Learn how to use dynamic equalizers to your advantage, as mixing engineer David Stagl shares his favorite tips and practical use examples that will help keep your mix under control.
By David Stagl
Which type of processing do you use the most when mixing? For me, it’s EQ. I use it more than anything else – and years of extensive EQ use have taught me a couple of things:
- I generally prefer the way things sound when I use the least amount of EQ possible. A fantastic source with the right microphone in the right position is always preferable to me. This way, if I'm using any EQ, it's minimal and is just there to make things play together a little nicer.
- Using a traditional EQ is often a compromise, because it is a static solution to what is often a dynamic problem.
So, what exactly does this mean?
Why dynamic EQ
A common issue I run into working in live environments, for example in churches, are vocalists whose signals are muddy in the verses when they sing low in their range, and harsh in the choruses when they sing high in their range. If I clean up all the mud with a traditional EQ to achieve my desired clarity in the verses, I end up with an even thinner and harsher vocal when we get to the choruses. If I tame the chorus’s harshness in the upper mids with that same traditional EQ, I end up back at my muddy vocal or worse during the remaining verses.
This example illustrates a challenge I see a lot of newer engineers struggle to wrap their heads around. Our perception of a sound is based on its entire footprint in the frequency spectrum. The reason it's called "EQ" is because it’s intended to ‘equalize’ the frequency balance of a sound. The inevitable trap many engineers fall into with an issue like this is to chase their tails cutting or boosting in each area, trying to fix problems that keep coming back. The problem is that the issue isn't static to begin with, so a static solution like a traditional EQ won't completely fix it. We might be able to find a compromise somewhere in the middle to get through the gig, but I know I rarely end up fully satisfied. That's just not good enough for me in 2018.
Fortunately, we have a great solution for dealing with this thanks to dynamic EQs like the F6 Floating-Band Dynamic EQ plugin. If you're familiar with the floating bands on the Waves C6 Multiband Compressor, the F6 essentially gives us 6 similar floating bands; and in this case, we can also use each band as a traditional EQ in addition to utilizing its dynamic abilities.
F6 Dynamic EQ tips
In the screen capture example below, with F6 on a vocal track, I would probably dial one of F6's filters somewhere in the 450–500 Hz range (or maybe a little lower depending on where things get muddy and cloudy in the room). Then I would adjust a second filter in the upper mids, probably in the 2–3 kHz range for harshness; I would employ the ‘solo’ feature on each band to home in directly on the problems, while being careful not to solo a band in the middle of an event with an audience in the room.
F6’s RTA (real-time analyzer) makes this kind of a common fix even easier to dial in. I like setting the RTA slope to ‘Pink’ with the display set as ‘Filled.’ Then I prefer to use either the ‘slow’ or ‘slowest’ averaging because it tends to clean up the measurement a bit. 1/12 banding also seems to work well for the width of filters I typically prefer. Then I look at the RTA for areas where there’s the most energy. For example, we can see a lot of energy in the 275-300 Hz region as well as around 600 Hz in this image of a live vocal during the verse of a song:
Setting a filter to each area followed by a quick ‘solo’ of the bands confirms that these regions could use a little work, and with each band in solo, I can quickly refine the frequency even further.
The two arrows beneath each of the main controls provide global adjustments for all bands; I use these to set a starting point with a ‘range’ of about -6 dB, an attack of 10 ms, and a release of around 100 ms on each band. I like starting the range around 6 dB because I don't usually need to be too aggressive, but I’m not afraid to go deeper when necessary.
A 10 ms attack is relatively fast, which helps clean up issues quickly – and starting around 10 ms can also let some transient information cut through, which may help in maintaining articulation in the upper mids. If I'm not quite taming the harsh stuff with this, I'll try dialing the attack faster.
A 100 ms release is not as fast as we can go, but I find it's typically a good place to start so things don't sound ‘compressed’ and low frequencies don't become distorted. If I hear unnatural pumping with the filter, I’ll usually slow the release down a bit to smooth things out. Setting the Global Release to ARC is another way to ensure the release is working right. Then I simply adjust the threshold on each filter until things are working to taste and my ears are happy.
Dynamic EQ on the mix buss and on vocal groups
Another place I like using the F6 is on my mix buss. Since our ears' frequency sensitivity isn't linear relative to loudness, things tend to get brighter as they increase in volume. It's not unusual for me to take advantage of the large dynamic range that live sound provides, but sometimes when things get louder, they skirt the edge of ‘hurt’ for a listener. So, I like to place a filter at about 2800 Hz with a Q of about 1.0 and adjust the threshold to smooth out any harshness as the mix gets loud. When the mix comes back down in level, the F6 releases.
I sometimes employ a similar tactic on a vocal buss if I have a lot of vocalists in the mix. In many of the churches I work with, it's not unusual to have four or more vocalists on stage with each taking turns leading at different times in the set. While each voice might work on its own, the cumulative effect of the gang sometimes induces more harshness in the mix. Once again, the F6 is a great solution for managing this by adjusting the threshold so it only works when the entire group is singing.
Sometimes you can set to enhance, not to suppress
F6 isn't just for taming harmful issues, though. For example, it's very common for me to employ a high shelf on the snare’s top mic to boost some presence and bring out the attack of the drum. A side effect of this with a heavy-handed drummer is that the hi-hat bleed in the mic often increases as well, and mic placement only goes so far in dealing with this. I can use the F6 to automate that shelf, though, by setting the range to a positive value in the amount of the boost I'd like to do. Then I can adjust the threshold so each snare hit triggers the boost.
These are just a few of the ways I like to utilize the F6 dynamic EQ. Next time you have a dynamic frequency problem, I suggest you reach for a dynamic tool.
Before you get back into the mix, be sure you're not making one of these common EQ mistakes!
Have any more dynamic EQ tips? Share them in the comments below.