Mixing the lead vocal track is often considered the most difficult part of a production. It’s usually the absolute focus and forefront of the song and it can set the tone for the quality of the recording. A great vocal track can make an otherwise mediocre album pop and come to life. Conversely, a poorly-produced vocal track can also make a great instrumental mix fall flat.
It’s best to separate vocal processing into two categories:
In this 2 part article, we’re going to focus on some of the problem areas that can arise during tracking. By first correctively equalizing these issues out of your recording, your creative sweetening will be more effective and fit into the mix with ease. Listen closely to your vocal recording and decide how many of these areas need to be corrected with standard/dynamic EQ or multiband compression before moving on.
Book End Frequency Build-Ups
Sometimes excess rumble gets into our vocal takes. If we don’t have big speakers or a subwoofer we may miss this problem. Similarly, sometimes the treble can stretch on too far if EQ was used during the tracking session, or if a condenser mic with a bright top is coupled with a very airy singer. Too much of this range can sound “cheap” or “like plastic”.
Solution: These issues are nothing a simple high/low pass filter can't remedy. It's important to consider these issues and set up a filter as a safety net when your speakers may not detect the problem audibly. You may find that a simple dip helps more than a roll off in the case of very high treble issues.
Sometimes vocal recordings have too little low-frequency content below 250Hz. Whether it was the actual quality of the voice, or the mic/preamp being a little light in the bottom end; it will need to be addressed.
Solution: A wide EQ boost in this range can help give it the heft it’s lacking. Pay close attention to the range the vocalist is singing within. Sometimes it’s better to roll off some higher frequencies and/or dip some mid frequencies instead if they’re singing higher notes that don’t have much low-end content.
By contrast, vocals can often sound too dark if they were recorded using a dynamic or ribbon microphone. This is because these styles of microphones tend to roll off on the top end.
Solution: This can be counteracted by using a simple treble boost with a very gradual slope. Experiment with the corner frequency and angle of the slope to make sure you aren’t boosting too much of the mid-range frequencies while bringing up the air.
A low-mid frequency build-up often comes from a poor pairing of mic and voice. Vocals recorded in a small room can also experience quite a bit of build-up in this range, as early reflections reach the diaphragm very rapidly.
Solution: It’s tempting to just dip a wide range of 300-600Hz to minimize this issue, but be careful because that is also the range where the fullness of the voice comes from. It’s more advantageous to use a couple of EQ bands with narrow Q widths to clean up the range without losing all of the power.
Again, this problem usually arises from a poor matching between mic and voice. Sometimes the presence of the vocals come across as just over or under what’s needed.
Solution: Gentler vocals may need a little push in the 1-2k range, while more aggressive singers may need a little dip in this same range. It can be difficult to find just the right level for this band to sound smooth without suppressing the vocal sound. If it feels harsh once you get the presence feeling appropriate, you may need to pay some careful attention to detail on your Qs with some extra notches.
We’ve discussed some common bandwidth errors that occur from improper microphone placement and pairing for the first installment of this article. Stay tuned for part 2, which will discuss another category of equalization problems: Performance-based problem areas.