Fixing muddy vocals has to be one of the most common issues music creators and engineers face when it comes to mixing.
In this article, we’re going to explore my favorite strategies for correcting this problem so you can sound better.
You can also watch my YouTube video How To Fix Muddy Vocals here:
Identifying The Problem
The first question to answer is what causes muddiness in vocals in the first place?
By understanding what makes vocals sound muddy, we can figure out how we can make them sound cleaner and more professional.
Muddiness is often the result of a build-up of low and low-mid frequencies within a sound. This is typically within the 100Hz to 400Hz frequency range, but could be higher and/or lower.
Sometimes this is present in a single sound, such as a lead vocal, and other times it is only present when several sounds combine, such as a stack of harmonies or backgrounds.
To correct the problem, you must first identify whether it’s happening on an individual track level or a group level – such as on a lead vocal or a group of vocals. This will help you determine if you need to take corrective action on the individual vocal, or the entire group, or a combination of both.
Many things can influence this build up of frequencies, including:
- Vocalist proximity to the microphone when recording.
If an artist is standing too close to the microphone, it may result in proximity effect – a change in the frequency response of the microphone resulting in an emphasis on lower frequencies. Simply moving further away (5-7 inches) from the microphone can help prevent this problem in the first place.
- Production and arrangement choices.
Depending on how a song is “designed” – it may feature dense pieces of the arrangement such as stacks of vocals and harmonies. These vocals may be fine individually, but may emphasize the problematic lower frequencies as several of them are combined. This results in more muddiness and lack of clarity in the vocals overall.
Now that we understand what causes muddy vocals, we can take the next step of correcting this issue with one or more of the strategies outlined below.
Filtering & Subtractive EQ
Because muddy vocals are a frequency problem, it makes sense to reach for an EQ early in the process.
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.
In solo mode, this may seem like a lot but when you put the vocal in context with the music, it should sound natural when paired back up with the bass-line of the instrumental.
Low frequencies may be responsible for muddiness, but they are also responsible for warmth and presence (think: Barry White). For that reason, you don’t want to overdo this part. By overcompensating with EQ and filtering, you may end up with a vocal that sounds thin and brittle.
It’s not uncommon to filter out beyond that 90-100hz range, as I have several songs where I’ve filtered as high as 150hz, or as low as 30hz. Use your judgment, and more importantly, your ears.
Aside from filtering, there are typically specific problem frequencies that may need additional adjustment. These are often found in the 200-400hz range of a vocal, although the exact frequency will greatly depend on the nature of the performer’s voice.
When addressing muddy vocals, it’s important to identify these frequencies and then reduce them using the bell curve of an EQ.
For example, below is an image of the EQ adjustments I made to Caj Flow’s voice on “No Games”
My YouTube video 3 Ways To EQ Vocals can also be helpful when it comes to understanding how to make EQ decisions:
Taking EQ one step further, we can use a dynamic EQ to solve this problem instead.
The problem with an EQ is that it’s static. Unless you are automating parameters like bypass, frequency or gain, whatever you do within the EQ applies to the sound for the entire duration of the song.
This can be problematic when there are key or tonal changes in a song. Suddenly the EQ that was cleaning up your muddy vocal problem in the verse may be making your chorus sound thin because it’s sang at a higher pitch. This is obviously no good.
For that reason, we have dynamic EQ. Unlike a traditional EQ, which is static; a dynamic EQ only adjusts frequencies once they surpass a threshold. If it doesn’t pass the threshold, the dynamic EQ leaves the frequency untouched.
This makes a dynamic EQ almost like an EQ with compressor-like functionality.
For example, you can set up a dynamic EQ to reduce 300Hz only when that frequency’s amplitude (volume) passes a preset threshold of -15db.
Anytime the frequency doesn’t surpass that level, the EQ doesn’t reduce it and leaves it natural. However, the moment it does surpass the threshold, the EQ band engages and reduces that frequency as desired.
This allows for a more natural sounding adjustment, and helps avoid problems that may arise from key and tonal changes throughout the song.
My YouTube video How To Use Dynamic EQ On Vocals should be able to help you understand how to use it better:
Multiband compression can be another helpful tool for fixing muddy vocals, and it shares many things in common with the dynamic EQ approach.
Specifically, the benefit of this approach is that it may sound more natural and only reduce problematic frequencies when they become too loud and pass the threshold that you’ve set.
Unlike traditional compression, which focuses on the entire frequency range of the sound it’s applied to, multiband compression allows you to hone in on and compress a specific frequency range.
This differs from dynamic EQ as it typically focuses on a specific frequency, rather than a range. While it is still possible to achieve very similar results with both, they each handle problems differently.
For example, you can use a multiband compressor to compress from 200hz to 400hz, while a dynamic EQ would focus on a specific frequency within that range, say 300hz.
Another advantage of using a multiband compressor is that they often have a range functionality built-in. Range limits how much gain reduction can take place within the compressor, regardless of how the other parameters are set.
For example, you may have your compressor settings set so that it reduces a sound by 10db. However, with the range set to -3db, the most it can be reduced by is 3db.
The range won’t allow the compressor to reduce the sound anymore than 3db. The only way to achieve a similar effect with a dynamic EQ is to fine-tune the parameters until you achieve a -3db reduction.
With that in mind, we can use a multiband compressor to isolate the problematic low-end frequencies that are causing the vocal to sound muddy. We can then set up the compressor to reduce these frequencies strategically so they sound more balanced within the vocal overall.
Watch this video which demonstrates how to effectively use a multiband compressor to achieve a smoother vocal sound:
Most of this article has been focused on managing and reducing low-end frequencies that cause muddy vocals, but we’re missing another key consideration:
Vocals sound muddy because there is an imbalance of frequencies – meaning there’s naturally too much going on in the low-end and not enough in the high-end.
We can correct this by adding frequency content to a sound, specifically to the high-end of a sound, which will help increase it’s presence and allow it to cut better.
There are a few ways to do this – but two of my favorite approaches are:
1. Use an EQ to add high frequency content.
We specifically want to boost the 3kHz area with a bell curve; this is a natural fundamental of the human voice and will allow it to cut more over other elements.
2. Use saturation to add high-end harmonics.
This will allow the source material (the vocal) to create harmonics naturally, which will help emphasize the high-end and give it more shine and presence.
Adding frequency content alone will not fix muddy vocals. However, when used in combination with the previous strategies outlined, you will end up with a vocal that sounds more balanced, high-end and professional.
To see these strategies and more in real-time, watch my YouTube video How To Add Clarity To Vocals:
Hopefully by now you’ve armed yourself with these strategies and can implement them into your next song mix.
If you haven’t watched my YouTube video How To Fix Muddy Vocals, I recommend you do that so you can see a real example of how I’ve used these strategies myself.