How to EQ: Getting The EQ Right On Your Mix

A guide on how to get the EQ right when recording guitar   18-May-13

How to EQ: Getting The EQ Right On Your Mix

Richard Beech takes you through the ins and outs of how to EQ guitar tracks when recording at home; a very important but often overlooked element of production and mixing.

Hello and welcome to Sonic State's recording advice for guitarists. I'm kicking off the series with a two-part feature on EQ.

"BORING" I hear ye say... well to be honest, it might be a little bit boring, how to EQ a guitar on a recording is definitely not as sexy as playing with delay or reverb.

But I'm going to go out on a limb and say that EQ is THE most important aspect of guitar recording and production, alongside compression (which is also a bit boring).

So first of all, the reason that EQ is important is that the guitar produces an incredible range of harmonic overtones, and takes up a broad spectrum of the audible frequency range to human ears.

Sometimes, there are harmonic overtones which sound great, but sometimes, there are harmonic overtones which sound awful or jump out of the mix, and over the space of this two part feature, I'm going to teach you how to get rid of those frequencies.

There are two main parameters you need to think about here - volume, and frequency. The frequency is basically the pitch of the note you're hearing, higher frequencies are higher pitches. No frequency sounds inherently awful on it's own, until it's too loud. So the key here is not identifying 'nasty' frequencies, as is the common misconception, it's simply identifying frequencies which are too prominent, too loud or have too much volume in the mix.

I'm also going to help you identify the frequencies that the guitar sits best in when you are doing a mix. Too much low-end, and it will conflict with the bass guitar, too much high mid and it will dominate the mix (the human ears are very perceptive to high mids), too much high end and it will sound piercing.

So in this part of the series, I'll be teaching you a simple and easy way to get a great guitar sound. I'm going to assume that you are recording at home with a simple setup such as:

  • A laptop running a DAW such as Logic or Cubase (with an EQ plug-in/VST)
  • An amplifier
  • A dynamic or ribbon microphone such as an SM57 or a VR1
  • A basic set of monitors or reference headphones

(Alternatively you might be using a guitar interface such as a Line 6 POD HD, or if you are really lucky, perhaps a Kemper Profiling Amp or Axe FX unit).

So here's what we're going to do. Let's assume that you have the fundamentals of your track already built up - drums, bass and perhaps a synth part (or two). This is when it becomes tricky to find a place for the guitar in the mix.

Many guitarists will start off a mix at home by recording a guitar part, probably because they wrote the song on the guitar. In a studio, we'd call this a guide track. It's very rare that the guide track would make the final mix. The electric guitar should usually be one of the last things to be recorded. It's absolutely fine to record a guide track at home, and it could end up sounding great.

But some people make the mistake of building the mix around the guide track (in terms of EQ), and that isn't a good place to start.

So let's assume you have deleted (or muted) your guitar guide track, and that you're about to record your final guitar part to go alongside with the rest of your mix.

Now I want you to open up an EQ plug in on the guitar track in your DAW, and I want you to create a high and low shelf. This is when you cut off the extreme high and low ends of the EQ.

Most plug-ins have this is a preset, but to create it manually, create a downward slope in the high and low end, in the high end it should start to drop off at about 10kHz and higher, and in the low end, it should start to slope off at 100Hz and lower (as shown below):

I learned this technique when I was a studio engineer, from a friend of mine who is a prolific and efficient producer, and this method is all about efficiency. Once you nail it, it will take you a very short amount of time to dial in the right settings and get a great guitar sound.

Now I want you to set up your microphone in front of the speaker cone of your amp, as you usually would (I'm not going to prescribe a precise angle or positioning because everybody has a different opinion on this, and it's all about personal preference).

Now record yourself playing along to your track for 30 seconds, with a tone that sounds good to your ears on the amp. And then play it and listen to it back alongside the rest of your mix, make sure it's not too loud and that it sits approximately in your mix in terms of volume.

Now, clearly, there's a massive disparity between what your ears hear when listening to your amplifier in a room, and what the microphone 'hears' when it's picking up the signal from the speaker cone.

What sounds great in a room might not sound great in a mix, and this is what this little exercise is all about.

But, a high and low shelf should get rid of a lot of the extra 'noise' produced by a guitar amp which you don't need in a mix. So now, if you don't like the sound you just recorded, you know that there are a number of physical parameters you can change which could affect the EQ of your guitar tone.

First of all, if it sounds too tinny (adjectives to describe EQ are always slightly controversial, but by tinny, I mean too much of a prominence in frequencies from 2kHz up), try reeling off some of the treble, or high mids on your amp, or alternatively, try switching pickup on your guitar.

If it sounds muddy, and lacks clarity, you need to cut some of the low mids or the bass frequencies, and perhaps you should consider switching to your bridge pickup.

The fundamental job of EQing a guitar involves identifying nasty frequencies and CUTTING them, when you get more to grips with it, then you can start boosting, but for now, try and find the frequency you don't like, and get rid of it by using the EQ on the amp (or the POD HD etc).

Then, record the part again, compare it to the previous take, and see how it sits in the mix. Remember, even if it sounds awful in the room, but sounds great on your DAW, then that is absolutely fine, it doesn't matter how it sounds in the room.

If you absolutely cannot get rid of those nasty frequencies, then you need to start playing around with microphone placement (literally just change the positioning by very small movements until you find a sweet spot, a few millimetres to the left or right can make a huge difference) or even the physical position of the amp within a room. If your amp is in the corner of a small room, it might sound a bit boomy.

In the middle a large room with lots of natural reverb, then it might start to sound a bit glassy.

You should be able to get a great guitar sound, just by experimenting like this (in a logical and pragmatic way) with EQ and compression.

Armed with a half decent amp, an SM57, and a DAW, then there is absolutely no reason you can't get a great guitar sound.

Just record, listen, adjust, and re-record. Repeat this process!

If you've tried all of the above, and you've put the time into changing the EQ settings or mic positioning, and then testing it in the mix, and you still have some nasty frequencies you want to get rid of, then you need to read part two of this feature... which will be coming soon.

In part two, we'll look at frequency notching, and advance use of EQ software. We'll turn you into a frequency expert!

If you take away one thing from this article, then just consider that the guitar is a collection of individual frequencies, some of which are more pronounced than others, some of which sound 'better', some of which sound 'worse'.

When you have recorded your guitar, it can be manipulated so much further. Once you master EQ, you will know 'tone' inside out, tone is a complex menage of different frequencies, and getting the right blend of frequencies is the key to great recorded tone. EQ is king, and you need to persevere with it.

Part two coming soon. Richard Beech is a professional web journalist, who formerly worked as a studio engineer and live sound engineer

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