1) Get it right at the source (and don’t mess with it too much!):
Sometimes, we can fall into the trap of trying to do too much with EQ. Remember, the EQ controls on most guitar amps are actually very basic. Making things in the mix more complex than they need to be, will usually do more harm than good. No amount of EQ will make a Strat sound like a Les Paul, or a Vox sound like a Marshall. When using EQ on guitar, the goal is to shape the tone, not to replace it. If things aren’t sounding right or require a lot of work, it is often because we haven’t found the right tone to start with.
Ideally, most of the crucial decisions about tone should be made before we get to the mixing stage. This involves: how a part is arranged, the way it is played, the particular guitar and amp combination being used, and so on. Even though recording with an amp simulator does give us the option to tweak things after a performance has been recorded, this doesn’t negate the fact that getting these variables right before it comes time to mix will make our job significantly easier.
2) Make sure to ask two basic questions:
It’s almost so simple that it feels ridiculous to mention. But the fact is, it’s all too easy to succumb to the temptation of boosting a bunch of frequencies without really thinking about what we are doing. When we sit down to mix (before even touching that EQ!) we need to ask ourselves two very simple questions:
What do I like about what I’m hearing? And, What don’t I like about what I’m hearing?
Start by working out the specifics of what you want to tweak and what you want to preserve. Before boosting anything, first try attenuating the elements of the tone that you don’t like. Perhaps there’s too much bass build-up in the low frequencies (often the case below 200 Hz) or maybe the top end sounds a touch too brittle (commonly in the 4k - 8k range).
Whatever the case, getting rid of the things we don’t like gives us a much better framework to then emphasize the things we do like. Sometimes, after clearing out the distracting elements of a tone, we may not even need to make any additional tweaks at all. Simply making a series of vague EQ adjustments in the hope that things will start sounding better, is less affective and usually far more time consuming.
3) Don’t use effects to compensate for a bad tone:
Effects are great, who doesn’t love using them!? And sure, reverbs and delays can obviously add more width and depth to a tone where desired. BUT there’s a big difference between using these things to enhance a tone you like and using them to cover up a tone you don’t like.
Drowning something in effects will not make it sound more balanced. Additional processing is great for adding different colours and flavors to compliment a tone but if the fundamental part of a sound isn’t right to start with, additional processing won’t be nearly as effective as it could be. Often, a more effective use of EQ can neutralize the tendency to over-saturate a guitar tone in effects. Not only will this lead to a more tasteful use of effects, but it will also ensure that any additional processing will only emphasize the desirable qualities in your tone, without amplifying the undesirable ones.
To summarize, the concepts discussed here are, admittedly, very simple. We haven’t actually talked that much about using EQ at all! However, sometimes the simplest concepts can be the most effective. The truth is, a great guitar tone shouldn’t need a whole lot of EQ in the first place. EQ is just a tool to emphasize the things we like about a tone, to help get rid of what’s not working, and to make sure things are sounding balanced. Used properly, EQ can be incredibly powerful. However, when overused, EQ can create unnecessary problems.
Ultimately, you know EQ has done its job when you can stop focusing on the tone and start listening to the performance.
Want to hear these ideas in context? Check out the video (featuring the Slate Digital Custom Series EQ).
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