Ultimate Guide: How to EQ Vocals for Beginners
Learn how to EQ vocals by gaining a better understanding of vocal frequencies, analyzing vocal recordings, and discovering the best EQ settings for vocals.
How to EQ vocals
Apart from creating an impactful musical mix by way of level balancing and panning, EQ is our next most powerful tool. Unlike level which allows us to increase or decrease the volume of an entire signal, EQ settings for vocals allow us to increase or decrease the volume of specific frequency ranges within a signal, allowing us to change its overall tonal character.
With EQ we can make a vocal darker or brighter, smoother or more crisp, dull or sparkly, light and airy, or any other creative characteristic you can think of.
In the following steps we will process the verse of our original audio example, which consists of a male vocal in the key of D maj.
1. Remove unwanted low end (1 Hz–100 Hz)
What lives below 80 Hz in a vocal recording is most often low frequency room rumble, microphone handling noise, microphone bleed from unintended sources, or inherent equipment noise.
It may not always be audible, but if left unchecked, any audio information within this frequency range can build up when combined with other signals, potentially muddying up the low end of your entire mix or even diminishing the overall headroom of your master bus.
For this reason, when working with a vocal, the very first thing I do is engage a HPF (High pass filter) with a steep slope (Q) and remove everything from anywhere between 50–100 Hz and below.
To find the correct frequency, a good rule of thumb is to engage a HPF starting at 20 Hz. slowly move it up the frequency spectrum until it begins affecting the vocal, then back it off just a bit.
For our example recording I have set the HPF to 90Hz with a slope (Q) of 48 dB per octave.
Removing Unwanted Low End
As very little of the vocal lives below 90 Hz, the difference will be extremely subtle. It is more likely that you notice the low end of the kick drum is now ever so slightly more focused without the masking of any low frequency rumble in the vocal recording that may have been conflicting with it. Again, it may not sound like much, but when you have multiple layers of vocal doubles, triples, harmonies, etc. it can add up.
2. Balance body and warmth (100 Hz–400 Hz)
The fundamental frequencies of a vocal are typically found between 100 and 400 Hz. This is where the main body and warmth of a vocal lives.
Too much of this frequency range and the vocal will sound boomy, lack clarity and potentially muddy up the low end of your mix. Too little of this frequency range and the vocal will sound thin and weak.
In our example, the recording is a touch boomy in the 100–400 Hz frequency range.
Referring to our analysis from earlier, we know that any frequencies, within this range, that represent the notes, D, F#, or A, are potential frequencies to boost or cut. However, we must also use our ears.
To find any overly resonant or troublesome frequencies, a common technique is the “boost and sweep” method. This is done by boosting any frequency using a “bell filter,” typically with a medium to tight Q, and then sweeping it across the frequency spectrum until the overly resonant or troublesome frequency reveals itself.
Once discovered, make an EQ cut at that frequency.
With Neutron’s EQ you also have the option to “solo” any frequency.
By using this method, I found the most resonance was centered at 185 Hz and 370 Hz, so I made my cuts here. I set the Q a bit wide in this instance to reduce some additional frequencies both above and below 185 Hz.
Balancing Body and Warmth
This should be immediately noticeable. The vocal is still warm, not thin, and overall more clear and less boomy.
3. Remove hollow or boxy frequencies (400 Hz–800 Hz)
A great deal of vocal character resides in the frequency range of 400 Hz–800 Hz.
Too much of this frequency range will accentuate the throatiness of a vocal causing it to sound papery or boxy. Too little of this frequency range and the vocal can sound hollow and unnatural.
Again, using the “boost and sweep” method I found a bit of an unwanted “papery" resonance at 657 Hz and made a very small cut.
Removing Papery Resonances
Again, this is a very subtle change, but with this cut, the vocal is a bit less papery and sounds a touch more natural.
4. Remove unwanted resonances in the nasal cavity (800 Hz–1.5 kHz)
The mid range of a vocal from 800 Hz–1.5 kHz, (sometimes a bit higher depending on the singer), is where the human nasal cavity resonates the most.
Too much of this frequency range can cause a vocal to sound a bit honky or nasally.
If there is any unwanted resonance in this area, it often has less to do with the key or melody of the song. It more often depends on the size and shape of an individual vocalists' physical nasal cavity. For this reason, the “boost and sweep” method is very helpful here.
It should also be mentioned that the frequency of the nasal resonance, once discovered, is fairly constant. Using a tighter Q in order to avoid reducing too many frequencies above and below the center frequency is common.
In our example I found the majority of the nasal resonance to be at 931 Hz.
Removing Unwanted Nasal Resonance
Again, much like our previous cut at 657 Hz, the difference is subtle, but offers a similar result. The vocal should now sound a bit less stuffy, less nasally, and more natural.
5. Improve presence and intelligibility (1.5 kHz–5 kHz)
Although the range of human hearing is from 20 Hz–20 kHz, our ears are most sensitive to frequencies in the range of 2 kHz–5 kHz. This also happens to be the frequency range in which human speech is most intelligible. For this reason, any EQ applied to this area of the frequency spectrum should be handled carefully. Making small boosts or cuts in this area, no more than 1 or 2 dB is common.
Too much in this frequency range and the vocal quickly becomes harsh and aggressive.
Too little in this frequency range and the vocal can sound flat or muffled.
Improving Presence and Intelligibility
After making a small cut at 3,577 Hz, you may notice that the vocal now sounds slightly more dull. Although this may seem counter intuitive, it is actually by design. This will allow me to boost and brighten up the vocal later in the 8 kHz to 12 kHz. I prefer to brighten up a vocal in the 8 kHz to 12 kHz range more so than the 1.5 kHz to 5 kHz range as it leads to a smoother and less harsh sounding vocal.
6. Address sibilance (5 kHz–8 kHz)
Be aware that the bright resonance of “S’s” and “T’s” in a vocal performance, referred to as “sibilance,” is most prominent in the frequency range of 5 kHz to 8 kHz. By boosting EQ in this area, you will increase this sibilance. However if you feel the vocal is too dark and can benefit from a boost in this area, then you should do so. This should not be a deterrent, as sibilance can be dealt with in other ways.
Although sibilance can be softened by cutting frequencies using EQ, doing so can leave the rest of the vocal performance sounding dull and lifeless.
For this reason sibilance is better dealt with by manual editing of the waveform itself, or by using a de-esser. I will demonstrate this in the last step of this article.
In our example I have decided to leave this frequency range alone. I do not think anything is needed here.
7. Add sparkle (8 kHz–12 kHz)
As we enter into the frequency range of 8 kHz and above we find a bit more brilliance and sparkle in a vocal. As I mentioned in a previous step, I find that by cutting a bit of the harshness between 2 kHz and 5 kHz, and contrasting that with a small boost somewhere between 8 kHz and 12 kHz, brings back any of the lost brightness without any of the harshness.
In our example I have boosted 9,357 Hz by about 1.5 dB with a fairly wide Q.
You may notice that by doing so I have also increased some sibilance in the vocal. Again, this we will deal with later with the use of a de-esser.
8. Pay attention to airiness (12 kHz–20 kHz)
The last frequency range I consider when working with a vocal is from 12 kHz and above. Although there is not very much tonal information in this area, boosting just a bit in this upper frequency range can help a vocal to feel more open and exciting.
For this purpose I prefer to use a different EQ to add a touch more character. Ozone Vintage EQ is excellent for this as it is modeled after vintage analog equipment.
If the original recording is dark, I typically boost with a “high shelf” from 12 kHz and up. If the original recording is already fairly bright, I typically boost with a “high shelf” from 16 kHz and up. In the case of our example, which is quite dark, so I chose to boost by about 3 dB with a “high shelf” starting at 12 kHz.
The difference will be subtle, but you should hear the vocal open up just a bit and be slightly less muffled.
Much like in the previous step, this extra boost in the high end may induce a bit more sibilance, but in the final step we will add a de-esser to compensate for this.
Adding Character to High Frequencies
9. De-ess the vocal
iZotope Nectar has an excellent De-esser module. I set the frequency range to start at 4.4 kHz and adjusted the threshold until I heard the S’s and T’s reduce to a level that I felt sounded most natural.
It is important to not over de-ess. When this happens it creates a lisp sounding vocal and a lack of intelligibility on certain words.
De-essing the Vocal
Final results of vocal EQ
Now that we have assessed our recording, completely examined our vocal across the entire frequency spectrum from 20 HZ to 20 kHz and applied EQ using iZotope Neutron, let’s take one more listen and compare the original to our final product.
In these final listening examples I have brought the level of the vocal down a bit so it sits better within the mix and also added a touch of reverb.
Start using vocal EQ
We have covered a lot of information in this article, however, it bears repeating, that when applying EQ to a vocal, or any instrument for that matter, there is no one size fits all solution.
In this exercise we looked at a male vocal recording of a song in the key of D maj with an overall melody range of D3 to D4. The song that you work on may involve a female vocalist performing in a different key with a wider melodic range. This will certainly change what frequencies you choose to boost or cut, however, the concepts and the techniques will remain the same, and with practice and repetition you will quickly train your ears to hear many of the minute subtleties that at first might escape you.
Finally, always remember, no one mixes in a vacuum. Do not underestimate the power and importance of a good reference track!