Taming Female Vocal Ensembles

Lately, I’ve had time to be more intentional about listening to great music. I bought a phenomenal set of speakers for my listening room, and have enjoyed throwing the best recordings I can find at them. One of my experiments was Mark Knopfler’s latest album, Tracker, which I bought as 192Khz/24 bit AIFF files. To say it sounds amazing is an understatement. One of the songs, Wherever I Go, features a female vocal I wasn’t familiar with. I looked up Ruth Moody and discovered The Waillin’ Jennys. As I sit here listening to their live album—which is most excellent—I got to thinking about mixing multiple female vocals live. 

The Dreaded Mid-High Build Up

The Jennys sound amazing because they have an actual alto, mezzo and soprano. When they sing together, they are singing different parts in different parts of the frequency spectrum. Plus they’re really good. 

In many churches, you’ll have 3-5 (or more) female vocals on the worship team. But because we’re not dealing with professionals, and we work with what we have, they’re not usually all different parts. What you’ll have is 3, 4, 5 or more women singing the same part. And when that happens, things can get a bit shrill. 

This is Not Criticism

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not making a statement on women in general, women on the worship team or women’s voices. I’m simply pointing out that when several of them sing the same part, amplified through a big PA (which itself may be a bit on the bright side), it can get a bit edgy as the volume increases. It’s usually not a problem at moderate levels, but when the energy and volume go up, harshness is likely.

But we’re problem-solvers, it’s what we do. And we have amazing technology at our disposal, so I’m going to share a quick tip on how to fix this. 

Enter Dynamic EQ

The dynamic EQ and its cousin, the multi-band compressor are your best friends in many female vocal scenarios. They both have the ability to reduce the level of a frequency band based on incoming level, though they do it differently. Which one you use will largely depend on what you have available. Some consoles have both, like my favorite DiGiCo’s, while others will only have a multi-band comp. Don’t fret over it, use what you have. 

All you’re going to do is bus all your female vocals to a group, and put a dynamic EQ or multi-band compressor on that group. If you have a dynamic EQ, pick the mid-high band, and widen it out so it covers roughly 1-4 Khz. Set it for about 3-6 dB of cut, then set the threshold so it only starts kicking in when you start hearing that shrill, painful mid-high build up. Those are starting settings, of course, your mileage may vary. Just don’t take too much out or it will sound unnatural.

With a multi-band comp, use the mid band, and set it so it encompasses the same 1-4 Khz range. Go for a slow-ish attack and release of 150-200 msec, and a ratio of 2:1 to start. Then set the threshold so it kicks in when things get shrill. You may have to increase the ratio. Or not. Again, adjust to taste.

The Goal

All we’re trying to do here is take the edge off the frequency build up. You want this to be subtle, and not at all obvious. The end result should be that the women can sing their hearts out without it feeling harsh. Get that right, and the worship music will be more engaging and less distracting.