Equalizer Settings for Mixing Vocals
The singer still tends to be the most important element of a modern pop song, sorry bass players.
Anyone who's ever mixed a record will know how difficult it can be to get a great sounding vocal when it’s surrounded by 50 other tracks in the mix.
In this tutorial Fab Dupont gives you all the principles of EQing vocals. He explains his techniques and gives you 3 fascinating examples of how to get pro sounding vocals.
He’ll show you how to:
- Make precise and gentle moves with EQ
- Remove whollyness and extra fat
- Fix resonances, notching out offensive frequencies
- Dial in a neutral sound on both male and female vocal sounds
- Balance functionality and feeling while EQing
The downloadable exercise files contain the instrumental tracks and the vocal tracks Fab used in this video, download them and EQ them yourself.
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Once logged in, you will be able to click on those chapter titles and jump around in the video.
- 00:00 - Start
- 00:54 - Fixing Example #1
- 08:54 - Fixing Example #2
- 12:29 - Frequency Range
- 18:14 - Fixing Example #3
- 22:47 - Enhancing EQ
- 26:27 - Summary
Good morning children! We're going to talk about vocal equalization.
In modern music, the vocal tends to be the most important thing except for some instrumental records, but that's a different story.
If you think about it, very few people buy the record for the triangle part which is sad for triangle players, but really nice for singers.
The beauty of the whole thing is that you already know what your vocal should sound like because you are already listening to people talk around you all day long.
The difficult part is that everybody knows what your vocal should sound like because everybody is listening to other people talk all day long, and so...
any artifact introduced by the recording process, by the microphone by the placement, by the EQ'ing, will bother the listener.
So let's look at ways to go around that problem! Here's a good way to think about it: First, fix everything that's obviously wrong based on your reference of what it should sound like and also, mistakes: bleed, by the microphone, by the preamp proximity.
Then, once you have that, enhance it to match the track or the style.
I'm gonna look at 3 different vocals and see if they need fixing.
This is a Will Knox vocal. It's recorded live with the whole band, he's playing guitar and singing at the same time.
We had to put the microphone close to his mouth for separation that gives us proximity effect, probably a little too fat.
I'm gonna play it. Listen carefuly.
Do you like how close it feels? Is it a little wooly? Does it lack some high end? Does the guitar bother you? Check it out! So we got pretty good separation, but it's pretty wooly and round.
Now, if you listen to it in the track, you see a real problem.
Sounds like cotton, right? To fix stuff, it's probably best to use a clean EQ without too much character that just is precise, transparent, and doesn't stand in the way so you can focus on the problem, not the sound of the EQ.
I use the Oxford here. First I'm going to high pass the bottom for foot stomps and whatever bleeds from the bass drum, or anything else...
as far as choosing filter curves. How do you think about that? 6, 12, 24, 36? Here's how I think about it: I like gentle curves, because they're... gentle! I tend to use 12dB/octave, it's a good compromise between getting rid of the stuff without being Attila on my track. And it sounds like this...
When I bypass the EQ on and off with a filter that low, it doesn't touch the bottom of the vocal.
That's a good thing, that gives me room to go up a little higher until I start touching the bottom of the vocal, then I'll back off a little.
Check it out.
I'm taking a little bit of the bottom of the vocal there.
I like that, it's kind of transparent, it doesn't sound EQ to me.
I'm content with that.
I hear a resonance on that "Round and round..." I don't like that sound because it kinda sticks out and with the track, it's too much. Let me play it for you...
Right? It's wooly. I'll play it again.
It feels like the vocal is kind of like disconnected from the track.
If I remove that "Round and round" thing resonance there maybe the vocal will sit better in the track. Check it out! I'm gonna look for it...
That! That's too much. I'm going to remove a little bit of that, say a couple of dBs.
You don't want to make big notches, unless it's really badly recorded because they'll show, and the whole point here is to make something transparent.
So, -2dBs, at 180Hz, it sounds like this...
As a reference, it was like this before...
I'm gonna play it again without.
Check out the difference in the resonance and the bounciness of the vocal.
I feel that if I don't correct that, the vocal bounces and kind of sticks out in an unpleasant, unnatural way.
But removing 2dBs at 180Hz puts it a little flatter, it's not as fat...
Do we need it to be that fat? We have to listen to in the track to find out.
I think this is going to work. So this is without the correction...
And this is with...
While it feels like it's a level thing going on, it's really not.
It's just that one frequency being in the way.
It probably would be a horrible idea to use a compressor there.
The whole point is to notch out the little problems with the EQ so you can use less compression.
I still hear something in there that bothers me that's a little too thick to sit in the track.
I'm gonna use the mid-range EQ right here.
That! I had the privilege of being in the room with him when we were rehearsing and I know his voice is not like that. That's my reference.
I'm going to remove a little bit of that and try to get back to that spot.
Maybe like a dB or so...
Now, it may seem subtle, but...
that's the difference between "sit in the track" and "does not sit in the track".
Side note: one has to be careful when doing this, because...
the s's are starting to come out. Why is that? If you remove stuff from the bottom, the high end will become more important.
So the balance is difficult. You've gotta be careful.
Let's listen to it in the track. First, without anything, then with the corrections.
When I'm gonna play it with corrections, I'm gonna raise the fader like a dB...
to compensate for the loss of energy we have created by removing some frequencies.
Not cheating, just listening at the same level. Here we go.
We've heard this one before. And now... with the corrections.
Now the vocal seems to sit in the track. Why? Because the bottom of the vocal is no longer fighting with the guitar the bottom of the violin, and all these things that were in the way before.
I'll do that again. So I'm gonna go back to... without.
These kinds of corrections are not gonna change the course of modern music we're talking 2dBs here, 1.9dB here, and a little bit of filtering but it makes a world of difference.
You won't have to torture the track or the vocal into liking each other they are kind of carved for each other at this point.
Let's switch to a different vocalist, let's go for a female vocalist.
This is Sara Lieb also recorded here, she's a great vocalist, we'll start with a good basis.
Great vocalists tend to get great sounds, so we're lucky. But still... check it out! That sounds great, but I still hear a couple of little problems.
When she goes "In my arms...", there's a little bit of a nose there.
When she says "You...", you can hear her getting a little close to the capsule.
I hear a little bit of an unnatural sound. Check it out.
You heard that, right? First I'm gonna high-pass this because I'm paranoid, but that's ok...
I'm gonna look for the spot, that I can, you know, how far can I push it up? I'll do this... here we go.
Check this out: this is without...
The filter already helps with the burst of energy on "In my arms..." Now I'm gonna look for "You..." Check it out! Yeah, in the 300 range...
That! I don't like that. So I'm gonna get rid of this.
Probably 2dBs, just to see how it feels.
Much better... Without...
Not bad! What is it doing for me since the beginning of the track? Let's listen.
Still a little more, maybe? Tiny bit more? Like this, a little higher...
As a reminder, this is what it sounded like.
A little more angular, and more stuff sticking out... With...
As a reminder, let's listen to it in the track, without the EQ.
It's rubbing. It's not drastic, but it's rubbing.
Again, with the EQ.
That works better for me.
It's not night and day, but it should not be! We're just trying to make things balanced.
This EQ on this vocal allows them to be on the same planet which is always a good start for a mix.
I'd like to give you some basic idea of the frequency range.
There's no real set in stone, because everything changes with keys, vocalists and different rooms, but some basic stuff tend to come back all the time.
Between 20Hz and 100Hz, you probably will never have much there except if you're dealing with Barry White, but he's dead, so you probably won't.
So it's safe to high-pass that.
We've briefly discussed the choice of filter curves earlier in this video.
Start at 12.
But if you have an air conditioner and it's fairly higher because it's a big model and it's right there under where the vocal is starting, feel free to use 36dB/octave preferably on a good EQ, so you don't make a mess, and get rid of it.
You always have to listen to what you're doing, don't just blindly high-pass it.
But there is pretty much the safe zone to get rid of garbage.
100Hz is where you have to start paying attention.
On male vocalists, in small rooms, you may find some resonances.
Or, a very deeply miked female vocal with lots of room sound might have some resonance down there. So you wanna be careful.
If something in your vocal is fighting with the bottom of your guitar or the top of your bass, look in that area, and gently notch it out with an EQ.
Between 180 and 240, it tends to be hell for close-miked singers it sounds like cardboard, it sounds woofy, it's really annoying.
I usually go there first, especially for male vocalists.
That same tone tends to translate towards the 300's for female vocalists.
Well, they're higher pitched, right? So if your vocal feels a little muffled, wooly or cottony instead of reaching for the high end first, actually go down there, look there and notch that out a little bit, and see how that feels.
Then, in the 500 area, that's where the nose sits for a lot of people.
If your singer has a cold, if you notch out 500, you might be happier.
Be gentle though... 1 or 2dBs, fairly wide Q will do the trick.
This area shows blatantly when it's being dealt with.
The 600 to 1600 is that medium range that tends to be fine in most recordings.
I don't know why, maybe the problems lie in the extremities as always, but...
it becomes interesting again between 1600 and 2200-2300 If your vocal is a little dull, lacks presence...
you know when the vocal really kind of jumps at you, if you don't get that try boosting a little bit around 2k.
Raising a couple dBs at 2k, just a couple dBs, can do magic in helping to pull a vocal in front of a very busy mix. Don't abuse it though.
Now, is it exactly 2k? No. You have to look around for the key of your song and the resonance of your singer.
But that's the range. I'd say 1800 to 2200.
The 2200-3500 area is a tough area because that's where a lot of the digital sound is.
All that screechy stuff that makes you squint your eyes when you listen to the vocal...
...sits there, because a lot of converters have problems there for very complicated reasons that we'll explain elsewhere.
You have to watch your 25 to 35.
If you're listening to your vocal and everything's fine, and some notches...
screech at you, like really sharp, really fast and hurt your eyes, or hurt your teeth when you listen to them...
that usually lives 2500 to 3500.
Unfortunately, it's a very difficult problem to deal with, because...
it's not just blatantly too much 3.5k.
It's just: in those particular moments it's too much 3.5k.
The solution is either to automate an EQ just on those notes that bother you or use a dynamic EQ like the Sonnox Supresser or, use a side-chain on a compressor, which we'll show you in a different video.
But there, 2500 to 3500, even up to 4k that's where the nosebleed area is.
Above that, there's that really interesting spot around 5k.
5k is the "hhaaa" thing.
I find that when most vocalists are recorded too close.
All that nice resonance in the top of the head is gone because the microphone is overwhelmed with all the bottom from the proximity effect.
Hightening 5k-ish, it could be 5.5, it could be 4.8, depending on the singer that, there, is really nice to open up the top of a vocal.
Above there, 6-7-8k, is a dangerous area, because the s's live there.
Most of the time, unless you have a blatant problem, it's better left alone.
If you do have a lot of s's up there and it's a problem it's very unlikely you'll be able to fix it with an EQ...
unless you're willing to automate the EQ, s by s or even automate the level of the s's, one by one as we show you in the De-esser video.
That's why they make De-essers. Look at the De-esser video make your selection, at any time.
9-10-11k, most people call that area...
treble, whatever that means, I call it brightness.
For a dull vocal, that's where you're gonna go look for it, without ruining your s's your 5k kind-of-like shine, and then your presence at 2k.
Anything above that qualifies as "air", it's not really perceived as...
brightness, it's more like space above your head as if the vocal went all the way up to the sky, which is a nice sound.
If it's properly recorded, it's fun to play up there.
As always, be gentle... don't abuse the force! If you find yourself whishing 10dBs at 14k shelf, just to make a vocal listenable you're either screwing up elsewhere, or in dire need of re-recording that vocal.
It happens to the best of us...
That's one way to think about the frequency range based on function and feelings which are both crucial in my opinion, if you're making music.
Let's use these ideas to fix and enhance a new vocal.
So this is a Chester Gregory vocal.
First we're gonna listen to it flat, then we're gonna fix it then we're gonna enhance it. First, flat. Solo.
So we hear the same kind of bouncy like "looking better" that bouncy thing where the room impresses the capsule in a way that's unnatural.
The first thing I'm gonna do, of course you guessed it because you're paying attention, is I'm gonna high-pass this.
We've said that up to 100Hz it's safe, let's make sure...
I don't hear much of a difference let me go higher, see how far I can get away with...
As a reference, we started here...
I think the filter helps a little bit that high. Listen again.
It takes care of most of my problems. Maybe a little more mid-range... honk.
Like, in the 200 range...
As we discussed, that 180 to 240 area, that's kind of annoying. This.
That! I'm gonna remove it.
Maybe a little less, even...
little less meaning "remove more".
That sounds good. As a reference...
Feels more present, but don't forget to compensate for the level loss because you're removing something. So I'm gonna give it a couple of dB gain.
Here we go.
Again, it's subtle, but it makes a big difference in the track. Check it out.
Without EQ, in the track...
With EQ, in the track.
That's the difference between fighting and working together.
Now, I hear more annoying little problems let's go further in the performance, say around here...
A little bit of that 500-ish range, right here...
maybe too much, check it out.
Just a little bit less...
Listen to the word "time", and how it lands and the energy it takes for it to land on the rest of the track.
It's subtle, but it's gonna help me compress less and keep it in the track because less things are sticking out. Check it out in the track.
Without the 500 move...
With the 500 move...
It just keeps it in place like this.
It's just .5dB at 500, but it makes a little bit of a difference.
I consider myself happy with this as far as fixing goes.
This is a well-recorded vocal... and a good singer.
The next thing I would do is put a compressor if I was doing the whole processing.
But now what I'm gonna do is put an enhancing EQ.
In this case, I'm going to use this because it's pretty sexy vintage looking and also because it has no on-screen curves.
I can focus to what my ears tell me, as opposed to what my eyes tell me.
Also, the sonic curves are very gentle, the Pultec's are super gentle I can boost quite a bit without it becoming peaky, screechy and angular. I like that.
Any gentle-curved quality EQ will do, of course.
What I'm gonna do is try to give it some air, all the way up and then some of that forehead 5k thing.
First, let's do the 5k.
Go to 5k here...
and try it...
A little less.
I'm happy with that.
I'm gonna add some air up top, 16k, at least that's what the interface says.
That's even above the 10k that most people call "bright." It's not gonna feel bright, it's just gonna do something...
that "hhhaa" thing, and the nice little details.
Check out! See if you can pick it out by yourself.
A few notches up, here we go.
Listen to all the mouth thing, the presence: "looking better each time", the "mmmamia"...
All those little things get nicely enhanced by the 16k. Check it out.
It's a little bit like the singer was smiling more.
Now, I think it would be interesting to listen to both, with and without.
So, without anything, it sounds like this.
And with everything we've done, it sounds like this.
And that's without any compression. It makes everything...
more together, more even and more present.
It's even more impressive in the track.
I'm gonna go back to the beginning of the track. Let's say here, check it out.
This will be with no correction whatsoever in the track.
And then with everything we've done.
Much better, and much more style appropriate.
First, we fixed it so it fits in the track, and then we enhanced it to make sure it sounds like the style calls for.
You noticed that the really broad curves used in the Pultec for example help you really enhance the vocal, without making too much of a mess.
It's always a better idea to use broad curves when you're enhancing especially in the high end, otherwise you can get peaky.
Bear in mind this has no compression and no reverb, or delays, it's just raw. It still sounds great.
Why? Because it's a perfect match between the track and the vocal.
To summarize: there are no rules, sorry, but there are guidelines.
Now you know where the stuff lives, more or less.
So download the files and try at home.
Don't get fooled by the design on the screen, the little curves...
make sure you listen before you look.
Make sure you have a vision for what the vocal should sound like before twisting knobs.
Lastly, it's always better to work in the track, rather than in solo especially when you are enhancing stuff because most people will listen to the record as a whole, with no solo engaged.
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- Sonnox Oxford EQ
- Avid EQ3 7-Band
- Waves Q6
Fab Dupont is a Grammy winning NYC based record producer, mixing/mastering engineer and co-founder of pureMix.net.
Fab has been playing, writing, producing and mixing music both live and in studios all over the world. He's worked in cities like Paris, Boston, Brussels, Stockholm, London and New York just to name a few.
He has his own studio called FLUX Studios in the East Village of New York City.
Fab has been nominated for Grammys 6 times, including two Latin Grammys and has received many other accolades around the world, including Victoires de la Musique, South African Music awards, Pan African Music Awards and US independent music awards.
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