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.
It is fair to say that although similar, no two of the same instruments are exactly alike. The human voice in particular is as unique from singer to singer as are snowflakes or fingerprints. For this reason, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for how to shape a vocal with EQ. However, there are some general concepts and tried and true techniques that will get you moving in the right direction and, with a bit of practice, set you on the road to success.
In this article I will highlight important considerations when assessing a vocal recording and guide you through my processes of how to EQ vocals step-by-step to get these results:
Follow along using a free demo of iZotope
Pitch and fundamental vocal frequency range
Before we dive into vocal equalization, it is important to first understand a bit about the human voice and where it lives within the audible frequency spectrum, which for humans, is 20 Hz to 20 kHz.
There are six vocal types, based on range, as defined in classical music. These fall into the categories of bass, bariton, tenor, alto, mezzo-soprano and soprano.
The following chart illustrates the fundamental frequency ranges of each of these vocal types in relation to relative note pitch.
The fundamental frequency of any pitch can also be referred to as the 1st harmonic. If only this frequency were to be generated, it would sound as a pure sine wave.
440 Hz Sine Wave
However, the human voice is far more complex than this. The resulting timbre (tonal character) that we recognize as a vocal is a combination of the fundamental frequency and all of its upper frequency harmonics and overtones. Manipulating the amplitude of these upper harmonics and overtones with equalization (EQ) is what allows us to shape, or re-shape the overall tonal characteristic of a recorded vocal.
Analyze a vocal recording: key, melody, and harmonics
When assessing a vocal recording, knowing the key of the song and the note range of the sung melody can help to inform us of certain frequencies that may be more resonant, or simply more musical, within the context of a composition.
Here is a brief sample of a verse, a chorus and a refrain from a song with a male lead vocal.
Male Vocal, No EQ Applied
If we analyze this bit of music we find the following:
The song key is D major and the tonic note is “D."
Vocal melodic range by section is like so:
If we know that the tonic note of the song is “D,” then we know that any frequency representing any octave of the note “D” will likely be prominent in the vocal recording.
Additionally, if we look at the 3rd and 5th harmonics of the note, “D3,” which is the lowest not of the melody, we see the emergence of a perfect 5th and a major 3rd, which in the key of Dmaj, are “A” and “F#” respectively.
This tells us that any frequency that represents any octave of the notes, “A” and “F#,” may also be prominent in the vocal recording.
1st harmonic (fundamental) = D3, 147 Hz (tonic)
2nd harmonic = D4, 294 Hz (1st octave)
3rd harmonic = A4, 440 Hz (perfect 5th, plus 1 octave)
4th harmonic = D5, 587 Hz (2nd octave)
5th harmonic = F#5, 740 Hz (major 3rd, plus 2 octaves)
In short, this means that any frequency representing the tonic, the major 3rd, or the perfect 5th of the key has potential frequencies for boosting or cutting.
I am able to demonstrate this visually by using the spectrum analyzer in iZotope Neutron’s EQ module and capturing a screenshot of the note “D3,” as it is being sung.
To find the frequency of any note in the range of 20 Hz–20 kHz, I have created a chart for quick and easy reference.
Neutron EQ not only shows you the frequency that you are currently boosting or cutting, but it also shows you that frequency's relative note pitch.
Tonal characteristics in relation to the human voice
Now that we’ve gone over using song key, melody and pitch to find potential resonant or musical frequencies within a vocal recording, let’s take a look at how different frequencies affect a vocal’s tone.
In the chart below I have categorized certain frequency ranges by their tonal characteristics in relation to the human voice in an EQ vocal chart.
I have also added all of the frequencies that represent the 1st harmonic, the 3rd harmonic, and the 5th harmonic of the key of Dmaj, which is the key of our audio example. In doing so I have essentially created an EQ vocal cheat sheet.
Remember, the use of this technique to pinpoint specific frequencies is only a guide. Every voice is different, every recording is different, and every objective is different.
However, the ability to analyze a piece of music in this way, when combined with the, “boost and sweep” method (which I will explain later on), and having a good listening environment, is a very powerful place to start.
Let’s get to it!