Playing with your EQ
Finally, the fun part! Now that you’ve got a grip on what your EQ does, it’s time to start playing around with making adjustments. Go ahead and start playing some music that you are really familiar with, pull up your EQ, and move some sliders up or down to hear in action what you’ve been reading about. You’ll soon find out that small adjustments can have a pretty wild effect on how things sound. Below, we’ll give some direction on how to approach things.
Almost any pro sound engineer will tell you the first thing you want to try with EQ is to decrease the level of a frequency, rather than increase others around it. Expanding too many frequencies can make the music sound muddled, and with a little shift here and there, you can subtract a bit of the irksome sound and get closer to what you’re looking for. That’s not to say an increase in a frequency range isn’t necessary at times, but you should always start with subtraction. Remember, too, that any change in EQ will not only affect the frequency range you’ve chosen, but also how the rest of the frequencies interact with each other.
You may notice that it takes a moment after making an adjustment to hear the result. This is normal. It’s also normal that you may have to boost the overall volume after reducing any frequencies. For instance, if you want more bass and treble in general, you can pull down some of the midrange sliders, then boost the volume a bit and see what you think of the result. Not exactly right? Then it’s time to get more targeted with your adjustments, and for that, you’ll need to know what each frequency sounds like. We’ve got a guide for you at the end of this article that spells things out pretty nicely.
What about EQ presets?
EQ presets like “Rock” and “Jazz” are a quick-and-dirty way to get to a different kind of sound without a ton of effort. While these probably won’t give you the exact sound you’re looking for, they can be handy for getting you started. You might want to start with a preset, then customize it until it is just right. Some equalizers, such as the one built into iTunes, will actually show you what the frequency curve looks like when you select a preset. This can help you understand what different EQ settings can do for you.
Parametric EQs are tricky, involved, and not for the faint of heart or inexperienced user. They’re generally reserved for recording/mixing, but they do show up in apps for speakers or headphones from time to time. Using a parametric EQ involves targeting frequencies with a band of around five to seven movable control points set along the happy 20Hz to 20kHz frequency spectrum mentioned above. Each of the points is visualized along the X/Y axis; the vertical plane represents loudness (in decibels), the horizontal is for frequency. In the digital realm, a parametric EQ looks a bit like the old arcade game Galaga, with the moveable EQ points acting like your cannon. (Luckily, there are no descending aliens.) With us so far?
“Q” — it’s not just the Star Trek guy
Each of those EQ points is fitted with three controllable parameters: Primary frequency, gain or boost of the frequency, and bandwidth of the frequency, also referred to here as “Q.” We’ll start with the simplest and work our way up.
Primary frequency is, quite simply, the actual frequency you’re affecting. Normally, you’ll find whichever EQ point is closest to the frequency you want to boost or reduce, and then simply move it to the exact spot you’d like for the desired effect. Turning the boost or gain knob up or down determines how much you are boosting (or reducing) your chosen frequency in decibels.
Bandwidth, or Q, is the most technically challenging parameter to understand, but it’s actually quite simple in practice. (Technically, bandwidth and Q are defined differently in the wider scheme, but for our purposes, they may as well be one and the same.) In the simplest terms, Q (as we’ll refer to it from here out) reflects how wide the swath of the frequency spectrum you’ll be affecting is. A wider Q affects a wider swath of frequencies, a narrower one offers more focused equalization.
When you turn the Q knob, you can see your frequency point swell or shrink. Narrower Q is great for boosting or reducing a very specific frequency — this is what you’d use when trying to eliminate an unwanted resonance, for instance. Conversely, a wider Q affects a greater amount of frequencies — usually as much as 10Hz above and below — making it more like a hatchet, versus a scalpel. That said, the primary frequency is always the most highly affected. Generally, a narrower Q is best for cutting frequencies and a wider Q is better for boosting, but there are no hard-and-fast rules.
Shelf or Notch?
In addition (see, we told you it’s involved), some EQ points in a parametric equalizer can be switched from Notch (the default for most control points) to Shelf. Shelf essentially eliminates all frequencies below or above the point you select, sort of like a frequency cliff. As such, Shelf is reserved for the lowest and highest control points on your equalizer.
In practice, Shelf allows you to set a point, say, on the low end of your EQ in which only frequencies higher than that point can pass through it (that’s called a high-pass filter). You can also set a point on the high end in which only frequencies below your selected point can pass through (a low-pass filter). Confusing, right? It may help to just think of it like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings stabbing his staff at the Shelf EQ point. For the high-pass filter, Gandalf stops the bass from getting through: “Bass shall not pass!” For the low-pass filter at the other end, he stops all frequencies above your selected point from getting through: “Treble shall not pass!”
It’s highly involved, but the best way to learn is to simply experiment. The freedom allotted by a parametric EQ is extremely useful in certain situations, letting you totally customize your equalization and your sound.
Hands-off headphone EQ
Now that your head is likely spinning with the complexities of parametric EQ, we wanted to finally discuss a new software product that is getting a lot of buzz called True-Fi from Sonarworks. Sonarworks’ studio sound-processing engine is already in use in more than 20,000 recording studios, and more recently, the company has branched into headphones.
Like Sonarworks’ studio software, True-Fi is designed to adjust for any frequency dips and peaks in your headphones’ sound signature to create flatter, more linear sound reproduction. Custom-designed to each pair of headphones, True-Fi is always updating its bank of supported headphones, set up to work with more than 280 different models at time of publication from a wide variety of name-brand headphone makers. While it’s mostly hands-off, you can adjust the settings to a degree, including bass control and even adjust for your age to account for hearing loss.
We want to stress that we generally still prefer to tailor our own EQ by hand, but we’ve also been thoroughly impressed with True-Fi in practice, and for those looking to simply set it and forget it, this is a viable option for your headphones.