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How to EQ a Pop Vocal

by Erin Barra, iZotope Contributor May 12, 2020
A vocalist singing on stage
Get ready for those vocals to pop

Let your vocals cut through the mix:

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Pop vocals tend to have the same sort of sound when they hit our ears. People use words like bright, shiny, crisp, and airy to describe them, and you can hear this sound on loads of tracks at the top of charts across genres. Let’s take a look at how to achieve that same sound and make a vocal POP right out of your mix.

In this article, we’ll talk about how to EQ a pop vocal to set yourself up for success later in mixing.

Eliminate unnecessary lows with a high-pass filter

In order to get that airy, light sound, the first step is to eliminate unnecessary activity in the very low end.

Using a high-pass filter with a high Q or slope, filter out everything below around 100 Hz for a male vocal, or 150 Hz for a female vocal. These are not hard rules, just guidelines to get you started. Just make sure that you’re not cutting above the fundamental frequency of any note, and that you still give the lowest note some room to breath.

In a vocal, these low frequencies are usually mostly ambient room noise, electronic hum, and the sound of the singer’s proximity to the mic on plosives—"p" and "b" sounds, which will even happen if you use a pop filter. You likely won’t miss the sound of all those unnecessary low frequencies or even hear a huge shift, but this lightens things up and removes unnecessary energy from the vocal.

This unnecessary energy can actually also cause us issues later in the effects chain. If we kept this low-end content in the vocal and ran it into a compressor, the signal would have more level and cross the threshold at a lower level than it would without this low end. The compressor would therefore be reacting to audio content that we don’t actually want in the final vocal, and not compressing the vocal like we’d want it to do.

Cutting out this extreme low end isn’t something that’s specific to vocals. Eliminating unwanted noise and energy is applicable for virtually any kind of mix element.

Using a high-pass filter in Nectar 3's EQ
A high-pass filter cutting out rumble, noise, and proximity

Add brightness with a high-shelf filter

The next step is to brighten up the high end with a high-shelf filter. Everyone’s voice has a differing amount of brightness and you’ll have to make an informed decision about what’s right for the vocal you’re working on. People who have airy, breathy vocals might not need much of a boost at all, while others with a rounder, darker tone might require a significant boost.

Halsey, Ellie Goulding, and Ariana Grande all have voices with a lot of breath, whereas Celine Dion, Lady Gaga, and James Blake have more pure tone and body in their voices. Knowing where to set this high shelf is the real trick, but here’s a tip to get you on the right track: 

It’s often easier to hear that something sounds wrong than to see that it’s wrong on an EQ. To make sure a guitar is in tune—without a tuner—we first pull it out of tune and then bring it back towards the pitch center. You can do the same thing with this high shelf band, boosting it until the vocal becomes too bright, and then pulling it back until you start to miss that brightness. Then you know you’re close to where you need to be.

Using a high-shelf filter in Nectar 3's EQ
Boosting the highs to get that shimmer and shine

Attenuate resonance with bell filters

A pop vocal needs to be especially smooth, with any resonances being controlled or turned down. This isn’t true for all vocals; a jazz vocal often has more nuance and resonance than a pop vocal to stay more “natural” sounding, and sometimes to emulate traditional instruments like horns.

Pop, on the other hand, is defined more by its brightness than its mid range. To achieve that balance, you need to identify and attenuate resonant frequencies in the vocal.    

Resonant frequencies are points and ranges in the voice where there’s an abundance of energy. We would use words like "nasal," "metallic," and "brassy" to describe them. Each voice has a different amount of resonance in different areas of the frequency spectrum. Resonances can also depend greatly on which mic is used, the range of the song relative to the person that’s singing it, the time of day, the specific performance, and plenty of other factors. In order to eliminate resonances, you can use a technique called ‘peak and sweep.’ 

Take a bell filter, set the Q parameter as high as possible to limit the range, boost the gain as much as possible, and then sweep across the frequency spectrum while the vocal is running. Listen until you hear something that makes you want to cover your ears. Once you’ve identified where that resonance is and how wide the range is, you can then attenuate and widen the band accordingly. 

Nectar 3 has a feature called Follow EQ that locks onto a harmonic in a signal—like these resonant frequencies—and follows it as the harmonic moves up, down, and all around. Additionally, there is a band solo function which will allow you to isolate whatever is passing through any selected band, which can make identifying resonance even easier.

Using bell filters on Nectar 3's EQ to reduce resonances
Two bell filters removing unwanted resonance

Boost presence and warmth with bell filters

The last piece of EQing a pop vocal, and the hardest to pull off, is to boost the ranges in a vocal that create more presence and warmth. Again, this will differ for every voice you encounter, but there are a few rules of thumb to get you going on where to sniff around:

  • These ranges tend to be in the mid range, between 1–6 kHz.
  • If a vocal is feeling thin, a boost between 200–300 Hz can work well.
  • Watch out around 4–9 kHz, where sibilance tends to hide out and sound harsh. Boosting here can potentially cause those sibilant sounds to come out more.

Knowing where to boost is a lot more difficult than knowing where to cut, and requires more refined critical listening skills. The more vocals you mix, the easier this will become.

Conclusion: shine bright like a diamond 

And with that, your pop vocal is shined up nicely and ready for the next steps in a vocal chain: compression, de-essing, and maybe a bit of reverb. Check out some more vocal mixing tips in the articles below.

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