I talk constantly about dynamics in mixing, not from a volume or compression stand point but from keeping your mix changing. Contrast is everything in mixing, which is why the best mixes keep the listener on the toes, always giving them something new. This can mean introducing new tracks, or changing the way an existing one is presented. The “phone EQ” trick is a prime example of this, so let’s talk about what the phone EQ effect is and the settings to use to achieve it.
What is Phone EQ
Phone EQ is that very nasally and filtered sound which we associated with the sound we hear on the receiving end of the phone.
Filtered is an apt term, in fact, because the higher frequencies and lower frequencies of the voice on a phone are nonexistent.
The reason to use this in your mix is essentially what I said in opening. This is an aesthetic effect which sounds interesting and when used sparingly can keep someone engaged in your mix by catching them by surprise.
This effect can be used on any aspect of your mix to create contrast, like I mentioned when I talked about a modulated effect in phasers recently, but most commonly it’s applied to vocals.
This filtered effect works well on vocals because its namesake, phone EQ, is
How to Use Phone EQ
The main frequency range of note which you want to emphasize with phone EQ is in the 600-3000Hz range.
The first thing to do is drop a high pass filter around 600Hz. A high pass filter does exactly what it describes: it allows frequencies higher than a certain point pass through unfiltered while cutting out everything below that point.
I talked about high pass filters at length in the past and recommend using them more practically to cut out low booming, rumbling, and unnecessary frequencies out of every single track in your mix. You can see where I recommend setting a high pass filter on every single track in your mix in my EQ cheat sheet, so check that out.
Depending on the voice or recording, we might want to use a dynamic EQ to cut our vocal at that point when the nasal quality of the voice acts up on certain phrasing, words, or vowels.
Here we want that nasal quality as that’s a characteristic of that phone EQ effect we’re going for.
When you hear someone parodying a news cast from decades ago in the past like the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, etc., they’re always using that classic phone EQ effect. You’ll notice their voices are always devoid of any bass or low end whatsoever. This is a product of that high pass filter set around 600Hz.
We get just a tiny taste of the body of the voice, but mostly any body which remains is in the overtones of that lower end of the upper mids.
Normally you want a gentler/smaller slope when you’re using a high pass filter as they sound more natural, but that’s not the goal here. We want to aggressively cut out everything below 600Hz, so use a slope of at least 24dB/oct if not 36.
On the top end, we don’t want clarity on the voice or track we’re using phone EQ on. A lot of the sharpness ironically comes from removing the top end clarity, so drop a low pass filter at or around 3000Hz.
As I mentioned in my overview of low pass filters, these work in the exact opposite way a high pass filter does. They allow lower frequencies at the point of the cut to pass through untouched while filtering out everything above that point.
Once again use a slope of at least 24dB/oct to cut out everything above 3000Hz.
Admittedly I recommend passing a bit lower than others might here.
I find if you roll it higher to say 4k, there’s a harshness which quickly introduces itself. All this to say, you might try experimenting with the placement of that low pass filter as harshness in one vocal may not be present in another.
One final aspect you might try to enhance your phone EQ effect is to add a few narrow boosts in this spectrum of 4-6dB each. This adds a little extra nasally kind of sharpness which works well for the effect. Simply create a boost of 5dB, narrow the Q setting to around 3, and sweep until something good pokes out.
In the above example, I’ve got boosts at 1k, 1.6k, and 2.4k. These boosts help to add character to your phone EQ effect.
Phone EQ Tips
That’s the basis of phone EQ – filter out everything on either side of 600-3000Hz and supplement it with a few steep boosts within that range to taste.
This works well on any aspect of your mix as a contrast to the surrounding area. You can use it on a specific track, your drum bus, or the entire mix bus for a very small section to make that next section seem better by comparison when you lift that filter off.
Still, it arguably works best on and is most associated with using it on a vocal.
Try dropping this on your verse vocal so that the chorus hits harder when you remove the effect.
Alternatively, you might try layering in some of this effect below your lead vocal either on a doubled vocal or simply with a copied and pasted instance of the lead vocal track, and blend it to taste.