Hands down – one of the toughest things for those new to the world of home DIY recording has to be equalization. It’s an extremely useful tool that is too often either overused or used incorrectly. The reason for this I found is that before one can truly understand and master the art of proper equalization they need to start seeing music in a different way that most people – outside of recording engineers and other music creation specialists – simply aren’t used to. Unfortunately – like most things in art – equalization is a very ambiguous device that has to be applied on a project by project basis with only very few hard rules meaning that it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to create a step by step guide on its proper implementation unless they have an actual project in front of them – and even then that guide will only work for that particular song.
There are also a good number of ways that EQ can be used which only heightens the complexity. The good news is that EQ can be understood, even mastered – it’s just going to require a lot of practice, nailing down some concepts and a bit of that good old fashioned trial and error. In today’s article, I’d like to take some time to discuss a few of the bigger ideas and concepts that are integral to finally begin chipping away at the ambiguity that is EQ. Trust me, if recording and mixing a great track is your aim – you’re going to have to understand how to use EQ.
As mentioned above, one of the most common mistakes made with EQ is that it is all too often overused and relied on a bit too much as a way to save a bad take. The first thing I want to make clear is that there is NO SUBSTITUTION for laying down a great RAW track. This applies for everything be it compression, effects, mixing and yes – EQ. EQ is much more comparable to a scalpel used for precise shaping than an axe used to chop away at something; too many use it to chop. In fact – the best tracks usually only require very minimal EQing, although some is always necessary in order to make a good track great.
Back when digital recording was just barely getting off the ground in the ‘70s, it offered a very promising future for music fans all around. Besides greatly improving the signal-to-noise ratio (the difference in loudness between the loudest peak and the "noise floor" of your equipment) over analogue, it also vastly improved the dynamic range of the final product that consumers were listening to. Although the best analogue recorders back in the day would yield about 60db worth of dynamic range (and that’s the very best – top of the freakin’ line – analogue recorders were talking about here), by the time the records that you and I were getting were printed, the range would actually be much closer to something like a partly low 50db due to the physical limitations of the equipment used. Anyways, getting back to EQ, the very first professional digital recordings – with their vastly improved signal-to-noise ratio and dynamic range – did not employ EQ (or compression for that matter) and the result was a good track; not great, but good. That enough proved that EQ definitely has its place it the studio – although no one ever thought otherwise, they just hadn’t come up with a method of digital EQing until a little bit later.
The best way to begin to understand the concept of good EQing is by studying ways in which it is used to benefit a track. Think of your average rock song and all of the parts that come with it. You have guitar, bass, drums and vocals. You’re going to want the vocals at the forefront of the song in order to grab the listener’s focus. Sure, you can simply make the vocals louder than everything else but that’s not at all what producers mean by “cutting through the mix.” As far as EQing goes, a common way to make the vocals the center point of a song is by adding some top end to the voice in the 16-18 kHz area. This will give the vocals plenty of crispness and air; this is “cutting through the mix.” You can accentuate this by EQing the rest of the instruments a bit warmer so that in the end only the vocals stand out for those particular frequencies. What you are now left with is a vocal track that grabs the listener’s attention through its tonal coloration and a more subdued instrumental section that leans towards accentuating the vocals. This is just one common example of using EQ.
The Color of Tone
Another great method to begin to understand the concept of EQing is by changing your perception of music. Think about the tonal coloration of each instrument’s track as the colors on a painting; the color blue for example used next to red will “feel” different if it were placed next any other color. It’s still the same color it just lends itself differently depending on what’s next to it. The same is true of tonal colorations. The tonal coloration of a track depends on the featured frequencies such as our earlier example of adding some top end to the voice for crispness. This is the reason why you should really avoid EQing a track on its own. Most of the way in which a track is going to sound as part of the entire song will depend on the tracks surrounding it.
Ideally, you should always try and outline a plan of where you want each of the instruments to sit as part of the entire song and not just focus on their volume but the frequency as well – more so actually. Remember, EQing serves best as a fine-tuning type of tool, a scalpel, as mentioned earlier – and you can’t use a scalpel to save anyone’s life if the patient is already DOA, i.e.: great EQing starts with a great raw track!