Getting Your Mix to...mix, Part One, EQ as event security.

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The first of a series dedicated to concepts and techniques to help your mixes to find that perfect blend of clarity, punch, character and definition.

Most of us have been familiar with EQs since long before we ever started recording audio in our home studios. The presence of EQs on home and car stereos has made it seem like we have a grasp on what they do and how to use them to improve the sound of our recordings. However, applying EQ appropriately to a stereo mix and using EQ to add definition and clarity in a multitrack recording are indeed, two different things entirely. In order to achieve the latter, you must gain a working knowledge of EQ Theory.

How many times have you mixed your latest number one hit only to find that the vocals seem buried in the mix? To bring them out more, you just need to turn them up a little, right? Well, not necessarily. In fact, doing this most often just places that vocal "on topĒ of your mix. The result sounds like two completely separate recording playing at the same time; one of the band, and one of the vocals. How do you get the vocals to sit "inĒ the mix without fighting with other tracks? How do you get that bass guitar to still be nice and bottom heavy and still hear the kick drum punching through? How do you make that sax solo pop out front without piercing your ear drums? You guessed it. EQ.

Proper use of compression, panning and levels all contribute to this goal as well, but EQ will provide much of the groundwork for what weíre trying to achieve.

EQ Theory

First, it's important to understand that your mix (or any recorded sound) is nothing more than a bunch of frequencies that hit various amplitudes over the course of a timeline. The human ear is capable of hearing frequencies in the range from about 20Hz up to about 20,000Hz (20k). Everything audible in a recording falls somewhere in this range or thereabouts and a given instrument (or any other sound) will occupy certain frequencies more dominantly than others. For example, a hi-hat cymbal would have significant amplitude (volume) between around 3k to 5k and would have virtually no amplitude at 30Hz. Likewise, a bass guitar will have a lot of amplitude around 80Hz and next to none at 10k. So, if you apply this theory across all of the tracks in your mix, you can imagine how each track (instrument, voice) will primarily occupy a certain range of frequencies. Most any track will have a dominant frequency range that constitutes the "meat" of the sound. They will also occupy other frequencies in less significant amplitudes that make up some of the characteristics of the sound. For example, the "boom" of a kick drum might be around 60Hz while the "attack" might be around 2k. So, when you mix, you're not just mixing several instruments together. Your mixing the frequency ranges of multiple sound sources. Many of these sound sources will occupy overlapping frequency ranges. If two sounds are trying to occupy the same frequency at similar amplitudes, they will fight with each other creating a muddy sound and losing definition from both sound sources.

Imagine youíre in line to get into a concert. There are ten lines all running side by side and at the front of each line is the ticket-taker and a turnstile. As long as everyone goes one at a time, the lines continue to move nicely. But what if the guy behind you tries to go through the turnstile at the same time as you? If you let him pass, no problem. But if you both try to push through the turnstile with the same strength at the same time, you both end up stuck in the turnstile, detained by security and missing the opening song of the show! This is not unlike what happens in your mix when two sounds (tracks) are competing for the same frequencies. They jumble themselves together and you never hear either of them clearly. Think of your mix as 180,000 lines (20Hz to 20Khz) to get into your ears.

Notching Out

Now that you have a basic understanding of EQ Theory, letís look at how you make sure everyone is waiting for their turn in the lines; Notching Out. Letís just jump right in to an example. My voice usually sits "primarilyĒ around 2.1k to 2.5k. If I also have a guitar track that includes the same range, the two tracks will step on each other. The vocal doesnít get a chance to shine through on itís own because that guitar track is trying to force his way through the line at the same time with the same force.

Figure 1

This graph maps the average amplitude and frequencies of two tracks in a mix. Notice the similar amplitudes in the frequencies from around 2K to 2.5K. Which track gets heard here? This struggle causes muddiness in the mix.

To fix this, some might just turn up the vocal track. But, as I stated earlier, this won't really fix it. What will happen is that the vocal will sit "on top" of the guitar. That's not what we want. We want the vocal sit along side of the guitar. So, we notch out the guitar track for the vocals. By applying an EQ to the guitar track and reducing the volume of the frequencies in that 2.1k to 2.5k range, the vocal ends up louder than the guitar ONLY in that range. The other frequencies that the guitar occupies are left alone. So now, the guitar track and the vocal track can stay at fairly even volumes to one another without losing clarity in the vocals. Make sense?

Figure 2

Now, the guitar track has been "notched out" between around 2K to 2.K. This creates an opening that the vocal can sit in allowing both tracks to co-exist without fighting each other.

You can apply this concept throughout your mix to help create better definition between tracks and to allow every track to have its own place in the mix. As another example, I always roll off everything below about 80Hz on a guitar track and just let the bass fill that void. When I listen to the that guitar track by itself, it might sound a little thin, but when the bass is playing along with it, the two sit along side of each other allowing both to be heard clearly. As you apply this approach across your mix, you will begin to see how it can clean everything up by reducing the amount of overlapping frequencies from track to track.

Figure 3

In this mix, the guitar track has been notched out for the vocals and rolled off for the bass. The bass has been notched out for the kick drum. As a result, all four tracks have their own place in the mix and no tracks are fighting each other in the upper amplitudes.

Cutting the Notch

So, exactly how do you do this? Well, some basic understanding of how EQs work is imperative. There are a few good articles in the Recording Tips section on that, so I won't go into too much detail here, but I'll give you the basics. All you really need to do is apply an EQ to the track you wish to notch out. If the track already has an EQ on it, then you're one step ahead of the game. Select a band that is near the range you wish to notch out. Pull the gain for that band down 3 - 4 db. Set the Q or bandwidth to be around 1 octave. Different EQs use different values for this, but basically, you only want the Q about as wide as the range you wish to notch out. Then you just sweep the frequency of the band around the range you're looking to notch out until you hear that you've hit the pocket.

Figure 4

In this example, a paragraphic EQ is used to notch out a tight hole at 750hz and to roll off everything above 12Khz.

This can take a little ear training to recognize the difference since it can be fairly subtle. But once you find it, you should be able to hear a noticeable improvement in the clarity and definition of the track you're notching out for (this would be the vocal track in the example above).

Use Your Ears

After all, weíre working with audio here! Iím making mention of this seemingly obvious point because with the plethora of software based EQs and visual displays, itís easy to begin "looking" at your mix instead of listening to it. Use the visual references to better understand what your doing, but listen carefully to the way youíre effecting the sound. Notching out the wrong frequencies will not only fail to accomplish our goal of creating more definition between tracks, but will also rob the track of frequencies that may be important to the character of the sound.

Finally

Ok, Iím going to shut up now and let you get back to mixing. Iím confident that once you start using these concepts and techniques in your mixes, you will notice a dramatic improvement the sound. Your recordings will begin to "open up" and individual tracks will start to reveal themselves more clearly. Subtleties that were once buried under other tracks will come through and add character and your vocals and instrument solos will sit right "in" the mix and no longer sound "pasted on." So, listen carefully to your mix and then get in there and demand that all of those frequencies wait for their turn in line.

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User-submitted comments


Noize2u
May 13, 2003 08:20 pm
excelant work blue
Well let me be the first to make a comment. Well done dude. I like the graphics and all. You have doen this in a very clear and understandable fashion, and it should help every level of musician trying to get the right sound out of his mix.

Peace,

Noize 2 U


GuitarLord
Jul 29, 2003 10:13 pm
Kudos
While I had a decent understanding of how EQ's worked, the graphics really brought the point home. Helluva job blue!

Brad Bristow
Jan 31, 2004 10:51 pm
Thank You
I just finished reading your article and I now understand why my mixes seemed to play 'games'
with my hearing at times. I am a lifelong musician but only been mixing, recording and engineering for a couple of years. I've noticed when I put my head back in my mixing chair and keep my finger on virtually any instruments pan knob...slowly moving it from one area to another....the mix at some point will begin to gain power, clarity and fullness...Once you've gotten used to hearing this and it becomes easy to hear...you will be able to stop exactly at the pinnacle of great sound for your mix on each added track.

You can do this, and should, for every track added as you bring them into the mix. The difference in knowing this and not is sooooo huge to the final mix. You just explained to me what I have been learning on my own for about a year and a half. Great Article.

Brad Bristow

Devon L Wilson
May 04, 2004 08:42 pm
I dream I was in heaven and you were there with me.
This article, clears up my ignrance as to how one mixdown or mix sounds. I was wondering why my tracks sounds like dog fight..lol.. EQ you are a savior ever so right.

Devon L wilson

GruSuM
Feb 05, 2010 04:41 am
I can also see clearly now
I never knew when to cut or when to boost, know I do.

Anne Cozean
Dec 04, 2010 06:48 pm
BIMBO BE GONE!
ahhhhhh - so THAT's what my friend was saying 5 years ago. she spoke a foreign language then, but I, too, see the light, and I'm trading in Bimbo for Recording Engineer. THANK YOU!!!

kerkenat
Nov 30, 2011 05:43 pm
thin guitars
You said:
"As another example, I always roll off everything below about 80Hz on a guitar track and just let the bass fill that void. When I listen to the that guitar track by itself, it might sound a little thin, but when the bass is playing along with it, the two sit along side of each other allowing both to be heard clearly. As you apply this approach across your mix, you will begin to see how it can clean everything up by reducing the amount of overlapping frequencies from track to track."

What about times when the bass is silent? You wouldn't want the guitar to sound thin then.

Is that when you need a 'side chain trigger' to apply the eq notch to the guitar only when the bass is actually sounding?

Kerkenat

waveheavy
Oct 03, 2012 02:08 pm
EQ space
Kerkenat,

You could... change the guitar roll off with DAW automation for the EQ, if that's what you wanted to do.

The main point he's making about doing a low cut on the guitar at 80hZ is so to make room for other instruments lower in the frequency spectrum, like the kick.

In a mix I sometimes do a roll off of the guitar up higher, to around 130 Hz, sometimes even higher if its a lead solo. Distorted electric guitar covers a lot of the frequency spectrum, it's like pac-man.


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