Don’t Touch That Dial!
By GLENN DAVIS DOCTOR G
The music was equalized when it was recorded, mixed and mastered. So why do so many people insist on coloring the sound so much? Personal taste? Poor acoustics? The listener is not sitting where they should be (does not apply to those wearing headphones)? A cobby stereo system? Or is it just habit?
We have all seen and heard it…..the boom-boom-boom coming from the car that is losing it’s hardware due to all the vibration from large volumes of air being moved. With the advent of the “Sub” there has been a sonic revolution of sorts; Woofer Wars. Who will reign supreme could be determined by a decibel meter and a count of how many times the coil hits the stops. The car with the broken glass and missing nuts, bolts and screws could make the win a two-way tie.
Professional engineers, producers, musicians, or even a consumer who is an astute audio purist will tell you that flat is where it’s at. The artist you are listening to most likely wanted his or her record to sound like the listener was right there with them in the studio or on the stage. A great recording should allow the listener to “walk right into the mix”. So why do so many people insist on boosting this or cutting that?
There are as many theories of equalization (WHEN/IF required DURING the actual recording/mixing/mastering) as there are records or artists. At one end of the spectrum are technoids who will tell you that equalization provides you with a systematic method of sound shaping. They will whip out all sorts of books and show you the curves. At the other end stand the knob twiddlers. They’ll tell you that an equalizer is nothing more than a slightly more complex version of the so-called bass and treble tone controls. Keep tweaking knobs till you hear something you like, then stop. Usually the best path lies between these two extremes; I call it “informed” knob twiddling.
First, let’s deal with the imperfect ear. As a youngster, you could have probably heard even a slight breeze blowing in your ears as you walked along, but age and repeated exposure to loud sounds (concerts, machinery, etc.) deteriorates the frequency response of your ears. Whispering “sweet nothings” to your sweetheart during a concert will do you no good. He or she probably can’t hear them. This is why pros let their ears “rest” before doing any critical audio work.
Rule: Pay attention to the state of your ears and hearing. This is the major downfall of the knob twiddler’s theory. Remember that your ears lose bass frequencies at lower volume levels. The fact that everything sounds awesome when you “crank it up” has more to do with psychoacoustics than your skill with the equalizer.
Equalization falls into two general categories: enhancement and correction. Even if you have the perfect microphone in the perfect placement for the perfect performer, when you bring up the fader on the perfect console, you could find that it “needs something”. On the other hand, you may be down to your last microphone-you know the one-that old radio shack house brand that has beer and saliva caked all over it from the days you played those bar and wedding venues. Even in a non-critical position, this mic leaves something to be desired. But what?
In the producers chair, I am often baffled at people who say things like, “I don’t know, sounds like it needs a little 7k” or “give me a 5db boost at 11.5kHz”. Equally baffling are the people who say, “Everything sounds fantastic, just brighten up the lead guitar track and make the bass a tad darker sounding”. As with any foreign lexicon, it’s all in the translation.
The only way to go beyond the simple bass and treble concept is to refine your hearing and break down the spectrum into more defined segments. Bass is 10Hz to 200Hz, low-midrange is 200Hz to 1,000Hz, high-mid is 1,000Hz to 5,000Hz and high is 5,000Hz to 20,000Hz. The hertz (abbreviated as Hz) was named after German physicist Heinrich R. Hertz & represents a unit of frequency equal to one cycle per second. Kilohertz (kHz or k) are regular hertz multiplied by 1,000. On a recording desk, four thousand five hundred cycles per second is labeled as 4,500Hz, 4.5kHz or 4.5k. Kind of makes you want to go back to the lows, mids and highs concept. But wait, you may already know more about this hertz business than you thought.
The American tuning standard is A-440, which is 440 hertz. When a guitarist plugs into a tuner, they tune the E string to 82.41Hz, the A to 110Hz (two octaves down from A-440), the D string to 146.83Hz, the G to 196Hz, the B to 246.94Hz and the high E string to 329.63Hz. If you wish to alter the low end of the instrument, you should be boosting or cutting in the 80Hz-to100Hz area. If you want to bring out the upper range of the instrument, you can boost between 250Hz and 400Hz. You can even go up higher to bring out the harmonics and the sound of the pick on the strings. A gander at an instrument frequency chart will tell you the range of a particular instrument. Full spectrum instruments like the piano can pose a problem though. Piano parts can often cover the entire frequency range, but you can chose the frequency you want to emphasize.
How much equalization should one employ? If you are looking for a “thin” telephone speaker sounding vocal, then you are justified in removing all the bass and low-mids from the part. With amplified instruments you should always try to get the best sound out of the amp before trying to fix it with equalization. Whoever coined the phrase “We can fix it in the mix” was making a joke.
Mixing a record is the most severe test of equalization skills. Blending all of the tracks requires balance and separation. A textbook example of sonic separation involves the kick drum and bass guitar. To be effective, they have to work together, yet they have to be distinct. It doesn’t matter if it’s a song from the Glenn Davis Doctor G World Record Album or something from Elvis, lil Wayne, or anyone else. A great way to solve the issue is to decide what should have the deepest sound in the mix. If it’s the kick, boost the lows and cut the low midrange. This will leave the low-mid open for the bass guitar. Reverse the procedure to obtain the opposite result.
The best way to improve your technique is train yourself to listen harder. A trained ear can easily pick out the deficiencies in a sound and that listener will then be able to take the proper steps required to correct it. Regarding the average consumer of music; I heard the speaker re-coning and windshield repair industries are doing very well.