If your vocal feels too bright to the point that it’s grating or even sounding distorted, the EQ is a good place to start when mixing harsh vocals and clean up the damage. This is where I do the obligatory “it’s always better to re-record something than fix it in post” blah blah, all that. You hear a lot of mixing tutorial folks out there mention this, but oftentimes we don’t have that luxury such as when we don’t have access to the vocalist anymore.
SO, let’s talk about how to EQ harsh vocals to smooth them out and save an otherwise unusable vocal take!
Why Makes Vocals Harsh
First let’s talk about what makes vocals harsh in the first place. A few common reasons you might get an overly grating, bright, or harsh vocal are:
- Room Reflections – We typically think of reverberating sounds as being thick and low-mid heavy, but these reflections can be (overly) rich in the upper mid range and cause that harshness.
- Technique – If a singer uses a particularly nasal tone as their technique, this can add harshness in the upper mids.
- Clipping – Distortion occurs when the singer sings too loud too close to the mic, even when the gain is set relatively low. This can create a harshness to the vocal (which incidentally is the hardest to treat when it comes to turning to EQ harsh vocals).
How to EQ Harsh Vocals
As you probably gathered by now, the harshness originates in the upper-mids and true upper frequencies on the vocal.
I took a sample, overly harsh vocal that desperately needed some adjustments and this is what the EQ ended up looking like in the end. Note that this was an extreme example; your mileage may vary and all of that, but the problem areas will likely still look a lot like this on your vocal. Also note this is a female soprano vocalist, so the ranges might be a bit higher on this vocal than yours.
Aside from the obvious high pass around 100Hz and a slight shelf on the highest frequencies, let’s go section by section. Not every one of these adjustments will apply to your mix. In this case, this was a problem vocal across the board, sounding muffled in some spots and harsh in others.
This is the classic boxy region (see my overview of the 5 causes of a muddy mix) where you get a thickness that doesn’t always benefit the vocal. I had a bit extra on this vocal because of some thick room sounds I wanted to cut out. This doesn’t necessarily apply when you want to EQ harsh vocals, but it’s relevant to the vocal I was working on so I wanted to explain that adjustment.
This is a very important range for the vocal which I had to cut more than I would have liked because of a muffled room sound which caked on the vocal. I tried a reverb remover but it wasn’t making a dent, so I swept around until I found I got some clarity back in the vocal but cutting here. It’s harsh in that it’s unpleasant and unwanted, hence the cut.
The 4K range give or take is typically the harshest and most grating spot on a vocal. This is because this is where the nasal quality of a vocalist comes through. Virtually every vocalist has this regardless of technique, but the timbre or techniques of some singers exacerbate the harshness.
You’ll note the cut I made here almost precisely at 4K with a Q which dips down to 3K and up to 5K.
If you want to EQ harsh vocals, create a relatively wide bell curve (see my overview of EQ filters) which cuts a few dB deep and sweep around the 3-5K range. Pay attention to how the tone of the vocal changes as you sweep.
This is a good point to remind you to have reference tracks ready to play so you can remind yourself what you want your vocal to sound like through these changes. This is also preferable to just going in without a clear, specific and attainable goal.
6K (and above) is where the sibilance of certain words and letters comes through. A de-esser cleans up a lot of this for you, but an EQ cut can be useful to diminish the harshness on a vocal, as well.
Similar to the 4K nasal cut, create a bell and sweep to hear the A/B difference. And once again, don’t forget the reference vocal!
It’s also worth mentioning a plugin I find myself using on just about every vocal in my mix: soothe2 from oeksound.
soothe2 is a dynamic resonance suppressor. That’s fine; all I know is that it tames harsh qualities on vocals (or guitars, synths, cymbals, etc.) in a beautifully transparent way.
While it’s known for its application at taming harsh frequencies (or soothing them – hence the name), it can be applied to attenuate any frequency range with subtlety.
It’s also extremely simple to use; just pick your frequency range and adjust the “depth” dial to attenuate that region without sacrificing anything.
It has a 20 day full feature trial period, so give it a shot and experience its magic (as I describe it) firsthand.
EQ Harsh Vocals Tips
- An EQ is usually my first move when fixing and mixing harsh vocals.
- Use a bell curve to cut around 4K to remove the unwanted nasal harshness present on most vocals. Some will requires a deeper cut than others, depending on technique, vocal timbre, room sounds, etc.
- Use a bell curve to cut around 6K to remove harshness which is typically associated with sibilance. A de-esser is also great here.
- A dynamic EQ or multiband compressor can be effective alongside an EQ in order to attenuate harsh frequencies dynamically. In other words, when the harshness is more prominent on certain phrases or sections, they get turned down more.
- When you EQ harsh vocals, have some vocal references you can A/B between to remind yourself what a good vocal sounds like.
- If you’re still not getting the results you want, give a plugin like soothe2 a try to attenuate the harsh frequencies on your vocal or any track in your mix