How To EQ Vocals In 3 Simple Steps

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Hey, this is Jason from BehindTheSpeakers.com, and today you’re gonna learn the three simple steps to EQing any vocal. This will immediately help you craft vocals that sound clear and balanced, and cut through any mix.

Now, before we dive in, I put together a vocal EQ cheatsheet that covers everything we’re gonna talk about today, as well as some additional tips and tricks that will improve your vocals that I won’t have time to cover today. If you wanna go ahead and download this free cheatsheet, you can click the link in the description below, or in the video, and you’ll get free instant access.

Now, there are three simple steps to EQing any vocal, and this will apply regardless of genre or style. Whatever vocal you have, these three simple steps are gonna do it.

So the first step is filter, the second step is sweep and destroy, and the third step is enhance.

Now, depending on the vocal you’re working with, you may not need all of these steps. You may be okay with only one or even none of the steps. But the point is, you wanna go through this process anyway. Go through the steps that I’m gonna outline, and it’ll always point you in the right direction. But you wanna make sure that you’re only applying processing if it needs to be applied. So, listen to the vocal, decide whether it needs to be tweaked in some way, and then apply the processing that I’m gonna outline in this three-step process, but only if it’s needed.

Step number one is to filter. And this is where we get rid of any stuff that isn’t contributing musically to the vocal itself. So, a rumble on the bottom of the track, boominess caused by someone kicking the mic stand, stuff that just isn’t a part of the vocal itself but is gonna get in the way of the track.

Now typically we wanna apply this filtering before any compression, and this is so we can clean the signal up before it hits the compressor, so the compressor has a cleaner, clearer signal on which to react to and make decisions.

And the last thing to realize here is that you don’t always need to filter vocals. So a lot of people will add a high-pass filter to a vocal without even listening to it. And you wanna avoid this. So you should only be making decisions if there’s a reason for them, and this goes for filtering and anything else you do within the mixing process. So don’t just add a high-pass filter without listening. Actually listen to the track, decide whether it could benefit from a high-pass filter, and then make that decision, but only if it’s needed.

So next I wanna jump into my DAW and show you exactly how I apply filtering to a vocal.

Okay, so I have a song here called “Joshua” by artist Leah Capelle. And I wanna play you the lead vocal dry, without any processing. So this is exactly as the vocal sounded when it was sent to me.

♪ Trunk packed to the brim ♪

♪ All crammed in the back seat ♪

♪ Orange peels and coffee grounds clutter ♪

So my first question really, whenever I start processing a vocal, is: does the vocal need a high-pass filter? And so when I’m listening to this vocal, that’s the first thing that I’m asking myself.

Now I can hear on this vocal performance that whenever the vocalist sings a P or a B sound, a lot of these plosive sounds, there’s kind of a blast of low-end energy. So it sounds like a little bit of boominess. And if you’re listening on laptop speakers or earbuds, you’re probably not gonna hear this. So I recommend listening on a full-range speaker system, where you’re gonna hear that low-end information. But take a listen again, and listen to the low-end of the vocal, specifically on those Ps and Bs.

♪ Trunk packed to the brim ♪

So you can hear it on the P in packed. Listen again.

♪ Trunk packed to the brim ♪

It just sounds like kind of a low-end blast of air. So when I hear that, right away, I’m thinking okay, this vocal needs a high-pass filter.

Now sometimes I’ll get a vocal, and it sounds fine, so I’m not hearing that low-end information. And I’m not gonna add a high-pass filter to a vocal if it doesn’t need it. So this goes back to this whole idea that everything that we do within the mixing process should always be done for a reason. So don’t just blindly high-pass filter the vocals. Listen to the vocals and ask yourself: are you hearing that excess low-end information? And if you are, like in this case, that’s a good indication that you’re probably gonna need to high-pass them.

So I’m gonna add an EQ here, and I just wanna play this for you. The cool thing about this EQ is there’s a spectrum analyzer built into it. And I want you to take a look at it, and I wanna show you what that low-end information, that excess low end actually looks like on a spectrum analyzer.

♪ Trunk packed to the brim ♪

♪ All crammed in the back seat ♪

♪ Orange peels and coffee grounds ♪

So you can see, whenever the Ps and Bs come, there’s this kind of bump down here, right around 50, 40, 30 Hertz. So that’s really below the vocal itself, so there’s really no useful information down here on the vocal, but we can see that a lot of that energy from those plosives, those blasts of air on the microphone diaphragm is just kind of causing a lot of this boominess. And this is stuff that’s gonna get in the way of the kick drum and the bass, and just kind of muddies up the low end of the mix. So we wanna get rid of it right off the bat.

So I’m gonna add a high-pass filter here. In terms of the slope of the high-pass filter, I like to start with gentler slopes. So usually 6 dB or 12 dB. If I need to be a little bit more surgical, I might go 18 or 24, but generally you wanna stick with the broader, gentler slopes. Those are gonna sound a little bit more musical and they’re not gonna sound as processed.

So I’m gonna go ahead and play this vocal, and roll the frequency up until I start to hear the vocal thin out a little bit, and then I’m gonna back off.

♪ Trunk packed to the brim ♪

♪ All crammed in the back seat ♪

Okay, so right around 140, I can hear that the vocal just starts to thin out a little bit. So take a listen, I’m just gonna bypass this, and take a listen to the fullness of the vocal.

♪ Trunk packed to the brim ♪

♪ All crammed in the back seat ♪

So that’s with it in, and now let’s listen with it out.

♪ Trunk packed to the brim ♪

♪ All crammed in the back seat ♪

So the vocal sounds a little bit fuller. And that’s when we know we’ve gone too far, right? So this high-pass filter is a little bit too high up. So I’m gonna back this off a little bit, maybe around 120 or so, and take a listen again.

♪ Trunk packed to the brim ♪

And now with it in.

♪ Trunk packed to the brim ♪

So to me, that’s a good balance. It seems like we’re still getting the fullness of the vocal, but I’m not hearing that blast of air on the P of packed. So take a listen again. First we’ll listen in bypass. And I want you to notice that blast of low-end energy on the plosive in the P, and then I’ll kick it in, and notice that it’s gone.

♪ Trunk packed to the brim ♪

And now with it in.

♪ Trunk packed to the brim ♪

Right, so we’ve cleaned up that low-end information. And so this is really what a high-pass filter is for. We’re not really trying to change the character of the vocal itself, we’re just trying to get rid of all the stuff below the vocal that isn’t really contributing any musical content to the vocal itself, but is just kind of getting in the way and muddying-up the low end of our track.

Step number two is sweep and destroy. And this is where we get rid of stuff that doesn’t sound good. So boominess, harshness, muddiness, just frequencies that are getting in the way of a clean, clear vocal.

Now there are two areas we wanna pay close attention to when we’re applying this technique. The first is the lower midrange. So between around 100 Hertz and 300 Hertz, that’s where we’re gonna find a lot of boominess and muddiness, and frequencies that are caused by room resonances and things that are just gonna get in the way of a clean, clear vocal.

And the other area we wanna pay attention to is the upper midrange. So right around two to four kilohertz is another area you’re gonna find a lot of harsh, edgy frequencies that just kind of sound really grating and aggressive, and can really get in the way of a smooth vocal sound.

Now when you’re applying this technique, I find it’s most helpful to use headphones instead of studio monitors. This way we’re getting rid of the sound of the acoustic environment in your room and any problems that might exist in the space, and just listening exactly to what’s actually going on in the vocal itself. So you’re able to make more accurate decisions.

So I wanna jump into my DAW and show you exactly how I apply this sweep and destroy technique on a vocal.

Okay, so I have a vocal here from a track called “The Streets” by Dylan Owen. Let me play this for you dry before we dive in.

♪ They’re gonna write us down in history ♪

♪ For all our missing parts and all our chipping teeth ♪

♪ All our hidden scars and all our injuries ♪

Okay, so let’s pull up an EQ on this. Now I already completed step one of this three-step process, and I decided that this vocal didn’t need a high-pass filter. So I wasn’t hearing any of that low-end buildup. It sounded like things were fairly controlled, so we didn’t need a high-pass filter on this vocal.

So the next thing that we’re gonna do is I’m gonna pull up a preset that I have saved called subtractive EQ. And all this preset is, is one band, engaged on this EQ, with a gain of +18, and a Q of eight. And the frequency is set all the way down at 10 Hertz. So this is a good place to start for this technique. Regardless of what EQ you’re using, I recommend you save this preset with the same settings, and that’ll just make it really easy to pull off this technique kind of quickly within the mixing process.

So the idea here is we have this band engaged, and I’m gonna go ahead and roll the frequency knob up, and sweep this band slowly through the frequency spectrum while the track is playing. And we’re gonna listen out for problem areas. So these are things that sound kind of aggressive, boomy, muddy, distorted, edgy, just stuff that pokes out to us as sounding really ugly, stuff that we’re gonna wanna get rid of. So this’ll make a little bit more sense to you as we actually pull this off. So I’m gonna go ahead and play this vocal real quick, and roll this frequency knob up, and I’m gonna stop when we hear a problem.

♪ They’re gonna write us down in history ♪

♪ For all our missing parts and all our chipping teeth ♪

♪ All our hidden scars and all our injuries ♪

♪ For how we still smiled when we were incomplete ♪

Okay, so that sounds kind of aggressive to me, so right around 300, 317 or so, just felt like this frequency kind of poked out to me, it sounded kind of boomy and muddy, and maybe distorted a little bit. So go ahead and listen to this one more time. And as we’re doing that, I’m gonna go ahead and just move the frequency of this band kind of left and right a little bit. And my goal is to try to zero-in on the spot where this problem area sounds its worst. So we wanna find the spot where things are really poking out to us, it’s just sounding really aggressive and ugly.

♪ They’re gonna write us down in history ♪

♪ For all our missing parts and all our chipping teeth ♪

♪ All our hidden scars and all our injuries ♪

♪ For how we still smiled when we were incomplete ♪

Okay, so right around 300 seems to be where the problem is. You notice, when I brought it up to 400 or so, the problem kind of went away. Same thing down around 200. So first of all, we just wanna make sure that we’re picking the right area. And by kind of rolling the frequency up and down and finding the spot where the problem sounds its worst, we can make sure that we have the right area before we move forward. So right around 300 seems to be where the problem is.

The next thing I’m gonna do is find the right Q for this band. So Q is the width of this band. A wider Q would contain more frequencies, a narrower Q would contain less frequencies. And the goal is: we want to set the Q wide enough so that it contains as much of the problem as we can kind of get, but we don’t wanna set it too wide, because then we’re gonna start to hear and affect stuff that we really don’t wanna take out. So if we set it too wide, you can see, then we start to get into these areas on the left and the right of the curve, that are good, so they aren’t problems, right? And we’re not gonna wanna get rid of those. So we wanna set it narrow enough where we’re excluding the good stuff, but wide enough where we get all of the problem within this band.

So I’m gonna go ahead and set this back to 8 or so. And now this EQ has a band solo feature, where basically it allows us to just solo this individual band, and not hear any of the stuff to the left or the right. And this is a really helpful feature for setting the Q. If you don’t have this on your EQ, it’s not essential but I find that, again, for this technique, it can be helpful to have this feature. So I’m gonna go ahead and enable that band solo feature.

And now on this EQ, if I scroll up and down, that will allow me to adjust the Q. So I’m just gonna play the track, and then I’m gonna adjust the Q, and I’m gonna kind of slowly broaden it until I start to hear good stuff that we really don’t wanna get rid of, and then I’m gonna back off a little bit.

See, so that’s too wide here. You can hear there’s good stuff that we’re starting to hear. The low end is coming in, and things are starting to sound pleasing to our ears. Take a listen again.

So you can hear some of that low end on the bottom of the vocal, that actually sounds pretty good to us. So this is a Q that’s too wide, so I’m gonna go ahead and narrow it a little bit, until we can just hear the problem that we wanna get rid of.

Okay, so that sounds pretty good to me, Q of around 5. Contains the problem, but we’re not getting a lot of that good stuff on the left and right of this bell.

Now we just have to take this problem out of the track. So I’m gonna go ahead and reset the gain, so now we’re back at zero, but we still have the same Q and frequency. And now I’m gonna give my ears a couple seconds to rest, and if I were doing this in real-time, this would be 10 or 15 seconds or so, just to make sure that we reset our ears, because after you’ve been listening to this problem kind of boosted very aggressively, you wanna just give yourself a little bit of a reset before you pull this out.

So now we have a couple seconds of rest, and I’m gonna play the track again and slowly dip this band out until I start to hear that problem go away. And the goal is, we just wanna take out enough where things sound natural. We don’t wanna just pull out like 30 dB. We’re trying to get rid of as little as possible to fix the problem.

♪ They’re gonna write us down in history ♪

♪ For all our missing parts and all our chipping teeth ♪

♪ All our hidden scars and all our injuries ♪

♪ For how we still smiled when we were incomplete ♪

♪ ‘Cause yesterday morning I fought sleep ♪

Okay, so that sounds pretty good to me. And now this is gonna vary depending on the specific problem, sometimes just two or 3 dB of reduction will sound great, sometimes you gotta be more aggressive. But at this point, I feel like negative 7 dB is a good choice for this problem. That seems like it’s kind of pulling it out adequately.

So the next thing that we’re gonna do is test our fix here. So we have this cut, and I’m gonna flip this in and out of bypass and see if we like the sound of the track better with that cut engaged. So first, let’s listen to it without any of our processing, and then I’ll flip it in and out.

♪ They’re gonna write us down in history ♪

♪ For all our missing parts and all our chipping teeth ♪

♪ All our hidden scars and all our injuries ♪

♪ For how we still smiled when we were incomplete ♪

♪ ‘Cause yesterday morning I fought sleep ♪

♪ On a bed in New York where the floor creaked ♪

So that sounds a lot better to my ears. There’s that kind of boxy muddiness on the vocal that just seems like it disappears with that cut engaged. So we know that we’ve made an improvement to this vocal, we pulled out some of that energy that doesn’t need to be there. And now we can move on.

So the next thing I’m gonna do is just set up another band here, with a Q of 8, and a gain of 18 dB. And we’re gonna start right where that problem was. And I’m gonna continue to sweep up the rest of the frequency spectrum and see if I find any other problems. Basically do exactly the same thing.

Now a couple things you just wanna watch out for, when you’re hearing problems, you wanna be wary of any problems that only appear in a very small spot. So maybe they jump out on one note and then they disappear for the rest of the song. Those are not problems you wanna fix. You wanna try to listen out for problems that are consistent, so they’re consistently problematic throughout the entire course of the track. Because remember, whenever we’re making a cut on a vocal or any other track in our mix, we’re actually pulling energy out of that track, right? And so we wanna make sure that whenever we’re taking out something, that we’re actually improving a track in the majority of the performance. We’re not just taking it out where it’s a problem in one spot, where we might fix it and make it better in one small spot, but in the rest of the track, taking out that energy is actually gonna make the track smaller, so it’s actually gonna make it sound worse. So again, we wanna make sure that when we’re fixing these problems using EQ, we’re only pulling out things that are really a problem throughout the majority of the performance. So listening out for those moments that don’t really go away, versus just the kind of problems that might pop in or out on one note or one phrase or one word in a performance.

Step number three is to enhance, and this is where we bring out and accentuate the pleasing qualities of a vocal.

Now typically, we’re looking for smooth, broad EQ curves here. So we don’t wanna go super narrow and surgical. We’re just trying to gently and broadly bring out the areas of the vocal that sound great, and just kind of accentuate those a little bit.

Now it’s so important that when you’re applying step three of this process, you listen to the vocal in context with the rest of the mix. So don’t just solo the vocal. Listen to it with the rest of the tracks in your mix playing, because the goal here is we’re not just trying to make this vocal sound good on its own, we’re trying to make it fit in context with the rest of our mix. So avoid the solo button. Listen to the vocal in context while you’re applying step three, and you’re gonna make much better decisions.

So next I wanna jump into my DAW and show you exactly how I apply step three of this process to a vocal.

Okay, so we have a song here called “Best Man” by Dylan Owen. Let’s take a listen before we dive in to the vocals.

♪ Looking back at us there’ll be clarity ♪

♪ Green as our grandparents’ trees in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ There in Pine Bush ♪

♪ Shoot through the acres with our lanterns leaking kerosene ♪

♪ Movers and shakers we had shakers and tambourines ♪

So everything sounds pretty good, the vocal’s balanced and clear, but just a little bit dull. It lacks that kind of air and excitement. So I wanna see if we can enhance this vocal by bringing out a little bit of that top-end energy, just to make the vocal kind of cut through the mix a little bit more, give it a little bit more presence and shine.

So if we take a look at the EQ here, you can see I’ve gone through steps one and two of this process. So, I added a little bit of a high-pass filter, and went through that sweep and destroy technique and found this frequency right around 5,600 that was just kind of harsh, so I pulled that out a little bit. And I’ve just added a little bit of harmonic distortion, using this VMR plugin, and then some compression. And then there’s a de-esser here, but there’s really not a ton going on on this vocal.

So this is a great example that when you get the plugin processing chain right, when you really make the right decisions, you don’t have to add a ton of processing to make something sound good. So you don’t need 20 different plugins on your vocals to make them sound great, you just need to make the right decisions, and that’s much more important than the number of plugins that you use.

So I’m gonna add an EQ here, and I’m gonna add this after the compressor. You usually try to cut the problems before the compressor, and then enhance the vocal after the compressor. So I’m actually using two different EQs here. And I wanna play the track, and I’m just gonna dial in a little bit of a top-end boost here on this EQ. And I’m gonna try to bring out the air and the presence on the vocal, but I’m gonna listen very closely for harshness, because I don’t wanna bring out too much of the edginess and the harshness on the vocal. And if I start to hear that, I know that I’ve gone too far.

So I’m just gonna take this out, and let’s play the track and then I’m gonna dial in this boost.

♪ Looking back at us there’ll be clarity ♪

♪ Green as our grandparent’s trees in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ There in Pine Bush ♪

♪ Shoot through the acres with our lanterns leaking kerosene ♪

♪ Movers and shakers we had shakers ♪

That sounds really good to my ears. I’m hearing more clarity and presence on the vocal.

Now one thing you wanna watch out for is if your frequency is set too low, a lot of the time you’ll end up bringing out a lot of the edginess and kind of harshness of the vocal. Now sometimes you need that to cut through the track, but if you’re hearing edginess or harshness, if things are just sounding a little bit too aggressive, you might wanna roll that frequency knob up a little bit. And you know, I don’t want you to copy these settings here, because depending on the vocal that you’re working with, you might need to do something different. Sometimes you don’t need to enhance the vocal at all. Sometimes it just sounds fine as is. Just listen out for that harshness, and if you’re hearing that harshness, just rolling up the frequency a little bit higher can be a great way to solve that problem.

So I’m gonna go ahead and put this back to where it was. And I’m gonna kind of play the track first without this processing boost that we just added, and then I’m gonna flip it in so you can hear the difference and we’ll compare before and after this boost. So first without any processing.

♪ Looking back at us there’ll be clarity ♪

♪ Green as our grandparents’ trees in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ There in Pine Bush ♪

Now with processing.

♪ Looking back at us there’ll be clarity ♪

♪ Green as our grandparents’ trees in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ There in Pine Bush ♪

♪ Shoot through the acres ♪

Before.

♪ Looking back at us there’ll be clarity ♪

♪ Green as our grandparents’ trees in our land of fantasy ♪

And after.

♪ Looking back at us ♪

♪ There’ll be clarity ♪

♪ Green as our grandparents’ trees in our land ♪

So I might wanna roll this down just a little bit more, to get a little bit more of that upper midrange. It just seems like maybe the vocals can cut through a little bit more. So let’s try that again. I’ve rolled the frequency down a little bit more, so we get more of that midrange energy. So first in bypass without our processing.

♪ Looking back at us there’ll be clarity ♪

♪ Green as our grandparents’ trees in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ There in Pine ♪

And now with it in.

♪ Looking back at us there’ll be clarity ♪

♪ Green as our grandparents’ trees in our land of fantasy ♪

♪ There in Pine ♪

So that sounds much better to me, and if you hear the difference, we’re hearing more of that midrange in the vocal. So it just sounds like it kind of cuts through the mix a little bit more. So that’s the difference between having that boost a little bit lower in the frequency spectrum, and having a little bit higher.

So really, we’re looking for these areas of the vocal that are pleasing and that we wanna bring out with a little bit of EQ. And generally, you wanna be subtle here, you know, broad curves generally work best. You’re not looking for really surgical tight boosts or cuts. You’re just looking to kind of bring out some of the pleasing parts of the vocal performance. So for the most part, generally, this is gonna be a top-end boost. Sometimes you might find adding a little bit of a low end boost with a broad curve like this, might help bring out a little bit of the weight on the vocal, specifically with female vocals. Sometimes it can be really helpful to have a little bit more of that energy. But for the most part, I find myself, eight out of 10 times, typically this high-end boost here, where I’m just adding a little bit of air and shine on the top end of the vocal.

Now I know we covered a lot today, and if you’re looking for a quick overview of this three-step process, as well as some additional tips and tricks that will take your vocals even further, go ahead and download this free vocal EQ cheatsheet by clicking the link in the description below, or in the video, and you’ll get free instant access.

Anyways, thanks so much for watching. You can check out more mixing tips at BehindTheSpeakers.com. Take care.

Video features music by Leah Capelle and Dylan Owen.

Jason Moss

Jason is an LA-based mixer and the founder of Behind The Speakers. He's a graduate of New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. His how-to articles have been featured in leading industry publications by Berklee, TuneCore, SonicScoop, The Pro Audio Files, and Disc Makers.