Equalization

 

       There is probably no aspect of recording and mixing that is least understood by beginners. The interplay between instruments and their inherent frequency responses is probably the biggest source of frustration for recording and mixing engineers who are just starting out. We’re all familiar with the treble and bass knobs on our home and car stereos. These are really what is known as shelving filters. A high-pass shelving filter (treble control) will cut or boost all frequencies above a fixed (cut-off) frequency while a low-pass filter (bass control) will cut or boost any frequencies above the cut-off frequency. Most professional quality audio equipment also include as many as two band pass filters that are generally used for the midrange frequencies. Instead of having a cutoff frequency control, band pass filters have center frequency and bandwidth controls. The amount of boost or cut determines how quickly the filter rises or drops to the center frequency. Graphic equalizers come a lot of different flavors but basically are just a group of band pass filters set to predetermined center frequencies.

       So now that we now how equalizers work,  how do we use them to sculpt the sounds of the individual instruments so that they all work together in the mix.? First of all, we can use sweep-able band pass filters to get rid of any unwanted frequencies. By boosting a band pass filter and using a very narrow bandwidth, you can sweep through the frequencies to find the ones that are the most objectionable. When you find one, cut that frequency and make the bandwidth (Q) a bit wider. Depending on whether you are using a plug-in eq (highly recommended) or a hardware one (not so highly recommended), you can have unlimited band pass filters or just a few to work with. Don’t be tempted to do too much of this kind of sculpting because you can be left with very little to work with.

       The next step with equalization is to make the tracks work together as one cohesive unit. For this it’s important to know where most of the sonic information is located for each instrument. For instance, guitars seem like boosts in the 3000 to 4500 hz range and vocals are generally happiest in the 2500—3500 hz area and can sometimes benefit with boosts in the 8000 hz range. Bass instruments can benefit greatly from boosts in frequencies higher than you might think (5000hz or so). To bring a vocal to the front a bit more, you may want to try boosting it a bit around 3000 hz and cutting the guitars and keyboards in the same frequency range. To reserve the area below 85hz for the bass guitar and kick drum, every other instrument should have a shelving high-pass filter set to cut any frequencies below that. For a very good explanation how equalization affects different instruments and vocals, check out Ethan Winer’s website . Look for the chart toward the bottom of the page. Take some of your previously recorded tracks and experiment with the suggested settings. The best way to learn is to just do it. Just remember when you cut frequencies in one track, you’re going to allow the same frequency to come through easier in the other tracks. In general, try to cut rather than boost as it will give you more headroom for the whole mix.

       With the advent of software plug-in equalizers with a number of types of filters included, the possibilities are endless as far the number of different uses. Sonar and other DAW software packages allow automation of effect parameters, so you can program the equalizer to sweep through the frequencies while varying the bandwidth and amount of boost or cut. In fact, while mixing a song the other day I discovered that I could play the equalizer just like an instrument to highlight the harmonics in an acoustic guitar track. Since everything in the song was diatonic to the key of the song, it was  somewhat like playing a harmonica—you can’t hit a wrong note.

 

       Next month, I’ll discuss a several effects that combine equalization with other effects.

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