Subtractive EQ

Before we can enhance the vocal, we first need to clean up the vocal with subtractive EQ’ing. This will ensure that there are no bad or unwanted frequencies being amplified later during the mixing process. Please note, that the examples given during this chapter don’t directly apply to all mixing situations. Each voice is unique and requires a different approach, however, these tips will give you a great idea of what to listen out for and how to fix certain issues. In these examples I will be using the Fabfilter Pro Q3 plug-in, but these steps can also be easily followed with the stock EQ of you DAW.  When subtractive EQ’ing vocals, there are multiple steps to take in to consideration:

1. Use a high pass filter or low cut up to 150Hz.

Fabfilter high pass filter 150Hz

Example 1. EQ with 150Hz low cut.

To clarify, a high pass filter or low cut is the same thing. The example shown above shows a high pass filter/low cut up to 150Hz, but this is obviously not applicable to every artist. Every artist has a different vocal range. For artists with a lower voice, you might use a high pas filter/low cut up to 100Hz. Play around with this until you find a balance where the artist still has enough low end but doesn’t clash with other low instruments, such as an 808 or kick.

So why do we need to high pass filter/low cut the vocal? First and foremost, we do this, as mentioned earlier, to prevent the vocal from clashing with other low instruments. This will result in a clearer mix, which also makes the vocal more intelligible. And lastly, this will also quickly attenuate a good amount of background noice, mic rumble, unwanted plosives and more. We already minimized the majority of these sounds in the previous chapter “Vocal Editing”. But by applying this step we minimized these problematic sounds even more, and thus created a clearer vocal performance.

2. Attenuate around 200Hz, 700Hz and 5kHz slightly.

Example 2. Subtractive EQ’ing.

By adding these cuts we tackle a lot of the problematic frequencies that occur in vocal recordings. Just like we mentioned earlier, you might need to adjust these cuts slightly according to your mixing situation.

Even though we already did a high pass filer/low cut up to 150Hz, it is still a good idea to attenuate 200Hz, as this frequency range often contains muddiness, which will prevent your vocal from being clear and intelligible. You can cut this frequency approximately between 1-3db with a bell curve. Be careful, by overdoing this your vocals will sound thin and weak. Another problematic frequency in some cases is around 700Hz. Around this frequency range there are often unpleasant nasal tones. By cutting this frequency range with a bell curve between 1-3db, we are able to remove these unpleasant nasal tones, and thus prevent these from being amplified later during the mixing process. And finally, if needed, a small cut of 1db around 5kHz to minimize harsh sibilances. During the vocal editing process we already lowered the volume of harsh sibilances, so only apply this cut if the vocal still contains harsh sibilances. When cutting this frequency, it is advised to use a dynamic bell cut. If you don’t have an EQ with this option, then you can just simply cut the frequency.

3. Surgical EQ’ing.

Fabfilter surgical EQ

Example 3. Surgical EQ.

If there are still unwanted frequencies present, you could erase or minimize these with surgical EQ’ing. After you have EQ’d the vocals to your liking, load another EQ after that and then do a sweep for all the frequencies you don’t like. Create a band with a maximum of a 10db boost. Any higher than this will create artifacts, which make it more difficult to locate the problematic frequencies. As you sweep the band, once you’ve located one of these frequency ranges, reduce the level of the band, preferably dynamically, according to your preference. It is best to do this at the end of the effects chain, as further mix decisions might amplify certain unwanted frequencies.
Another great plug-in for this is Sooth 2. Sooth 2 is a dynamic resonance suppressor. It identifies problematic resonances on the fly and applies matching reduction automatically. This can save quite a lot of time and will result in a smooth and balanced sound. Below you can see what the plug-in looks like:

Picture 1. Soothe 2.

It only requires you to select a problematic area by boosting the EQ curve. The problematic frequencies within this area will then be automatically reduced. The additional settings used depend on the vocal recording you are working with. For a more comprehensive explanation of this plug-in, please click here

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