Boomy, muddy, dull, bright, harsh, abrasive, boxy…
These are all adjectives peoples ears are very in-tune to and can detract a person from the intentions of the music and mix. But of course in relation to that list of adjectives it is very subjective to what works for both the listener and the style of music.
How a mix sounds is often dictated by the environment of the mixing engineer and how it imposes itself on what the engineer hears. Some examples are;
If the room soaks up too much high-frequency energy, the engineer will compensate by kicking up the high end in the mix, resulting in an abrasive or overly bright mix.
If the room is very reverberant in the top end the engineer will attenuate high frequencies when mixing to compensate, resulting in a dull or boxy sounding mix.
One of the roles of mastering is to facilitate a platform to polish over these translations in an acoustic environment that presents information with complete accuracy and neutrality. A technique that is commonly employed in mastering to achieve tonal balance in supporting both the mixes intentions and genre is creative equalisation.
Creative equalisation is when a mastering engineer with an equaliser begins to shape and mould the frequency response of a track by either attenuating or boosting bandwidths of frequency to achieve an overall pleasing tonal balance suited to the tracks mix and genre.
When addressing the tonality of a mix it is very important that the mastering engineer keeps in tune with the style of music, the intentions of the mix and what the audience will expect. This is very important because it could be very easy to get trigger happy and crank the high-end on a garage punk record that may otherwise sound dull against some contemporary pop music. However a decision like this most likely wouldn’t suit the garage punk genre nor would it be what a listener would expect.
In addition people are creating music in a much wider variety of spaces even within the one album. Record production now occurs not only in recording studios, but also at home studios, project spaces and in bedrooms with different engineers, producers and technologies. This presents another dimension to the mastering role, not only must each track individually work with great tonal balance, good mastering will allow the collection of songs to retain the mixes integrity whilst sounding as cohesive as possible.
Following from this I am going to share some reflective practice on how I use creative equalisation in my day to day work at the studio.
I tend to rely upon analog equipment for creative EQ for the following reasons;
Each piece of analog equipment has it’s own unique character, some have characters that remain very transparent and others very pronounced, whilst most digital equalisers for me feel a little too one dimensional and linear in their response.
When in the box I don’t like the distractions of graphic waveforms and what’s informing me visually. When working creatively I like to zone out of distractions and work creatively from what my ears are telling me, at times I like to shut off my screen and just work with my ears and equipment found in front of me.
I enjoy the tangibility of the analog equipment over a keyboard and mouse.
My main analog EQ is the Crane Song IBIS. I find it to be a very transparent unit which I find great when shaping a track as it allows me to keep the mixes character in check and unscaved. On the flip side it also has an additive feature that allows me add second/third harmonic distortion on individual bands or the whole signal going through the unit, which at times can be useful when I receive mixes that feel a little one dimensional or under pronounced in character.
Where do I sit my creative EQ in the chain? Generally it’s after my first stage of analog compression not before(D-A -> Compressor -> EQ). This for me is just a working method I developed as I found when switched around (D-A -> EQ->Compressor) the compressor at times worked against the changes I made with the equaliser. That said I have seen plenty of mastering engineers flip it around the other way and produce amazing results, at the end of the day it’s the working process that suits you and gets results.
Most useful on the unit I find are the high and low shelf filters as they can boost and attenuate the top and low end information of a mix effortlessly without making the top end sound too harsh or bottom end too boomy/muddy.
Despite many people using a low cut filter or high-pass filter for corrective work I like to approach the use of it on this unit as creative. When cutting frequencies the higher the cut the more punchy the low end can feel and the lower the cut the more full and heavy the bottom end can feel. For me this is sometimes employed as a creative measure for peoples low frequencies that need a little TLC. However it’s very important not to get carried away with the cut as in some styles of music that info down low is very important and is a heavy contributor to the feel of the genre.
The peaking/bell curves on the second and third bands of the IBIS are my bread and butter for working with mid range. In relation to the amount I attenuate and boost on each bandwidth I just boost or cut what feels right.
If you’ve made it this far reading the article the thing I hope you most took from this is that, creative EQ is about feel, not about any specific set of numbers, processes or fixed settings, just what feels good and works for you and the music given.
I hope you enjoyed reading this 3 part series on corrective and creative equalisation in mastering.