Used on every instrument, in all playing situations and on all recordings, EQ is arguably the most common tool utilised to make music sound better. EQ balances the frequencies, or range of frequencies, within a sound by adjusting their individual volume levels. This is essential for polishing out impurities in the sound by boosting or cutting certain frequencies and for adjusting the levels of different sounds in a mix. Clever Equalisation, in tandem with some panning, simply ensures all the instruments in a mix have enough space and fill a certain area of colour in the sonic palette.
Moving on to how an EQ looks and works, there are several different types and how they look, and are interacted with, varies. The most obvious difference would be in physical EQ units and software/plugins. Physical EQs find their way into almost all PA units, studio effect racks, mixing desks, keyboards and on to most instrument pedal boards. Most often controlled using knobs or sliders, they allow for the adjustment for live instruments. For example, EQ could be used live to trim frequencies which are causing feedback or to help certain instruments cut through when they solo.
Plugins and software based EQs reside mostly in the realm of production, used in DAWs to mix stems. DAWs like Logic and ProTools come with inbuilt EQs on each channel and with the option of downloading and using different EQ plugins. These EQs generally offer more control over all of the different frequencies and more often than not, take inspiration from famous EQ circuits. More on this later.
Although considered just guidelines, let’s look at the names for different frequencies and what purposes and instruments they cover.
So as for where a band’s common instruments would lie:
As you can see, the mids are a crowded space, so it’s important when mixing mid heavy instruments not to boost these frequencies too much on them, just so things don’t get too messy.
Now we’ve talked about what an EQ is, let’s look at some more specific types that we may encounter.
Parametric EQs are the most used EQ in production. These multiband EQs offer fully adjustable frequency bands, allowing for very precise changes which is great for removing unpleasant noises on a sound. The plugins usually come in two flavours, digital and analogue modelled styles. The former includes the incredibly popular Fab Filter Pro-Q3 which is more transparent and is so commonly used to remove frequencies. Whilst the analogue camp offers EQs like the Waves SSL G-Equaliser and generally colours sound, so conversely is great for boosting frequencies with that vintage flavour.
Shelving EQs are one of the most basic and common types of EQ in amps and physical units, they work by boosting or attenuating certain frequencies above or below a certain cut off point. The Baxandall EQ circuit is a famous type of shelving EQ, one which has been replicated many times and is a common template for plugins. A Baxandall equaliser has an exceptionally wide Q curve with a gentle slope. The wide curve affects a lot of frequencies, but the gentle nature of it retains a natural sound and imparts minimal phase distortion. The EQ only makes what is there sound better and is very transparent, sounding very natural.
Graphic EQs, on the other hand, use a bank of sliders which each affect a certain group of set frequencies. The more sliders, the greater the accuracy, but it still lacks the surgical efficiency of a Parametric EQ. Best for broad general changes, even incremental shifts on the sliders have a big effect so large adjustments can sound very unnatural.
A subtractive EQ is harsher sounding in comparison to the attenuations of a shelving EQ. A subtractive EQ and additive EQs work by taking out or adding frequencies giving more dramatic, less natural results surgically cutting/boosting with added compression.
Analog EQ, although rarer than software-based programs, can offer sounds plugins often can’t. Often pricier, a rack-mounted EQ unit often only calls the studio or the bedroom of a seasoned producer home, generally in part to the price and the physical space it consumes. Hardware can be worth the investment though, not many plugins can attempt to emulate the warmth of real transistors or vacuum tubes and an analog circuit imparts a certain harmonic richness to a sound. This is due to saturation - the real components add a level of harmonic distortion to the signal and when each track in a mix shares this, it really adds a fullness to the overall sound.
A way to compare or hear this would be to listen to maybe an early 70s record, or even a D’Angelo track (where nearly everything is painstakingly analog) to a modern dance track or an entirely logic produced song, and you’ll hear the difference. Outboard analog EQs also gain from being a physical object, forcing you to mix with your ears as opposed to your eyes (alluding to one of the only downsides of the intuitive, easily adjustable visual aspects of software) and using physical controls can help internalise what each parameter changes.
Although we’ve mainly discussed rack mounted hardware used in a studio in this section, there are different types for different uses, with a common differentiator being the number of frequency bands. Generally gig or small garage recording EQ units will only have between 3-10 band widths, whilst ones used in a more controlled recording or mixing setting will have more, anywhere from 15 to 31. A pedal for example, like the MXR 6-Band EQ has only 6 bands as stated, but is more than capable of handling most live needs and shines when used as a boost pedal, upping certain frequencies to cut through the mix for solos or such and can be easily used by most instruments on the fly. Whilst a DBX 231s has, as suggested by the name, 31 channels and in contradiction to as stated earlier, is still used in live situations (as well as budget studios) but used by sound engineers instead of performers due to its multitude of controls.
Let’s look at the more commonly used software associated with EQ. Found residing in the channels of nearly all DAW programs and available to download or purchase as plugins for specific flavours or varieties. Usually much cheaper than hardware, the virtual versions can offer ridiculously close emulations without taking up the space or eating away into the funds. Coming in all the aforementioned types (graphic, parametric, vintage etc.) and usually all coming with surgical flexibility due to only really being used in studio settings, let’s crack on with a list of popular ones which are available to the computer-based producer.
So seeing as different sounds fill different frequencies, a very useful way to utilise EQ is to remove unwanted sounds. We’ll use the inbuilt logic channel EQ as our example as it’s a common, easy to use tool. To start, choose one of the middle four bands or bell filters. Change the Frequency to something in the lower end of the spectrum, such as 250Hz. Set the Gain to around +10dB and use a high Q setting, let’s say 30.0. The next step would be to Loop the sound you’re trying to apply the frequency sweep to and play it.
While it plays, gradually increase the frequency. Now listen carefully, as you sweep through the frequencies, you’ll find some bad ones, as you do lower the gain as to where the sound is no longer negatively affecting your track, the value should end up in negative db. Use your own ear to set the Q. Using this technique too much can leave the track sounding unnatural and sterile, so be sparse in your application and ensure the sound still works in the song.
Another easy way to use EQ is to tighten up the low or high end of your track, bands 1 and 8 on the logic channel EQ allow you to just trim off the very low and very high frequencies. Called a high cut or low cut filter, it’s effective at getting rid of excessive high or low frequencies.
An example would be to use a low cut filter on the instruments which aren’t meant to be supplying the low end frequencies on your track but are, this will help define your actual bass and sub bass sounds. This method is most commonly used on acoustic guitars and synth pads, as these instruments can usually have a lot removed before they start to sound thin in context and the extra space in the low end can be filled by the bass or kick drum.
As opposed to trimming frequencies, adding to the extreme ends of the frequency spectrum can make a sound appear subjectively louder to our ears. Demonstrated on graphs using curves of equal loudness, the relationship between DBspl and Hz dictates our perceived volume of sounds, explaining how an increase in certain frequencies can sound like a volume boost. To add to this, our ears are also generally more sensitive to mid-range frequencies, which intuitively our brain accommodates for when interpreting the sound.
A useful side effect of this though is that our brains can’t help but process sounds rich with very high and very low frequencies as louder, a fact often exploited by ‘louder’ buttons on speakers and the ‘smile’ shape EQ often used by stereos. Implementing this idea would be a great way of increasing an overall track’s perceived volume.
Referring back to cutting frequencies for effect, rolling off the high end slightly can make a sound appear further away as it emulates the frequency drop off which distant sounds suffer from in real life. In terms of mixing, a slight cut above 10 kHz or so on backing vocals and a slight boost to those frequencies on lead vocals can help place them better in a mix. This idea can be applied to a whole band and, with panning, can really work to create a 3D sound.
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In 1961 when John Lennon was asked where the band name came from he famously replied “It came in a vision - a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, 'From this day forward you are Beatles with an A.' Thank you Mister Man, they said, thanking him.”
That’s about as good a description of inspiration as you’re going to get. Sometimes the best and the simplest ideas just fall from the sky and into your consciousness. And so it is with songwriting. Very occasionally a tune is in the ether, waiting to be born, and you are the lucky person the universe has chosen to receive it.
Some of our most important musical works fall into this category of ‘pure art’. Those are the songs that tend to move us the most and stay with us for a lifetime.
Trouble is, it’s not a dependable source of material. Inspiration like that has never happened to me in a lifetime of waiting and willing it to happen. Surely there are ways to kickstart the creative process, prevent writers block and get some songs happening?
Well... there is. A good place to start is outlining some of the tricks used by the top pop and rock writers. This is craft rather than art I admit, but so often putting the time and graft in will pave the way for inspiration to follow. The processes I describe here were picked up during co-writing sessions organised by our publisher in the somewhat desperate pursuit of a ‘hit record’. Although a bit formulaic, it worked. And the old band secured several Top 40 hits along the way - a few created in the ways as I describe in this blog.
Of course, no one’s interested in a ‘hit record’ anymore, it’s a meaningless and antique term. But what we are looking for is that song that will separate your band from the hundreds of thousands of other acts all screaming for attention in the same space.
Good bands and good music are painfully commonplace. Great songwriting is still super rare. Songs still matter and can still change lives and start careers.
So, what are we waiting for? Let’s begin our step by step journey to writing your best song yet.
We will start with titles and subject matter. When a band writes to a backing track it often produces less coherent writing. So just for once let’s not think about the music until we have written down 50 great titles, each with a strong concept behind it.
See what’s happening? We’ve already created a tension with songs crying out to be written, if the titles are interesting and engaging, and we’re inspired to want to tell the full story.
Write those titles on a large piece of paper or white board and stick them on the wall so they are staring you in the face.
Stop and think about tempos. If we don’t, most writers end up defaulting to slower tempos. I think it might be just because it’s easier to write slower tunes. But most commercial hits and show-stopping gig tunes are faster than 120 BPM and often 130 BPM+.
There is a massive mismatch in average tempo of songs written by your average writer, and songs actually consumed and listened to. Stick the radio on and check the BPMs on the playlist. Play a few classic albums and work out how the thing hangs together tempo wise.
Watching the crowd at a big gig will tell you everything you need to know about which tempo and feel holds a crowd and makes them move. Watch the support acts to see what sends people to the bar. Radio programmers are very sensitive to this and they don’t want anyone switching the dial because they are bored by a dirge of a tune.
You might want to use a drum machine or loops to collect a batch of drum feels to use as the basis for the writing session. We have 50 titles there, so let’s have a wide selection, maybe include a shuffle or two and some different time signatures. You can afford to experiment with quirky drum sounds and samples at this stage as we are building the vibe as we write.
Pace is really important in writing. Nothing kills the buzz more than trying to make the first line a masterpiece. Try not to censor yourself and just allow the songs to write themselves. Let’s knock out some tunes quick and come back and re-look at them in a week. You might not be able to be objective on the same day you’ve written a song - don’t be in a hurry to scrap anything.
Now take a title and see if it sits well with one of the drum grooves, try singing the top line lyric over the drums, jam around with it, and maybe try and get a main chorus hook out there first. Find the hook first and then write backwards. Hopefully two or three lines will leap out from your list of titles and pair up nicely with one of the drum loops.
When it starts to click together, try and bash out a song fast, without thinking too hard. Trust your subconscious and the most obvious first choice of lyric or melody may well be the one.
Keep it loose, enjoyable and pacey. Aim for half a dozen completed but rough tunes in a day and record them, label them carefully and come back to the file later.
Ah yes you can get the guitar out now. Add licks, keys, bass – knock yourself out. You’ve been pretty disciplined so far, so now you can riff, be loose and find a flow. Try different keys, major, minor and add the underpinning chords to the melody. If you get stuck for harmonic ideas, go back to the greats - Kinks, Beatles, Bowie, Beach Boys will get you out of a rut. But you’ll also have your own references of course.
If you’re on a roll, keep going and you may be doing this for days or even weeks before you come back and sort thought the ideas.
Now the work begins. Sort the songs into piles. A, B and C lists might be a good place to start. In the 80s, most major label acts would have 50 or 60 tunes to pick through before they whittled the section down to an album. These days you may even be looking at releasing just one tune at a time. Let’s make it count.
So after picking our favourite tunes, we now need to refine them into a finished form or maybe even a recorded master.
Looking at how much care a band takes over lyric writing tells you much about their level of respect for their audience and their overall musical standards. Lyrics are everything. Although it is fine to write instrumentals too and that would be infinitely preferable to weak ass lyrics. Of course, this is subjective and sometimes ‘dumb’ is great, sometimes inaccurate grammar works. It’s all about the context and we know substance and meaning when we hear it. That’s probably what will link you to your audience more than anything else.
Having a great title and a strong subject will make completing the lyrics much easier as the song will want to write itself.
Don’t be afraid to take away rather than add. You could also consider setting some kind of sonic direction with your choice of sounds and instrumentation. Keep it bare and leave space as it’s just a sketch at this stage.
Well, yes and no! If you have taken a song as far as you can, and you’re digging the result, you now have the option of rehearsing it up and sticking it in the set. Or you can bring in other people to see how much further you can go with this thing. Maybe consider co-writing with an experienced commercial writer who could pull out another hook or two and refine the lyrics, and then the right producer could help you fine tune the arrangement, and a decent engineer can help you realise an ambitious sonic vision.
These days it’s easy to find and work with top professionals. Sometimes it costs a little bit but often it’s much cheaper than you would expect, and you’ll be surprised at what you learn by hanging with experienced pros.
I come back to my earlier point - great songs are rare. They change the world, they change lives and they start careers. That has got to be worth that little bit more effort hasn’t it?
If songwriting is an important part of your life, remember you can study a flexible BA (Hons) or Master's Degree course with a focus on composition and production at WaterBear the College of Music, Brighton.
- ‘Water bear’ is the common name for a Tardigrade.
- Tardigrades are micro creatures, found everywhere on earth.
- They are the most resilient creatures known.
- They can survive and adapt to their surroundings, even in outer space.
- Their resilience and ability to adapt and survive inspires us in everything we do. We love them.