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Recording Mythology, pt. 11 / Vocals: The Focal Point

 Today we’ll discuss shelving, or EQing the vocals in order to better achieve clarity, create a focal point, and then later weave the other instruments in around them. If you’ve experimented with your EQ while speaking or singing into your mic, you already have a good idea of where your fundamental frequencies lie.

The range of most human vocal chords falls roughly within 200 Hz to 11kHz. If your microphone and your headphones are reasonably linear, you can discern whether you sing bass, baritone, tenor, alto or soprano range without any guesswork. The ranges are thus; Bass: 72 to 300 Hz, Baritone: 100 to 400 Hz, Tenor: 130 to 500 Hz, Alto 180 to 700 Hz, and Soprano: 250 to 1100 Hz. This is not to say that your vocals will not overlap in many of these frequencies.

I know, for instance that I can dip into the upper bass frequencies and go up as far as middle soprano. There are some areas, however, where I feel most comfortable and these are the areas which I concentrate my practice around. It is also important to stretch our range gently through practice, but that requires detailed discussion which is beyond the scope of this article.

It also pays to bear in mind that there is the true voice which is our primary focus, as opposed to the falsetto voice, in which the vocal range is artificially extended through a sort of whispering technique. In other words, the vocal chords are being overblown and always exhibit an airy sound. If we place our hand over our throat, it is easy enough to tell whether we are utilising our true voice or our falsetto voice, because the vibrations normally felt in the true range will be much diminished in the falsetto range.

Vocal coaches recognise three distinct voices: The chest, throat and head voice. With time and practice, the vocalist can learn to distinguish these voices apart and use them to their advantage.

A very easy way to determine our fundamental tone is to simply hear ourselves yawn. We always yawn with our natural voice. If we are lucky enough to record ourselves yawning, we can solve much of the distress of lying to ourselves about our range! It is extremely important that, through one process or the other, that we determine our fundamental tone. It follows that we will then be capable of writing and composing around this key, thereby saving ourselves the stress of trying to extend our range through falsetto. This is because between the true voice and the falsetto voice there is a node. This node is what yodelers use in order to shift between the true and falsetto voice. Usually the node sounds quite noticeable (and somewhat unnatural) in other types of vocal music and the majority of us will want to know where our node(s) are in order to avoid crossing them within the context of contemporary music.

After we have ascertained our fundamental tone and our primary range, we can then go about shelving our vocals. It is unrealistic to think that we can, though EQ manipulation, change, extend or otherwise enhance the range of our voice. If we make an effort to boost the harmonics of our voices instead of the fundamentals, the results sound poorly engineered. I always roll off any frequencies below 75 Hz when I EQ my vocals. Here I’ll add a short sidebar:

If I want more warmth, rather than boost the lower frequencies, I’ll move into the mic and make use of what is known as the proximity effect. This is a physical anomaly that occurs with microphones as well as our ears wherein the closer the mouth is to the diaphragm (eardrum), the more clearly the lower frequencies are perceived. By “working” the mic in this manner, the warmth is preserved and sounds much more natural. I might add that a series of mic protection, via windscreens or “pop filters” will become necessary in this event, as consonants such as B, P, T, D, F, K and M, otherwheres referred to as ‘plosives’, will make a popping noise as the air is forced out of the mouth and hits the microphone diaphragm. This can be remedied by turning slightly to one side of the mic, but some of the proximity effect will be lost. Ribbon mics are especially sensitive to these plosives and may easily be damaged.

Now, after I have determined the key I will be singing in, I will adjust my EQ accordingly. I’ll slightly boost frequencies which give my voice clarity and presence but I’ll leave everything else close to flat. Sometimes there’s a problem with nasal tones around 1kHz and I’ll trim those back. Everything else above 1.5 kHz is rolled off completely.

Experimentation is key.

Until next time: Practice, practice, practice…and then forget it all. Your fingers will remember the important stuff.

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter and home recording enthusiast.

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About Johnny Nowhere

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/composer and owner of Hell Paving Company, music publisher. Johnny doesn't really exist outside of the music industry and Facebook. He is simply a figment of my imagination.

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