Are you producing vocals at home but can’t seem to make them sit in the mix? A very common problem for D.I.Y. producers is the vocal track is not clear: the words are inconsistent in volume, or the voice has no apparent presence against the backing track.
I’ve had those issues with my own music before and learned how to fix them from experience.
So, in this extensive FAQ and guide, I’ll explain how you can clear up and emphasize your vocal tracks with just a few simple plugin effects.
- How Do You Make Your Vocals Sound Clearer?
- 1. Cut Low Frequencies
- 2. Boost High Frequencies
- 3. Add Compression
- 4. Cut Competing Frequencies
How Do You Make Your Vocals Sound Clearer?
If your vocals were recorded in a proper manner, then there are a few production tips to make them sound clear and intelligible. Here are 4 easy tricks to make your vocals distinct in the mix:
- Cut low frequencies
- Boost high frequencies
- Compress them
- Cut competing frequencies in other instruments
In this quick guide, I want to break down all four of those techniques so you know how to apply each of them to your own mix. You can try these tips in and Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and with any set of plugins you prefer (or even just the stock plugins). You’ll need just two plugins to get the job done, They are:
- An equalizer (EQ), and
- A compressor
1. Cut Low Frequencies
The most common cause for vocals sounding muddy, muffled, or hard-to-hear is the build-up of low-end frequencies. These sound waves add more noise where you really don’t want or need them. Low frequency ranges are also the most common place to find room ambiance and electrical equipment taking up space in the background of your vocal track.
Especially if you are recording in an untreated bedroom. The A/C unit buzzing, reflections from the corner of your room, passing cars: all of these sounds will be most prominent in the mid-low range.
So the first thing you should do is remove those from your track.
To do this, add an EQ to your vocal track in question. I prefer a graphical EQ for this operation, but any old plugin will suffice. The areas that you cut will depend on several factors, most notably:
- Your vocal range (and where your dominant frequencies lie),
- The amount of background noise, and
- whether you’re working on a lead or backup vocal take
In general, here are some best practices for reducing low-range frequencies on a vocal track:
- Add a high-pass filter around 200 Hz and adjust to taste,
- Sweep with a tight Q-parameter in the mid-lows (if the track still sounds boxy or muffled),
- Place the high-pass filter higher for soft background vocal dubs
Let’s break down these 3 generalities a bit more…
A. Adding a High-Pass Filter
So what is a high-pass filter? This is just a type of EQ shape that removes all the frequencies below the cut-off range. It only lets the higher frequencies pass through, hence the name.
In more advanced EQs, you can adjust how soft or sharp the roll-off of frequencies occur. Here is what a high-pass shape looks like in a graphical equalizer:
As you can see, this high-pass is set at 171.80 Hz with a relatively soft roll-off. That means at 171.80 Hz, the EQ will start decreasing the volume of any frequencies below that point; when the frequencies get low enough, they are cut out entirely.
In some plugins, this shape is labeled as a “low cut” rather than a “high pass”.
When and Where to Add a High-Pass Filter
A good rule of thumb is to add your high-pass filter at or around 200 Hz and listen to the track in the mix. This is an important point: listen to the change it makes while in the mix.
Any adjustments you make should be in context of your whole song. Don’t solo the vocal when cutting or boosting.
Your own voice type will dictate how high or low to adjust the position of your curve:
- High voices (like a soprano) may lack in low-mid frequencies so you may need to set the high-pass lower (150 Hz) to allow more of the voices “body” to carry through,
- Low voices (like a baritone), on the other hand, may need more low-mids cut to make the lyrics clear.
- Husky voices (with a lot of low-range resonance) might require a higher high-pass as well
My own voice is a somewhat husky baritone when I’m singing down my range. I often find myself cutting up to 200 Hz to make the lead vocal sit in the mix.
B. Sweeping the Mids with a Notch EQ
Sometimes a high-pass is not enough to clean up a vocal take. There could be a resonant frequency in the lower midrange (roughly 250 to 500 Hz) that is causing a muddy build-up. This is frequently caused by ambiance from an untreated room.
If your vocal take still has a noticeable “boxy” or “honky” tone, you should next do a sweep of the low-mids.
To do this, add enough EQ point and make it a “notch” or “bell” shape—this should look like a hump in a graphical equalizer. Now turn the gain way up for this bell and shrink the Q until it’s a very small and needle-like shape.
Now, while listening to your mix, sweep through the frequencies range up and down (starting around 250 Hz and going up to about 550 Hz). You are looking for an area that sends excessively muddy when boosted like this.
If you find such a muddy frequency, then you’ll want to notch out that area. This is sometimes called a “surgical cut” by producers. Just inverse the gain on the bell curve…that is, turn the gain back down until it’s in the negative and, therefore, removing those frequencies from the mix.
C. Cutting More Lows for Background Vocals
Lastly, not all vocal takes will need the same amount of cutting. Background dubs usually require more aggressive cutting than the lead. That’s because a lot of vocals playing at the same time can quickly cause a big heap of low-mid resonance.
More so, the goal of background parts and vocal doubles is too simply accentuate the tone of the lead vocal. For that reason, I recommend that you apply a higher high-pass filter to your backup and doubles…I usually start the high-pass around 250-300 Hz for softer vocal parts.
2. Boost High Frequencies
By now, your vocals should have significantly less low-end information. But subtraction is not the only thing an EQ is good for. Sometimes your vocals will require a little push in their higher ranges.
Boosting high frequencies can make a vocal sound clearer by accentuating the dominant frequencies for human speech and (with the very high frequencies) adding presence to the track.
But boosting requires more subtlety than cutting. Only boost a range by a few dbs at a time. Overdoing the mid-highs will easily result in a “telephone” effect. That effect does work well for some tracks, but probably not every single song.
What Frequencies Should You Boost?
So what specific ranges should you boost on your vocals? The dominant frequencies of your voice will impact this answer.
Most vocal takes, if they need a boost, will get the best results between 800 Hz and 8000 Hz. I know, that’s a big range. Low male voices will have different dominant frequencies than a high female voice.
The best way to find your sweet spot is to:
- Add a bell curve to your EQ,
- Pump the gain up a bit higher than you actually need it,
- Play back or loop a section of the vocals (with the full song playing, not in solo),
- Move the EQ Hz value from 800 Hz and up,
- Listen for what frequencies really bring the singer forward in the mix,
- Roll the gain back down until you can’t hear the boost anymore, then bring it back up a bit
Like I said, boosting needs to be applied more cautiously. If you boost too much around the 7K or 8K range it may cause sibilance issues (where your “s” sounds become too noticeable.
Beside a bell shape boost in the mid-highs, most producers will recommend a shelf on the highs to make your vocals “sparkle” or have presence. Shelf refers to the type of shape in your EQ.
To add presence or air to the track, you’ll want to apply a high shelf onto your track starting around 10 Khz.
3. Add Compression
We’re done with equalization now. It’s time to start applying a new effect to your vocals: compression.
Compression is a pretty technical topic but, in basic terms, it simply levels out the peaks and troughs of your audio. This leads to your vocals sounding louder, even in volume, and more focused.
A compressor can be applied to your vocals before or after the EQ. Your personal preference will be the determining factor.
There are also many different types of compressors that work in slightly different ways. In general, a compressor will have the following controls on them:
- Threshold – this controls the audio level at which the compressor is activated; anything over your threshold level will cause the compressor to engage and start squishing the sound
- Knee – this controls how soft or hard the transition is between the sound being non-compressed and compressed
- Attack – this is the time that the compressor will take to fully compress the sound when hitting the threshold level;
- Release – this controls how quickly the audio signal returns to a non-compressed state when it falls below the threshold
- Ratio – this controls how much compression is applied to your audio; this is always going to be a ratio like 2:1, etc (meaning for every 2 dBs the signal crosses the threshold, the compressor will turn it down by 1 dB)
- Makeup Gain – this controls how much gain is added to the overall signal as it leaves the compressor
The most important controls for compressing a vocal will be the attack time and ratio.
What Compressor Ratio Should I Use for Vocals?
For vocals, start with a 4:1 ratio on your compressor. Increase the ratio to 5:1 or 6:1 if your mixing a louder or more aggressive style of music (rock, metal, hyper pop, etc).
What Attack Time Should I Use for Vocals?
If your consonants sound too loud when compressing, use a faster attack time to clamp down on the harshness. This smooths out the vocals but also causes them to sound softer.
If you want an angry or aggressive sound for the song at hand, use a slower attack time.
The key is find a balance between the consonants and the vowels so that each word is clear and legible.
Which Compressor is Best for Vocals?
There is no standard compressor type that works best for vocals, because each vocal take is different. The compressor you need depends on the type of voice you have, the style of music, and how aggressive you want the compression to be.
So you know, there are generally 5 types of audio compressors. They are:
- VCA compressors
- FET compressors
- Optical compressors
- Tube compressors
- PWM compressors
And there are certain times when each compression type will work better than others:
- VCA is great for being fast at catching transients and also transparent (that is, they won’t color the sound of your vocals)
- FET types, on the other hand, do add color or “character” to your track due to subtle distortion built into their design
- Optical (or “opto”) compressors are transparent like a VCA, but they are slower
Should I Use a VCA or FET for Vocals?
I suggest that you use which compressor you have available. If you have the choice between either, then test out both: try a VCA to smooth out the harsh consonants and an FET type to add some very soft overdrive texture.
I’ve seen some internet commentators argue over VCA and FET compressors on which one is the best option for modern vocal production. But voices and genres differ so much…there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all option.
4. Cut Competing Frequencies
I know that I said we were done with equalization earlier…but there’s one more thing we can do with an EQ.
When other instruments compete in the same frequency ranges against your voice, it can cause the vocal track to sound muffled.
We can therefore clear up the vocals by cleaning out the excess frequencies in the other instruments.
To do this, you want to notch out certain ranges on any instruments that are colliding harmonically with your vocal take. This will require more by-ear testing because the ranges you need to cut will depend on what instruments are present in your mix.
Here’s a breakdown on how to cut out competing instrument frequencies:
- Identify the dominant frequencies for your vocals, i.e. where your voice sounds loudest and most present. If you have a graphical EQ, the visual waveforms will inform you where this spot lies. It’s generally going to be a range between 800 Hz and 3000 Hz.
- Load an EQ on whatever instruments sound like they’re trying to overtake the vocals.
- Add a bell curve to the instrument’s EQ and center it where the vocals are most dominant.
- Reduce the gain on the instrument’s EQ while listening to the full mix. You want to hear the vocals coming forward.
This trick will help your vocals to stand out whether listening to your song in stereo or mono, as opposed to just panning the competing instruments.
These four techniques should help your vocal tracks to not only sit in the mix better, but sounder clearer and more legible against your full arrangement.
You don’t need to use all four tips on each and every track just for the sake of it. Apply them based on necessity. If your vocals sound better with just a fast attack and a high-pass, then don’t fix what’s no longer broken.
I hope you found this guide helpful. If so, then here are a few more articles that you may like: