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.
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.
When recording, reaching for the EQ knob should rarely be something that you find yourself doing. In fact, EQ should really be thought of as a last resort, only using it as a tool to shape particularly difficult recording scenarios.
EQ is an often overused piece of gear in the studio. In my assisting days I was often told to patch up an EQ simply as a matter of common procedure. I also worked on a handful of sessions where the engineer showed up early and began EQ’ing before any musicians even arrived to play a note!
Now generally speaking, there really is no right or wrong way to go about recording. Recording music is truly an art form, and just like any art is highly subjective. However, there are many scientific guidelines that if used as a base point will help you achieve above average results.
It’s also worth noting that there are a lot of talented engineers who purposefully record using EQ so that they don’t have to use it as much during mixing. This is a very efficient, logical and wise approach. But equally logical is the notion that it’s just best to simplify. Recording with an EQ inserted is an approach that should be reserved for those who have a lot of experience in the field of recording. You could also make the argument that using EQ as an effect is a valid technique to employ when expressing your artistic voice, but this is a special case–not the normal set of studio circumstances.
The most effective way to get a great tone out of any instrument you record really comes down to three main steps:
Find the best place in the room for the instrument
The way a room interacts with musical instruments dictates to a large degree the way it sounds. The farther away from the sound source the mic is placed, the more the room becomes a factor in the recorded sound. Before recording, spend some time having someone play the instrument in different places within the room. Trust your ears the most. Once you find the best position in the room, designate that place for that instrument and repeat the process for the next instrument. Make sure you allot an appropriate amount of time for this process in your recording sessions, because this process can take a while.
Find the sweet spot–the optimal place to position the mic
After you have found the position where the instrument sounds best in the room, you need to find the position where the mic will sound best on the instrument. This process has two halves: a) using your ears in the room to find the initial position for the mic b) fine tuning that position by listening through the speakers in the control room. When recording very loud instruments such as electric guitars or a drum kit, it may not be possible to stand in the room and listen because of the high volume. If you find this to be true, then you may have to just go with the “b half” of this exercise. Also very important is to always wear earplugs when making adjustments in the recording space! Your most valuable recording asset are the pieces of equipment attached to the sides of your head. Protect your hearing at all costs. Otherwise you risk flushing your career down the tubes. Once you have found the instrument’s sweet spot you can move on to the third step in this process.
Choose the right microphone/mic pre combination
The last step in the process is to select the correct mic/pre combination. Honestly, to fully discuss mic/pre selection would require an entire blog post itself, and perhaps I will explore this topic in a future post. But for now, you just want to find the right match that seems to bring the most life to the tone of the instrument you are recording. In a perfect world we would all have any microphone and preamp at our disposal at any given time. If you happen to be in this situation you are a very lucky person, and probably should not be wasting your time reading this blog. For the rest of us reality is a different truth. Spend some time experimenting with the mics and pres that you do have available to you to find a combination that seems to fit best. If your situation is anything similar to mine, then you only have about three choices. Just do your best.
If you find that you are still not achieving the sound you want out of an instrument after going through this process, it is still best to adjust an element of one or all of the steps before inserting an EQ. Resist the urge to use EQ as a crutch. EQ should be used when you have no other options left to help you craft your sound, or if you are going for a specific effect, which as we said before is a special case. EQ should be used lightly and as a tool. If you do find that you need to adjust the sound by inserting an EQ, do so very judiciously. Leave room to do most of your EQ’ing during the mixing stage.
I hope you have found this article helpful. If you feel that I have overlooked something, or have any other tips on getting a great tone without the use of EQ, please leave your tips in the comments. Additionally, if you have any questions or would like to see an article on a specific topic relating to the music recording and/or production process feel free to leave a comment below, telling me what topics you would like to see explored on producer notes. If you would like to keep your suggestions private, you can email me at stinson[AT]producernotes[DOT]com
Good luck finding that tone you are looking for…