Thinking counter intuitively
When it comes time to mix, the equalizer is one of the first tools the sound engineer pulls out to sculpt the track. A beginner might underestimate the power and usefulness of the equalizer, preferring compressors and reverb for example but equalizers are generally indispensable to achieve a professional result. Being methodical and logical can help achieve professional results faster but sometimes the method and logic may seem counterintuitive to the aspiring sound engineer. This involves psychoacoustics, or how our brain interprets the sounds we hear. Understanding how your brain reacts can help you make better EQ decisions. I’d like to go through some of my favorite not-so-obvious equalizer tips. In the last article I presented the first three and today I am presenting the last three in this article.
4) Listen to what you cut
In the case of the Low Pass Filter and kick drum discussed above, if you listened to what you cut, you would probably notice that you are getting rid of cymbals and snare, which can be a good thing. Regardless of the sound or instrument you are working with, if you are not too sure at what frequency you should be setting your LPF, place a High Pass Filter instead and listen to what the LPF would be cutting from your sound. Let us look at another example. If you are working with a voice and want to get rid of the low-end rumble, you would typically place a HPF and maybe set the cut-off frequency at 100Hz for instance. Placing a LPF on the voice and listening to all the low-end you are trying to eliminate you might realize that there is too much energy at frequencies up to say 150Hz. Once again it is a question of perspective.
5) Divide the spectrum in bands when you compare two sounds
Sometimes you need to compare two sounds or recordings. Whether you want to make your guitar sound like the guitar on a reference recording the artist gave you, or whether you are comparing your entire mix with a professional commercially released mix (imitating the masters is a normal step in learning a trade), it can sometimes be difficult to hear or describe the differences in timbre between the two sounds or mixes. One reason may be that there are too many frequency bands to focus on, and compare, that our brain is overwhelmed by the amount of information and does not know where to start. Dividing the spectrum in bands can be useful in various situations. Here are some more examples: when mixing a film, you may need to match room tones between two scenes in a film, or you want to match the same voice (or instrument) that was recorded with two different microphones. Dividing the frequency spectrum can also help you when you are trying to match the ambiance or reverb in a recording. These are situations where using an EQ to divide the frequency spectrum can be helpful. Use a simple LPF or HPF to divide the sound (or entire) mix in bands. For example, if you are comparing your mix with a similar professional mix you could set the LPF so that you can only hear the frequencies in the reference mix below 1kHz, then listen to your mix with the same LPF. If there are any differences in the frequency content of the respective mixes, they should be more apparent now. The reason is, as the high frequencies (above 1kHz in our example) in both mixes disappear, it becomes easier for our ears to focus and hear the low end differences between the mixes. You don’t use the EQ to actually tweak your sound, you just use it for monitoring and comparison purposes. Similarly, a Band Pass Filter (combination of HPF and LPF) can help you narrow in and focus on a specific frequency band of interest. For example, as you compare two bass guitar sounds you might have used a LPF to hear and compare the low end of the bass but now with the help of a BPF you want to focus on the frequency range between 500Hz and 2kHz where the sound of the pick is heard. Once again, these EQs are just used to monitor the sounds, they should be removed after the comparison. The actual EQ tweeks you want to apply should be done with a separate EQ, typically parametric, directly on the track.
Here are some simple suggestions to divide the frequency spectrum:
You might want to be more focused in certain key regions of the spectrum, here are some more precise suggestions that can help you narrow in:
6) EQ: no sweeping, but AB instead
Sometimes the sound, or instrument, you are working with is a little dull and you want to hype it up, you want to make it more exciting by boosting some frequencies. Typically, one will use a parametric EQ and start boosting with a bell or peaking curve, sweeping the frequency spectrum in search for that magic frequency. As a last piece of advice I’d like to suggest that next time you find yourself in this situation, don’t sweep. With your EQ bypassed, ask yourself where the magic frequency is, take an educated guess and boost just that frequency (with a Q factor between 2 and 4, depending on your sound). Activate your EQ and listen to your sound with and without the EQ. If you don’t like the result or think that it was not the right frequency, bypass your EQ boost at another frequency and reactivate the EQ. Ideally, and with enough experience, you should be satisfied within about three tries, otherwise practice, practice, practice. When you A/B two sounds, your brain is able to focus on the global sound and can appreciate what the boost adds to the original sound. When you A/B two sounds, the brain can tell which sound is better. The word ‘better’ is the key here because, when you sweep the spectrum with your EQ all your brain hears is ‘the sound is changing’. It thus becomes more difficult to determine which frequency is the magic one if your brain cannot tell which frequency boost sounds ‘better’. The brain is good at comparing two sounds that are ‘static’ but has a much harder time being objective with changing or evolving sounds such as that of an EQ sweeping the frequency spectrum.
Understanding the logic behind these tips is useful even if you do not systematically use them. If you do not already apply these, try integrating them one by one in your workflow, depending on what the situation calls for. Make sure you check out the first part of this article to get the most of these EQ tips.
If you missed the 1st part of the article, click here.
Questions and comments: firstname.lastname@example.org