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EQ Settings That Will Make Your Mixes Come Alive - by John Vestman
Ok, so you want the low-down on how to eq your next recording project? That's a tall order, considering we're both not at your console listening to the mixes! But there can be some general guidelines to help. When in doubt, listen, adjust, experiment and compare to commercial cds. Keep doing this at all steps of the process.

Start with listening carefully to the source. Do the drums sound great in the room to begin with? Do they have new heads and are they tuned well? The secret to a great drum sound is a great sounding drum. A great sounding kit starts with the player who knows how to dynamically balance his or her drums with the cymbals. BIG LOUD cymbals make your kic, snare, and toms sound softer. I know, it is so fun to hit cymbals hard... but if you want the drums to sound BIG, hit the cymbals significantly softer (and physically set them higher - away from the toms).

Kick: Don't tune it too low, and take off the front head, unless you're going for a boxier sound. Take off any "dots" (from any drum, period) that mute the fundamental frequencies. Use those circular foam pads sparingly, if at all. A mid-sized pillow with a heavy weight on it, pressed slightly to the head works well for dampening. Mic off center and back 1 to 2 feet from the head. Experiment. Add 2 to 6dB at 2.5k to 5K, cut 2 to 8dB at 300 to 500hz, add 50 to 100hz. Mid frequencies shouldn't have too sharp of a Q (bandwidth).

Snare: Use minimal padding, and tune the bottom head higher than the top head. Hit the snare (slow even quarter notes) and slowly loosen or tighten the snares to change the texture and resonance of the drum. Add 2 to 6dB at 8 to 15Khz. Add low mids at 150 to 300hz to taste. Maybe some roll off (cut) 50 to 60hz.

Toms: Add 2 to 10dB at 8k to 12.5k. Cut the mid-bottom 2 to 8dB at 300 to 500hz. Add 2 to 10dB low end from 60 to 80hz, but don't let it get tubby or bloated (try using a peaking section of your eq vs. shelving). Go for a full but even low end. Double headed toms sound best, and I recommend Ambassador heads or Pin Stripe heads all around. The newer, the better. Stretch them out well before pressing the record button so they don't de-tune halfway into the song.

Sigh. I don't compress drums. Lots of people do. The Beatles did. But when I'm mastering a project and they artist brings in their computer to go direct into my mastering system, I take off the compression from the drums (in almost all cases) if the artist has added it. So at the very least, wait till the mix to limit or compress, if it's needed or preferred. That way your tracks aren't locked into being over compressed.

BEST: The drummer should focus on playing consistent volumes in most pop music. I know. You can replace all the sounds with V-Drums and Pro Tools. Isn't all that technology cool? Yep. Ah, but what about when you go to play live at your gigs, you want your drums to sound awesome? Best to have awesome drums without Pro Tools. It's worth it. Don't over-play. Record producers can hear a showoff a mile away. They can also hear a great groove a mile away, and that will get you farther in the long run. Forget impressing other drummers.

Bass: Sheesh. This is the most challenging instrument to get right, next to acoustic piano. I get more low end problems in the mastering studio than anything. Remember, the kic should have more low-low like 50 to 80hz (unless you're doing 808 or hip hop stuff, in which case go for 120 to 180hz), and the bass should have more mid-bottom from 150 to 200hz, and from 1K to 3K for clarity. Use wide bandwidth. Too many times I see people using very sharp bandwidth on their eq. Be a little more conservative unless you're going for a really really rad gonzo sound of some sort.

Optional to roll some highs off the bass from 7K to 12K, but not so much that it takes the overtones out. Compress the bass in tracking and mixing if necessary. Be conservative in tracking, and do whatever it takes in mixing. Bass should be consistent and even in the music. Bass amps mostly add a sound color. They're not the greatest in every case, but they can be cool. Oh yes. The clunker strings have got to go unless you want that retro blues sound. Play tight with the drummer. Compliment each other and use the best direct box you can find.

Guitars: This is a very full-frequency instrument, whether it's acoustic or electric. Guitars should be clear, full, warm, tight, big... you name it. Be creative. listen, adjust, experiment and compare to commercial cds. Think wide mids from 150 to 400hz, but don't let it get boxy. If it sounds boxy, cut from 250 to 500hz. Add mids from 900hz to 3.5k for clarity and bite. Keep it smooth (and good mic pre's really help). Easy on the top end but add if it makes a subtle difference. Don't over compress the guitars in tracking - lean more toward doing that in the mix. Again, the clunker strings have got to go, unless you're going for that 50's Guild sound.

Vocals: THE BIGGEST KEY FOR VOCALS IS TO USE A DE-ESSER. Yes a great mic and a great pre makes a big difference. So does a great headphone mix. But dig, a de-esser takes out the spitty sibilant sounds of the ss's and zz's and ch's... It's simply a high frequency limiter. When I'm mastering, I do a lot of de-essing, and it's really better to do it in tracking and mixing so that I'm not ducking other highs in the mix. Please, go out and buy one today! I know. You're saving up for that cool tube pre/eq/A-D/mega all-in-one-box goodie. Trust me. Go buy a de-esser first. Any brand.

De-essers allow you to add upper mids and highs so the voice rises above the track but it doesn't spit at you whenever the singer sings an S. Just don't over do the de-essing because the voice will start to lisp. Add 12.5k to 15K for air and clarity. 2.5 to 3.5k for distinction and edge. 100 to 200 for warmth, but roll off the 50hz. And remember, people hear the beat, but they move to the groove relationship established by the vocals. Particularly, well placed syncopation.

Insist on having the mix you want in your headset. Commonly, people take off one headphone so they can hear themselves live when tracking. Caffeine and alcohol dry out your vocal chords, so stick with water. Set the mic pre's a little lower, in case the singer belts a few surprises out. Watch for distortion carefully. It can happen in many different places along the way - the mic, the pre, the board, the compressor... just give yourself enough headroom because a great take may happen only once... Compress in tracking and mixing. Smooth tube compressors are nice, but not essential. Don't be shy about compressing in the mix. Listen to commercial cds, compare, adjust, experiment, repeat.
Acoustic piano: Miking is the key. I know, you've got a great sampler. Cool. Piano, either way, can go from clear to warm to wide to tinny depending on the song. Stereo miking is best, usually using large capsule mics, but hey, an AKG 451 works nicely too. The mics should be a couple feet from each other pointing slightly away from each other, perhaps a foot or more away from the strings. The phase component of anything stereo is important, especially piano. I tend to put a little extra top end on when tracking - you can always pull off top in the mix and bring down noise at the same time. 2.5k is a nice place to get clarity, 60 to 120hz for bottom (keep it big, but even), 8 to 15k for overtones. But sometimes less is more. Two AKG C12s and a vintage tube mic pre plugged direct, no eq, to analog 30 ips tape... aaaahhhhh! Now that's sound! Less is more as we say.

Synths: Ah, the sky's the limit. Direct signals can be awesome, or they can be sterile. The playing and the arrangement of the track is the key. Some things need compression, some don't. This one is too broad to attach any formula. Heck, none of this is a steadfast rule. Breaking the rules makes great recordings sometimes. So does going back to basics and practicing your instrument more. It's all good.

Strings, horns, solo instruments: Well, the mics and pre's really make a big difference here. There's not enough time to go over every instrument, but as an example, I mic sax in front of the bell with a dynamic mic, and from the side (by the holes) with a U87 or other large-capsule condenser mic. The more combinations you try, the better. Experiment, compare to commercial cds, adjust, repeat. At the risk of repeating myself, comparing your mixes side-by-side with commercial cds is the most important part of this whole article. Do it over and over. Spend 30 minutes within a 4 hour mix listening to other cds. It's like having a million dollar reference at your fingertips, and it keeps you out of "mix blindness."

Aside from the experiment/compare/adjust/repeat method, the most important key to great sound is a great monitor system. Think of your monitors as the "lens" you're looking through. The better the lens, the better the focus, the better you'll know what to do (and what not to do). I always recommend audiophile stereo speakers... yes, the ones that cost at least $2,500. Find home stereo/audiophile stores that sell fine speakers, and super tweaky power amplifiers, and speaker cables that cost $250 to $1,500 a pair.

It's all important. The cable is more significant than you think, so save up your dough. Just think, 5 fewer dates with that hot babe and you'll have really really fine speaker cable. Not kidding folks. The cable from your mixer to the power amp too. Oh, and cable to the mixdown machine. Oh yeah, the digital cable, too. Get the best you can afford. Oh, and did I say wait on that super duper Albatross Mic Pre and get better speakers? Yep. Get full-range all the way to the bottom speakers.

I know. "If you get a great mix on lousy speakers it will sound great on anything." How many mastering studios have you ever seen with cheap speakers? None. The truth is if you KNOW how your speakers translate out into the real world, you can mix on anything. All of those legendary mixing engineers who mix on NS10s have their products mastered at places that NEVER use NS10s. Without 20 years behind those NS10s, you're better off getting a great system. Everything will sound better and you'll eliminate a lot of headaches.

When I was producing, I would take my mixes to Bernie Grundman or Stephen Marcussen or Doug Sax and they would do very very little (like, "Whatta ya think, John? 1dB at 17k for a little air?") to my mixes. The credit goes to my Dhalquist (audiophile) speakers, the Threshold (audiophile) amp, great sounding cables, the discrete board preamp (more audiophile stuff) and a room that took me years to tune properly. Well, it may take 3-4 months to tune my mastering room now, but 20 years ago it took a lot longer - I had a lot to learn. It's part of the reason why people prefer mastering engineers with at least 25 years of experience. We've been there.

On that note, I'd like to say that it's just as important to have a good time doing all this. After a while, the gear can become your life, when you really might have a bigger gift in music. Or in parenting. Or in finance. Whatever. Stay true to your heart. Keep your life and your pocketbook in balance. Yes the speakers and the de-esser is important. So is saving for a rainy day. So is treating yourself to a vacation or a walk with your honey in the park. People in the music biz are creating the sound tracks for people's lives. Stop sometimes and think about what it is in your life that really matters, and remember to honor that. Honor people. People only care how much you know when they know how much you care. Support others, ask for what you need, be proud of who you are. Now go out and record that next hit!

John Vestman is a veteran mastering engineer with over 26 years in the industry. His credits include: Hole (Courtney Love), Juice Newton, Ambrosia, Andre Crouch, The Wynans, Great White, Candyman, Billy Davis Jr./Marilyn McCoo and more. John Vestman Mastering is located in Orange County, California, and his web site offers over 40 pages of information about successful studio recording techniques and sound philosophy.

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