Harsh vocals are a pretty common problem for many mixers. This rings especially true for those that aren’t involved during the tracking process where many common vocal issues can be addressed with basic microphone placement and tracking techniques.
But what exactly is harshness, where does it hide, and what can you do to wipe it out completely?
Let’s take a look at some of the most frequent ways professionals clear up a harsh vocal recording in their mixes.
Where Do Harsh Vocals Come From?
Harsh vocals can present themselves in many ways, but the most common frequency associated with harshness is 2.5kHz. That’s a moving target though – depending on the singer, the microphone & the room the vocals were recorded in, you might find it sitting slightly above or below that frequency. Using a spectral analyzer or boosting a narrow band with an EQ and sweeping can both be effective techniques for pinpointing the exact issue.
Keep in mind that identifying a single frequency and treating it isn’t necessarily going to be the solution to your problem. We need to account for the harmonics of that frequency too. If there’s some harshness in your vocal around 2.5 kHz, it stands to reason that you’d also find some harshness at 5 kHz and 10 kHz respectively. Whether or not they’re significant enough to merit your attention will need to be determined on a case by case basis, but here are a few ideas to help you tame that harshness whether it’s isolated to one spot or all over your vocal mix.
Several of you probably immediately thought of this option when you started reading or may have even already tried to use a de-esser and you’re looking for alternatives. If you did, well done!
De-essers are some of the easiest tools to use for cleaning up harshness, not just in vocals, but in other sibilant instruments like cymbals. They do a lot to tame harsh frequencies, taming peaks as they jump out of your mix. A de-esser is traditionally set for sibilance to remove “S” sounds (as its name implies), but setting a de-esser to clamp down on the frequency range of your harshness is a simple process that’s effective at treating more than the hiss in a vocal performance.
Of course, the classic de-esser is a bit of a one-trick pony. If your harshness isn’t isolated to just one range of frequencies, another approach might work best.
It stands to reason that being able to locate the problem frequencies with an EQ makes it an ideal tool for fixing the problem too. After all, once you’ve found the problem frequency, it’s just a matter of changing that boosted band to a cut.
With narrow Q settings, making large cuts of several dB are not usually a problem since you’ve laser focused your efforts on a very narrow range. In the grand scheme of your mix, you probably won’t even hear that a particular frequency or two are missing from your vocals at all.
If your harshness requires a wider range of frequencies to be treated (wider Q), then you may want to be more cautious with how much your cutting out. A common technique for smoothing out bigger cuts is to use two more bands of your EQ to add slight boosts above and below the range you’re cutting to smooth things out. Some EQ plugins account for this technique and apply these boosts automatically once the settings (gain + Q) get too extreme.
Vocal compression is like a knight in shining armor when you’re working with particularly unruly vocals, especially if you’ve got a compressor that’s tailored for the job. Compressors like Gain Reduction 2 are built with vocals (and the common problems surrounding them) in mind. With parameters like Warmth, Air, Clarity & Body, mixers can intuitively navigate the tonal adjustments needed for each vocal. And yes – there’s a knob for Sibilance.
But what are these controls actually doing and how do compressors work to tame harshness even when there aren’t all of these options available? It comes down to the fundamentals of compressors and how they work. Just like any other peak in your level, harshness comes from certain frequencies being louder than they should be. Your compressor should be catching those frequencies and pulling them back down.
Multi-band compressors are particularly effective in these cases, as you can intentionally limit the compression being applied to a particular range. Instead of applying broadband compression across your entire mix, you can compress just the frequencies you want to, similarly to how you targeted those frequencies with your EQ in the first place.
Gain Reduction 2 acts in a similar manner, with the sibilance knob acting to compress harsh frequencies more aggressively as the knob is turned up. When paired with the right amount of Slay, you can simultaneously get a well-compressed, de-essed & full-bodied vocal in a single shot. How’s that for a harsh vocal fix?
Powerhouse Vocal Production
Once you’ve got a harsh vocal tamed, there are a whole slew of production options you have at your disposal. A great vocal mix requires more than a great melody and controlled vocal performance – there’s a whole aspect of arrangement and production needed to maximize your results.
If you’re prepared to put in the work and understand what it truly takes to be a vocal producer, start with our guide – The Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook. Inside, you’ll find 40 pages of topline writing tips, vocal editing techniques & a complete list of every tool a vocal producer needs to have in their toolbox.