There’s not a shred of doubt that the vocals are the most important part of the musical composition. This is what the listener will pay the most attention to and would memorize by heart. After all, it is very hard to sing along to a bass drum or cymbals. So it is crucial to keep the vocals at the center of attention and emphasize the beauty of the vocalist’s timbre. Although there are a lot of tricks that you can use to mix the recording, today, we will focus on how to EQ live vocals.
EQing live vocals explained
In terms of the approach, mixing live vocals and mixing vocals recorded in the studio have a lot in common. While working on the record, your job as an audio engineer is to create a timeless mix that translates well into every possible piece of audio equipment. You need to create a very nuanced but yet polished composition in which every detail of performance could be heard equally. It is very similar to mixing in a live environment but with a few fundamental differences.
First of all, more often than not, audio engineers sacrifice the energy of the performance in order for the record to sound more contained. In terms of a live gig, the energy of the performance is the essential part. Try to contain it, and you will end up with a bunch of very unhappy listeners.
Secondly, the live mix shouldn’t be that polished. This, of course, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to try, but making a live gig sound like a record is nearly an impossible task. And the energy of the performance should prevail. In other words, it doesn’t have to be pretty, but it has to be loud.
What gear to use
The other thing that separates live mixing from working on a record is the tools that you would use. Of course, using your conventional vst effects is theoretically possible, but equipment that would let you do that is preposterously expensive, and wiring a live gig through your trustworthy laptop is a hell of a challenge. So that leaves us just with two options – analog mixers and digital ones. For the sake of this conversation, we will leave out the idea of routing through outboard gear. Not many of us have it anyway.
Analog mixers are very common and relatively inexpensive. Usually, concert stages offer their own equipment, so you will stumble upon one of those more often than not. Often analog mixers are reliable and rather functional, but the problem is that they can offer you an equalizer with only three to five bands. So don’t expect to have surgical control over your live vocals.
Digital mixers, on the other hand, will give you very precise control over equalization, and some might even let you use your favorite vst plugins. But those are very far from being cheap and much harder to come by than analog mixers. Nevertheless, more and more stages are upgrading their equipment, and eventually, analog mixers will be completely replaced by digital ones.
We can’t possibly know in which situation you will find yourself or what mixer you will purchase for your own stage if that is the case. So in this article, we’ll try to give you tips and tricks that will work both on digital and analog mixers. We will divide the equalization process for live vocals into some areas of concern and show you how to approach them on different mixers.
In the case of mixing the low end of the vocal, you should treat it as you would if working on the record. Since we know that there is no useful information below 80 Hz, you should definitely cut those frequencies. Another reason why you should do it is that the sub-frequency range is already occupied by drums and bass. And you want your vocals to sit right in the mix.
You might even experiment and cut higher than 80 Hz. In some situations, it can be beneficial and could leave room for drums and bass to breathe. But consider that you have to use your high pass filters with great caution.
There is a lot of energy in a low-range frequency, especially when it comes to male vocalists. Improper high-pass filters could make the voice sound too thin and uninspiring. The good news is that both analog and digital mixers have dedicated high-pass filters, so it doesn’t matter what type of gear you would use in this situation. You may try to place your low-cut filter somewhere between 80-200 Hz to clean up your vocals even more. By doing so, make sure to rely on your ears, personal taste, and, of course, common sense.
Some unvoiced consonants could cause an unpleasant effect in the low mid-range. If you detect those infamous “pth” sounds, you can find those sounds somewhere between 100-200 Hz. A gentle cut in that range should reduce this effect and, at the same time, should leave room for guitars and other instruments that usually favor that frequency range. If you are using a digital mixer, this cut shouldn’t be a problem since, usually, those mixers have fully parametric EQs on board. Things don’t look as promising when it comes to analog mixers, though.
Usually, they have EQs with only three bands for each channel, although some are pretty advanced and have more sophisticated EQs. Nevertheless, a very precise cut isn’t really an option. So you either are going to have to apply a low-shelf EQ and reduce low frequencies altogether, or leave those frequencies untouched. Either way, sacrifices will have to be made. So you will either lose low-frequency energy of the vocals or maintain that energy with that unpleasant effect remaining.
If you feel that your vocals are too muddy and slightly incoherent, you may apply a fairly broad cut somewhere between 200-600 Hz. This will clean up your vocals, but applying too much of a cut might reduce some essential warmth. So you would have to find a sweet spot in order not to lose the warmth and still make your vocals sound cleaner. Usually, it takes 2-3 dB of reduction to make things sound just right. Since both analog and digital mixers provide you an option of a broad cut in mid-range frequencies, this shouldn’t be a challenge at all.
Usually, listeners are extremely sensitive to the voice sibilants, and if obvious, those frequencies sound particularly unpleasant. You can reduce this effect significantly by cutting somewhere around 5-10 kHz. Too much of a cut, of course, will greatly reduce presence and clarity in vocals and will make it sound rather dull. Again, digital mixers will provide an option of a very surgical notch which will reduce sibilants but maintain clarity. Digital mixers usually can offer you a high-shelf EQ, so the cut should be even gentler, and you should keep the balance between tolerable sibilants and enough clarity.
If your vocalist is too close to the microphone, this will cause a significant boost in low frequencies. This is called a proximity effect and can be easily avoided by having a proper distance between the singer and a microphone. Usually, professional vocalists know how to hold a microphone, but there are some exceptions.
Some vocalists prefer a microphone to be extremely close. Some even like to touch it with their lips. And if it is their creative decision and you, as an audio engineer, have no control over how musicians perform, there is only one way to reduce a proximity effect. Simply make a significant cut in a frequency range of 80-200 Hz.
To boost or not to boost
As a general rule, to avoid feedback, you shouldn’t really boost anything since microphones are pretty sensitive. That being said, some vocal performances could benefit from a very gentle high-shelf or low-shelf boost. And as you could have guessed, both digital and analog mixers provide that option. But then again, our goal here is to translate the natural clarity and warmth in the vocalist’s performance. You can find that by boosting frequencies in live mixing environment, you can make the voice sound a bit artificial, which doesn’t correlate with our main objective.
As you can see, how to eq live vocals is simply a matter of clearing it up by cutting unwanted frequencies. Although boosting is possible, also you may not actually benefit from it and risk getting feedback. Mixing live vocals is a matter of personal taste and experience, but there are a few general areas that might concern you. Cutting frequencies below 80 Hz will eliminate some low rumble in the vocals, and cutting somewhere between 80-200 Hz will eliminate the proximity effect if such occurs. You can reduce muddiness by cutting somewhere between 200-600 Hz, and unpleasant sibilants could be reduced in the range of 5-10 kHz.