Snares come in such a wide range of sizes and materials, it’s a bit tough to generalize about frequencies.
But the sound of the snare wires rattling lives in the 5 kHz to 10 kHz range, and a bit of gain there is great for brightening up a dull snare. If you’re plagued with a boxy sounding snare, try rolling off a bit of 300 through 800 Hz.
With toms, a common mistake is to try boosting low end to make them stand out. Adding a couple of dB at 100 Hz will increase their power, but at the expense of muddying the mix. A better strategy for perking up those tom fills is to leave the bottom end alone and add a tiny bit of 5 kHz to bring out the attack. And as with the snare, play around with rolling off that same 300 through 800 Hz range to eliminate boxiness.
Almost every tom has a resonant ring, and some can be problematic. Of course, the basics apply: tune the toms first and foremost to reduce or eliminate ringing. Whatever problem resonance remains can be addressed using a surgical approach with a multiband EQ. Select a narrow Q and boost the gain as you sweep the midrange band. When you locate the offending frequency, apply a few dB worth of cut to make it go away.
Overhead mics can be a mixed blessing. Their position and relative distance from the kit makes them great for adding air and ambience, but loud cymbals can overpower the mix. Try adding a bit of 10 kHz to brighten the track, and then backing off the overall level to get the air without too much metal.
The Bottom Line On Bass
Since bass and kick occupy the same frequency range and (hopefully) work together, it’s almost always necessary to use EQ to differentiate them in the mix. As mentioned earlier, it’s best to pick one as the rounder, bottom-y sound and make the other a bit more bright and punchy; which is which will be dictated by the song.
One of the questions i hear most often is whether it’s best to record the bass direct or mic the amp. The answer, as you might expect, is “it depends.” Ideally, many engineers opt to record both the amp and a direct track simultaneously, balancing them in the mix for the best possible tone.
Of course, in today’s project studio world, it’s not always possible to record live at the volume you’d like. If you’re working with a bass track that was recorded direct, chances are it’s a bit flat and nondescript compared with a mic’ed bass amp. The good news is, that flatness will ultimately make EQing the DI track far easier, since there’s less coloration to begin with.
Like the kick drum, boosting the 80-120 Hz range on an electric bass will add roundness and bottom end. To add presence and attack, go for a slightly higher range than with the kick, around 1 kHz. Don’t add too much or you’ll bring out the finger noise as well.
Making Space For Guitars And Keys
Guitars are among the most versatile instruments; that same versatility can make them a real challenge. With electric guitars, if you’re fortunate to have a player who knows their amp and their sound, your best bet is to change as little as possible.
If you’ve got two rhythm guitar parts going, a bit of panning and EQ can help distinguish one from the other. Try a slight boost at around 100 Hz on one to bring up the lower mids (with perhaps a corresponding cut on the other guitar). Experiment with higher frequencies on the second part – boosting different frequencies between about 750 Hz and 10 kHz will each bring out a different type of sparkle. Scooping out a bit of 250 to 500 Hz can help eliminate some harshness and woofiness.
Acoustic guitar is a very different animal. Each has its own unique tone and timbre, and much will depend on the player, the sound of the room, the mics you’ve used and where you’ve placed them. A mic too close to the sound hole will deliver a boomy sound; a slight cut at 100 Hz can help. Close miking can also pick up some boxiness from the wood’s resonance, especially around the midrange. Try dropping a bit of the 300 to 400 Hz range. And of course, bring out the shimmer and strumming sound by boosting the upper ranges, from 750 Hz up to around 10 kHz (watching out again for finger noise).
Acoustic pianos, like their guitar counterparts, are organic instruments subject to a number of unique conditions. Every piano has its own character and tone to begin with, further affected by the room, the mics, mic placement and of course, the player. Few instruments cover as wide a range of frequencies and overtones as the piano, which can be both a blessing and a curse. What you do with regard to EQ depends largely on the song - a dense part with close-clustered chords is probably best treated with subtractive EQ, while a spare, melodic passage might benefit from a bit of boost in the upper mids.
Keyboards are a whole other issue, and could easily be the subject of an entire article alone. Synths cover such a wide range of sounds, it’s impossible to generalize about what will work on any given patch. For the most part, you’re quite literally playing it by ear.
Listen Before You Look
I’ll close with the same point I opened with: take this and all advice as nothing more than suggestions. There are no hard and fast rules except one: use your ears. If it sounds wrong, it probably is. So close your eyes and listen. Adjust your EQ, close your eyes and listen again. Don’t just solo the track, either - listen to your changes in the context of the whole mix.
Especially in today’s DAW-oriented world, we all have a tendency to stare at the screen. But it’s important not to depend on spectrum analyzers and meters instead of listening. Try out these suggestions, but then try something totally different. Innovate - don’t blindly follow. Every song is unique, every instrument and room is different, and every artist and song is unique.
What worked for one person on one recording won’t necessarily be what’s right for you.
Daniel Keller is a musician, engineer and producer. Since 2002 he has been president and CEO of Get It In Writing, a public relations and marketing firm focused on audio and multimedia professionals and their toys.. Despite being immersed in professional audio his entire adult life, he still refuses to grow up.