Before we can dig in into equalization and how it relates to the mixing process, it is important to review the basis of sound waves and frequencies and how they relate to instruments and the musical concept of pitch. So what is sound? In nature, sound exists and travels as mechanical vibrations in the air. It can also travel in things like water or drywall, but an audio, we are generally thinking of something like a speaker or an instrument sort of propagating these vibrations, positive and negative changes to atmospheric pressure, which are in term perceived as variations and pressure against eardrums and subsequently processed by the brain into what we perceive as "sound".
So frequency as it relates to sound is the speed at which the sound wave oscillates or increases or decreases like waves in the ocean and is usually measured in cycles per second or hertz. Now on the other end, amplitude is the power at which the sound waves vibrate. So if you think about the Y in the graphs versus the X in the graph. Human can hear frequencies in a range between 20 Hz or 20 cycles per second and about 20,000 Hz or 20K. The upper range diminishes as we age pretty significantly down to around 10K, even to 6K in some individuals.
So pitch and how frequency relates to pitch, when this oscillation of positive and negative pressure in the atmosphere is periodic or repeating, we are going to perceive this sound as a specific pitch. Now when we think about instruments and their sound waves, they are going to be made up as what we call fundamentals and harmonics. So when an instrument propagates a sound wave, the frequency at which the entire wave vibrates is known as the fundamental.
The fundamental of a waveform contains the most power or amplitude and thus defines the perceived pitch of the note. So for example, a middle C on the piano. Now other higher frequency waveforms are what are called overtones and generally travel with this fundamental frequency and they make up the total waveform. So including the fundamental and the overtones, we call this the harmonic series. So a note's fundamental and its overtones combine to create the pitch as well as the complex timbre or tonal characteristic of that specific instrument.
So most instruments frequency range so that the fundamental plus the overtones live within the human range of hearing. That is they are sort of designed to be that way. There are many charts you can reference when mixing to sort of determine the general frequency range of the specific instrument. But in the end, we are always going to use our ears and sort of our gut to tell us whether or not instrument is sitting in the mix. But I recommend printing out one of these charts and sitting them in your studio and just to help to guide you in kind of make decisions and these can also help in the arrangement process when you need to understand sort of where instruments sit relative to one another.
Understanding where an instrument lives in the frequency spectrum is especially useful like I said in the arrangement stage. Symphonic composers need to know how each instrument is going to sit relative to another as they are writing out an arrangement. They need to know what notes the violin can play relative to what notes and what octaves the viola can play. Sometimes in this era of virtual instruments though, we kind of take for granted a sound specific range, because you can take and play any sound almost all over the keyboard and this can kind of create confusion and muddiness in your arrangement sometimes.
So try to remember these relationships between frequency and pitch and sound waves when you are using EQ to blend and balance and creatively shape a mix or an instrument.
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