Pro Tools Expert has recently partnered again with our good friends at Sonarworks. For those that do not already know Sonarworks are a company passionate about mixing with headphones.
Over the last few month Sonarworks have posted some really useful articles about mixing with headphones. This is Sonarworks' first guest post on Pro Tools Expert, written by Barry M Rivman. In this article Barry shares his thoughts on EQ and the processes he uses when mixing on headphones.
Know Your Headphones
In order to mix properly across the frequency spectrum you first have to know what you are listening through. For example, when professional mixers used the 5″ Auratone speaker, as they believed the Aurotone helped them achieve translation-able mixes, aspiring mixers ran out and bought them only to discover that the sound of the Auratone was very different to what they were accustomed to hearing in full-range monitors. Aspiring mixers didn’t know what a proper mix on Auratones sounded like. The trick to mixing on headphones or monitors is to know what they sound like.
Fortunately, headphones are not so different from full-range monitors in terms of how we hear the frequency spectrum, however a good deal of that is illusion. To mix properly on headphones, you have to know a little bit about how they produce sound and more importantly, what to listen for.
Mixing Kick Drum & Bass Instruments In Headphones
Small headphone transducers can not reproduce the sounds of bass and kick drums with the impact you would hear on larger speakers in a room. That does not mean that you can not mix low-end instruments effectively on headphone. The thing to listen for is clarity and presence of kick drum and bass in relation to the other instruments.
With bass guitar you will mainly hear harmonics an octave above the fundamental rather than deep bass. The first and second order harmonics should be full and present. With kick drum you will mainly be hearing attack rather than deep resonance of the kick drum.
How The Pros Do It
There are a number of philosophies regarding the blending of bass and kick drum. Eric Sarafin, aka Mixerman, states that one should appear on top of the other in the sound field. The positional effect is easier to tell in headphones rather than on monitors. As mix engineer Andrew Scheps puts it, “One has to rule the low end”. This means that one has a preponderance of low frequencies. According to producer-mixer Michael Wagener (King’s X, Metallica, Alice Cooper), kick lives at around 60Hz, bass at 100Hz. To separate them use a low-cut filter on the bass below 100Hz with a steep filter. This implies that the bass instrument will sit on top of kick drum.
Since the deep resonance we physically feel that comes from speakers does not occur in headphones then you simply have to resist mixing the bass and kick too loudly to compensate. Once the bass instrument and kick drum work together all that remains is to switch to full-range monitors to reference the balance and to adjust the lower frequencies and move on in your mixing headphones workflow.
Balancing The Midrange
Since our ears are mostly attuned to midrange sounds it stands to reason that the midrange requires some special attention. Headphones make it easier to balance the mids. In fact with the mids properly mixed bass and treble frequencies need only be in the ballpark for your mix to sound the same everywhere.
Midrange instruments tend to fight for attention. The goal is to make sure that all instruments can be heard yet still work together as a unified whole. One of the more commonly advised approaches is the use EQ to “carve out space” for various instruments to occupy. In reality though scooping out frequencies from an instrument to make room for another can actually have the opposite effect as doing so can soften the instrument or vocal you want to poke through at that frequency. Remember that frequency is not pitch, nor does it remain static throughout a mix.
How To Equalize For Balance
Another approach is to use “subtractive EQ” as in "to cut low midrange frequencies" to make room in the mix. While it is easy to EQ cut instruments thus making space, the simple fact is thinning out instruments can come back to bite you especially if an instrument you have thinned out becomes a featured instrument later in the mix.
So how do you EQ the midrange to make instruments stand out? Here is what not to do. Try not to EQ an instrument in isolation hoping that when you drop it back in the mix it works with the mix as a whole. Here is some EQ techniques worth trying:
- Listen to instruments in context.
- If you are trying to EQ a guitar and piano to fit together then listen to the instrument you are not EQing. If you’re EQing the guitar then listen to the piano until you can hear both instruments clearly. Oddly enough it will feel as though you are EQing the piano.
- Try not to sweep narrow Qs. Use your best guess and choose which frequency range you think needs boosting or cutting. If it doesn’t help then try another. As you do this you will be training your ear to hear the effects of EQ across the frequency spectrum. Sweeping cannot do this.
- Remember that mixing is often counterintuitive. For example, mixers can look for “ugly” frequencies to cut to make an instrument sit better in a mix. However, sometimes boosting an ugly frequency is exactly what you need. Bringing out a timbale in a mix, boosting its honkiest frequency (1kHz) actually gives it clarity in a busy mix.
Using Saturation Instead of EQ To Equalize
Equalization is not always the best tool for the job. EQ boosting adds amplitude at various frequencies that can eat up headroom if not used carefully. Using distortion and saturation instead of EQ can help an instrument stand out without boosting frequencies.
Let's Get Highs
High frequencies do not require the same amount of scrutiny and attention like the bass does. In fact once you have the lower frequencies under control the highs pretty much take care of themselves. Digital recording handles high frequencies information quite well without any help. Constant boosting of high frequencies in past years was to counteract the effects of high-frequency loss from tape passing over record/playback heads repeatedly. If you were to put songs from different decades through a spectrum analyzer you will discover that despite sounding bright and clear they have less high-frequency content than you would expect.
- Getting control of bass frequencies in headphones means achieving clarity in relation to the rest of the frequency spectrum, Remember, what you are hearing is not the fundamental, rather the first and second order harmonics.
- When it comes to EQing the mids, don’t sweep. Try to make your EQ moves in the context of the whole mix
- Try using distortion, saturation or enhancement to instead of EQ to bring instruments forward in a mix without losing headroom.
- Resist boosting high frequencies especially at the same frequency, which will have the adverse affect of masking highs above that frequency, thus making the mix sound dull. Conversely, boosting highs can make a mix harsh.
Let's get the conversation going here, what's your EQ mindsets? If you mix on headphones then we would love to hear how you do your EQ processes.