Have you ever struggled with how best to apply EQ? Here are six tutorials for composers on how to solve those EQ challenges. As you know, composers must wear many hats – composition, arranging music, prep, contracting, and sometimes recording and mixing many times. It’s tough to be a master of all of these at the same time and even at different times. We’ll start with the basics and move into the specific applications to percussion, brass, and strings. We’ll then address compression and conclude with more detail about using a multi-band compressor or static EQ.
Defining Corrective EQ
The first thing to know about the basic premise of corrective EQ is to understand what you’re hearing in the monitor. The best solution is to have multiple monitoring systems. Monitors, of course, maybe two sets if it’s possible, some good ones and some cheaper ones. Definitely have headphones, laptop, car stereo, etc. Even listen to the composition on your phone. Three steps to consider: (1) choose an ETQ plugin that you like the most; (2) do not automatically add EQ to every track or stem; (3) find the problem frequency.
The audio term to equalize, literally means to distribute evenly or uniformly all frequencies in a sound source relative to the normal spectral balance of that sound source. This simply means make a trumpet sound like a trumpet. Corrective EQ is balancing a sound source so that it sounds like the sound should and or so an overabundance of a certain frequency or frequencies does not ruin your mix. References are highly recommended. For example, find a trumpet recording that you like and try to match it. It’s a great way to establish what a balanced tone sounds like on your monitors. Subtractive EQ is the best method most of the time, that means finding the frequency with too much energy and reducing it rather than raising the frequencies you feel are missing. If you feel a track lacks clarity or high frequency, chances are there’s too much energy in the low or mid frequencies. Always keep in mind, subtracting one frequency will boost others as a result after gain compensation. Therefore, you may create new problems while solving for one.
Corrective EQ for Percussion
In this second tutorial, we’ll go through specific examples of each instrument group focusing on one particular mixing situation: MIDI production using sample libraries in the orchestral and film scores genre. As in the previous tutorial, the learning is on EQ solutions. We’ll also look at key frequency ranges for various percussion instruments and use corrective EQ to balance them within a mix.
Sample libraries are recorded by many companies, in many different spaces, by different musicians. The sound of one library is often quite different from another. But many film scores were recorded in the same manner with the engineer as the common element. So that’s a common situation. The goal is to equalize all of the sample stems to create a cohesive, homogenous mix in which each element sounds like it belongs with the others. This is not to imply that certain sample libraries were not produced or recorded well. We’re simply making slight adjustments so our chosen libraries will all fit together as one mix.
You can think of a mix as a captured live performance. Instruments in an acoustic space respond to the laws of acoustics. One key phenomenon that’s good to be aware of is the proximity effect. It’s a phenomenon that leads to an increase in low-frequency response as you move the mic closer to the source or as instruments move closer to us. The increase includes all bass frequencies but is generally centered between 100 and 200 Hertz. When mixing, we can increase or decrease the sense of proximity of an instrument using EQ.
Corrective EQ for Brass
Our focus is on brass, with a deeper dive for each instrument. We’ll explore some key frequency ranges for each breast stem. For example, let’s look at horns. Horns have an extensive pitch range. In this range, there’s not much below 200, so raising 200 to 300 gets the fundamental and makes it warmer, but it can also make it muddy. If the horns were playing two octaves lower, adding 200 to 300 will give you a boxy sound.
Now moving up beyond 300 into four, five, and six gets that boxy sound for this pitch range. Yet it’s also the range that defines the horn sound, so too little of it is just as bad. And then as we approach 1k, now we’re starting to get a bit more definition. And as we approach 2k, now we’re starting to get more of a pinched tone. Starting to get into the brassy area at 4k. Now we’re starting to get the edge in there between four and five, and then above 7k, you get that really pleasant bell, almost angel dust for the horn, but you can also get that by reducing frequencies below that, and I’ll show you that in a minute.
After some work, we’ll combine the brass instruments in their section and in the full mix, creating some space in the mid-range. Also, each brass stem has its own place in the frequency spectrum without conflict with others. Even if one stem feels pinched, it sounds fine in the mix because it’s not orchestrated to stand out over the rest of the orchestration.
Corrective EQ for Strings
Strings are now our emphasis. Let’s explore some key frequency ranges for each stem. We start with the first stem, the tremolo trail stem. It’s good for hearing the difference between the frequency ranges. The sub information is between 40 and 60 Hertz, giving a nice cushion to the strings. From 80 to 100, is that warm base area. And just above that is the proximity effect area, which is also warm, but it can also get muddy if there’s too much energy there. And too much energy between 200 to 400 Hertz gives the strings a stuffy sound.
We’ll find the perfect middle ground. Once we do, we go back to the full mix and set the reduction amount. We bypass and re-engage the EQ to compare. Notice how this helps to clear up the low end of the mix without reducing warmth.
Learning About Compression
We move on to a new concept: compression. Many composers ask, “How do I use compression? Do I need it? And which one is best?” In the orchestral and film score genres, fortunately, compression isn’t often needed. In fact, many times, it doesn’t sound good because the music is typically very dynamic, so compressors typically flatten out the music, taking away its life. You can rest easy knowing nine times out of 10, you won’t miss the need for a compressor.
The question of whether to use the compressor on the master chain is really up to your ears. If it sounds better with it, then use it. If not, then don’t. We’ll show you how to accurately answer that question for yourself. Many compressors like to sell you on the sound because it ends up sounding louder when active versus when it’s bypassed, so don’t fall for that. Make the volumes equal, then decide. Find a good compressor for the master that will stay true to your mix. Most linear multi-band compressors are good for that.
Multi-band Compression Vs. Static EQ
When do you use a multi-band compressor instead of a static EQ, or vice versa? In this tutorial video, we’ll answer that. Our focus is on applying these concepts within one particular mixing situation: MIDI production, using sample libraries in the orchestral and film scores genre. We’ll start with a session that includes Tina Guo, Acoustic Cello Legato, applying both the multi-band compressor and the static EQ.
We hope that these six tutorials provide a good foundation for how and when to use EQ, compression, and limiting successfully. Cinesamples has a library of resources like these. We plan to release similar articles to help you navigate through the various subjects with ease, all to make your compositions better and better along the way.