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In this installment of the Foundations of Audio series, author Brian Lee White shows producers and audio engineers how to properly apply equalization (EQ) and improve the sound of their mixes. The course covers the use of parametric and graphic EQs—and filters such as the high/low pass filters and shelf filters—in a variety of musical settings. These principles can be applied to any digital audio workstation platform, including Logic and Pro Tools, as well as analog workflows.
We now know that it's best to make EQ decisions in context. Based on how we want to push and pull the listener's focus, and complement all the instruments, and song as a whole. We also know that frequency and pitch are directly related. And therefore, elements playing in the same octave are in danger of competing with each other, and may need special consideration in regards to EQ to sound good in context. Simply boosting an instrument's fundamental frequency tends to make instruments blur together in the mix.
Remember. It's an instrument's harmonic series that give it its unique tone. And quite often, the frequencies near the fundamental tend to sound very similar from instrument to instrument. That being said, when dealing with instruments that live in the same frequency range, we must attempt to create complementary curves that allow each instrument to speak in the desired way. Without blurring over each other or overpowering that specific frequency range. Now where this is most critical is around the low end of a mix, specifically the bass instruments.
Kick drum and bass often have a tumultuous relationship because they each want to carry the low end of the mix. But if approached correctly, the two can share complementary EQ curves that unifies them into a deep, punchy low end that sounds awesome. Let's check out an example of complementary EQ curves between a kick and bass guitar. Take a listen to this mix. The bass and kick drum have yet to be EQ'd, so see if you can notice some blurring between the two instruments and the rest of the mix.
Hopefully you notice that the kick-drum is a bit heavy in the low mids. Sounding a bit like knocking on a cardboard box. This resonant buildup in the low mids is pretty common, depending on how you mic your kick drum. What it does is tend to blur the sweet lower harmonics of the bass guitar. When this critical frequency band gets masked by the kick drum. It really blocks the instrument from speaking through the mix. To get a better sense of what's going on between these two instruments, let's listen again with just the kick and bass in isolation.
Again, that kick drum has a nasty little peak in the 300 to 500 hertz range, that is making it sound boxy and eating up the frequency range where my bass and acoustic guitars want to live. To solve this, I'm going to redistribute some of the frequency spectrum of the kick drum. To allow the bass to cut through a bit better, and remove some of that box-like sound. To do this, I will first pull out a bit of the low mids, around 400 hertz in this case. That will get rid of some of that boxy sound.
To redistribute some of the energy and push those sub-frequencies a bit more, I will boost around the kick drum's fundamental with a slightly narrower queue to really focus the boost. If you're having trouble finding the fundamental of your kick drum, try using the boost and sweep trick that I showed you earlier. Most kicks will have a fairly defined peak that will pop out relatively easily. After that, I'll remove a bit of the energy from the kick's first harmonic around 120 hertz. This will make more sense when we work on the bass EQ.
To top everything off, I will bring out a little bit of the beater with some top end parametric boosts around 4k. Notice that I didn't go crazy with the low mid cut. This is a taste thing. Aggressive rock tunes tend to have a distinct scoop mid from the kick drum with a pronounced boost at both ends. But because this has more of a quirky indie rock vibe than a ground pounding metal track I want to leave some of that more organic low-mid intact. This kind of decision making is a perfect example why recipes you find in presets or books tend to neglect the context of the genre and emotional direction of the tune.
So before you say, must cut low-mids from my kick every time you start a mix. Think about what those frequencies are doing for that unique song. You may also have noticed that I finished everything up with a high pass filter, set to a very low cut-off point. I generally do this as a safety measure to prevent any potential super sub bass from building up in the mix. Small speaker systems, and even less efficient full range systems, can have trouble when they attempt to reproduce super low frequencies.
Because I often mix for the masses, who listen on headphones, or even ear buds, rather than a small group of audio files with subs that can reproduce ten hertz I like to optimize my mix accordingly. Now let's move on to the bass. When you're cuing bass guitar, many make the mistake of trying to boost too much of the low fundamental, thinking it will help add definition and make the bass cut through the mix. Normally, however, that just isn't the case. In fact, that methodology will not only lead to a muddled low end, but won't even come through on smaller speakers and ear buds.
Instead of boosting the lowest fundamentals, I will boost a bit of the low mids in two places where I carved out some space from the kick drum previously. I will also notch a bit out where the kick drum's fundamental is, sitting around 60 hertz. This complementary curve is what I like to call a bass sandwich. Where the bass is the meat in the middle, and the kick is the bread on the bottom and top ends. This allows the lowest element to be the fundamental of the kick, pushing the song along. While the bass gains note definition and warmth through its harmonics.
Now we're getting somewhere. Together the kick and bass now form a strong bond that will really complement the song. Let's take a listen in context with the rest of the mix. First without EQ and then with. I will automate the EQ curve for the bass and kick in and out, so you can hear what we've accomplished. I generally like to approach my kick and bass relationships using this sandwich style approach. However, the style of music, and the tempo of the song, can force you to alter your strategy. For example, in speed metal where the drummer might be playing 16th note blast beats there isn't a lot of room for sub bass on the kick.
Otherwise all the notes tend to blur together and have no definition. In that case, the bass may end up being the lower instrument, sitting below the kick. Reggae and dub is another example where the bass usually sits below the kick as the bass is generally the main rhythmic time keeper in the song and the kick tends to play a more accenting role. Ultimately, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to creating complementary EQ curves. The best way to approach this concept is to really think about the instruments and where they sit in the arrangement.
Know that there is a finite amount of space for instruments to live and breathe, especially in the low end. Listen for material that might overlap or fight and distribute elements accordingly. Listen to reference tracks in the same genre and think about how the instruments are being presented, what is living where, and what is taking priority.
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