The Music Espionage

Vocals


Make or break time! At this stage in a mix you will normally have a great deal of shape and structure to your track, with the vocals being the ‘icing on the cake’. An ill mixed vocal recording will stand out a mile and ruin everything else, so it is extremely important to find balance.

Keep in mind that unlike all other instruments, we hear the human voice everyday. Our ears are significantly tuned to pick-up even the slightest obscure presence and ambiguous sounds. Consider how easily we pick up a single conversation in a crowded noisy room, we are greatly aware when a voice has been processed unnaturally.

Before doing any processing or balancing, check the vocal thoroughly in ‘solo’ for any noises and obvious faults. Unnatural sounds and spurious noises will be exaggerated by the compression and balance of the voice, so check everything! Listen for a natural, smooth delivery, as if it was one complete take, including natural breaths and pauses.

Cleaning the Recording with EQ:
Once you get your hands on the vocal recording your going to need to tidy the performance somewhat. Equalization on vocals, like anything else, is an art. There is no magic button that will suddenly and miraculously corrects.

There are three reasons that you will alter the frequency spectrum of the recordings and use EQ on vocals.
Throwing out the rubbish:
More than any other type of track it is really important with vocals to get ride of the frequencies where problem may be hidden. Throw out the sounds you will not need. Really low frequencies add nothing but noise, there are no fundamental at the low end and most importantly nothing that could be beneficial. This High Pass Filter is good practice and an excellent starting point for mixing vocals. Removing everything below 80Hz will eliminate the deep rumble from the room and still keep the warmth to the recording. You may also what to apply some cutting at the high end of the spectrum, this will rid you of high presence, sibilance and any excessive air on the track.

Error! 

The next major reason to EQ is to correct a specific problem with the recording. This could be reducing the strong ‘P’ and ‘B’ sounds not blocked through the pop-shield, or smoothing out the performance through ‘De-essing’. Cutting out frequencies such any sibilance you hear in the 5-7 kHz range, or around 1kHz to 3kHz where the common ‘nasal’ sounds live, will help tide-up of the overall performance. You might have a singer with a harsh sound so you cut slightly with a narrow bandwidth somewhere in the 2.5 kHz to 4 kHz range. They might need a bit more bass in their voice so you boost in the 200-600 Hz range.

Balance:

Probably the most important purpose is to make the vocals sit with the rest of the recording and become part of the mix. The lead vocal needs to belong on their own; they need to stand out from the background singers. When double tracking vocals, you will need to balance these two tracks together and in the mix. Again remove everything that will add noise, but also drooping the higher frequencies on one will allow the two recording to sit better together. Watch out for the ‘S’s and ‘T’s as boosting in the higher range to brighten certain areas will inevitably boost these too. When using EQ, make sure to boost and cut as little as you can get away with. Drastically changing the sound with EQ will give an un-natural sound to the performance.

Shaping an Effect:

Finally, you may want to create a deliberate effect with EQ, maybe something like “A.M. Radio’ or ‘Old Telephone’, this having narrow band filters focusing on the mid-range. You need to bring down the frequencies on the low and the high end, and bring up the mid frequencies. Start by taking out everything below 400Hz, and then reducing everything above 2Khz. Then, if you have the option, make a narrow bandwidth notch of about +4-6db at 500Hz.

Here is an example of a close mic. male vocal recording, with no effects or EQ

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Same vocal recording again, this time with the EQ setting discussed above.

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