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Learn the crucial frequency areas of controlling vocals in a mix.
Adopt a proper mindset of how to approach EQ in regards to mixdowns.
Before we jump into the vocal EQ chart below, let’s go over a few basic principles.
What is EQ In Music?
Equalization is the process of adjusting the balance between frequency components within an electronic signal.Wikipedia
An EQ can be used in countless ways and varying applications, but its main function can be broken down into 2 main categories:
1. An EQ allows you to shape things tonally
Hang out with producers long enough and you’ll likely hear the words ‘carve’ or ‘sculpt’ being used in conjunction with EQ. That’s because they are the perfect analogy to describe one of the primary functions: tonal shaping.
In sound design and music production, an EQ gives you the ability to cut or boost frequencies to achieve the tonal balance you desire. Typically this will be done with software (or a ”plugin”) in a producer’s DAW, many of these not only sound great but are completely free.
2. An EQ is a corrective/enhancement tool
If you’ve ever recorded a vocal in a space where environmental sounds are bleeding into the microphone and re-recording is not an option, an EQ could be your saving grace.
So in the instance of an unwanted air conditioner ‘hum’ making its way into what would’ve been an otherwise fantastic recording, an EQ becomes a corrective tool because it gives you the ability to identify and pull out those unwanted frequencies.
3. An EQ is also a creative tool
While an EQ was originally intended as a corrective tool, its uses go far beyond that, and an entire book could probably be written on solely creative ways to use EQ as a way to color your songwriting and create interest in your sonic mix.
The world of equalization is both exciting and difficult to master. If you’re interested in learning about the different types of EQ, practices and common use-cases then look no further, we break down everything you need to know here.
Click here for a comprehensive Skillshare video course on mixing, hosted by Young Guru. By using our link, you get 2 months free access to all Skillshare classes, including this one.
Vocal EQ Chart (Your Vocal EQ Cheat Sheet)
This vocal EQ cheat sheet to serve as a guideline for EQ’ing vocals in a mix. The keyword here is ‘guideline’, and hence should only serve as a rough guide to help you identify the important frequency areas to pay attention to.
Take into consideration that the following will affect the approximation of the key frequency areas
The sex and age of your singer
The style of singing (alto, tenor, falsetto, screaming, whispers, etc)
The biological timbre of the vocalist’s vocal cords
Now with that out of the way, here is your glorious vocal EQ chart/cheat sheet (click to zoom). Kudos to John Dobie Design for whipping this up for us!
Let’s break down the key frequency areas of the vocal EQ cheat sheet. Again, bear in mind that the chart is not meant to be taken as gospel, but instead to merely help you get in the ballpark.
Focus only on the frequency regions — the adjustments in the chart are only for illustration purposes.
So, what Hz do vocals occupy? Typically, the voiced speech of a typical adult male will have a fundamental frequency from 85 to 180Hz, and that of a typical adult female from 165 to 255Hz.
Vocals typically do not contain a lot of subfrequency energy, and they often add nothing valuable to modern mixes. In fact, it is common practice to roll off subfrequency content off vocals as it clears up room for instruments that should occupy these lower frequencies, such as the bass guitar and kick drum.
Proximity effect, i.e. the increase in low-frequency response as one gets closer to the microphone, affects this region a fair bit, and is also where ‘plosives’ (words that have overly percussive phonetics, like ‘potato’) can become a problem here, particularly if a pop filter is not used.
100Hz-300Hz is the zone where vocal’s fundamental frequencies will often reside. As a result, this is an incredibly important frequency area to pay attention to, as it can easily make or break a sound.
It’s a troublesome zone for many, as things can get cluttered around here in busy mixes with full drum kits and distorted guitars.
As mentioned, a common technique is to roll off the low-frequency content of the vocals. That roll-off typically ends somewhere within the region of 80Hz-200Hz, depending on the context of the mix, and the intention.
The more of this area that is rolled off, the lighter and less ‘present’ the vocal will feel. Experiment to taste.
This is where the main ‘body’ of vocals occupy and is responsible for supporting the upper harmonics of the voice. It requires your utmost attention, and can be a tricky area as too much in this region can result in a ‘boxy’ sound, and too little can result in a hollow sound.
Scooping out 350Hz-600Hz in your adlibs and backing vocals is a technique you can try to give the impression that the supporting vocals are sitting further behind in the mix. This could also help to clear up space for the main vocal.
We now enter the upper midrange frequencies, which are responsible for things like ‘bite’, ‘honkiness’, and ‘nasal’ qualities.
Careful attention should be paid to this region as it tends to be a busy area, particularly in heavier styles of music.
An excessive buildup in high-mid frequencies is common in amateur mixes, and can lead to an unpleasant, harsh and brittle mix. This is especially true for tracks with a lot of layered vocal takes, where resonant peaks develop if not controlled efficiently.
Conversely, a track with too little frequency content in this area will appear dull, ‘far away’, and muffled. If you are going for a 90s ‘shoegaze’ or ‘vaporwave’ sound, this could be ideal. However for most modern ‘radio’ mixes, having clear, high-midrange gives the impression of modern presence. Again, it all depends on context.
This region is where the sibilance/brilliance of vocals can be effectively manipulated. For better or for worse, there has been a trend over time where vocals are given a bump in this area (and even above) to give the impression of a ‘larger than life’, bright sound.
If executed with precision and finesse, this can work wonders. Pushing this region gives a vocal ‘sheen’, but in the wrong context, it can sound disjointed from the overall mix, and harsh.
At this point, the majority of vocal harmonics and overtones would have naturally rolled off by themselves. Similarly to the point I mentioned earlier, it has become ‘in vogue’ to push this area a little to provide extra ‘sheen’ and ‘hi-fi’ presence.
Conversely, it is also not uncommon for some producers to roll this region off with a shallow high-cut or high-shelf. While sacrificing the ‘benefit’ of ‘air’ or ‘sheen’, many producers opt to clear the vocal of these frequencies to allow for other instruments to occupy it, such as cymbals or airy synthesizers.
Remember that all the tips included above are just for example’s sake, and do not mean that the techniques will work 1:1 with your mixes. Every vocalist is unique, microphone frequency responses differ, and every track should be approached with the intention of serving the track, rather than a set of rules.
There are no “best equalizer settings”. Every mix decision you make should be with a specific intent that is independent of any set rules.
A lot of the time (and this applies to mixing in general), EQ decisions should be the result of making specific sacrifices in order to achieve the desired outcome. 10 full-frequency instruments and vocals are not all going to fit together right out of the gate, and so EQ becomes a game of small compromises/sacrifices for the greater good of an overall mix.
This is why many argue that EQ’ing in solo (while useful) can lead to bad mix decisions, as those 10 full-frequency instruments could sound incredible by themselves, but terrible as an overall mix.
Lastly, there is no magical chart that will turn you into a professional mix engineer overnight. It will take years and years of practice to get right, and hence why the best mix engineers in the world are paid handsomely for their time.
Level Up Your EQ Game & Create Professional-Sounding Mixes
If you want to further your knowledge of EQ, check out this course by Marco Galvan (Avid, Steinberg Certified Audio Engineer).
There’s also this course by Young Guru on fundamental mixing principles, which is an insanely popular course (and for good reason). We highly recommend this one for a holistic guide to mixing music.
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