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Vocal EQ – Is there more to it than just EQ?

There's nothing in the track that's more important than the vocal. So it deserves the ultimate in EQ. But is there more to EQing the vocal than EQ itself?


A question from a Audio Masterclass visitor...

I would like to learn about voice equalization. That would be something.  I have never found hardly a word about it in the last 30 years!

Once again, the simplest questions can throw up the most interesting points to consider.

There could not possibly be any more important aspect of EQ than EQing the vocal. Well perhaps the overall mastering EQ, but let's stick to vocals for today.

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There are three reasons to EQ the vocal...

  • The original recording has a poor EQ balance
  • To improve the vocal
  • To allow the vocal to 'sit' properly in the mix

Of course, if you made the original vocal recording yourself, the first point wouldn't be an issue, hopefully. But professionals don't always get to choose what they work with, so correction may be necessary.

Of these three points I would like to consider most of all improving the vocal. And there is something incredibly important about vocal EQ that should be considered before anything else...

It isn't all about the EQ.

In fact there are several factors that should be considered before even touching an EQ control.

Firstly, the voice itself. Half a dozen lessons from a good singing coach can work wonders.

Often the main problem with the vocal is that it is intrinsically thin. Yes you can fatten it up a little with EQ, but there's nothing like fattening it up at source.

When you have a really good singer, you can put them in front of almost any mic and they will sound great. The engineer hardly has to do anything.

And if you don't know whether you have ever worked with a really good singer, you haven't! When you meet someone who can really sing, they will blow you away.

The other important elements of the vocal sound are the mic, the preamp (if you choose a 'character' preamp, rather than an accurate one) and the compressor (variable-mu for thickness).

With each of these choices you make, you have the opportunity to strengthen and thicken the vocal. Like putting more corn flour in the gravy.

So why should the vocal be strong and thick?

One good answer is to make it more controllable through EQ. At last we get back to the point of the question.

You see, if you try to EQ a thin, weak vocal to try and improve it, then you don't really have very much to work on. EQ can do a lot, but it can't do magic. In particular, it can't do anything with frequencies that simply aren't there.

A strong, thick vocal sound is altogether richer in harmonics and there is simply more for the equalizer to get a grip on. You can't EQ thin air, but you can EQ rich, strong harmonics to perfection.

So the essence of vocal EQ is really not in the EQ itself, either the unit or the techniques, it is in the preparation.

When you have a well-prepared vocal to work with, EQing it is a joy. When the vocal is thin and weak, EQ is a struggle.

Of course there are a whole range of equalizers and EQ techniques you can use, but where vocals are concerned there is nothing that will get you so far along the way as good preparation.

By David Mellor Thursday November 30, 2006