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his months topic is EQ. Id say
were opening a can of worms,
except its more like opening a
shipping container stuffed with 10,000
worm cans.
Its tough to talk aboutlet alone
teachEQ techniques, because almost
nothing is true 100 percent of the time.
Take the common sentiment that the less
EQ you use, the better: Yeah, thats good
advice in most casesadding overstated
EQ tends to make tracks sound artificial
and/or harsh. But what if artificial and
harsh are the best expressive choice? What
about all those great 60s guitars mixed
with blistering high-end EQ? (Beatles and
Byrds spring to mind.) Or parts engineered
to sound as small and claustrophobic
as possible? (Think Pink Floyd or PJ
Harvey.) Or the eerie, not-found-in-nature
equalization used by Nine Inch Nails and
other noisemakers? There are countless
exceptions to the so-called rules.
So instead of dealing in rules, well
talk options. Well cover some common
EQ techniques, and then venture into
more radical scenarios. But first, heres
the quickest and dirtiest intro to EQ
principles ever. (If you know this stuff
already, you might want to bail now and
tune in next month, when we get into
some interesting case studies.)
Basic EQ lingo. To gain a thorough
understanding of EQ, Google
equalization (or equalisation if youre
a Brit), the word from which the letters
EQ are plucked. To gain a superficial
understanding that can get you through
most situations, read on!
Equalization means adjusting specific
frequencies within a soundadding
or subtracting treble or bass, or
emphasizing/deemphasizing specific
frequencies in the middle.
We measure musical frequencyhow
high-pitched or low-pitched a sound
isin Hertz (Hz). The hearing
range of a healthy young person is
approximately 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz
(20 kHz). If youre middle-aged, a
Motrhead roadie, or both, your upper
limit is probably much lower.
Most musical sounds contain many
individual frequencies. The lowest-
pitched frequency is called the
fundamental. The fundamental of a
standard-tuned low E string, for example,
is approximately 82 Hz, but there are
other frequenciesovertonesthat ring
out far above the fundamental. If you
filter that 82 Hz fundamental from a
recording of that low E, the sound gets
thin and tinny, but doesnt vanish.
If you transpose a note up an octave, the
frequency of its fundamental doubles.
Drop it an octave, and the frequency is
halved. Example: The 440 Hz tone we
tune to is the same pitch as the A at the
5th fret of your 1st string. The A at the
2nd fret of the G string is 220 Hz. The
open A string is 110 Hz. And a bassists
open A is 55 Hz, below the guitars
range. The fundamental of your high E
string at the 17th fret is 880 Hz.
Good news for old guitarists with bad
ears: The frequency range of an amplified
electric guitar extends from somewhere
around 80 (depending on how you tune
your low string) to somewhere around
4.5 kHztypical guitar speakers simply
dont transmit higher frequencies. You
can have severe hearing loss and still
perceive the entire frequency range of an
electric guitar. The range of an acoustic
guitar extends much higher, however.
Loudness (or amplitude, to use the
more science-y term) is measured in
decibels (dB). Gently rustling leaves
might measure 20 dB, while a jet takeoff
can reach 150 dB. The threshold of pain
is approximately 130 dB. The loudest
rock concerts on record exceed it. In
mixing, most EQ adjustments are of
only several dB, though they sometimes
reach 20 dB or more.
Bandwidth refers to the breadth or
narrowness of the affected frequency
range. Most guitar and amp tone
controls have relatively wide bandwidths.
Narrow bandwidths are sometimes called
notches. Bandwidth is also called Q.
Filtering is the process of removing
particular frequencies. A low-pass filter
(LPF) cuts highs, letting lows pass
through for a darker sound. A high-
pass filter (HPF) does the opposite,
cutting lows. A band-pass filter affects
a particular slice of frequencies. The
width of the slice varies according to the
filterswait for itbandwidth.
An EQ tool that lets you select the target
frequency and its bandwidth is said to
be parametric. If you can select the
frequency, but not the bandwidth (as on
many active bass guitar tone controls), we
call it quasi-parametric.
Take the EQuiz! After reading the
above, do real-life EQ utterances like
these make sense?
My guitar sounds a little darkcan you
give me +2 dB at 2.5k?
Yow! I get howling feedback when I step
near the monitor. Can you notch out a
little 1k?
The bass player just went into
anaphylactic shock! If I drop my low E to
A, and you pump up that 50 Hz, maybe
no one will notice.
Cool. Now you can talk EQ like a pro.
EQ in your tone chain. Where do the
EQ stages in your guitars tone chain fit
into the picture? Standard guitar tone
controls are low-pass filters. Same with
most distortion pedals that have a single
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tone control. The nature of amp tone
controls varies from model to model, but
a high-pass bass control, a low-pass treble
control, and a band-pass mid control
is a typical arrangement. Many electric
basses employ quasi-parametric midrange
controls, with separate boost/cut and
frequency-select controls.
In other words, the EQ controls
on guitars, effects, and amps are wide-
bandwidth filters that produce broad
effects. In the recording/mixing realm, the
tools tend to be more subtle and complex.
If your guitars tone knobs are butcher
knives, studio EQ tools are scalpels.
Lets sharpen our scalpels.
A typical EQ plug-in. The recording
guitarist can choose from a vast array of
hardware and software equalizers. But for
all their variation, most provide the same
basic functionality. I use the EQ plug-in
from Apples Logic Pro as my example
here (Photo 1), but youll find similar
features on many equalizers.
This particular plug-in is an 8-band
EQ, which means it offers eight
independently adjustable filters, though
you seldom need that many. Note the
three rows of numbers below each
color-coded band. The top one is the
active frequency in Hz. The middle is the
amount of boost or cut in dB. And the
lowest number represents bandwidth.
Lets check out the effect they have
on the sound of a distorted guitar track.
Ex. 1 has no EQ its the sound from
the amp as heard by the mic. (If youre
reading this in print, see the online
version, which has embedded audio.)
In Ex. 2, Ive activated the leftmost
band, a high-pass filter that chops
everything below a specific frequency.
Here, set to 150 Hz (Photo 2), it thins
out the sound in a big way.
The rightmost band is a low-pass
filter that works the opposite way.
Set to cut everything above 1.1 kHz
(Photo 3), it makes the guitar sound
dark and dull.
Bands 2 and 7 are shelving filters.
They too affect everything above or
below a particular frequency, but they
can boost levels as well as cut them.
Cranking the lows as in Photo 4 creates a
rumbling, bottom-heavy sound.
A high-shelving filter (Photo 5) is often
used to broadly brighten a guitar track.
The middle four bands are the most
powerful. These fully parametric EQ
bands can cut or boost any audible
frequency at any bandwidth. Set to a
narrow bandwidth (Photo 6), they can
add a honking, wah-like resonance.
Set to a wider bandwidth (Photo 7), it
brightens a much larger swath of sound.
Finally, Ive combined multiple EQ
bands for a fairly typical crunch-guitar
EQ adjustment (Photo 8).
Which sounds best? Heard in
isolation, probably the first example,
with no EQ. But guitar tracks seldom
exist in isolation. The right setting
always depends on the context.
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