How to EQ Vocals Using a Simple Graphic Equalizer

We’ll use just a graphic EQ to create professional sounding lead vocal recordings in a simple home studio

EQ Vocals


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how to record vocals

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owen critchleyby Owen Critchley, LoudThud recording artist/producer and creator of the bestselling Easy Home Recording Blueprint

“Become a Blueprint recording artist and find out how to simply and affordably get your songs sounding the way they should.”

Hi everyone. It’s been fun putting this special section together for you on simplifying the process of how to eq vocals using a simple graphic equalizer. It’s pretty comprehensive because I wanted to take you right from the very beginning of a new project from the moment one decides to create a new recording right to the finish line EQ-ing the vocals and mixing them with the rest of the tracks.

This lesson will show you how to be in control of the vocal EQ process so you can concentrate on your creativity and de-mystify EQ so you aren’t stuck and slowed down by the technical part of mixing sound.

I always believe it’s so important to create good working habits because it breeds true confidence and ultimately, much better recordings.

I’ve recorded one of my tunes for this section and we’ll be looking at the steps that were used in EQ-ing the lead vocal, as well as how the many background vocal layers were EQ-ed and mixed.

I think it will be useful for you to have this topic targeted and put all in one section like this.

What’s covered in the above video?

When it is time to eq vocals, you’ve already got a deep well of knowledge that you may not be aware of. The great news is you can tap into this well of existing knowledge to make learning quicker and to get better results when you are tackling something that you are unfamiliar with or something a little outside your comfort zone.

TIP: Your first vocal recording tip (and it has a direct effect on your vocal EQ success) is this: 

Yes, the mic you choose matters.

Because, vocal EQ is a lot quicker and easier if you make sure to use a decent mic that doesn’t unpleasantly “color” the sound of your vocal.

BUT, you don’t have to spend a ton for a good mic.

I use the mic shown in the picture below, and the EQ adjustments once I’ve recorded a vocal are pretty minor and straight forward, which saves hours of time during the course of a recording session and mix.

good mic for recording vocals

TIP: Remember that every vocal for each song you record will be EQ’ed a little differently because each song will have a different “color,” mood and instrumentation that will determine how its lead vocal should sound and how it should best fit in the mix.

Pre-Production: Why Mixing A Vocal and Your Song is Like Furnishing a Room:

- A little mental trick before we start to take the mystery out of home recording and mixing

Here’s how this works: Many new tasks are directly relatable to everyday things you already know how to do. So, the trick is to find similarities in the new tasks you are learning with everyday stuff you already understand. 

Because ultimately, everything you do is connected and comparable to something else you do. When you create the habit of taking a few minutes to find these connections and comparisons, it makes your brain more receptive and learning, improving and mastering the new task much faster.

We’ll use this technique to create real confidence next time you eq vocals. And very soon, you’ll be able to count on making great sounding vocal recordings and mixes every time.

What I’m trying to say is that, in a way, you already know how to do all of this. I know… it’s spooky. But really, we’re just re-using the mental tools you already have from one everyday task and putting these mental tools to use in your recording and mixing.

What everyday task can we compare to EQ-ing vocals that’ll make the recording process easier and clearer for our brains?

Let’s see… because any kind of audio recording has to occupy the same size sonic space, let’s compare eq-ing and mixing our recorded tracks to furnishing and decorating a room. Because the common sense that goes with placing and arranging your stuff in a room is very similar to choosing, placing and controlling how your tracks will each sound in your recording.

eq vocals

A room is a fixed space with a certain amount of floor space, wall
space and height.  And you have to choose places for each of
the things for your room based on the size and shape of each piece. And
you know without even thinking that two or more things can’t occupy the
same place in your room without things becoming messy.

In the room scenario, you are used to the pre-planning that goes into
imagining and then creating the kind of room you want before starting
to fill it, right?

equalizing vocals

You accept that you would start by thinking about your room, then do
some measuring, and then decide what can go in there. Want a couch? Get
out the measuring tape so we buy the right size.
TV? How big? Where will it go?

audio mixing tips

How about another two chairs and a coffee table? What size will
they have to be to fit? How tall can the lamp be? A
potted plant? Might not be room on the floor for it. Ok, so a hanging
plant then. Yes, now the plant will fit.

Arranging things in a room isn’t a mysterious task. And neither is
vocal EQ and mixing. These are the very same steps we should do before
starting any new song’s recording session. Hey, if we
understand the benefits of a little pre-planning for
furnishing a room, we should jump at the chance to do some effective
pre-production for recording our music.

Believe this:
With good mental pre-production habits and clear visualization of how the recording should sound when it’s done, and then knowing how to actually achieve the results we want, we’ll be solving many potential problems before they even have a chance to happen.

“Headroom” – The Amount of Space Your Recording Has to Occupy

We have to effectively use, but not exceed, the sonic space
(“Headroom”) available for a recording. Exceed the headroom and we get
distortion. This means we will basically be alotting a certain
amount of room for each element of our recording. So we will
be placing our parts (i.e “mixing”) based on their size (i.e “volume”), shape (i.e. “EQ”) and position (i.e. “panning”).

What is headroom?

Ok let’s start the process…

Pre-Recording Step 1: Clearly imagine/visualize your finished recording before you even start

So important.

“Hear” the finished song in your head before you even start recording.
Believe it or not, you already know what your song’s recording should
sound like, but you have to pause long enough before you leap into its
recording to ask yourself for some specifics.

  • What should the tempo (i.e. speed) and what should the feel
    be like for
    this song?
  • What should the instrumentation be for this recording?
  • How should the lead vocal sound on this recording?
  • Where should it
    “sit” in the recording? In other words, should the lead vocal sound
    like it’s hovering just above the band or should it be part of an
    overall band sound?

These questions will give you most of the answers
to how you will eq vocals for this recording before you even start the
project. That’s a good position to be in at the beginning of a session.
It sure beats the feeling of starting a recording project with no sense
of direction or feeling like the sound of the completed recording will
be beyond your

Pre- Recording Step 2: Choose an existing recording by another artist you want the sound of your recording to be like.

When you decide on an existing song’s sound as your goal for your own
recording, the existing song’s sound becomes a reference point and a
sonic “model” as you eq vocals and mix your own song.

All good engineers and producers keep a varied library of other
artists’ releases for references a way of “calibrating” their ears and
focusing their choices before they start the recording and mixing

This is a huge help in successfully removing thousands of choices and
blind alleyways from consideration and you can concentrate on simply
achieving, step by step, the exact elements you need for your song’s
recording and production.

A Couple of Quick Listening Tips Before We Begin to EQ Vocals in Our Example Song: 

producing your own songs

It is important to know HOW to listen to other
recordings for the purpose of using them as eq and mixing
reference “models” for the recording of one of your songs.

The goal when listening to existing music that you’ll be using as your
EQ and mix model, is to know how to “listen like a producer” and not
like a fan.

If you are dancing around the room and playing air guitar as you listen
to the songs you will be using for reference, chances are you are
“listening like a fan” and probably aren’t absorbing the little mix and
eq details and therefore won’t be able to recall real specifics and
truly incorporate them for your own vocal sound and mix.

We all need to create laser-focused listening habits so we know what is
really going on and what we are really hearing in other artists’ mixes
regarding eq.

Only then can you make a real eq and mix game plan for
your own session. Honing listening skills will also improve your own
mixing more than almost any other factor.

Tip: Stay true to your vision for this recording and version of your song. Don’t get put off track chasing alternate visions once the recording and arranging process has begun.

Sure, make a note of your alternate ideas and pursue them later in another version, but focus like a laser and finish this version and reach your sonic goal for this version.

As you’ve probably heard me say before, “A song is only finished until its next version.”


Let’s EQ vocals in a real recording

I wrote a song to record for you guys that has a bunch of little vocal
details so we can see how each sound and each vocal occupies its own
comfortable little space in our mix.

First thing is to imagine very clearly how I want this recording to
sound. So, for this tune I want a bit of the old school sound of Motown
but a warmer and more modern eq approach. I’m thinking I’d like to eq
vocals for this recording in the ballpark of someone like Jason Mraz.

Second thing is to put a very simple bed track down as a guide for the
lead vocal. Why? That way, by getting our vocal down early in the
process, we can tailor the rest of the tracks to go well with, and stay
out of the way of,  the all important lead vocal. This is a
good habit to prevent cluttered production, which sounds amateurish.

Third, I’m going to now record my vocal over the simple bed track I
added for this song. (In this case, it’s a simple keyboard part). As I said, I’ll add the rest of the band later.

Before we eq vocals for this song, let’s listen to the raw, un-equalized vocal recording over the basic bed track.

Pre-Production on Vocal NO EQ for “I’ve Been Around” by Owen Critchley

Tip: Make sure to get a good, healthy input volume going to the recorded track. 

vocal recording tips

Right now the EQ of this vocal is un-touched.

vocal eq flat

Because of we’re using a decent mic like the Rode Microphones NT1-A Condenser Mic Bundle, we have a nicely
recorded vocal to work with that shouldn’t need much work to sound good in our mix. Let’s keep going.

NOTE: The Thing About Vocal Frequencies

The human vocal has a really surprising amount of ground it covers in
the eq spectrum. This means it is almost always going to “invade the EQ
space” of other instruments. For an effective mix we’ll have to shape
the lead vocal with some EQ tweaking.

eq vocals

Although the lead vocal works pretty well with our single keyboard
track, as more and more instruments and layers are added, we’ll
definitely begin to hear that the lead vocal is having to fight for EQ
space and it will become less and less clear.

So at first, the recorded tracks of a song are like a bunch of
furniture thrown into a room. It’s no shock that it looks like a mess.
It’s not a mystery that everything simply needs to be placed in the
place you have planned for it.

It’s the same thing with our tracks. Once we learn the language of EQ
we’ll have no trouble placing and arranging the pieces to make a mix
that is clear, wide and spacious.

Let’s Eq Vocals Step by Step on the Example Song

Here are the frequencies we are going to have to be careful about as we
EQ vocals for our recording:

STEP 1. The first place we always have to know there will be a crowd fighting for space with the lead vocal is down in the low bass frequencies. But that’s ok because the lead vocal really doesn’t need
to be down there anyway. The frequencies between 20hz – 63 hz are not doing anything to enhance our vocal. So we can pretty much roll them all the way down.

eq vocals step 1

As you can see, we have started by rolling down the very low bass
frequencies entirely. A lead vocal simply doesn’t need to be using up
space down there. It’s really just rumble down there and adding nothing
to enhance our vocal.

STEP 2. Let’s look at the upper bass frequencies between 80 hz – 250 hz. This is a busy EQ area with bass and drums sharing space down there and low part of guitars and keyboard parts, so there are a few tweaks we need to make to prevent “mud” in the low end.

eq vocals step 2

We definitely want the lead vocal’s eq to retain some presence in this
area for warmth and “weight” but we don’t want our lead vocal to get
tangled up with the bass and drums and become un-defined and un-clear.

In fact, we can actually “piggy-back” on the frequencies of other
instruments and tracks to give the illusion that our vocal has more low
end than it actually does.

TIP: If you’d to learn more about “piggy-backing” frequencies, as well as everything you need to know to simply and affordably make professional quality recordings at home, download your copy of myEasy Home Recording Blueprint

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We have built a great “Blueprinter” community that is growing bigger every day and new success stories are coming in all the time as more and more great sounding music is getting recorded at home using the “simple, perfect method” of the Home Recording Blueprint.

Or you can even start with my free home recording lesson series.

STEP 3. Now let’s look at the low mid-range frequencies between approximately 250 hz – 800 hz.

eq vocals step 3

Depending on the mic used and even the tone of the voice of the singer, a recorded vocal can have a certain “boxy” sound that can rob the vocal of clarity and/or sound muffled.

To deal with this we’ll always have a look in the low mid-range frequencies from approximately 200 hz to around 800 hz. As you can see from the image above, a well recorded vocal normally requires only small adjustments in the various EQ frequency band, so make sure to have a light touch and listen carefully to your vocal by itself (solo-ed) and with the rest of the tracks.

STEP 4. Ok, moving on to the mid- range, high mid-range and high frequencies as we continue to eq vocals for our example song.

eq vocals step 4

The mid-range, high mid-range and high frequencies are what help a
vocal recording cut through, but that is exactly why they are probably
the most mis-used frequencies in self produced and/or home recordings.

It’s true that mid, high-mid and high can add clarity to a vocal, but
they so easily can cause harshness (especially between 2 khz and 4khz)
and can add a “quacky” and definitely amateurish sound to a vocal recording if they are mis-used.

TIP: You will find that once you tweak the “boxy” frequencies (see point #3 above) you may not even have to do much in the high mid-ranges between 2khz – 4 khz. 

In other words, just by EQ-ing the vocal so it is less muffled in the low mid-range, the vocal will suddenly be clearer and seem like you’ve given it a high mid-range boost even though you actually didn’t touch it. It’s really very cool.

So, just remember when you EQ vocals, or any track for that matter, the various EQ frequencies affect each other. If you have a well recorded vocal using a decent mic, each EQ adjustment you make on the frequency sliders will normally be quite small.

As you can see in the image above, I have rolled down some of these mid and high mid-range frequency areas slightly so our vocal remains clear but still keeps its warmth.

A Look at Our Final EQ Settings

eq vocals - final settings

TIP: Regarding ultra high frequencies (20 khz) on our final lead vocal EQ settings: 

Remember when I said that down in the ultra-low bass frequencies around 20 hz (hertz) that there is mostly useless rumble on a vocal recording?

Well, way up in the ultra-high end frequencies of 20 khz (kilohertz) except, instead of rumble, we have the situation that, although there may be some sonic activity up there, human ears can’t really hear anything up there so we can roll down this frequency range as well.

Accentuating that area can just use up valuable space in our sonic space (i.e “headroom”)

Actually, I probably could have rolled down that 20 khz slider on the far right even more than I did. But things are sounding pretty good, so I’ll leave it only partially rolled back for now.

If things sound a bit too crispy after I’ve lived with the mix for a few days, I’ll bring it down
further, which is often what I end up doing.

Let’s Hear the First Finished Mix

Ok, I’ve done a mix for you of our example song. Let’s have a listen.
You’ll notice in the song that I’ve got some background vocal activity
and there are some simple but very cool tips for how to EQ vocals that
are going to used in a supporting role to the lead vocal. So after you
listen to the mix, we’ll have a quick chat about the backup vocal
layers on the song.

Motown Style “I’ve Been Around” – Owen Critchley by Owen Critchley

A Note about EQ-ing Background Vocals

Because the lead vocal is now establishing and occupying its correct portion of the frequency range, any background vocals added don’t necessarily have to be as thick or bright as the lead vocal.

The listener’s ears will give the backup vocals a kind of sonic “credit”. In a sense, the background vocals are piggybacking on the full rich tone of the lead and therefore the backups can actually afford to be a little duller and/or thinner than the lead vocal so they can avoid crowding the lead vocal’s EQ space. With the panning tool, we can further separate the backup vocals from the lead vocal.

By being aware of this as we EQ vocals, we create a situation where all the various vocal tracks remain clear and distinct to the listener. It makes their listening experience far richer and more enjoyable as they hear all the facets and little details of your song’s recording.

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