Pop vocals tend to have the same sort of sound when they hit our ears. People use words like bright, shiny, crisp, and airy to describe them, and you can hear this sound on loads of tracks at the top of charts across genres. Let’s take a look at how to achieve that same sound and make a vocal POP right out of your mix. In this article, we’ll talk about how to EQ a pop vocal to set yourself up for success later in mixing music.
In this piece you’ll learn how to:
Eliminate unnecessary lows
Add brightness to a vocal that transcends any mix
Remove unwanted vocal resonance
Boost warmth and presence in a vocal
I’ll be using one of my own vocal samples so you can hear the changes the EQ is making as we go along. Here is the raw vocal we’ll be working with:
Raw Vocal Sample
And here’s the final vocal with EQ:
Pop Vocal with EQ
To demonstrate the process, I’ll be using the EQ module in Nectar Pro. Nectar Pro is a vocal processing powerhouse, allowing you to treat your vocal from start to finish within one plug-in.
You can follow along and EQ your vocals with the plug-ins in this tutorial that are included in a free trial of iZotope’s Music Production Suite Pro membership. Start learning how to mix and master with a continually updated powerhouse of 46 intelligent assistive audio plug-ins, exclusive courses, tutorials, and royalty-free sound packs.
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In order to get that airy, light sound, the first step is to eliminate unnecessary activity in the very low end. Using a high pass filter with a high Q or slope, filter out everything below around 100 Hz for a male vocal, or 150 Hz for a female vocal. These are not hard rules, just guidelines to get you started. Just make sure you’re not cutting above the fundamental frequency of any note, and that you still give the lowest note some room to breathe.
A high-pass filter cutting out rumble, noise, and proximity
In a vocal, these low frequencies are usually mostly ambient room noise, electronic hum, and the sound of the singer’s proximity to the mic on plosives ("p" and "b" sounds), which will even happen if you use a pop filter. You likely won’t miss the sound of those unnecessary low frequencies or even hear a huge shift, but this lightens things up and removes unnecessary energy from the vocal.
This unnecessary energy can also cause issues later on in the effects chain. If we kept this low end content in the vocal and ran it into a compressor, the signal would cross the threshold at a lower level than it would without this low end. The compressor would therefore be reacting to audio content that we don’t actually want in the final vocal, and not compressing the vocal like we’d want it to.
Cutting this extreme low end isn’t something that’s specific to vocals. Eliminating unwanted noise and energy is applicable for virtually any kind of mix element.
The next step is to brighten the high end with a high shelf filter. Everyone’s voice has a different amount of brightness and you’ll have to make an informed decision about what’s right for the vocal you’re working on. People who have airy, breathy vocals might not need much of a boost at all, while others with a rounder, darker tone might require a significant boost.
Boosting the highs to get that shimmer and shine
Halsey, Ellie Goulding, and Ariana Grande all have voices with a lot of breath, whereas Celine Dion, Lady Gaga, and James Blake have more pure tone and body in their voices. Knowing where to set this high shelf is the real trick, but here’s a tip to get you on the right track:
It’s often easier to hear that something sounds wrong than to see that it’s wrong on an EQ. To make sure a guitar is in tune—without a tuner—we first pull it out of tune and then bring it back towards the pitch center. You can do the same thing with this high shelf band, boosting it until the vocal becomes too bright, and then pulling it back until you start to miss that brightness. Then you know you’re close to where you need to be.
Here is my vocal after removing the unnecessary low frequencies and boosting the brightness:
A pop vocal needs to be especially smooth, with any resonances being controlled or turned down. This isn’t true for all vocals; a jazz vocal often has more nuance and resonance than a pop vocal to stay more “natural” sounding, and sometimes to emulate traditional instruments like horns. Pop, on the other hand, is defined more by its brightness than its mid range. To achieve that balance, you need to identify and attenuate resonant frequencies in the vocal.
Resonant frequencies are points and ranges in the voice where there’s an abundance of energy. We would use words like "nasal," "metallic," and "brassy" to describe them. Each voice has a different amount of resonance in different areas of the frequency spectrum. Resonances can also depend greatly on which microphone is used, the range of the song relative to the person that’s singing it, the time of day, the specific performance, and plenty of other factors.
In order to eliminate resonances, you can use a technique called ‘peak and sweep.’ To do this, create a wide bell filter with a Q factor of around 1, boost it by arout 5dB, and sweep it across the frequency spectrum to find any resonant frequencies. This boost will act as a magnifying glass you can use to identify resonance you can remove from your vocal. If you spot resonance, hone in on it by increasing the Q factor, which narrows the bell filter, and attenuate at that specific frequency.
If you’re using Nectar Pro, the EQ module includes an Alt-Solo feature that makes this process even easier. It allows you to play back frequency bands in isolation and automatically assigns an EQ node in the areas you want to attenuate.
Once you’ve identified where the resonance is and how wide the range is, you can then lower the EQ band below the 0 dB line and widen it accordingly. How much you cut will depend on the amount of resonance present in your vocal. Here’s where I placed my bell filters to clean up my vocal:
Two bell filters removing unwanted resonance
Nectar Pro also has a nifty feature called Follow EQ that locks onto a harmonic in a signal (like these resonant frequencies) and follows it as the harmonic moves around. Since a pop vocal generally moves up and down in pitch throughout the performance, this Follow EQ function is very useful for removing an area of resonance in the vocalist’s voice as it moves up and down the frequency spectrum. I’ve turned on Follow EQ for my bell filters, and this is the result:
Vocal after Removing Resonance with Bell Filters
The last piece of EQing a pop vocal, and the hardest to pull off, is to boost the ranges in a vocal that create more presence and warmth. Again, this will differ for each voice you encounter, but here are a few general tips to get you going:
These areas tend to be in the mid range, between 1–6 kHz.
If a vocal is feeling thin, a boost between 200–300 Hz can work well.
Be careful boosting around 4–9 kHz since that’s where sibilance tends to hide out. Boosting too much here can cause your vocal to sound harsh.
Knowing where to boost is a lot more difficult than knowing where to cut, and requires more refined critical listening skills. The more vocals you mix, the easier this will become.
Nectar Pro comes with two separate EQ modules. I typically like to use the first EQ for cutting and the second for boosting. For my vocal, I decided to add a boost around 430 Hz to add some more body to my voice and another boost around 3.5 kHz to bring out a bit more sizzle and crispness.
Bell filters boosting presence and warmth in Nectar Pro
Here’s what my final vocal sounds like after a bit of EQ boosting:
Vocal after Boosting Warmth and Presence
Start using EQ on your pop vocals
A little bit of EQ work really goes a long way. Here’s the before-and-after audio sample to show you how much good the EQing did for my vocal:
Before and After: EQ’d Pop Vocal
With just a few simple EQ adjustments, you can easily polish up your pop vocal and get it ready for the next steps in your vocal chain. After EQing, you’ll probably want to add some compression, de-essing, and maybe a bit of reverb to finish up your vocal processing. But, you can do all of this within the same instance of Nectar Pro, which is one of the many plug-ins that come with a free trial of iZotope’s Music Production Suite Pro membership.
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- Eliminate unnecessary lows with a high pass filter. In order to get that airy, light sound, the first step is to eliminate unnecessary activity in the very low end. ...
- Add brightness with a high-shelf filter. ...
- Remove resonance with bell filters. ...
- Boost presence and warmth with bell filters. ...
- Start using EQ on your pop vocals.
- Remove unwanted low end (1 Hz–100 Hz) ...
- Balance body and warmth (100 Hz–400 Hz) ...
- Remove hollow or boxy frequencies (400 Hz–800 Hz) ...
- Remove unwanted resonances in the nasal cavity (800 Hz–1.5 kHz) ...
- Improve presence and intelligibility (1.5 kHz–5 kHz) ...
- Address sibilance (5 kHz–8 kHz) ...
- Add sparkle (8 kHz–12 kHz)
When working with a harsh vocal, you can typically tame it by attenuating frequencies above 2kHz and below 12kHz using a subtle bell filter via an EQ. Attenuating 3-5kHz will help significantly, as will using a de-esser on 5kHz to 12kHz to reduce harsh-sounding sibilance.How do you EQ vocals in a sample? ›
- Boost around 100Hz to add warmth to piano and horns.
- Cut around 400Hz to reduce “boxiness” in snares and kicks.
- Boost around 1.5KHz to add “pluck” sound to a bass.
- Cut everything below 3KHz in a vocal in order to have it “float” above other instruments.
Vocal recordings are naturally dynamic, which means they have a wide range of loud and soft parts. Compression reduces the distance between the loudest and softest part of the vocal, making it more consistent in volume throughout.How do you get crystal clear vocals? ›
Use Bright Reverb
Bright reverb both causes the vocal to sound bigger, and amplifies the high-frequency range, causing clarity. To accomplish this, you can use a reverb plugin that includes some form of equalization, like dampening, or an eq.
As a rule, using EQ in front of your compressor produces a warmer, rounder tone, while using EQ after your compressor produces a cleaner, clearer sound.What frequency should I EQ my voice? ›
|160 - 250||Voice fundamentals|
|315 - 500||Important to voice quality|
|630 - 1000||Important for a natural sound. Too much boost in the 315 to 1K range produces a honky, telephone-like quality.|
|1250 - 4000||Accentuation of vocals|
Your vocals should sound louder than the beat between -10dB and -15dB. A reliable method would be to set your lead vocal track to -12dB, then push back your instrumental tracks accordingly.How do you fix muddy vocals with EQ? ›
The easiest way to use an EQ to fix muddy vocals is to use a low-cut filter and high-pass everything below a certain frequency, typically around 90-100Hz. This will help reduce proximity effect and any boominess in the performer's voice.
The true problem with harsh vocals is that they are caused by specific frequency resonances within the high frequencies of the vocal track. These resonances often don't happen all the time but rather only when certain consonants, phrases and notes occur within the vocal performance.How do you make vocals pop out in a mix? ›
- High-pass filter. ...
- High boost for “air.” A common characteristic of high-quality microphones is a boost in the 6–10 kHz range. ...
- Cut the “honk.” Sometimes your vocal might pop out a little more than desirable, somewhere in the 2–5 kHz range. ...
- Before you compress, automate!
In my opinion, apply EQ before and after compression. Whether you agree with that or not, it's up to you, but that's how I like to work. Give that a try.What effects to put on pop vocals? ›
- Add Wet Reverb. Reverb should be on every one of your vocal tracks, even if it's just a little bit. ...
- Pre- and Post-Delay. Pre-delay is a setting on your reverb plugin. ...
- Depth with Delay. ...
- Turn Yourself into a Choir. ...
- Bus the Autotune for a Vocoder Effect. ...
- Widen the Vocals. ...
- Get a Megaphone Sound.
Just dial in a soft knee, moderate ratio (try 2:1 or 3:1), gentle attack & release times and set your threshold for 2-4 dB of compression. This type of soft knee vocal compression pairs especially well with the sort of targeted dynamic control I described in my ratio article.Do pop singers use head voice? ›
Classical or “legit” singers are not the only ones that need a strong head voice. Both pop and classical singers need to know how to use head voice IN DIFFERENT WAYS. How a pop singer shapes her head voice resonance is NOT the same way that a classical singer does it – yet it's ALL still head voice.What do over compressed vocals sound like? ›
Too much compression produces a flat, non-dynamic performance that doesn't have a “live” feel to it. An overly compressed vocal will feel unnatural and dull to the listener, so it's key to avoid this point if at all possible. Lead vocals should be consistent, but still, have a degree of dynamic fluctuation.Is slow or fast compression better for vocals? ›
Generally speaking, faster attack and release times will give you more aggression, grit, and loudness, while slower times sound smoother. Many engineers choose to begin applying compression with a slow attack speed and a fast release speed for the most natural, transparent sound.Should EQ go before or after autotune? ›
In general, effects like high pass/low cut filters, subtle EQ, de-essers, and gentle compression/dynamics should be used before Auto-Tune in the effects chain. All other processing such as delay, reverb, spatial effects, distortion, etc should be applied after Auto-Tune.What is the best dB for vocals? ›
Thus, it is best to record vocal renditions with an average of -18 dB, assuming you are using the standard definition 24-bit. However, louder parts such as screams or breakdowns should be -10dB. This works the other way around – the loudest and quietest recordings should be at least -24 dB.
A normal voice level is between 60-70 dB. A raised voice is between 65-75 dB. A very loud voice is between 75-85 dB. A shouting voice is above 85 dB.What makes your vocals sound better? ›
To make vocals sound better, start by editing - when editing, cut out background noise, use clip gain to balance dynamics, and even remove plosives or unwanted sibilance. Then you can introduce subtractive EQ, Compression, Additive EQ, Saturation, Exciters, and various forms of short and long reverb.Why are my vocals so weak? ›
What causes weak voice? Weak voice can be caused by the normal ageing process but can occur at any time due to poor vocal hygiene. Professional voice users may also experience weak voice due to overuse of the voice.Why are my vocals getting worse? ›
Just as it sounds, vocal fatigue results when you've overused your voice without proper recovery time. The vocal folds are muscles and just like any other muscle or muscle group, they get tired, sore, and don't work as well after a strenuous workout.How do I make my voice brighter with EQ? ›
Dip Sibilance, Boost Air
An easy way to make bright vocals is to first attenuate sibilance and then boost the air or highest frequency range available. The sibilance will be between 4kHz and 10kHz, while the airband which will be a shelf, can be centered at 12kHz and above.
600 Hz–3,000 Hz (Mids)—the range that humans can hear the best. The majority of the sound of vocals is here, so EQing this range represents the perfect equalizer settings to play with if you want to affect someone's voice.What frequency should I cut for harshness? ›
Often, you will find that cutting a harsh region, like 2.5kHz to 3.5kHz on a lead vocal and then slightly boosting just above that range, like 6kHz to 8kHz, will add back the shine so that the cut doesn't result in a dull tone.What frequency makes vocals harsh? ›
The word harsh typically describes a shrill or cold sound and generally speaking, harshness exists in the range of 3kHz-5kHz. Usually, this is the problematic area bothering listeners when they claim “the vocal sounds too bright,” even though “bright” can also be a term to describe higher, airy bands.What causes harsh vocal quality? ›
Most commonly, dysphonia is caused by an abnormality with the vocal cords (also known as vocal folds) but there can be other causes from problems with airflow from the lungs or abnormalities with the structures of the throat near the vocal cords.What plugins make vocals pop? ›
- UAD 1176. One of the most famous and widely used FET limiting amplifiers of all time. ...
- UAD LA-2A. For a cool opt sound, you can't go wrong with an LA-2A. ...
- UAD Pultec. ...
- Waves Vocal Rider. ...
- Renaissance Vox. ...
- Waves Doubler. ...
- Antares Auto-Tune Pro. ...
- FabFilter Pro-Q 3.
Master Beat Before or After Vocals
The learning process will be much more lively and active if you do it at one time without delay. Your best bet would be to blend vocals with beat and hone them together. Likewise, mixing vocals and beat sounds will allow you to experiment, open up new boundaries and go beyond.
We ultimately want to achieve clarity and brilliance — a basic sound we can modify later however we want — so we need to clear off the dirt. So the first working step of EQing vocals is always a basic “low cut.” Take away anything under 40 to 60 Hz. Because we rather feel than hear what's going on there.Should EQ go before or after volume? ›
It really depends on what sound you're going for and what other effects you're using. If you're using a lot of other effects, it might be best to put the eq before the compression so you can really shape your sound. If you're going for a more natural sound, you might want to put the compression before the eq.Why do most pop songs sound the same? ›
In short: So many songs sound the same because they use the same underlying sequence of chords. Different keys, different arrangements, different styles – but the same progression! Learn about this progression and playing songs by ear becomes much easier!Which technique is used in pop songs? ›
For pop, the most common technique is to hard-pan double-tracked elements and use this to delineate sections (say, verse and chorus).What vocal techniques are used in pop music? ›
Pop Singers Use Chesty Vowels
Pop vocalists use loud and chesty vowels. For example, to make a high belt more approachable, an "AH" sound may be changed to an "A" sound. Vowels used by classical vocalists are often stronger.
The root of the "three-minute" length is likely derived from the original format of 78 rpm-speed phonograph records; at about 3 to 5 minutes per side, it's just long enough for the recording of a complete song. The rules of the Eurovision Song Contest do not permit entries to be longer than three minutes.Why is pop music so powerful? ›
Pop Music Appeals to a Wide Audience
Unlike other genres that cater to a specific group of people, pop music has mass appeal and can be enjoyed by people of all ages, backgrounds, and cultures. This makes it the perfect genre for parties or other events where you want everyone to be able to enjoy the music.
The trick being used is called dynamic range compression. It boosts quieter passages of music so that, overall, the music sounds louder. The waveform shown in the video contains all the tell-tell signs of compression.What is the best tempo for pop? ›
There are four characteristics of popular music that are usually found in songs that become hits. They are a good rhythm, a catchy melody, easy to remember lyrics, and a repeated chorus. These elements come together to create a song that is enjoyable to listen to and easy to sing along to.What texture is used in most pop songs? ›
Homophonic. Homophonic texture (homophony) is the most common texture in Western music, both classical and popular.Why is pop music so slow? ›
Don't worry, you're not 'getting old', nor are you the only one. The average tempo of pop songs has decreased by over 20 per cent in the last five years and researchers think it's down to the rising popularity of laid-back hip-hop and people's need for more soothing and comforting music in times of unease.Is pop music good for the brain? ›
Listening to pop music as you study will help relax the brain and focus on the creative side of things. Make it a point to listen to your favorite pop music stars and albums each time you feel a break in the creative flow. Music relaxes the brain muscles, improves concentration, and thereby enhances creative ability.Why is pop music easy? ›
Pop songs usually have a simple composition, which is based on repetitive elements that are easy to remember. Several lyrical and musical elements, such as the choruses, verses, hooks, and riffs, are all written and constructed with simple lines and notes.What rhythms are used in pop music? ›
Most pop/rock songs have a mixture of syncopated and “straight” rhythms. The syncopated rhythms are usually easy to sing, since they often match speech better than straight rhythms. However, they are more difficult than straight rhythms to sight-sing, dictate, or transcribe.