Thinking counter intuitively
When it comes time to mix, the equalizer is one of the first tools the sound engineer* pulls out to sculpt the track. A beginner might underestimate the power and usefulness of the equalizer, preferring compressors and reverb for example but equalizers are generally indispensable to achieve a professional result. Being methodical and logical can help achieve professional results faster but sometimes the method and logic may seem counterintuitive to the aspiring sound engineer. This involves psychoacoustics, or how our brain interprets the sounds we hear. Understanding how your brain reacts can help you make better EQ decisions. I’d like to go through some of my favorite and sometimes not-so-obvious equalizer tips. I will present three today and another three in the next article.
1) No solo (in context only)
This one is a classic. Although it is tempting (specially for the up and coming engineer*) to hit that solo button and EQ away, the bottom line is that a snare, for example, that sounds perfect in solo may not be that great once in context of the rest of the drums, let alone the rest of the mix. The reasoning is that in solo you don’t hear how the frequencies from the other instruments affect (overlap for example) your soloed snare, nor how your snare affects the other instruments. Anyways, no one is going to hear that snare in solo except you. What people will hear is the snare in context. That means two things: First, don’t bother EQing in solo. Second if you EQ your snare to your taste while it plays in context of the other tracks, you may realize that the EQ on your snare sounds terrible in solo, but that is okay if it sounds good within the rest of the mix. Before your lawyer calls my lawyer I need to place a disclaimer here: you can EQ in solo in specific cases. For example, as you do some subtractive EQ (LPF, HPF for example) you may want to go into solo to actually hear what you are cutting from the instrument. In the case of synth intensive tracks, you cannot always rely on the name of the track to know where in the frequency spectrum that sound is located, so you hit the solo button and place your HPF and LPF in order to narrow in on the most important frequencies. Another example going back to our snare: if there is a ringing frequency that you want to get rid of, you can sweep in solo to find it. Mind you, both of these examples can also be done in context of the whole mix but may need more concentration. Something to bear in mind however is that if at some point in the song (like a break or a less dense moment) the snare track plays almost alone (other drum tracks muted for example), you need to make sure your snare is EQed appropriately in the full mix and in the break.
2) Not enough highs? Cut the lows and don’t boost the highs
Imagine yourself in this context: as you A/B your mix with other reference mixes, you feel the reference mixes are brighter than your mix. If you find your mix not bright enough it may just be that your mix has too much low end instead. This applies to an entire mix but can also apply to an individual instrument track. The highs are probably there, they are just psychoacoustically hidden by the lows (or mids). Your mind may be playing a trick on you: because some frequencies (or frequency ranges) are so loud, they get all the attention from our brain. They sort of attract our attention and mask other frequencies. You can apply this on a guitar for instance, if your guitar is not sticking out enough, cut the low end of the guitar and the highs and mids will stick out more. Here is another way to apply this idea. On individual tracks, instead of increasing the frequencies of a guitar that does not seem loud enough, decrease the frequencies of the keyboard that is preventing you from hearing the guitar correctly. We are assuming your guitar was recorded correctly and sounds fine by itself but that in the context of the mix it does not stick out enough. You can always do a combination of cutting a bit of the keyboards and boosting a bit of the guitar, as a compromise. This can apply to an entire mix too: if your voice is not cutting through the mix, on the instrument tracks attenuate the frequencies that are masking the voice.
3) Cut, then open (avoid the syndrome of the ungrateful)
This technique works well with High Pass filters and Low Pass filters. When mixing a song there is generally a need to cut frequencies (in the kick drum for example) to make room for other instruments (like the bass guitar). A compromise needs to be found between a full kick drum that masks the bass and a less-full (filtered) kick drum that lets the bass guitar be heard. For example if you are trying to figure out at what frequency to set the Low Pass Filter on a kick drum, you might naturally start with the filter fully open (at 20kHz) and then start closing it to the point where the kick drum still sounds acceptable. It could be a good idea to do the opposite when applying a low pass filter: close the filter almost completely and then start opening it up until it sounds acceptable. As we take the full sound and start cutting our ears send a message to our brain that the sound is changing, in the case of the kick drum it may simply be the sound of the cymbals leaking into the kick drum microphone being attenuated by the LPF. Our brain interprets it as “You are degrading the original sound”, which might actually not be a bad thing if you are getting rid of cymbal leakage. If you are not sure where to set the LPF, try both methods: note the frequency at which the sound still sounds acceptable as you go from a fully open filter and start closing, then note the frequency at which the sound still sounds acceptable as you go from a fully closed filter and start opening. Your final setting might be somewhere between those two frequencies. I call this the ungrateful syndrome: If you are used to a beautiful sounding kick drum, as soon as that sound is modified and becomes anything less than what is was, you become unhappy, ungrateful for what you have, crying your loss of frequencies. Take the poor man’s perspective: if you are used to a bad sounding kick drum, as soon as it starts sounding close to decent you become happy, even if the kick drum is not as nice as the rich man’s sound!
Understanding the logic behind these tips is useful even if you do not systematically use these tips. If you do not already apply these, try integrating them one by one in your workflow, depending on what your situation calls for. Next time I’ll go over three more of my favorite EQ tips.
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- The term “engineer” is use here in the way everyone uses it outside of Quebec. In Quebec, “Engineer” is reserved to members of the Ordre des ingénieurs. For more info visit the page “What is a sound engineer?”