There is one audio effect that is absolutely CRUCIAL for getting your sound to actually sound great.
The funny thing is that most people don’t even really think of it as an effect at all. That’s why I like to call it “salt and pepper for your sound.” Salt and pepper aren’t necessarily considered spices, but you sure do notice it when they aren’t in the mix.
Alright, enough suspense.
Yes, I’m talking about EQ.
EQ can make or break your mix. And like the common table condiment, you don’t want to over-salt or under-salt your mix.
The humble EQ is the most important audio effect you’ll ever use.
It’s so common that we often forget to think of it as an effect at all, but it is critical to our mix.
Other effects (like reverb) can add texture and context, but EQ will make your sound sizzle and pop. It can also make your sound bright or dark, muddy or thin, intelligible or unintelligible (that’s the worst!).
The cool thing about EQ for live sound is that you typically don’t need a lot of fancy gear to quickly dial in great sound.
Granted, some of the digital consoles out there can have pretty fancy parametric EQs that allow you to get extremely precise with your frequency manipulation. And that’s great, but you can get perfectly amazing sounding audio by using some basic EQ tricks on your analog board as well.
Even a basic High/Mid/Low EQ with sweepable mids on an analog console can be a huge asset for clearing up your mix (and stopping feedback).
Here is a basic technique I like to use when working with individual audio sources.
“Sweet Spot” tips for Parametric and Sweepable Mid EQ
- Set the level knob of the sweepable or parametric EQ to about +6 or +9 dB.
- Sweep the associated frequency knob slowly across the entire frequency spectrum available.
- Listen for changes in the tone of the source you are monitoring and note when it starts to sound the worst.
- Once you find the worst spot, cut the frequency level control back to about -3 or -6 dB. Try not to cut much more than that if possible to ensure that maximum tone quality is available from the source in the main mix.
- Repeat as needed for multiple EQ filters (on a parametric EQ) and go through the rest of your instrument and vocal channels.
The concept here is that we can pinpoint what sounds “bad” better than we can determine what sounds “good.”
Using the Boost-Sweep-Cut method described above can allow you to find the sweet spot for your vocals and instruments very quickly and effectively.
EQ can be a great tool, but be careful. Try to make incremental and modest adjustments to your channel EQ when using it for finding the sweet spot or fighting feedback. A little bit can go a long way, and it will definitely impact the overall tonal quality of the audio source you are adjusting.
Also, you should always be in the habit of cutting your EQ levels. You can’t really add more frequencies to a signal than what is already provided by the source.
Sometimes a small boost can help give emphasis to a certain frequency range relative to the other frequencies around it, but you’re not really “adding” anything when you do that, except maybe some electronic system noise.
The important thing is that you take time to practice your EQ techniques. Spend some a few moments after soundcheck or during rehearsals working with EQ and training your ears. Learn what makes things sound bad, then discover how to make them sound better.
For more tips about using EQ, including some instrument and vocal frequency tips, check out this CTT post.