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EveryPerson's Guide to The Limits of Audio
Newbie Class by Tweak
The Cambridge EQ for the UAD collection. This is a full featured multi-band parametric EQ
In these wonderful days of audio plugins and supercharged processors, it is tempting to ignore something as simple as EQ, short for "equalization". After all, its not as sexy, doesn't capture attention and does not enhance tracks as much as a lush reverb or tube saturated distortion, eh? Those of you who think that have missed a fundamantal point about audio, so I am here to lobotomize you, and install a more correct understanding. So Mr. Noob, have a seat in the chair while I find my hammer...
"But Wait!", Newb shouts out. "This is just a class in audio, I don't need a lobotomy, Tweak!"
The Tweak glares at Newb as he puts on his latex gloves, snapping them loudly. "It will only hurt for a second, new information is always hard to accept the first time your hear it". Others in the class squirm nervously as Tweak paces towards Newb, knowing they may be next. Tweak takes the long metal rod and places it squarely between Newb's widening eyes, draws back with the hammer, and then...pauses.
"Class, should I do it?"
"No Tweak you might kill him!" someone shouts. The pros in the back are making the thumbs down gesture and one jeers, "Ah go ahead Tweak, if he's ignoring EQ he ain't gonna make it anyway". The pros nod in agreement, hoping Tweak doesn't drag this out through lunch.
Tweak drops the hammer, sends Newb to his seat and resumes his tweakly demeanor. The point: My extreme reaction is exactly what a lot of newbs do in the attempt to make their track "sound bigger", they engage in overkill-- they lobotomize their sounds, add effect upon effect to their tracks and in the process risk killing them. In the end they are left trying to "fit" all these pumped up bloated tracks to work together and as you might guess, too much bloat is not a good thing.
Basic EQ Theory
To understand EQ is to understand limits. It is in it's essence an understanding that allows the whole (the song) to sound bigger by making the elements (the tracks) sound smaller, more narrow, and dare I say it in the world of phattness, thinner. This is because the audio bandwidth is itself limited. There is only so much space you have and if you fill it up with frequencies that overlap and conflict, you will not be able to hear the music through the sound. Stated positively, if you carve out a distinct sonic space for your instruments, you will hear each more clearly. That is the basic point and essential understanding that goes into developing a mix. Always remember, it is not how things sound in isolation that matters, it's how well they sound in the mix.
As you see there is low frequency energy extending way below what we can hear. This energy will rob the song of audible bass and make speakers work very hard for something that has no benefit. So lets fix it by applying a "bass rolloff"
With Waves Linear phase Bass EQ we'll apply a rather steep resonant rolloff where the bass will peak where I want it around 70 Hz and then get out of the way quick.
As you see the result is dramatically conveyed in the screen. I've removed the bass you can't hear and also cut a little bit of the "mud frequencies" around 250Hz.
There is only one problem. It does not sound as good as it did. It is not as deep, or powerful.
Mr. Newb, who has finally recovered from his near-lobotomy shouts out. "You should have left it, Tweek, it sounded better before, you've turned a great bass into a wimply thang." Perhaps so, perhaps not. I still have to add a kick, more deep synths, a ton of drums and percussion and some vinyl brass hits. The point is that I now have control of the bass and i can move that peak from 75hz down to 60Hz anytime I want. I can add a kick that extends lower and peaks at 50HZ and you'll feel it. The bass patch no longer controls the song and where things have to go. Also we must keep in mind that 50Hz is a very "boomy" frequency that will make many speakers distort and ruin the rest of the track. While 50Hz sounds great on my Mackie 824's, I can guarantee you it does not so so tight on other speakers.
The Theory of Masking
Tweak reaches into his box of manuals he always carries and pulls out a very scary looking Alien mask. You think the lobotomy thing was bad, now you are in for it. The Pros in the back start pointing to their watches and emit a sullen groan, "here he goes again"
The masked Tweak turns towards the pros. "Alright you guys, get out!"
"But T-t-t-tweak, we were just wondering how long this is going to go, c'mon man!"
"I said, get OUT!"
The pros start shifting around and start looking at each other. I mean is he kidding or what!
In one graceful move Tweak rips off the mask and starts laughing his *ss off.
"Just kidding guys, but I had to make a point."
When one masks anything you can't tell what it really is and its the same with audio. When you have 2 or more parts sharing the same sonic space you will only hear the loudest, the other sounds will weaken to the point where you can't really tell what they are. Some examples: A Bass that masks the kick will make a great kick sound like its not there. A full spectrum distorted guitar will make words incomprehensible. A bad vocal track will mask a great sounding instrumental mix. 2 guitars using a similar tone will make a jangly mess and you can't tell what either is playing.
Let's use another simple example. Let us say you are in a band. Here's how the story goes (I am sure some of you can relate).
The keyboard player starts scowling at the guitarist, who has just ripped off his shirt and put his amp on volume 9. So the keyboard player puts his amp up to 10. Your vocalist is getting all peeved because she can't hear herself now so she starts screaming instead of singing and its o-my-god-awful. Now even the drummer can't hear himself so he starts banging on the crash cymbal. Neighbors complain, police arrive and you find out you are going to jail for some unpaid traffic ticket. That is masking at work.
Now are your mixes the same way? Are you turning up the fader on this, then that, till there is nothing but distortion coming from the mixer. Then you come to studio-central and moan, "My mixes thound like thiit!" Well dude, no wonder. If you had taken control over your tracks with eq and made them smaller, not larger, we would not be having this discussion.
Making the Mix "Sit Right"
The solution to masking problems usually involve a combination of 4 Possibilities.
1. Fix with panning. By moving things left or right you can cure many masking problems. But not all. You can't move the kick of bass or vocal too far from the center or the whole mix gets lopsided. But you can move rhythm guitars, synths and percussion way off center and it helps.
2. Fix with EQ. Bass removal from your tracks does wonders. At minimum put a low cut (high pass) filter on every track except the kick and bass (which get their own more extensive treatment).
3. Fix by dropping one instrument for part of the mix so both the mask and masked are not playing simultaneously.
4. Removing the track entirely.
And remember Tweak's rule that no channel should ever go higher than 0db no matter what. That keeps things from going over the top.
Once you get your mix sitting right then you can get to work on fattening it up by adding compression and maybe putting back some of the frequencies you removed with EQ. The difference is now you have control over your mix.
EQ Production Tips
OK, it's time to go out there. Here's a few little production secrets, your reward for coming so far.
1. The Brain, Perception, and the Mystery of the Missing Fundamental