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Boost or cut? The relative nature of EQ and headroom

From: Foundations of Audio: EQ and Filters

Video: Boost or cut? The relative nature of EQ and headroom

A common question I get constantly from my students is whether boosting is better than cutting, or vice versa. This is a great question because thinking about an answer reveals the relative nature of boosting and cutting different frequencies from a signal. Generally, we boost for tonal correction or to increase the good stuff that we like, and we cut to remove artifacts or things we don't like about the signal. But could we not cut the frequencies around the good stuff and achieve the same thing as boosting those frequencies? Yes, we certainly can, and many times do.

Boost or cut? The relative nature of EQ and headroom

A common question I get constantly from my students is whether boosting is better than cutting, or vice versa. This is a great question because thinking about an answer reveals the relative nature of boosting and cutting different frequencies from a signal. Generally, we boost for tonal correction or to increase the good stuff that we like, and we cut to remove artifacts or things we don't like about the signal. But could we not cut the frequencies around the good stuff and achieve the same thing as boosting those frequencies? Yes, we certainly can, and many times do.

This is the reciprocal nature of EQ: a boost in one place is similar to a cut in another. If I want to increase the high-frequency content of a guitar track, I could boost the highs using their shelving filter or alternatively I could cut lows using the shelving filter and turn the entire signal up in the mix. (music playing) Why cut instead of boost? Boosting a signal will eat up your EQ and mixers' headroom and increase the chances of clipping and distortion.

Headroom can be thought of as a safety zone, allowing audio peaks to exceed the average working level of the signal without clipping or distortion. Think about the ceilings in your house. Unless you're an NBA player, you can likely walk around the house just fine without hitting your head on the ceiling. Depending on the height of your ceilings, there's probably a good two to four extra feet of headroom in case you get excited and want to jump up and down. Here is a simple example.

Let's say you have a signal that's reaching peaks of -6 dBFS or 6 dBs from the clipping point of your DAW's mixer at 0 dBFS. If you were to boost that signal 12 dB at 10K, that boost will result in a clipped and distorted signal. That 6 dB is over the system's maximum output value. So, what can we do? Well, if the signal really needs a 12 dB boost and there's only 6 dB left worth of headroom, I could do one of two things.

I can either turn the entire signal down before going for my boost, which most EQs allow you to do with an input control, or using the reciprocal nature of boost and cut, I could opt for a different combination of filter settings, possibly cutting other frequencies to achieve a similar tonality to that boost. At first, your ears will be more sensitive to boosts than cuts. In other words, you will hear a boost of 3 dB easier than you will hear a cut of 3 dB. But remember, the benefit of cutting over boosting is that it doesn't eat up any additional headroom.

Another potential benefit of cutting or removing gain is that EQs tends to have more transparent with fewer artifacts. I say this is a potential benefit because in contrast, you might actually want some of the additional harmonic distortion added by huge boosts on vintage or vintage-modeled EQs. My point is not to scare you away from boosting--sometimes it's exactly what the signal needs--but understand that if and when you do need to boost, headroom will be decreased and at some point it becomes finite in your EQ or mixer, potentially leading to clipped or distorted signals.

So do yourself a favor. Understand that headroom and level matter. Learning how to use the reciprocal nature of boost versus cut with an EQ can really be the difference between a muddy distorted mix and the mix you want.

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This video is part of

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Foundations of Audio: EQ and Filters

36 video lessons · 12500 viewers

Brian Lee White
Author

 
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  1. 3m 28s
    1. Welcome
      1m 36s
    2. What you should know before watching this course
      35s
    3. Using the exercise files
      58s
    4. Using the "Get In the Mix" Pro Tools and Logic Pro session files
      19s
  2. 15m 46s
    1. What are frequency and amplitude?
      2m 27s
    2. Measuring frequency
      1m 48s
    3. Measuring amplitude
      1m 58s
    4. The perception of frequency and amplitude
      4m 18s
    5. Frequency and pitch
      5m 15s
  3. 36m 10s
    1. What is an equalizer?
      4m 14s
    2. Hardware and software EQ
      1m 58s
    3. Understanding frequency and gain EQ controls
      3m 41s
    4. Using the bandwidth, or Q, EQ control
      5m 35s
    5. Parametric equalizers
      2m 36s
    6. Shelving filters
      5m 11s
    7. High- and low-pass filters
      5m 42s
    8. Putting it all together with multiband EQ
      3m 43s
    9. Using graphic EQ
      3m 30s
  4. 46m 13s
    1. Creating focus
      3m 47s
    2. Get in the Mix: Using EQ to fix problems and place elements in the mix
      8m 30s
    3. Get in the Mix: Creating complementary EQ curves
      9m 7s
    4. Get in the Mix: Creative EQ with the telephone effect
      5m 30s
    5. Get in the Mix: Frequency bracketing with filters
      5m 44s
    6. Get in the Mix: Automating EQ
      6m 18s
    7. Learning to listen
      3m 10s
    8. Balancing expectations from the recording process
      4m 7s
  5. 41m 14s
    1. Get in the Mix: EQing FX returns
      4m 29s
    2. Using common vintage-modeled EQs
      5m 2s
    3. Using frequency analyzers
      3m 44s
    4. Using harmonic generators to excite frequency content
      5m 44s
    5. EQ or compression first?
      3m 3s
    6. EQ and room acoustics: Is your room lying to you?
      6m 15s
    7. Boost or cut? The relative nature of EQ and headroom
      4m 0s
    8. Building healthy EQ strategies
      8m 57s
  6. 19s
    1. What's next and EQ summary
      19s
  7. 5m 51s
    1. A session with Brian Lee White
      5m 51s

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