EQ: Separating The Problems

You have to know what you’re solving if you want to solve a problem effectively.

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There’s a private area on Facebook for “musicpreneurs” to hang out in. I’ve been trying to get more involved, so I’ve asked people to pose their sonic quandaries to me. One person was asking how to set up their system so as to get a certain, desired tone from their instrument.

I won’t rehash the whole answer here, but I will definitely tell you the key to my answer: Separate your problems. Figure out which “domain” a particular issue resides in, and then work within that area to find a solution.

That’s a statement that you can definitely generalize, but the particular discussion was mostly in the context of equalization. Equalization of live-audio signal chains seems to invite unfocused flailing at least as much as anything else. Somebody gets into a jam (not a jam session, but rather a difficult situation), and they start tweaking every tonal control they can get their hands on. Several minutes later, they’ve solved and unsolved several different problems, and might be happy with some part of their fix. Of course, they may have broken something else in the process.

If you’re like me, you’d prefer not to do that.

Not doing that involves being very clear about where your problem actually is.

Lots of people use the “wrong” EQ to address a perceived shortcoming with their sound. I think I’ve mentioned before that a place to find this kind of approach is with vocal processors. I’ve encountered more than person who, as far as I could tell, was trying to fix a PA system through the processing of an individual channel. That is, at a regular gig or rehearsal, they were faced with a system that exhibited poor tonality. For instance, for whatever reason, they might have felt that the PA lacked in high-end crispness.

So, they reach down to their processor, and throw a truckload of high-frequency boost onto their voice. Problem solved!

Except they just solved the problem everywhere, even if the problem doesn’t exist everywhere. They plug that vocal processor into a rig which has been nicely tuned, and now their voice is a raspy, irritating, sand-paper-esque noise that’s constantly on the verge of hard feedback.

They used channel-specific processing to manage a system-level problem, and the result was a channel that only works with one system – or a system with one channel that sounds right, while everything else is still a mess. They found a fix, but the fix was in the wrong domain.

The converse case of this is also common. An engineer gets into a bind when listening to a channel or two, and reaches for the EQ across the main speakers. Well, no problem…except that any new solution has now been applied to EVERYTHING running through the mains. That might be helpful, or it might mean that a whole new hole has just been dug. If the PA is well-tuned, then the problem isn’t the PA. Rather, the thing to solve is specific to a channel or group of channels, and should be addressed there if possible.

If you find yourself gunning the bottom end on every channel of your console, you’d be better served by changing the main EQ instead. If everything sounds fine except for one channel, leave the main processing alone and build a fix specific to your problem-child.

Obviously, there are “heat of the moment” situations where you just have to grab-n-go. At the same time, taking a minute to figure out which bridge actually has the troll living under it is a big help. Find the actual offender, correct that offender, leave everything else alone, and get better results overall.