How to EQ vocals (properly)Mark Ellis
Ask any sound engineer what the perennial problem at gigs is, and they’ll likely point to the vocal mic. Microphones are lively beasts – as are some of the singers – and taming them whilst providing a sonically accurate representation of what is being sung is incredibly difficult.
As with so much in sound engineering, the key to ensuring vocals are balanced properly against the rest of the band is getting the mix right, and they key to getting the mix right lies with EQ.
EQ is a tricky beast, too, so if you’ve ever spent half a gig trying to hunt down rogue feedback and booming while receiving menacing glares from the lead singer – this blog post is for you.
Without further ado, here are our best ‘keep-them-by-your-side’ EQ tips for the gigging sound engineer.
Start with the mic
Getting the EQ right for a vocalist begins before you place a single finger on the desk; the mic plays a hugely important role in the EQ makeup and they all differ in many ways.
We have just one tip here, and it does mean you’ll have to spend some money (but it will absolutely pay you back tenfold): buy yourself at least one Sure SM58 and take it with you everywhere you go. It is an absolute workhorse and provides a brilliant EQ curve that is tuned towards vocalists.
Listen to the vocalist
Every singer is different and, as a result, each one requires different EQ treatment. During soundcheck, do your normal tweaking for the rest of the band, but set aside at least one song to really listen to the vocalist. Work out where their voice naturally sits within the mix and filter out any frequencies they simply won’t broach.
Don’t be afraid to cut
Sure, the lead singer has asked you for ‘plenty of oomph’, but you know better. Never be afraid to cut EQ in a live situation. If a frequency is causing you significant trouble, just cut it back until the side effects disappear.
Don’t worry about affecting tonality of the voice or upsetting the audience – neither the singer nor the crowd will notice.
If you can, apply a high pass filter (HPF) to the lead vocal during sound check. If you’re able to vary the frequency point, tweak it until background low-end frequencies are non existent – this should reduce the need to cut during the performance.
How to ‘un-muddy’ the vocals
Vocals become muddy in the 325Hz – 350Hz spectrum. Cut around 6db or so in that area and you should find muddiness disappears and that the vocal begins to ‘pop’ out of the mix.
Only ever boost EQ when you’re sure it’ll have a noticeable impact on the overall mix of the band. Try pushing up the 6kHz range marginally to add air and breathiness to vocals – but do be careful. If it sounds fine, leave it.
What about compression?
Depending on the gear you have access to, you may not be able to add compression to the vocal mic, but if you can, you need to avoid the age-old trap of going too wild with the threshold and gain knobs. Compression needs its own blog (we’ll write one soon!), but never touch it until you’re happy with the EQ. The same goes for effects like reverb and delay.
Move away from your mixing desk! If you think the EQ is spot on, remember that you’ve only heard it from one position. Use your legs and have a wander to where the crowd will be; listen at various points throughout the room to ensure you really have got it right and tweak where necessary.
Happy vocal mixing. Easy when you know how, eh?