My last blog was all about learning how to EQ drums, which needed a post all by itself as there’s so much to think about there, and that’s probably a great microcosm of how to approach the whole mixing concept. You have to balance out everything and make different parts of the drum set work with each other, which you then make work with all the other instruments. This can be frustrating but usually if you listen to what the speakers are telling you then you can’t go wrong. That’s one of the abiding memories I have of doing this mixing masterclass - apart from my head ringing with too much information - you have to trust your ears and do what sounds right.
This can mean that things you hear one year and think sound great you could listen to the next year and think “Oh my god what was I thinking?!”. That’s unfortunately part of learning how to mix. Realising that you’ll probably make things sound like crap to begin with is a hard thing to accept, but it does mean that you’ll have less of an ego about what you’re doing in the moment and produce a better mix. Let it happen and don’t worry too much is my main point.
Anyway on to the mixing! Next up is the piano. In a standard band’s mixing process, the next thing would be bass guitar but the song we were working on didn’t have it, so we had to move onto the next biggest thing that would interact with the drums and that was the piano. This is because it covers a wide frequency range and so we needed to make sure it didn’t cover up - or get covered up by - the drums. We had two mics on this piano to capture the full sound of the piano and give it a stereo width with each side of the piano being picked up properly. The first thing we did was to create a stereo auxiliary channel which we then bussed the two audio channels into so that we could work on the sound as a whole.
We put an EQ on the aux channel and start playing around with the low end. We put a 12db/oct High Pass Filter (HPF) on and started very low and ended up at around 58hz. We also found that the sound was a little boomy so we cut at 100hz at about 2.5db and swept around there until we found a sweet spot of 119hz that removed that sound without taking out too much of the bottom end. The Q wasn’t set too narrow (1.3) but it was still a concentrated area we were cutting from.
We then cut a little of the 400hz boxiness from the sound (-1.3db @ 420hz w/ .79 Q). It was missing a bit of sharpness to cut through the mix so we added 3db of 1Khz with a Q of 1. The last thing we did was to cut a little just above that at 2.5Khz. These final two items were done in conjunction with the acoustic guitar and the reason we did this will be explained later.
You might notice that the Qs above are less surgical than the Drum Kit EQs had on them and this is apparently a common thing to do. You want to be more gentle with the grand piano as its sound is a lot more rounded and has less harshness. This of course depends on the sound that you get from the piano to begin with. If it’s an upright that’s been badly maintained, then you might find that certain frequencies need more treatment but on the whole this idea should hold true.
After the piano we moved onto the acoustic guitar. This guitar part had a mainly rhythmical role to play within the song and that is something that you should consider when mixing a track. What is the instrument’s role? What does it do and how can I best bring out that quality in the mix? Another thing to think about is what is this competing with in the mix? Which instruments are going to overlap with each other and how do we get them to play nicely together? For the guitar, it was going to be clashing with the piano and strings.
We started off with the low end, again taking a 12db/oct HPF and sweeping it up through the low end until we finished at around 100hz. That was where the sound started to be affected so we stopped there. In all of this we were trying to remove things that we don’t want and keep the frequencies that we do. We then made another cut at 218hz to take out some of the muddiness. We also added some breath in the 5-8khz region. Beyond that we were then into the realms of juggling the piano and guitar sound.
As the piano is a warmer sounding instrument, we boosted at 1Khz on that EQ and in order to make the acoustic fit around that we cut that frequency from the acoustic EQ. We then cut 2.5Khz from the piano and boosted 3.2Khz on the acoustic, this allowed the upper-mid strumming sound of the guitar to be brought through and “sit” on top of the warm piano.
This cut and boost strategy is a good one to remember and allows different instruments to work with each other. Invariably you’ll have some sounds that want to play in the same frequency range and you have to think which part of each sound is the most necessary. If the song is well arranged then each instrument will sit in a certain place in the frequency spectrum to begin with and you just have to ensure that all the instruments have their own place. If they don’t then maybe you should think about changing a part so it does. It sucks to be confronted with this when you get to the mixing stage but it’s better to try and re-record parts and make them work than use the EQs, effects and dynamics to “fix in the mix”.
We found that we needed to do this with one of our tracks. We re-recorded the parts that weren’t working and it made a huge difference to the sound of the song. Everything sat nicely together and the EQ was just enhancing that situation. That’s the best way to think about EQing to my mind. EQ helps define something that’s already happening in the recording. It doesn’t create places for each instrument to sit per se, it just brings the instrument’s natural space into sharp focus.
I’ll leave it there for now as we’ve got strings and vocals to think about next and this post has already gotten pretty big. Hope you’re liking this series and if you have any comments about what I’ve said then please leave them in the comments box below.