocals is an important part of mixing vocals and is very often not given much importance in the success of the song.
A good song should have great equalization in the vocals. Even though a song might be recorded in the studio, a mixing engineer would properly eq the vocals so that they sound as if they are singing to you in your living room. That’s is the value of equalization of vocals is in a song.
Equalization of vocals starts with understanding the frequency spectrum of the singer’s vocal range, and performing adequate techniques to make sure the vocals are on top of the mix.
Equalization of vocals happens in audio production software performed by music producers and mixing engineers.
Knowing that equalization of vocals is important for the success of the song is one thing, but understanding how it’s done is just as essential. In this article,
I will walk you through the steps involved in the process of equalizing vocals and also the equipment used in the process of equalization of vocals. Let’s get started,
Steps involved in equalization of vocals.
- Cleaning the low end
- Finding resonant frequencies
- Finding sheen frequencies
- Finding the high-end boost
- Cleaning the mid-range
- Using multi-band equalization
Let’s look at them one by one in-depth shall we,
Cleaning the low end
Cleaning the low end is the first step to getting a crisp vocal as a result.
Instead of going straight into equalization, we have to first consider the complete frequency range that is present within the vocal. This will give you enough time to analyze which type of vocal makes the difference to the end product.
Usually, each vocal type has a particular frequency range. When you start with a male vocal, it has more bass compared to a female vocal, which tends to be in the higher frequency spectrum. Each vocal has to be treated differently to make it sound good.
You cannot perform the same functions on a male and female vocal and expect the same result.
Let’s look at how you should look at the low end of different vocal ranges. A normal man’s voice starts at 85Hz and extends up to around 6 kHz. Whereas a female voice starts at 300Hz and extends up to 11 kHz. When you look at the lower end frequencies you would have to use different techniques for the male vocals as it has a lower end.
In the case of the female vocals, the low end is almost non-existent. This doesn’t mean that you should roll off the low end from 500HZ and everything below.
This frequency range of between 300-500Hz holds a lot of very intricate information of which vocals can be used to create different moods and filter effects in the song.
Without the low end in most vocals, it would sound lifeless and robotic. You have to start to roll off the bass in the vocals by finding the point where there is less information.
Instead of moving the cut of the curve from the higher to the lower frequency in the equalization technique, you should be moving it from lower to higher to see where you lose the wholeness of the vocals and stop rolling off immediately before that.
In the case of male vocals, you may sometimes feel like you can cut more in the low end, whilst allowing the high end to shine. This is a mistake that people make very often believing that it doesn’t make a difference to the mix.
Cutting the low end below 200Hz takes away the natural-sounding male voice and produces a brighter and thicker voice, which isn’t that attractive. In some instances you can end up with harsh sounding vocals.
Be extremely careful when handling the low end in a vocal. My advice would be for you to make minimal adjustments and that you work your way to the edges of the frequency spectrum so that you can analyze what else you can do with them.
Sometimes in equalization doing less is more. You have to be very careful and intentional with what you are trying to do.
Finding resonant frequencies
Before we go anywhere near the resonant frequencies you have to understand what a resonant frequency in a vocal frequency spectrum is.
If you start eliminating frequencies without understanding which frequencies constitute resonant frequencies, you’ll end up cutting and boosting frequencies that are the life of the vocal, and additionally you may end up with a vocal that can’t be processed any further for use in a commercial song.
The resonant frequency is nothing but the phenomenon of increased amplitude that occurs when the frequency of a periodically applied force is equal or close to a natural frequency.
Finding these frequencies is not easy for a novice mixing engineer or producer. These frequencies are formed as a result of the forward and backward bounce of the sound in space as they are oscillating with the natural frequency range.
These resonant frequencies are repeating frequencies of the same tone that is generated by our vocal cords that oscillates in the natural space to create additional frequencies.
These frequencies can be identified when you use a bell curve of a frequency spectrum in audio production software and sweep slowly from left to right. With the gain knob set to +5 in the bell curve, you will be able to find these frequencies quite easily. Usually, it would sound like someone is whistling.
There is also a huge debate amongst producers as to how much should you reduced these resonant frequencies. Some argue that you should reduce up to 6db with a sharp bell curve, some advise you to go even deeper and cut the entire frequency.
You have to critically understand why it’s done. These natural vibrating frequencies also called resonant frequencies are essential to creating a complete vocal spectrum.
Eliminating them is like removing a limb from a human. You have to lower the length and breadth to adjust them accordingly. In my opinion reduction is the best approach when it comes to vocal equalization of the resonant frequencies.
People sometimes call them problematic frequencies even though they are the ones that give life to the vocal range of the singer.
Be careful with the resonant frequencies, just like the low end tread carefully with adjusting them. Always reduce and don’t cut them off completely. Remember less is more.
Finding sheen frequencies
Now that we have established the things you have to reduce in the vocals of a song. We must discuss the things that you have to boost in vocals. The first sets of frequencies to boost are called the sheen frequencies.
These are added based on preference in order to make the vocals of an artist sound a particular way to ensure the vocals sit tight in a song.
The ideology of what constitutes sheen will differ from producer to producer, based on their experience and style in mixing vocals. You will find producers who boost frequencies to around 4 k to 5 kHz range for a female artist and call that adding sheen to the song.
In contrast, you may find producers adding a boost in the 8 kHz range.
Sheen usually depends on a music producers tastes. As a beginner, you will struggle to know which frequencies to boost. If you end up boosting something that has to be tucked in, for example resonant frequencies, you will lose the quality of the vocals in the song.
For beginners, the only way to get around this issue is to boost minimal frequencies, and then to compare them before and after, to see if it makes a significant difference, without deterring from the fullness of the vocals.
Be mindful of the plethora of online guides telling you to boost this, and to boost that. Don’t follow them at all. You will end up exercising bad mixing habits.
If you ask great mixing engineers, they will tell you that, minimal changes in the equalization of the vocals works wonders in how the vocals are placed in the song.
Always keep in mind that the sheen lies between a range of 2k to 6k for both male and female vocals. The real trick is finding these and pushing them higher to make the vocals sound even more majestic. Once again, less is more.
Finding the high-end boost
Next we need to deal with the concept of High-end boost, also referred to as adding air to the vocals by professional mixing engineers. Whenever someone in a studio mentions that they want you to add more air to the vocals, they are asking you to boost the frequencies above 14k.
Adding air is also called adding presence to the mix, since the high end constitutes most of the sheen frequencies in a vocal.
One challenge faced in this process of equalizing a vocal is the ability to go through the complete frequency spectrum, in order to find where you can start to add presence or air.
This is where your experience as a producer or mixing engineer comes into play. Without sufficient knowledge of music production, one could mistakenly boost the frequencies above 15k.
A blanket template of boosting frequencies above a certain range cannot be followed for all the vocals. If a female vocal has more sheen, say roughly 17k, yet you are boosting from 14k, you will end up making the vocal sound harsh.
A harsh vocal is the last thing a mixing engineer would want in a song. Harsh vocals don’t sit well in the mix of the overall song.
You have to be very careful with how much you apply to air or presence as well as where you start applying sheen or air. Vocals are the most delicate part of a song and have to be shown more care when they are equalized, and it all starts with adding proper presence to the vocals.
One of the best ways to check this is by having a reference track and comparing your vocals to that. You will learn how far you are in your journey to getting your vocals to that professional level. Having this gauge over your progress of equalizing a vocal will ensure you don’t make mistakes.
Cleaning the mid-range
Whenever a mixing engineer tells you that the vocal don’t have proper body, they are referring to the mid-range frequencies starting from 700Hz to 3kHz. This frequency range has a lot of detail compared to both the lower end and high-end air frequencies.
You don’t tend to lose words when you make corrections in the lower and higher-end air frequencies. This is not the case when it comes to the mid-range.
Mid-range frequencies hold all the song information. The core of the vocal lies in the mid-range. If precision is needed for a song, then the mid-range of a vocal needs it the most.
When cleaning up a vocal to make it sound good through equalization, you are trying to eliminate frequencies that are not desirable.
Cleaning up the mid-range is the biggest challenge for any mixing engineer, as you are deep in the spectrum to find frequencies that do not hold information that adds value to the song.
If experience is needed to equalize low end and air frequencies, you need an extremely well trained ear to equalize the mid-range frequencies.
The best way to start equalizing mid-range frequencies is by working with a bell curve in the equalizer within audio production software. Moving with the bell curve from the left side of the frequency spectrum to the right side, until you reach 3 kHz will give you the areas where you have to make improvements.
When you start to work with mid-range frequencies always make small corrections and avoid cutting too much. Even boosting too much in the mid-range can completely change the way a vocal sounds. As mentioned before less is more.
Using multi-band equalization
Multiband equalization is a new type of equalization that was implemented by producers and mixing engineers from the 2000s. In this type of equalization, two things are combined. The combination of compression along with equalization was brought together and was established to analyze and also equalize specific regions of a frequency spectrum in a vocal.
One of the important aspects of a multiband equalizer is the ability to isolate the specific frequency in a range of frequencies. To put this in simpler words, you can isolate and compress 2 k to 3 kHz and at the same time boost 2340Hz to 3db. This was a big change from how the equalization of vocals was done, using hardware by professional engineers.
The use of these digital techniques made the way for more creative use of vocals in songs. Nowadays you can find vocals being used as instruments in songs. This was made possible by multi-band equalization techniques.
This technique is used in the same as how one would use an equalizer. Except that you would be doing all the processes in a single step along with compression. This has been a game-changer in the music industry.
Equalizers that are used by music producers
Understanding and knowing how to use these techniques can only take you so far. Putting these to use is where you demonstrate your skills for the benefit of the artist.
This happens in audio production software. Two important tools are usually used by music producers to carry out equalization, namely pro-Q3 and wave equalizers.
From the start of the digital era of mixing and mastering, pro-q3 has been the standard for vocal equalization. It makes the process of equalization much easier when compared to manual hardware operations.
Understanding their capabilities and functions is where one starts to get into equalization of vocals. Let’s look at them one by one.
Pro-q3 is one of the products of the company fabfilter. It’s made to enhance the sound of the vocals by helping the mixing engineer to equalize the vocals properly to the point.
These visual equalizers make your life much easier when compared to the other hardware equalizers which you might find in the market and being used in studios for decades.
You have access to so many filter shapes in pro-q3 which you won’t find in other hardware equipment for equalization. These filters have ready set pre-sets that can guide your first steps in equalization. They help you get started easily. You can always modify them as you gain more experience in working with pro-q3.
Pro-q3 offers more flexibility to work around various filters and adjust to the minute level as well. You will not find any other equalizer which can give you the keynotes of each frequency in a vocal frequency spectrum. Pro-q3 offers that to you.
The gain knobs in pro-q3 are very helpful in determining how much you need to boost or reduce by analyzing the audio.
Pro q3 offers you various bandpass features that allow you to pick and work with every single frequency and make changes based on your needs, some of them include,
- Bell, Notch, Bandpass – Solos audio on either side of the frequency according to the Q.
- High and Low cut – solos the audio above/below the cut-off value provided.
- High and Low Shelf – Solos audio being boosted or cut based on the Q value.
- Tilt and Tilt Shelf – no additional effect is added, the curve is boosted.
The piano grab and spectrum analyzer are two important functions that you wouldn’t even imagine having in an equalizer if you have had any experience with analog equalizers. This digital spectrum analyzer makes your experience of equalization very precise.
The piano grab function allows you to find which scale each frequency from your vocal is hitting, so that you can make adjustments according to that. To do these over the last decade, you would require a trained professional. Technology has made it easier for us to identify the scales pretty easily.
You will not find these in any other analog equalizer that is in the market.
Wave’s equalizer is almost similar to pro q3 in terms of its functionality but offers a different user interface. They are both similar in their workflow, but offer different user interfaces. Wave’s equalizer is meant to emulate analog equalizers and has a little modern touch to it.
Wave’s equalizer is loved by people who have experience with analog gear in the music recording studio.
Wave’s equalizer has so many things to offer in terms of the ability to work with and integrate with analog gear in the studio. This makes the transition from the analog world to the digital audio world much easier when compared to working with pro-q3.
The wave’s equalizer is known for its ability to cut and boost frequencies at the same time thus creating a resonant shelf. These resonant shelves give unique saturation to the vocals. This is one of the reasons why wave’s equalizers are preferred by production engineers more.
The wave’s equalizer is modeled around the rare vintage Pultec EQs. These are used by musicians such as lady gaga and the rolling stones in their records.
The beauty and limitation of analog gear are that they all have physical limitations. This is eliminated by software versions of these production vocal equalizers.
The most important thing to know about the wave’s equalizer is transparency. You will hear every frequency in the vocal spectrum with precision. The presence and air addition in the waves are still unmatched by most production equalizes.
The best option to use, if you don’t have access to waves and pro q3 is the stock equalizer that comes along with your audio production software. These may not have many fancy functions are sufficient in helping you start your career in vocal equalization and mixing.
These have the basic functions starting from all the filter options as well as gain knobs. You cannot expect to have the piano grab in these equalizers. They are simple but will get the job done properly.
Based on the audio production software they can also do multiple functions other than equalization like multi-band equalization.
How do you EQ your voice?
Voice equalization is completely different from equalizing a song. Equalizing a voice starts with eliminating the low-end rumble and adding presence to the frequency spectrum. The mid-range should not be touched at all for all voice, speech, and video recordings.
What EQ frequency are vocals?
The overall vocal frequency is between 110 Hz to 18 kHz. The male frequency range is between 110 Hz to 14 kHz whereas the female range is between 300 Hz to 18 kHz. The frequency range is just a ballpark where the values would lie and would change from person to person.
How do you mix your vocals properly?
Mixing vocals properly requires precision, experience, and knowledge of how the frequency spectrum of an audio track works. Years of ear training can certainly help to mix vocals. Using reference tracks is a better approach for beginners.
Where should vocals sit in a mix?
The vocals should sit in the front of the mix at the center. One easy way to have your vocals at the center is to add a mono bus in your audio production software and route a signal to it.
This makes sure that even if you have made the vocal extra wide, you will have power at the center through the mono mix.
Should vocals be panned?
Yes, based on the number of background vocals, you have to pan the vocals to make space for each other. This can be visualized by how singers are spaced out on a stage. The main singer always takes the center. The background vocals should be panned left or right.
Vocals are an important part of a song. Without having proper vocals you will never be able to convey the message to the listener. Properly equalized vocals make the song stand out from all other songs.
This is one of the reasons why record labels spend so much time getting the vocals right in the studio.
Following the above steps, will be your gateway to get into mixing and equalizing vocals for songs. Every genre requires different types of vocal equalization which you must teach yourself through experience.
As said in the article, always keep the changes minimal and experiment.