May 24, 2023 at 5:52 p.m. PST
- Stereos and music streaming apps often feature an equalizer to help adjust audio to the equipment and room by fine-tuning frequencies.
- Subtractive equalization is an often-overlooked technique to clean up muddy tracks, providing greater low-frequency definition and audibility.
- With proper equalization, inexpensive audio equipment can often outperform poorly configured high-end gear.
- When using an equalizer, it’s best to trust your ears more than your eyes, listening for small changes in sound as you manipulate the controls.
This Article is For Beginners
There are many guides for fine-tuning equalizer settings, but they’re often intended for professionals. I realize that most people just want to learn the basics of using an equalizer to improve the sound quality of their favorite music. If this is you, you’ve come to the right place.
If you’re looking to learn EQ techniques for music production, this article may be of limited use. The methods provided here will assist with music production; however, they’re not intended for professional or semi-pro music creation. This guide is comprehensive if you’re an average person who wants to enhance audio playback.
Other articles are intended for laypeople; however, they prescribe specific equalizer settings for particular genres of music. I see this as a fool’s errand. There are so many different frequencies at play with any genre of music. To say that a specific EQ preset will make hip-hop sound better is misleading. In practice, I’ve heard these presets provide worse results than no EQ at all.
This article aims to educate the uninformed about how to fine-tune the best equalizer settings. I will show you how to make changes to clean up muddy music, make cymbals and hi-hats shimmer, or reduce rumble, hiss, or static in poor-quality tracks.
If you’re searching for rock, jazz, or whatever genre EQ presets, look elsewhere. I explain later in the article why you shouldn’t use presets or guides with specific EQ settings for various genres of music. Instead, you will learn how to adjust an EQ to enhance ANY genre of music, regardless of how it’s produced.
Are you ready to listen to better-quality music? If so, let’s first cover some essential background information about equalizers, then look at specific frequencies we can tweak to bring out the best in your music.
What is an Equalizer?
An equalizer is a tool that modifies audio frequencies. A variety of frequencies make up every sound. EQs can enhance or de-emphasize specific frequencies for audio mixing or fine-tuning the end product to sound better on particular equipment or environments.
For example, suppose I am listening to a song on my iPhone wearing older AirPods. These don’t offer as much bass as some earphones, so I may choose to apply more low frequencies using an equalizer. When I come home and play the same track through Bluetooth speakers, it’s booming so loud that it disturbs the neighbors. So I may reset or even lower bass frequencies when playing through a stereo in my living room.
As with many technologies, there are different types of equalizers. The ones most are familiar with are simple tone knobs on older stereos. Usually, there’s a bass and treble knob, but sometimes a mid-range one.
Graphic equalizers became trendy with the rise of boomboxes in the 80s and early 90s. Virtually every portable stereo came with two tape decks and a graphic EQ. Many people are familiar with these, although they might not know the techniques for getting the best sound out of these limited controls.
Audio engineers often use parametric equalizers, which are far more potent than what’s found on a consumer stereo. These EQs can dial into a specific frequency and even widen or narrow the filtering using knobs. You’ll find these on mixing boards, high-end audio rack equipment, and within digital audio workstations, but rarely on a home stereo.
Of course, with the rise of computers, virtually every pro studio employs digital recording. Products such as ProTools, Logic, and Ableton Live provide a complete studio at one’s fingertips. Once in the digital realm, engineers can apply all sorts of advanced digital signal processing.
The modern, digital EQ is far superior to its analog ancestor, plagued with phase-shifting issues. Some prefer the sounds of old British mixing boards, such as Neve consoles. The truth is that music is rooted in tradition. If some indie hipsters want to sound like The Doors, they’re better off with the EQs on an old British mixing board and lots of tube gear to warm up the sound.
As you can see, “equalizer” is an overloaded term. We don’t even use them for their original purpose anymore: to equalize the frequencies on phone lines. Really, they’re frequency filters and not equalizers.
All of this is more academic than practical. You don’t need to know an equalizer’s original purpose to use one, but learning the basics of what they do and how they work is helpful and interesting. Later on, you can apply this knowledge in a more advanced way, transcending the basics of this article with your own intellect.
How do Equalizers Work?
Equalizers employ filters to boost or cut audio frequencies. A graphic EQ is simply a bank of such filters with sliders to adjust the augmentation or attenuation of audio filters.
The exact mechanics of equalization depend on the system. An old mixing board uses analog electric filters to boost or cut frequencies. The equalizers are digital if you use a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) such as ProTools for production or an iPhone for casual music enjoyment. Instead of increasing or cutting frequencies, digital signal processing manipulates binary data to produce the desired effect. Digital music is all just 1’s and 0’s. A digital EQ alters these values, usually non-destructively, to modify sound properties.
Why Are They Called Equalizers?
Modern-day equalizers can trace their roots back to telephone lines. Decades ago, telephone companies needed to correct frequencies in phone lines. If a frequency was too extreme, an equalizer compensated with attenuation at that band, thus equalizing the signal to a flat frequency.
The term “equalizer” doesn’t make as much sense today. They’re not used to bring frequencies to an equilibrium. Instead, they’re employed aesthetically to produce audio appealing to the human ear.
How to Use a Graphic Equalizer
The graphic equalizer is the most popular form of this audio technology for consumers. Although it’s a relatively simple concept, it may prove challenging if you have no audio engineering knowledge or experience. If you already know the basics, skip to the next section, although it may be a worthwhile refresher, even for the audio-inclined.
Graphic EQs come in many shapes and sizes. Old Walkman-type cassette players featured three-band EQs. Most boomboxes of that era sported five-band EQs. For the most part, a graphic EQ consists of a series of vertical grooves aligned in a parallel formation. Listeners can adjust the EQ by sliding tabs inside the vertical channels.
A graphic EQ typically features a 0 dB line. The EQ is flat when set at these points, meaning no processing is applied. In other words, the graphic equalizer is not filtering audio output. It’s best to start with all EQ sliders set to 0. Often, professionally-produced music sounds best without listener intervention. If you need equalization, it’s usually to compensate for the room or equipment, but sometimes for personal preferences or to fix a flawed mix.
In the digital age, graphic EQs have improved dramatically. It’s common to find ten or more bands supported by even basic music players. Since these are virtual controls, screen size is the limitation. No one needs to manufacture a device to provide an equalizer for your iPhone. In theory, it costs about the same to offer a 30-band EQ as a 10-band when it’s software-based. But it has to fit on your iPhone’s screen.
Not only do digital EQs offer more bands, but they sound much better than analog graphic EQs. If you’re playing digital music through an older stereo and have a choice between analog and digital EQ, choose the latter. Analog EQ has issues with phase distortion. It’s a complex subject, but, in general, a digital EQ sounds better than its analog counterpart.
For the purposes of this how-to guide, we’ll be using a 10-band graphic EQ. Assuming that everything is set to 0, raising a slider will increase frequencies in that range. Lowering a slider decreases frequencies. Thus, if the bass is too loud, you can experiment with reducing the leftmost three faders to correct the sound.
The following table shows which frequencies influence particular sounds in recorded music. This is just a rough guideline. As mentioned, differences between and within genres and producers’ varying tastes and styles indicate no strict rules for EQ.
Of course, there are physical characteristics of instruments. A bass guitar generally has lower frequencies than a standard six-string electric guitar. Cymbals produce high-frequency sounds. But maybe some clever producer wants to make a cymbal sound deep or muddy, to sound different. Don’t let this information prevent you from experimenting. It’s just a guide.
The following chart breaks down different frequencies into groups. Instruments in blue are listed in terms of their fundamental frequencies — the lowest frequency produced by the sound source. Hence, a snare drum appears blue under the bass frequency, as its first harmonic is within this zone.
Green denotes second, third, and other harmonics for a particular instrument. Returning to the snare example, although its fundamental (first harmonic) is in the bass zone, you’ll probably want to boost EQ in the mids or upper mids to make a weak snare stand out. You can also try a subtractive EQ around 250 Hz to clarify the mix and reduce muddy tones.
EQ Frequencies, Characteristics, and Instruments
20 Hz –
|rumble, thump||bass guitar|
60 Hz –
|deep, punch, warm||bass guitar, bass vocals, floor tom, guitar, lower rack tom, kick drum|
250 Hz –
|boxy, cloudy, mud, presence||bass guitar, cymbals, drums, guitar, vocals|
2 kHz –
|attack, edge, harsh, loud||bass guitar, cymbals, drums, guitar, vocals|
5 kHz –
|air, brilliance, definition, shimmer||cymbals, drums, guitar, vocals|
The best way to learn about equalization is to try it out. Using the above chart, boost and cut EQ frequencies while listening carefully. You’ll find that a little EQ goes a long way in some frequencies, particularly mids, and upper mids. These frequency ranges align with human hearing more than bass or highs.
Achieving the Best Equalizer Settings
I’ve been working with music for a long time. Although I’ve only had a few professional assignments in sound engineering, this is because I chose the coding path. It gave me the income to purchase expensive music equipment, like high-end audio interfaces, microphone pre-amps, and microphones. I could also contribute more to the world through coding than music.
For a while, I went overboard. I owned some of the world’s most expensive and cherished microphones, like the Royer R-121. Although I’ve scaled down my studio, focusing primarily on Ableton Live using the Push 2 controller, I still have a few microphones. Sound engineering techniques like equalization are just as important to me now as ever.
One of the most important things I learned about equalization is subtractive EQ. Sometimes it’s better to do a small cut around the 200-300 Hz range to reduce “muddiness.” This one trick is so effective it will breathe new life into music, whether you’re a producer or merely a casual listener. We’ll look more at subtractive EQ later in this tutorial as we cover precise EQ settings and strategies.
It’s important to realize that the settings presented here are just guidelines. Prescribing EQ settings based on genre or other musical aspects is impossible.
I always get a chuckle when I look at EQ presets. There’s one for rock, another for classical, and another for gospel. These presets are unaware of many aspects of music. They’re based on music production generalizations but not the actual reality of music.
If you look at a genre like punk rock, there are many production styles, even for one sub-genre. 1980’s pop-punk, like Hüsker Dü, has a particular equalization style that de-emphasizes mid-range frequencies. Modern pop-punk, on the other hand, emphasizes mid-range frequencies.
I just listened to some cutting-edge Gen-Z pop-punk, and it sounds all mid-range, with no bass or high frequencies, so this evolution has reached an extreme. It sounds like corny, old-timey music, which fits Gen-Z’s fondness for archaic junk. Even though they’re (loosely) in the same genre, pop-punk has changed. Thus, a pop-punk EQ preset wouldn’t work for all.
The other problem with presets is that they’re biased toward Western music. You won’t find an EQ preset for Kannada devotional music. It’s remarkably well-produced with a massive fan base, yet those who create audio software have chosen to neglect such music.
Even something as general as “Indian Classical Music” doesn’t exist as an EQ preset, and it’s probably for the best. It’s ironic because every audio engineer I know loves Yes, but seems to forget that classics like “Awaken” are based on Karnatic music. They’ve even garnered the label “symphonic” due to Western classical music influences; however, most fans don’t notice how this seminal progressive rock band adopts South Indian sound cultures. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, as we live in a society that calls stretching exercises “yoga.”
Looking beyond presets, numerous articles about how to fine-tune the best equalizer settings show graphs or diagrams of ideal EQ settings. This article offers charts, but with the following guidance: trust your ears more than your eyes.
I will show you which sliders to adjust but not the extent to which to alter them, except for low-pass and high-pass filters, which are almost always set to extremes.
The whole point of fine-tuning the best equalizer settings is so that you will enjoy music. You won’t attain the best results if you adjust your EQ based on a graph without concern for how the music sounds. You must make these adjustments in the moment, carefully listening to changes in the overall sound. It’s a time for mindfulness, not distractions.
Your room is also essential. If you live in a large, open floorplan with many reflective surfaces, like an urban loft, you’ll need different EQ settings than someone listening in a small, carpeted bedroom with curtains on the windows and sheets and blankets on the bed. This is, again, why no one can prescribe EQ settings or presets. The room is a critical factor when it comes to equalization. I know some who even put reverb on music when they play it in a small, carpeted room to make it sound more lively.
You may even wish to close your eyes while changing a particular EQ setting. Many audio professionals choose to work in dark rooms to attenuate visual senses. While entirely logical, it can also lead to drowsiness. It’s much better to disconnect from your other senses, like a tortoise withdrawing its limbs into its shell. Unfortunately, most people can’t do this because the mind is like a monkey, darting about from branch to branch. If turning down the lights works, then do it!
Now that we know not to rely on presets or EQ diagrams, the emphasis of this guide will be to improve audio quality in any mix. We’re not going to depend on genre stereotypes. As I’ve demonstrated, myriad production realities have unfolded over time, even for a relatively constrained genre, such as pop-punk. Some genres don’t have EQ settings, even if they’re appreciated by hundreds of millions of people. Unveiling a set EQ for a genre of music is like prescribing a definite time and temperature for all frozen pizzas that have ever existed.
Start With Flat Equalizer Settings
Audio engineers work tirelessly through the day and night in dim, windowless rooms to deliver top-quality sound. For the most part, they’ve applied equalization properly due to professional training and experience. For this reason, you should start with a flat EQ — everything set to the middle position where there’s no filtering applied.
Of course, inexperienced engineers often don’t understand the basics of achieving a competent mix. There are also professional hacks working in prominent music studios, producing some of the most popular and influential music. Their end product sounds dull and lifeless due to an overreliance on digital signal processing. Sometimes this is a necessity because the artist has no talent.
If your singer can’t sing, an engineer typically uses digital auto-tuning to fix pitch problems. (Back in the day, they used slap-back echo to even out pitchy singers.) An engineer may apply compression to tame a poor singer’s wild dynamic range. Whether a bass player can play or not, the instrument is sometimes EQ’d or mixed out of the track. Metallica’s “…And Justice for All” is a testament to the pantomiming bass player. (It’s a shame because Jason Newsted is an excellent bassist, which is more evident on Voivod albums than Metallica’s recorded output.)
In other words, even major-label professional engineers who live in the Hollywood Hills and practice (what they believe to be) “yoga” make mistakes or exercise poor judgment. Even if a producer and engineer create a perfect work of art, you may choose to adjust it. Just like someone can make the Mona Lisa’s smile bigger in Photoshop, one can make EQ adjustments to make John Bonham’s drums thump harder.
Hip-hop is supposed to have deep bass, yet your neighbors might not be as appreciative of the mix. In this case, fine-tuning the equalizer will enable you to enjoy your music without upsetting the neighborhood. So we’ll start with a flat EQ and then adjust it as needed to address problems with the mix, the equipment, or the environment.
How to Use Subtractive EQ to Reduce Muddiness
I’ve noticed that most people use a graphic EQ to boost frequencies, but they’re rarely used to cut them. Thus, if music sounds too muddy, they may augment mid-range frequencies to improve audibility. But this makes music sound slightly nasal and corny, like old-timey music. It’s because old microphones and recording equipment had such limited frequency responses, but today, this is sometimes done for aesthetic reasons, as with Gen-Z pop-punk.
One of the most valuable lessons in this article is using subtractive EQ for specific situations. It’s not a cure-all, but it will improve clarity for certain tracks.
Suppose you’re listening to a mediocre live recording of your favorite band. It sounds dull and muddy because it wasn’t captured from the mixing board but instead recorded by a fan in the audience using a cheap digital recorder. You can fix this easily by sliding the 250 Hz fader down until the sound is clear but still warm.
Music will sound thin and brittle if you take this too far. It will lack the warmth that we all appreciate in music. You need to listen to the music as you adjust this frequency downward.
This technique can also help with specific environments. Music you play in one location may sound muddy or indiscernible in another place. Adjusting this frequency will work wonders if you’re in a new space and your tunes don’t sound clear. If you take anything away from this article, remember that subtractive EQ is often much more effective than boosting frequencies.
Use a High-Pass Filter to Eliminate Rumble
Audio engineers aren’t perfect, and many professionals are actually amateurs who persuaded their way into the job. Such an engineer might forget to roll off low frequencies on a microphone or instrument, capturing rumble. Typically, a mastering engineer would fix this, but they’re not infallible either.
It’s actually effortless to mistakenly capture low-frequency rumbling, especially with more pros recording in home studios. If you don’t use a shock mount on a microphone, you may record various low-frequency rumbles, which may be imperceptible but could reduce the overall clarity of the mix. Most of these are building noises you probably don’t notice anymore.
Then there’s the room. Even if the audio engineers did everything correctly, your room might not respond to low frequencies well. This applies to hip-hop and rap more than other genres of music, but it’s not exclusive to these forms.
For all these reasons, employing a high-pass filter is a good idea. This involves a sharp cut to the lowest frequencies. First, try it at 31.25 Hz and then at 62.5 Hz. If your graphic EQ doesn’t have these same frequencies, don’t worry. Just cut the lowest frequency while listening to how it affects the music.
Use a Low-Pass Filter to Remove Hiss
Tape hiss is a thing of the past. Even back in the 80s, Dolby provided technology to alleviate tape hiss. Unfortunately, with digital recording, hiss has come back in some situations. I’m sure you’ve heard that digital recording is clear and distortion-free. It is, but it can also pick up all sorts of artifacts due to higher resolution and better microphones.
For the most part, I haven’t heard much hiss on any modern digital recordings. But you may come across older music that hasn’t been shepherded into the digital age responsibly. Unfortunately, Steven Wilson can’t attend to them all. The more obscure progressive rock artists from Europe suffer from bad digital renewals that often have hiss from various old, dirty audio gadgets. The good news is that you can improve the sound quality of these gems with some easy EQ adjustments.
Maybe your friend recorded his band at a club, and the mics picked up the sounds of the ventilation system along with his unique brand of indie rock. If so, you can fix it by fine-tuning equalizer settings.
In either event, there’s a simple solution — the low-pass filter. We use this technique to do a hard cut on the highest frequencies until the hiss is gone. Listen carefully as you reduce the 16 kHz fader to ensure that sounds don’t become dull and lose their shimmer. Hi-hats and cymbals should still sound bright and lively, not dull and lifeless. Depending on your sound system, you may be able to reduce this all the way without noticing a decrease in audible high frequencies.
Boost High Frequencies to Make Cymbals and Hi-Hats Shimmer
Although the snare drum is usually the focal point of rhythm in a mix, cymbals and hi-hats play an essential role in articulating beats. These are often tricky instruments to record, as few engineers mic the high-hat, particularly with older music. Led Zeppelin employed only four mics on an entire drum kit, which was common in that era. Usually, enough hi-hat sound is recorded through overhead mics to forgo capturing these brass timekeepers directly.
If you’re listening to music on EarPods or early AirPods, you probably won’t experience much difference with high-frequency EQ adjustments. The fact is, humans can only perceive, but not discern, frequencies above 12,000 Hz, depending on age. In other words, you can’t pick out the instruments above a specific frequency, but it feels like something is missing if it’s not there.
For this adjustment, you’ll really need to listen carefully. No prescribed EQ settings will work because there are so many types of cymbals, hi-hats, and electronic noises issued at high frequencies. Start with the 16K slider at 0 and gradually increase it while listening carefully. You want hi-hats and cymbals to sound bright and articulate without introducing hiss, noise, or strange artifacts.