Last week I wrote an article on What Compression Is For, which gave a little history on how dynamics compression in music recording came about. I was afraid that post would be too boring, but I got a little feedback that indicated otherwise. So continuing on that theme, I thought I’d put together some similar thoughts on EQ.
EQ is meant for sonic correction, and to help carve elements in a mix such that they fit together agreeably. Back in the early days of recording, before multitrack came along, engineers had to record a lot of different instruments to the same track, or group of tracks. You’re probably familiar with the famous story of how The Beatles Sgt. Pepper album was recorded entirely on a four track. My personal favorite is the Queen Night At The Opera album – particularly the song “Bohemian Rhapsody”. On this recording, each band member performed their vocal part about 70 times, resulting in somewhere around 200 tracks of vocals. But they only had 24 tracks to work with.
When making a record this way, recording engineers had to literally be mixing all throughout the recording phase. They had to constantly be thinking ahead, anticipating what would happen to the sound when multiple tracks of tape were bounced down to just one or two tracks, in order to make space for overdubs.
To help with this, recording engineers came up with the equalizer. Equalizers were named such because they “equalized” the sound. This gave recording engineers the tool they needed to compensate for the buildup of overlapping sonics, and constantly changing tonal response of the analog tape. This way, they could carve and mould the sound the way they needed to in order to keep one instrument from getting in the way of another, as well as guaranteeing that a particular instrument wouldn’t sound too dull after hours of running the tape.
Now that multitrack recording has changed, the concept of EQ has evolved a bit as well. No longer do we really have to worry about using EQ in a way that compensates for overlapping sonic buildup when bouncing tracks, but we still often have to employ a bit of sonic shaping and correction at times. Sometimes a little bit when recording, but definitely fairly often when mixing.
Like everything in record-making, there are no rules. Use EQ when an how you want. This is art. But there are some best practices to keep in mind, which when used will get you more consist results.
The general approach I would suggest is to, experiment and make most drastic changes at the source instrument to get the sound you want – during the recording phase. In the control room, patch in an EQ only to fine tune and make subtle changes to the sound you have come up with in the tracking space. It’s really best to leave most the EQ’ing (think sonic correction) to the mix phase.
Typically, EQ is not meant to shape the defining sonic characteristic of a sound (use guitars, microphones, pedals, snare drums, etc for this). If you commonly approach EQ in a way that attempts to define the essence of the sound, you’re usually going to spend 10 times longer dialing in the sound, only to be disappointed when the ending result is never quite there.
Of course, like everything there are exceptions, and I’ve certainly abused EQ to create a unique sound, but that’s a scenario that comes up less than one percent of the time in the day-to-day life of making records.
Again, hope this little history lesson wasn’t too long and boring. Just wanted to offer more background on another common studio tool to perhaps help you gain a better perspective on how to use it and why it exists.
The solo button on your mixer or in your DAW is meant to be used in specific circumstances. In other words, not for EQ’ing individual tracks when mixing. That should be done mostly in context of the whole arrangement.
Here’s a few scenarios of when I use the solo button:
In each one of these examples I only use the solo button momentarily to get an idea of what’s going on. Once I get an understanding I imediately put all the tracks back in, so I can make all my serious adjustments in context of the whole arrangement.
It may seem kinda weird or hard to do at first, but you should always make all your serious decisions about how you want your mix to sound while listening to the whole arrangement. Otherwise, you run the risk of making choices that cause each instrument to compete for space in the mix, and you will run in circles.
Yesterday I posted on getting a natural sounding yet compressed lead vocal, but today I’ve got a simple EQ tip that can yield an even more natural sounding lead vocal. For the ultimate smooth sounding lead vocal, try a touch of both of these techniques when recording and/or mixing.
On the lead vocal track, insert your favorite EQ. Start by cutting out the frequencies that are way below the human voice range. The best way to do this is with a Hi-pass filter, adjusting it so that everything below 60Hz is attenuated. Often times, though, I’ll set this as high as 90-100Hz. It just depends on the arrangement and style of the song.
Next, cut out the gnarly sounding tones. I’ve found that these tones mostly live around the 600Hz-1Khz range. The best way to zero in on the specific problem area is to boost quite dramatically (5-10dB) with a moderately narrow bandwidth, and sweep this entire frequency range. Once you’ve found the specific area that seems to bring out the most crud in the vocal, cut this by 3 dB or so.
Finally, the magic step: boost 7Khz (sometimes as high as 7.5Khz) by 2-3dB, with a moderately narrow bandwidth setting.
The first time someone showed this to me it was amazing, and shockingly subtle. I often times have to bypass the EQ a few times to get my ears and brain to recognize the change. Once I get my ears dialed in, though, it’s a clear improvement. Suddenly the lead vocal just jumps out in the most smooth and silky way – it sounds just like gold!
That’s it! I call this a magic EQ trick, because it’s so simple. You just insert an EQ, and make a couple adjustments. The real magic being what boosting a couple dB in the 7Khz range does for the human voice. Honestly, you could probably get by with just this part, but it’s always good practice to cut out what you don’t need before boosting anything.
I’d recommend using this lead vocal EQ technique mostly during the mixing phase of your projects, but you could probably get by with a little bit of it when recording your lead vocals as well (especially cutting certain frequencies). Personally, I never mix a lead vocal without adding a little bump of magic around 7Khz.
Lately I’ve seen a lot of posts on various recording blogs about how to properly use EQ and compression to carve out space in your mix and glue the individual tracks together. It’s true, that’s certainly what these tools can help you do. And it can indeed be a confusing process to learn the best practices of utilizing these tools in order to achieve a mix well done.
But amongst all this talk about EQ and compression, (which is fun. I know people get excited about compressors. I certainly do-they’re exciting and make things sound cool), it’s important not to overlook a very simple tool that is easy to use, and does not really have a learning curve…
The pan knob.
One of the quickest and easiest ways to find space for an instrument, and help it cut through a dense mix is to simply play around with its position in the stereo field.
Perhaps you’ve got an acoustic guitar part that is in a battle with the electric guitars, snare drum, and lead vocal. It’s pretty amazing how that acoustic will suddenly and easily pop right out when you pan it (even just slightly) to its own specific space in the stereo field.
While EQ and compression can be fun and make things exciting, those tools can also be frustrating to use, time consuming, and sometimes even expensive. Maybe all that track needs is a little panning. After all, stereo remains the most popular method of sound reproduction today. Let’s make sure we’re utilizing it.
At my studio I often run into a problem when recording: I run out of resources.
I prefer to record all basic tracks live with the whole band, and often times this approach to recording leads me to run out of resources-mics, cables, mic pre’s, inputs, etc.
Although this really only becomes a problem when I’m recording five or more people at once, it happens often enough that I find myself having to work inside this challenge on most sessions where basic tracks are recorded at my studio.
My philosophy on recording allows me to approach a limitation, such as the one described above, as a catalyst for creativity, instead of viewing it as a disadvantage. I believe working within certain limitations causes you to make commitments on the spot, which in the end puts a more organic and natural feel on the character of the recording.
When I’m faced with the challenge of having to pick priorities for what mic will get used where, one of the first candidates for omission are the room mics. The reason I’m so quick to lose the room mics, is because I’ve developed a little mixing technique that allows me to recreate the room ambience in a very natural sounding way, which I will describe below.
Artificially Recreating Natural Sounding Ambience
That’s it! Once you’re happy with the overall balance/pan of the individual drum tracks, and the “Wet” Aux Input channel with the “Dry” Aux Input channel, you should have a drum mix that includes some natural sounding ambience. Experiment with including or excluding certain drum tracks from the submix, such as overhead mics.
You can take this a few steps further by taking this entire submix, and incorporating the buss compression technique, or adding a bit more reverb of a different type to just the snare drum. You can also use this technique on something else entirely, such as an electric guitar submix, or a horn section submix.
Hope this little mixing tip helps you achieve a natural sounding ambience to your mixes when you don’t have the resources to record with room mics. As always comments are welcome. If you end up using this technique, post a link so we can all hear your mix.