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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.
Even if you don't know it, you've probably used an equalizer or EQ at some point in your life, probably on a car stereo, boom box, or home theater system. I like to think of EQ as frequency-specific level control. While a typical volume or level control in your mixer allows you to increase or decrease the amplitude of an entire channel's signal uniformly, an EQ allows you to increase or decrease the amplitude of a specific range of frequencies relative to everything else in the sound or instrument that you apply it to.
Want more bass? Boost the low frequencies. Too much top end? Cut the treble or high frequencies. Sounds simple? In many ways it really is. In audio recording EQs, or filters as some engineers prefer to call them, are most often used to improve a sound's balance or tone, either by itself or in the context of other sounds in a mix. EQ is used to fix sound problems as well as shape or creatively change a sound's tone in wild and unique ways.
We often refer to EQs as filters because they literally filter or isolate a specific portion of the signal's frequency spectrum relative to the rest of the signal. In this course, we'll use the terms equalizer, EQ, and filter synonymously. If this sounds confusing, imagine an EQ as a frequency mixer for a specific track in your mix. In fact, a graphic equalizer is just that, a mixer-like tool that allows you to raise and lower the relative levels of the low- to high-frequency content across the entire range of the instrument.
So if you want a more snap in a snare simply raising the entire level of the snare in the mix isn't going to achieve that; you need to use EQ to turn up or boost the relative levels of the snap frequencies, which might be somewhere between 3 and 5 kHz. When volume and pan aren't enough to shape a track in the mix, an EQ can help you reshape or refocus a track's frequency bounce, adding more amplitude to certain frequencies or taking away amplitude from others.
This enables you to push the sound forward, pull it back, or otherwise hone its place in priority amongst the other instruments in the mix. In many cases EQ is used in an attempt to improve mistakes or compromises made during the recording process, where the original recording has left something to be desired, like on a guitar recorded with too much low end or a vocalist recorded through a less-than-ideal mic that has an unflattering EQ curve. But EQ can also be used to make already-great-sounding instruments work better together in context.
For example, an acoustic guitar's fundamental and lower overtone frequencies may be masking or obscuring the same frequencies shared by the lead vocal. Reducing the entire level of the guitar would not be an ideal solution, as some of the higher overtones and harmonics may be providing a nice melodic and rhythmic complement to the tune that we want to maintain. An EQ would allow us to reduce or turn down only the lower fundamental frequencies while leaving the higher overtones and harmonics intact, helping it sit correctly in the mix against the vocal and other elements.
(music playing) Ultimately, we'll find that EQ can be used for creative tasks as well as for corrective ones, but for whatever the reason, when you don't like the current frequency makeup or tone of a specific track or tracks, you can reach for an EQ or filter to change it.
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