In the next series of blog posts, I’m going to go through EQ, or equalization. I will talk about why we use it, and when and how to use it. I think EQ is easier to understand than compression (my last series of blog posts), but when I see EQs added by young producers and engineers, I realize they are just as lost using EQ as a compressor. Partly, this is because they don’t understand frequencies.
In this blog I am going to start with an overview. I think to understand EQ and use it properly, one must understand frequencies, our ear’s perception to frequencies, the frequency spectrum (or range), and frequency specifics of individual instruments.
To start with, the ear hears 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz (or 20 kHz). This is, of course, ideal, but starts to become less (mostly on the high end), soon after we’re born. If you’re serious about a career in music, it would serve you well to NOT listen to loud sources for very long. Personally, I wear ear protection when using my leaf blower and shop vac!
If you think about an acoustic piano, the lowest note is A0, 27.50 Hz, and the highest note is C8, 4186 Hz. I bring this up because I think it helps us equate pitch with frequency. Next chance you get, go play specific notes on a piano (acoustic or digital), and then consult a chart as to the frequency of that note. For instance “middle” C is 262 Hz. A440 (the A just above middle C) is 440 Hz.
Do you know what an octave is? An octave, at least on a piano, is from, say, middle C up or down to the next C. This happens to be 8 white keys, thus octave. Using octaves, the frequency either doubles (up an octave) or halves (down an octave). So middle C (C4), 262 Hz, up an octave goes to C5, 523 Hz. (Technically, C4 is 261.63 and C5 is 523.25 Hz.) The A above middle C, A4 is 440 Hz. Up an octave is 880, down an octave is 220. Down another octave is 110, then 55, then 27.50, the lowest note on the piano. All instruments, of course, can go up or down octaves at a time.
The lowest note on a guitar is E2, 82 Hz. Guess what a bass guitar’s lowest note is? One octave down, 41 Hz. This is important. For one reason, when EQing either of these instruments, I know there is no useable information below those frequencies, so I will use a high pass filter set just below those frequencies. This helps to clean up the sound of these instruments, make them less muddy.
The frequency spectrum (20 Hz – 20 kHz) is broken into ten octaves:
- 20 – 40
- 40 – 80
- 80 – 160
- 160 – 320
- 320 – 640
- 640 – 1280
- 1280 – 2560
- 2560 = 5120
- 5120 – 10, 240
- 10,240 – 20, 480
So, the lowest note on a bass guitar, 41 Hz is in octave 2; lowest guitar string is octave 3; middle C on piano is octave 4; A440 is in octave 5. Where do vocals sit? Fullness, for example, is 140 – 440, octave 3 to 5.
A different and more effective way to think about the frequency range is to break it up into five broader ranges:
- 20 – 100 Bass (Sub Bass)
- 100 – 500 Mid Bass (Upper Bass)
- 500 – 2 kHz Mid Range
- 2 k – 8 kHz Upper Mid Range
- 8 k – 20 kHz High (Treble)
Bass: Depth, Power, Thump
Upper Bass: Warmth, Body, Fullness
Mid Range: Bang, Nasality, Horn-like, Fullness of high notes
Upper Mid Range: Presence, Edge, Punch, Brightness, Definition, Excitement
Treble: Brilliance, Sizzle, Treble, Crispness, Airiness, Breathiness
As example, electric guitar has too much “edge,” cut in the upper mid region. Vocal sounds a little nasal, cut in mid range area. The overall track needs more power and punch, boost bass region.
To go deeper, the human ear (and mind) hears and perceives sound differently at different frequencies and levels of loudness. Generally speaking, we are more sensitive to mid range and upper mid range frequencies. The ear is less sensitive to low frequencies at lower volumes, and slightly less sensitive to higher frequencies compared to mid range frequencies at the same volume. Being more sensitive means we hear it easier and more readily.
Another way to say this is at low listening volume, mid range frequencies sound more prominent, while the low and high frequency ranges seem to fall into the background. Conversely, at high listening volumes, the lows and highs sound more prominent, while the mid range seems comparatively softer. Confusing? Yes. But extremely important to understand.
To illustrate – Let’s say you’re working on the EQ of a mix, and as you listen back at low levels, you think the lows and highs could use a boost. So you boost them, and it sounds great. The next day you listen back at a high volume, and notice the lows and highs are too loud, so you cut them back down some. Sound familiar? This is the Equal Loudness Contour effect.
There are two different charts one could consult to dig deeper into this important, albeit nerdy and technical subject – Fletcher-Munson Curves and Equal Loudness Contour. There are many articles available online regarding these two subjects, so I will not get into them. BUT, it is extremely important to realize how important these affect your work as an audio professional!
I went a little more in depth than normal in this post, but I hope it helps you to understand what is involved when learning to become an successful producer or audio engineer.
And, HEY! Make it a GREAT day!!