Tuesday, February 12, 2013

EQ your Mix: Creating Space

Aloha! After re-reading yesterday's post, I began thinking more about the other ways of creating space in a mix and I figured that right now might be as good a time as any for some more spacial discussion. So without further ado . . .

EQ, short for equalizer, is probably one of the most common forms of adjustment for music outside of the volume knob. Let's go old school for a moment . . does anyone remember the old boom boxes? If I remember correctly, mine had a 5-band EQ on it. At the time, I really had no idea what it was beyond making my cassette tapes sound different when adjusted. Even more basic is the typical car stereo EQ featuring treble, midrange (or mid), and bass. Often, we might change these settings based on the style of music we like and adjust accordingly to taste. What is really going on here though? Essentially we are adjusting the gain for a predetermined range of frequencies. As the names suggest, the controls on a car stereo (or basic home stereo) adjust the upper, middle, and lower areas of the frequency spectrum. Growing up, most of us have tweaked the sound of our favorite tunes in this fashion. EQ usage in mixing is WAY more in depth though . . . 

Hang with me here, this will connect to mixing. Guitarists are notorious (I count myself in this discussion) for adjusting their amps (treble, mid, bass) and sounds in the same fashion as mentioned above. For starters, this IS NOT WRONG. However, this perspective can get an aspiring artist into trouble on occasion when mixing his/her guitar tracks in with other instruments. Again, I will repeat . . . there is NOTHING wrong with adjusting your amp in this fashion when you are just hanging out and jamming. Recording, mixing, and playing with a band is a whole different story though. We guitarists love big, thick tone. At times, this tempts us to crank up the bass (for example) on our amps. In a recording situation, you can start running into issues with the bass track if you overdo it. Despite the temptation to crank the bass, the juicy parts of the guitar speak very vibrantly in the mid to upper range of the frequency spectrum. In a mixing environment, very few times is a guitar track ever going to need anything boosted down in the 100 Hz area (specifics are going to really depend on the style of music and taste, keep that in mind when reading these posts). The more you turn up a frequency that tends to sit in a different instrument's range, the more you can unnecessarily fill up space in the spectrum and overshadow important aspects of the mix. In order to combat this and help make space for your tracks, you can use what is commonly referred to as 'subtractive EQ.' All this means, is that instead of turning up a needed frequency, you turn down a different one that isn't as important or essential to that specific track in order to showcase the desired frequency to a greater extent. You could be subtracting in order to bring out something within the track itself, or you could be doing it to bring out another aspect of the mix. You can also use to it to aurally de-clutter your mixes. Check out Ex. 1: 

If you take a peek at the leftmost section of the grid (this is an EQ i used for a guitar track), you will notice that there is a high pass filter applied which, in this case, is sloping off the lower side between 300-400 Hz. The meatiness of a bass guitar tends to sit right around and below the area where we sloped off. What we have done here is used subtractive EQ to make space within the mix by removing some unnecessary frequencies in the guitar track. This paves the way for both the guitar and bass to coexist nicely within the mix.  This can help to make more space in your mix when not only used with guitar or bass tracks, but also when used on other instruments as well. Here is another example of subtractive EQ: 

Ex. 2

I used Ex. 2 to cut some of the low end boominess and some of unpleasant midrange coming through an overhead mic on a drum set. Subtractive EQ doesn't always have to appear this extreme, but sometimes you have to get nasty with the settings in order to get the right amount of space necessary to make other elements cut through. As always, it is subject to the style and the desired sound. To close, play with the settings, and use your ears. Also, use reference recordings. Listen to what other people have done to make their mixes rock. It just takes lots of practice.