by Dave Foxx
Let’s talk about equalization, or as our British friends spell it, equalisation. (They get to have their own spelling because they refined it to an art.) Equalization is NOT the same thing as EQ; in fact they are nearly the opposite. Of course, it’s the one tool most producers feel comfortable with because it’s a fairly simple concept, and generally speaking, you just play around with it until it sounds good. Compression is a lot trickier, and some plug-ins have long setups and need a lot of fine tuning. Perhaps it is the easy familiarity producers have with equalization that make it the one tool I hear being abused constantly.
One of the very first uses for equalization was in movie theaters. A sound engineer would set up some very sensitive monitoring gear in the auditorium and then run a special recording through the sound system. After carefully measuring the sound in multiple places within the theater, the sound system would be adjusted so that all frequencies would be the same loudness, or as we say, “The system would have a flat response.” All frequencies would respond equally, thus the term equalization. The ultimate goal of the engineer was to make the sound as close to what the theater-goer would hear if he or she were on the movie set when the film was shot. Though the equipment has become more sophisticated, this somewhat arcane science is still in use today in theaters, stadiums and nightclubs. Anywhere there is a large sound system, at some point after installation, an engineer will run tests and make adjustments to guarantee a flat frequency response.
In the ‘50s, home equipment manufacturers gave a nod to the need by providing the consumer with a rudimentary ‘TONE’ knob, allowing the proud new hi-fi owner to adjust the sound to the room. Turn it one way and the bass is emphasized, while turning it the opposite direction gave one more treble. Not too sophisticated, huh? The high end manufacturers quickly added a second knob so there was one for the bass and one for the treble. Still, not very much control of equalization and it was largely not understood by Harry Hi-Fi, but it was a step in the right direction.
Recording engineers in the big studios got into the equalization game in the late 1950s, but they kind of turned things around a bit. Once they had a flat response monitoring system set up and operating, they would then use a rather large array of filter banks to fine tune the various microphones and pickups so that each instrument or voice would sound as natural and full as the equipment would allow. Instead of tuning the system to the room, they were essentially tuning the room to the system. This is when the term EQ came into vogue. It was a decidedly different use for equalization. Those filter banks were dubbed ‘Graphic Equalizers,’ as each bank had a slider for each of several bands of frequencies. You could turn each frequency band slider up or down to ‘shape’ the sound as needed by as much as ±12db. You could tell at a glance the kind of curve you were putting on a particular input as the sliders, sitting side-by-side would present a kind of ‘graphic’ representation of the entire frequency spectrum.
The problem with those Graphic Equalizers was each one took up to 4 rack spaces. If a studio console had 32 inputs on the console, it required a lot of rack space! It was in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that the British console makers like AMS Neve, API, Solid State Logic and Harrison wanted to put EQ into their consoles, but the Graphic Equalization model simply wouldn’t work. That is when they invented and perfected Parametric EQ. Instead of little sliders for each of dozens of frequency bands, there were 5 SETS of 3 knobs. One knob controlled the center frequency, one controlled the bandwidth (how much real estate was controlled from the center frequency) and the third knob controlled the gain. The sets controlled very low, low, middle, high and very high frequencies. To this day, the term ‘British EQ’ is used by recording engineers to denote an EQ that is as finely honed as it can be.
By the mid-70s, radio got into the EQ world. I remember bugging my Chief Engineer for WEEKS to get me a Parametric EQ for my studio. He fought valiantly, but eventually gave in. That’s when all HELL broke loose in my studio. I was throwing EQ on everything! Vocal tracks, music beds, sound effects… you name it, I had an EQ for it. To be candid, it really sucked… big time. It took me a couple of weeks to really start hearing what I was doing to my stuff. Once I finally caught on, I was horrified. Sanity was restored. Oddly, nobody said anything about it, although my Chief Engineer smiled at me when I confessed my EQ criminality.
I didn’t touch that box again for several weeks. One day a script came in that called for someone to sound like they were speaking through a loud-hailer, you know… one of those speakers you hold with a pistol grip that you can use to speak to large groups of people outdoors. I jacked around with the settings to get the right tinniness, added a touch of early reflection and it was perfect! The client LOVED his spot and my General Sales Manager gave me some big attaboys at our next staff meeting.
That is when I figured out that equalization was something you do to make something sound as natural as it can be, and EQ was using the gear to create an effect. I ‘equalize’ a track that comes in from outside my studio to make it sound like it was created on my console. I’ll use ‘EQ’ to do just the opposite, to make something I record in my studio sound like it was recorded on location.
Here are some idea starters: To make it sound like someone is standing on a street corner interviewing someone else, I cut off everything below 300 Hz. Any traffic that might be going by in my imaginary little world, will get exactly the same treatment. Typically speaking, when a reporter is doing a stand-up in front of city hall, they’re using a hand-held microphone like an RE-50. Those very low frequencies are dampened a bit to help avoid the mic-handling noises and they affect all the sound, not just the stand-up.
If the wind is blowing in a remote location, engineers will usually put a 100 Hz hi-pass on the microphone to avoid hearing the wind blowing across the diaphragm. Again, this thins the signal a bit and can give you a sound like someone sitting at a ball field calling a game for the radio. Just remember that the ambient sounds of the game like the crowd, vendors and the game itself should get the same treatment.
To make it sound like someone is inside a car, I do almost the opposite by cutting the top end above 5 kHz just a bit. Car manufacturers take great efforts to minimize noise in the car, and those frequencies are almost always dampened by a car interior.
To make it sound like a bathroom, I’ll boost everything above 5 kHz to make everything sound super-bright. Add some reverb with a lot of early reflection (because it’s a smaller room than most) and you have a public restroom. Then, to put that bathroom on an interstate, I’ll play traffic effects with everything cut off above 500 Hz.
Make music sound like it’s coming out of someone else's ear buds by clipping everything below 1000 Hz and then turning the gain down.
The abuse I mentioned at the top of this column comes when people think they are ‘bending’ the rules a bit by putting different EQ on each track “just to make each track sound different.” Are you nuts? Unless you are trying to create a different environment, EQ is best left alone. When you think about equalizing your promo, put your imaginary self in the seat of a movie theater that has been perfectly equalized. When you see a set piece in the film, you actually feel like you’re in the room with the actors on the screen while the scene is being shot. When you make it sound completely natural like that, the chore of getting under the emotional skin of your audience is magnified. Your job becomes much easier. You make better spots and promos. You raise your station’s ratings. You get a big, fat raise and life is ultimately better.
My sound this month is once again from Most Requested Live. Most of my other production is industrial and privately held by others, so getting permission to post it here is difficult, if not impossible. This piece is more about equalization than EQ. Once I had mostly assembled the promo, I started to work on the mix and noticed that the Flo Rida drops needed a LOT to punch through. As is often the case when someone else records the ID file, the equalization was wack-a-doodle. It might sound good when produced in that studio, but if it does, I think that studio hasn’t been set up properly. Regardless, I needed to make the ID pop… a lot. So I put a +6db push on the high end (5 kHz center frequency), with a wide spread down to 1 kHz and up to 10 kHz. It made him sound live and bright with good energy to match the music track. I didn’t have to compress it beyond the very small bit I do to all VO. You can hear the results vividly. I hope you like it.
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