7/1/2017 What's The Frequency?

 | Sound On Sound

What's The Frequency?
A Guide To Effective EQ
By Paul White & Matt Houghton Published December 2008

Manipulating the frequency spectrum is one of the most important skills in
recording and mixing. We explain the different types of EQ you can use in your
mix and share some tips on how to get the best from them.

Equalisation, more commonly abbreviated to 'EQ', is one of
the key elements of the recording, mix or mastering engineer's
toolkit, and you'll hear engineers talking at great length about
the sound characteristics of specific makes and models of EQ
— such is the importance of EQ to a modern recording. But
simply knowing that engineer Bloggs uses a Pultec on his kick
drums teaches you very little about how and why he uses it. In
this article, then, we'll take you through the different types of
EQ and explain their applications, as well as offering tips and
tricks about which frequency ranges you might find most
useful for common instruments.
It's always worth thinking about where you
place EQ in relation to other processors. It
What Is EQ? makes sense to perform corrective EQ before
any compression, so that the compressor isn't
triggered by and doesn't boost any unwanted
The term 'equalisation' comes from the pioneering days of the frequencies. This means that if your sequencer
telephone, when it described the process of correcting for — has a built–in channel EQ, you need to think
or 'equalising' — tonal changes caused by losses in the long whether it is more appropriate to use an insert
— or possibly both, as shown here.
telephone lines, but today the term is more generally used to
cover all types of audio 'tone' controls. To put it very plainly,
an equaliser is a frequency–selective filter that's able to cut or
boost the level of specified parts of the audio spectrum. The
simplest equaliser consists of just one capacitor and one
resistor. With the resistor in series and the capacitor linking
the output to ground, you get a high–cut (alternatively, 'top–
cut' or 'low–pass': they all mean the same thing) filter that's
just like the tone control you find on an electric guitar — that
is to say, one that filters out the higher frequencies. Putting Using high– and low–pass filters (top), you can
the capacitor in series and the resistor to ground gives you a 'bracket' the frequency band you want to let
low–cut (or 'high–pass') filter, that cuts out lower frequencies. through, cutting out unwanted frequencies on
either side — a helpful way of making space
As long as no additional electrical load is applied to such for other elements in a mix. High and low shelf
filters level out ('shelve'), so are a better option
circuits, the response is 6dB/octave (which means that the
when you want to apply a gentle boost to the
signal level drops by 6dB for every octave below the filter's top or bottom end.
'turnover' frequency), or 'first order'. These simple, passive
circuits cannot be used to boost frequencies, they can only cut them. To achieve an EQ boost, you have to
combine the filters with active circuitry, which is what Peter Baxandall did when he developed his bass and
treble equaliser, which was capable of cutting and boosting both low and high frequencies using two

http://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/whats­frequency 1/6

the gain rises more radical notches by combining more than by 6dB (doubles in voltage). As I've just mentioned. The Highs & Lows Let's look more closely at the simple first–order low–cut filter. run into clipping problems.7/1/2017 What's The Frequency? | Sound On Sound independent controls. This is essentially a tuned filter that offers both cut and boost. Most equalisers will use high– and low–pass filters only for cutting the extremes of the audio spectrum. Some plug–ins. the more colour the sound. the curve flattens out — or 'shelves' — so that you can adjust the gain of the desired high or low section of the audio spectrum by the same amount. Again. creating a second–order filter with a 12dB/octave response. if you've a filter that's designed to affect Why are some analogue EQs. them into a boost circuit can be problematic. so revered? It's only frequencies below 100Hz. However. you'll often find frequencies between these two extremes that need attention — such as when you need to reduce the boom of an acoustic guitar body. For example. wiring removal of unwanted frequencies. the signal level drops by 6dB for every octave below the filter's turnover frequency. offer variable phase for each this page shows a shelving equaliser plug–in.) Because the filter. such as the Neve model emulated below. such as the ddmf LP10 shown left. and this means that any components two octaves down from that frequency will be attenuated by 12dB. A more practical option for boosting a frequency region is the 'shelving' equaliser. These adjustable filters can usually be tuned over a wide frequency range. giving access to the best of both worlds. the steeper the transition at the much more precise. this type of filter is less likely to cause clipping problems when boosting. or emphasise the crack of a snare drum — and this is where the 'band–pass'. and shelving filters where both cut and boost are desired.com/techniques/whats­frequency 2/6 . What's In The Middle? While the filters described so far are useful for general high– cut. and so on.soundonsound. amount of gain levels out. or 'peak' equaliser comes into its own. and operates on a specific band of frequencies. and they form the basis of the EQ — you do what sounds best — but a useful low–cut filters found in microphones and mixers. (The screen shot at the bottom of as pleasing. low–cut and boost purposes. once the filter flattens. but gentle. Baxandall's basic circuit still forms the basis of many mixing console high and low equaliser sections and is mimicked in the form of presets on a good number of EQ plug–ins. guideline is to use narrow notches for 'surgical' although their response shape is useful for cutting. If you need a 'steeper' filter slope. because for broad boosts when looking to augment one aspect of a sound. You may be able to achieve every octave you go past the filter's cutoff point. you put two first–order filters in series. which makes it incredibly easy to one filter. Linear–phase digital EQ is filters you stack in series. instead of the gain continuing to change by 6dB per octave. out all because they do more than cut and boost the low frequencies will be cut or boosted by the same frequencies: phase shifting and distortion also amount when you turn the EQ gain control. The range of frequencies that are affected is determined by the bandwidth of the filter (measured at its –3dB points). http://www. In these designs. those three octaves down will be attenuated by 18dB. but doesn't always sound filter's operating frequency. Such filters are very useful for attenuating frequencies that are outside There aren't really any hard and fast rules for the area of wanted frequencies. for example.

while the highest and lowest frequency sliders are usually linked to shelving filters to provide more useful control over the high and low extremes. On smaller mixers (and some less sophisticated EQ units) with so–called 'swept–mid' controls. to the extent that both the frequency curves and attendant phase shifts are emulated as closely as possible. cut or boost amount (usually up to about 15dB) and bandwidth (or 'Q'). Each band is controlled using a vertical slider. where no phase shift is introduced between low and high frequencies when cutting or boosting — and this sort of EQ is ideal for correcting spectral balance issues without changing the sound excessively.com/techniques/whats­frequency 3/6 . The centre frequency of the filter divided by its bandwidth at the –3dB points gives the 'Q' of the filter. anything in between these two extremes. Individual filter bandwidths are arranged so that they overlap smoothly. so there are three controls per band. Unsurprisingly. on the other hand. Although there's no reason not to use a graphic equaliser in the studio. Minimum Vs Linear Phase Analogue equalisers tend to colour the sound in a way that's more complicated than simple frequency bosts and cuts. either with fixed bandwidth or proportional Q responses. which means that the user is able to apply a broad boost. Graphic EQ Graphic equalisers are based around a large number of fixed– frequency filters. or a whole octave. can have pretty much whatever range their designers decide they want to build into them. the bandwidth of the mid filter is preset — or may perhaps offer a couple of preset widths — but in a true 'parametric' equaliser the filter width is variable. of course. usually spaced by a half. but digital equalisers can also be created with 'linear–phase' characteristics. some of which will be more musically pleasing to the ear than others (one of the reasons that people admire some particular 'classic outboard'). Parametric equalisers offer control over filter frequency. a third. The shape of the band-pass EQ curve is sometimes described as bell–like: the maximum cut or boost occurs at the centre of the bell and gets progressively less each side of it. This type of EQ is a 'minimum–phase' design. which governs the cut or boost. digital equalisers are often designed to emulate such characteristics. http://www. because they introduce phase shifts. depending on the number of bands. the narrower the filter response. Most practical parametric equalisers have two or more bands that can be used at the same time to tackle problems in different parts of the audio spectrum. or to focus in on very narrow sections of the audio spectrum — or. because they're fast to set up and quite useful for tackling general room EQ problems. Live sound engineers also often like to use graphic equalisers. most engineers prefer the parametric EQ because it gives them more precise control.soundonsound. with 'flat' being in the centre position — so clearly the name 'graphic equaliser' comes about because the faders show the general shape of the EQ curve. meaning that the higher the Q value. Digital equalisers.7/1/2017 What's The Frequency? | Sound On Sound although the technical limitations of analogue circuitry mean that analogue band–pass EQs seldom cover the entire audio spectrum with a single filter.

I like to think of traditional minimu-phase EQ as 'art' and linear-phase EQ as 'science'. which means that they'll increase the latency of your DAW by a significant amount. Put another way. it's useful to understand something of the way our ears perceive the changes we make. because this prevents it from conflicting with other sounds in the mix. However. even though you haven't EQ'd them at all. Some Practical Considerations When using EQ.soundonsound. In fact. if you ever read our Mix Rescue articles you'll know just how useful this can be for de–cluttering a mix. such as notch filtering. The classic example is the acoustic guitar in the rock mix. Engineers creating digital models of classic analogue gear go to great lengths to emulate all the subtle distortions and quirks of the original. which don't really have a 'natural' acoustic sound to get wrong. it tends to sound most natural when the range of affected frequencies is fairly wide. What should be evident right away is that narrow EQ boosts sound much more obvious — and unnatural — than correspondingly deep EQ cuts. whereas linear–phase designs tend to be better for corrective.com/techniques/whats­frequency 4/6 . which can result in a harsh. In reality. such as vocals. http://www. which can sound much better with a lot of low end shaved off. One pitfall you should avoid is EQing each sound in isolation to make it sound as big and shiny as possible. some sounds. analogue or minimu-phase EQs tend to be better for creative tonal shaping where you're looking for a musically pleasing sound. the chances are that your mix will sound somewhat messy. the subjective sound of each part will change once the other elements of the mix are brought into play — and if you've tried to tune up each sound on its own. Analogue EQs tend to sound different for a number of reasons.7/1/2017 What's The Frequency? | Sound On Sound It's probably true to say that the phase changes introduced by many classic equaliser designs make an important contribution to their sound. need to be treated to sound very upfront. while a badly designed one can run out of headroom when large amounts of cut or boost are used. or perhaps by some accident of design. as it is often these that give it a unique sonic signature. Although this might make instruments sound good alone. you can try this for yourself by playing a mix through the equaliser and then listening to the subjective results of narrow EQ cuts and boosts at different parts of the frequency spectrum. 'surgical' jobs. so it doesn't always make sense to choose the technically more precise linear–phase option. as equalisation places heavy demands on both the headroom and bandwidth of the active support circuitry. where confining pads sounds into a narrower region of the audio spectrum can avoid conflict with other instruments and thus really help to clean up a busy mix. You can also afford to be fairly heavy–handed in this respect with instruments such as electric guitar. The steeper the filter. the more assertive the bracketing — typically a filter–slope of between 12dB/octave and 24dB/octave will do the trick. and where the amount of boost used is quite modest. While EQ boost can be useful. You should also bear in mind that linear–phase equalisers introduce quite a lot of delay. unpleasant sound. removing unnecessary low and/or high frequencies — in fact. not least the shape of the EQ curves — which may depart from the theoretical curves we've discussed so far by intent. as all the parts will probably be fighting to be at the front of the sound stage. The same radical approach can often be used for synths. Some vintage equalisers may distort in a musically pleasant way. try instead cutting those parts of the spectrum that you feel are overpowering it: sometimes the effect of cutting a lower-frequency sound can make the higher frequencies seem brighter. You can also sometimes make instruments sit better in a mix by using low– and high–pass filters to 'bracket' the sound. Then there's the quality of the circuitry. before you boost something you'd like to hear more of.

to shape sounds in a less natural — but musically satisfying — way. crisp. giving you an idea of which part of the spectrum to cut. the easiest — method is to use a parametric EQ with a Q setting of around 1. or perhaps shimmering. that can also make it rather imprecise and confusing — particularly when it comes down to describing sound! We might describe a sound as deep. bright. indeed. slap at 2.soundonsound. When it comes to recordings of acoustic instruments and voices. you'll start to know intuitively which areas to cut and boost to get the sound you want. remember what we said above: always make your final adjustments to a sound with the rest of the mix playing. of course. bite at 2kHz. then. To find the parts of a sound that need equalising. these are only guidelines. Listen for those elements that benefit the sound and those that cause problems: the unpleasant elements should really jump out at you when you sweep through them. shrill. What you may think of as a 'coloured' or 'boxy' tone that EQ should be able to fix may. crispness at 4–8kHz. If you listen carefully to some well–crafted commercial records and try to pick out the various different elements of the mix. Some engineers may prefer to estimate the problem frequency before applying any such cut or boost. because many problems simply can't be fixed by EQ. All these uses are valid. the same term can mean different things for different instruments. you should always try to get the best sound you can at source. but they're not a lot of use when you're trying to narrow down which frequencies to cut or boost. turn the boost right up. we describe how you can sweep a narrow–ish parametric EQ boost to zoom in on any problem frequencies that you might want to 'notch out'. don't fall into the trap of thinking that radical amounts of EQ will help you fix an imperfect sound at the mixing stage — because very often it won't! Where To Cut & Boost For Common Instruments The English language is a wonderful tool in that it usually offers many alternative ways of describing similar things. and really shouldn't sound so big and glossy. this should be very obvious. http://www. you'll often find that EQing will make little or no improvement. warm. but getting this right is. be down to room reflections caused by insufficient damping in the recording area or by inappropriate mic placement — and where this is the case. forward. a knowledge of EQ is important to today's music production process. The Equaliser Finally. In the main article. but whatever you do. so that you get used to the different elements that make up the sound of different instruments. In time. The list below isn't exhaustive. Snare Drum: Weight. Kick Drum: Bottom or depth is usually found in the 60–80Hz region. and this approach can also be useful to train your ears. They're useful terms because we all know roughly what they mean. One word of warning: as always. because what sounds good in isolation doesn't always sound good in context. something that comes with experience and plenty of ear–training 'on the job'. Either way. and it can be used either to correct problems or in a more creative manner. the most common — and. Until then. in fact. because this offers the advantage that they haven't had their judgement clouded by the sound of a harsh EQ boost. and you really have to listen and experiment if you want to get things working in the context of your track. and then sweep the EQ across the frequency spectrum. but it provides some useful starting points for commonly used instruments — and as you can see.5kHz.com/techniques/whats­frequency 5/6 . fatness or body at about 240Hz. here's a mini reference guide. Alas. You can then experiment with the depth and width of cut to get the best subjective result.7/1/2017 What's The Frequency? | Sound On Sound while other sounds can play more of a supporting role.

Floor Toms: Fullness around 80–120Hz. Congas: Resonance around 200–240Hz. broad boosts and cuts using an analogue EQ (or analogue–modelling plug–in). Narrow notches and broad boosts usually work best: so if you hear can hear a nasty resonance. 4. try a narrow cut with a linear–phase EQ.5kHz.5–10kHz. attack at 5kHz. 'rasp' at 6–8kHz. Brass: Warmth at 200–400Hz. sibilance from 7. 'boom' around 200–240Hz. Strings: Fullness at 200–300Hz. Boosting the top end will only result in undesirable crackle and noise if there's little there to augment.5–12kHz.5–10kHz. Bass Guitar: Bottom at 60–80Hz. which makes high–pass filters your best friend.7/1/2017 What's The Frequency? | Sound On Sound Hi–hat: 'Gong' at 200Hz. 'scratch' (bow and string noise) from 7. You should always EQ in the context of a mix because that's where things need to sound good — no– one else is going to be listening for the perfect hi–hat in isolation! 3.5kHz.5kHz Acoustic Guitar: Bottom or weight at 80–100Hz. presence at 2. slap at 5kHz. Different analogue–style EQs impart different characteristics.soundonsound.5kHz. bite at 2. so get things right at source. attack or 'pluck' at 700Hz to 1kHz. and if you're looking for tonal change. nasal tones at 1–3kHz. attack at 5kHz. clarity from 2–2. Cymbals: 'Clunk' from 100–300Hz. 'shrillness' at 5–7. You can't boost what isn't there. attack around 10kHz. Matt Houghton http://www. shrillness from 5–7kHz. Rack Toms: Fullness around 240Hz.5kHz.5 and 5kHz. ringing overtones at 1–6kHz. 5. 2. so try to experiment with different hardware or plug–in EQs to get the results you want. presence at 5kHz. shrillness at 8–12kHz. Electric Guitar: Mains hum at 50Hz (UK) or 60Hz (US). Vocals: Fullness around 120Hz. sizzle at 8–12kHz. Solo Trumpet & Sax: Warmth at 200–400Hz. 'honk' at 1–3. Horns: Fullness at 120–240Hz. 'pop' at 2. Too much bass or sub–bass will eat up your mix headroom. fullness at 240Hz. shimmer at 7. Matt Houghton Five EQ Tips 1.com/techniques/whats­frequency 6/6 .5kHz. work with gentle. body around 240Hz. Acoustic Piano: Bottom from 80–120Hz. Hammond/Electric Organ: Bottom from 80–120Hz. presence between 2.