You spent all day recording the vocals for your new song. Hours nailing the performance, carefully selecting the perfect takes…
But when you press play, something doesn’t feel right. The vocals sound muddy, dull, and unprofessional.
How do you fix this problem?
EQ can help. If you know how to EQ vocals like a pro, you’ll be well on your way to smooth, polished, professional-sounding tracks.
In this article, you’ll discover a simple, three-step process you can use to EQ any vocal with clarity and confidence. But before we dive in, make sure you grab my free Vocal EQ Cheatsheet below. It’s packed with additional tips and tricks that will help you take your vocals even further.
Okay…let’s dive in to the article! Or if you prefer, you can watch a video of the entire vocal EQ process in action below:
Step 1: Clean Up The Low End
Vocals recorded in a home studio often sound boomy and muddy. These issues are often caused by unwanted sounds picked up by the microphone while recording.
For example, the mic may have picked up the low rumbling of an air conditioner or truck driving by. If you accidentally kick the mic stand while recording or move your feet around on the floor, the mic can pick up all sorts of low end junk. And low end issues can also be caused by “plosives” — blasts of air that hit the microphone when you sing words with a hard “p” or “b” sound.
Regardless of the cause, these issues get in the way of a clean, polished vocal sound. That’s why you’ll want to take care of them first by cleaning them up. Here’s how to do it…
First, What Should You Listen For?
Take a listen to the audio examples below. This will help you determine some of the low end problems you need to listen for. (You’ll need to listen to these on a set of full-range speakers or headphones that can play back low frequencies. If you’re listening on laptop, phone or earbuds, you probably won’t hear much.)
Audio taken from the song “Joshua” by Leah Capelle
Now solo your vocal and listen out for the problems you heard above. If you don’t hear any of these problems, move on to step 2. As the saying goes — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if you DO hear any low end problems, it’s time to bust out the scalpel and fix them.
How To Fix Low End Problems
Add an EQ plugin to your track (any will do). Turn on the EQ’s high-pass filter. This is a special type of filter on the EQ that cuts out low end frequencies and “lets the highs pass.” This is what you’ll need to get rid of the low end junk.
Set the frequency of the high-pass filter as low as possible (this will usually be ~ 20 Hz). Then, while listening to your vocal, slowly increase the frequency of the high-pass filter until you hear the low end problems go away. Keep pushing the frequency up until you start to hear the body and thickness of the vocal disappear. Once you hear this, back the frequency down a bit.
The goal is to get rid of the low end problems without significantly affecting the tone of the vocal.
In terms of exact numbers, there are no hard rules. In general, I find the frequency ends up somewhere around 80 – 120 Hz on most vocals. You can generally push the frequency higher on female vocals, as they don’t have as much low end.
If you set the high-pass filter’s frequency too high, you’ll be cutting out the warmth and fullness on the bottom of the vocal (not what you want). If it’s too low, you won’t address the low end problems. Your job is to find the sweet spot.
Setting The High-Pass Filter’s Slope
Many EQs will give you a choice between several different high-pass filter “slope” settings. This will determine how steep the cutoff is on the filter.
Higher slopes are more aggressive, and they tend to sound a bit more processed and unnatural. They can, however, be helpful when dealing with problems that pop up in an area of the frequency spectrum near the low end on the vocal. In situations like these, a steeper slope may help you cut out a problem without removing as much low end on the voice.
For most purposes, however, gentler slopes work better. They tend to sound more musical and natural. A 12 dB/octave slope works best for me in most circumstances.
Step 2: Sweep and Destroy
The acoustics in most home studios aren’t great. When you record vocals in rooms like these, certain frequencies tend to ring out in the room. This causes bumps in energy, or resonances, in certain areas of the frequency spectrum. These resonances can often make a vocal sound boomy and muddy, or harsh and edgy. That’s why it’s best to find and remove them.
I do this using a process called “Sweep and Destroy.” Here’s how to pull it off…
First, if you’re listening on studio monitors, I recommend switching over to headphones for this step. Headphones get rid of room acoustics, which will help you hear more accurately what’s going on in the vocal track. While I don’t recommend mixing on headphones, I do find this specific step is easier when you use them.
If you haven’t already, add an EQ plugin to your vocal. Set up a band on the EQ with the following settings:
- Frequency: As low as possible (usually 20 – 40 Hz)
- Gain: +18 dB
- Q: 8
Solo the vocal and press play. Slowly increase the frequency of the band so it sweeps up the entire frequency spectrum. As you’re doing so, listen out for problem resonances. These are spots that sound particularly ugly — either very boomy or harsh and edgy.
When you stumble upon a spot that sounds like a resonance, make sure it’s consistent — i.e., it should stay there as the vocal keeps singing. You will often hear “problems” that jump out on certain words and then go away when the singer moves on. These are not issues you need to fix. You’re looking for resonances that remain consistent throughout the majority of the performance.
Once you’ve found a resonance, stop playback and give your ears a few seconds to rest. Now play the track again and slowly tweak the frequency knob up and down a bit until you find the spot where the resonance sounds the worst.
Then adjust the Q, or width, of the band so you hear as much of the resonance as possible, but as little of the “good stuff” on the left and right of the band. If the Q is too wide, you’ll start to hear parts of the vocal you don’t want to get rid of. If the Q is too narrow, the entire resonance won’t be contained within the band — and the problem will still be there when you try to cut it out. The Q needs to be wide enough to contain the problem, but narrow enough that it doesn’t affect the good parts of the vocal.
Once you’ve dialed in the Q, set the gain of the boost back to 0 dB and give your ears a few more seconds rest.
Now, play the track again. You should now hear the problem resonance clearly in the track. Slowly dip the gain out until the resonance goes away. Often times, a 4 to 6 dB cut is enough, but sometimes you need to go further.
Now, test your fix by flipping the cut in and out of bypass. Things should sound better when the cut is engaged. If not, get rid of it.
Once you’ve fixed this resonance, set up another band on your EQ using the parameters above and finish sweeping up the rest of the frequency spectrum. It’s not uncommon to find two or more resonances on a vocal. There are two areas you want to pay close attention to when applying this technique:
- The lower midrange (150 to 400 Hz). You’ll find lots of boomy, muddy resonances caused by poor room acoustics here.
- The upper midrange (2 to 4 kHz). You’ll find lots of harsh, edgy issues here. These resonances will often hurt your ears at higher volumes. Get rid of this stuff, and your vocal will often sound smoother and more polished.
Also note that you may not find any resonances on some vocals — particularly if they were recorded in an acoustically treated room. If you don’t hear any issues, move on to step 3. As I mentioned before — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
To see the entire Sweep and Destroy process in action on a variety of different tracks, watch the video below:
Step 3: Add Polish and Shine
Now that you’ve cleaned up the vocal, the next step is to add clarity and polish to the track.
Unsolo the vocal. Moving forward, you’ll want to make all decisions in context — i.e., while listening to the vocal with the rest of the tracks in your mix playing.
This is really important. We often feel it’s easier to make EQ decisions in solo. But beyond steps 1 and 2 above, I always recommend making all of your EQ decisions with all the other tracks playing. This will help you fit the vocal together with everything else, which is what your job as a mixer is all about.
While listening to the vocal with the rest of the mix, ask yourself — does this track sound too dull? Does it need polish or sheen?
If you’re not sure, flip over to a few reference tracks and listen to the difference in tone between your vocal and theirs. If your vocal sounds darker and duller, you may want to brighten it up. Most of the vocals I work with need some kind of top-end boost. Not all of them. But most.
On your EQ plugin, add or engage a high-end shelf. For starters, set the frequency at 8 kHz, and slowly boost the gain until the vocal sounds bright enough.
Listen closely for edginess. If the vocal starts to sound harsh, back off on the gain or increase the frequency of the boost so it starts higher up in the frequency spectrum. Bumping the frequency up to 10 or 12 kHz can add “air” and “sheen” without as much edginess.
If you want the vocal to cut through the mix a bit more, rolling the frequency of the boost further down the frequency spectrum can help. Boosting more of the upper midrange frequencies (4 – 8 kHz) can help the vocal stick out and cut through the mix.
The key is to find a balance between presence and edginess.
Also listen out for sibilance — the “esses” in the vocal. Aggressive top end boosts can often bring out sibilance, which means you’ll often want to follow the EQ with a de-esser to clean this up. If you’re hearing lots of sibilance, sometimes increasing the frequency of the top-end boost can help. Again, it’s all a balancing act here.
At this point, you may also want to go back and revisit your high-pass filter. Sometimes, the low end on a vocal can sound great in solo, but thick and muddy in the mix. If you have a lot of other tracks competing for low end (kick, bass, low synths, etc.), you may want to increase the frequency on the high-pass filter to thin the vocal out even more. The key is to listen to ALL the tracks together while doing this. Don’t worry about what the vocal sounds like in solo. If you solo it, the track might sound too thin. But in context, a thin vocal may sound perfect. This is all that matters.
Wrapping Things Up
At this point, you should be able to approach the vocal EQ process with clarity and confidence in your next mix. If you’re ready to dive deeper, make sure you download my free Vocal EQ Cheatsheet too, which is packed with additional tips and tricks that will help you make your vocals sound more polished and professional today. Download this cheatsheet for free below:
Before you go, leave a comment below and let me know…
What’s your go-to plugin for EQing vocals?