So often when recording, the first thing many people tend to reach for when looking to shape a sound is an equalizer. Many times, this can be can be the perfect tool, but it's not your only option. A sure sign of amateur mixes is that they usually get "overcooked" with EQ, especially in the digital realm. This is something even experienced engineers, myself included, find themselves sliding into from time to time. So what other options do we have before we start turning knobs?
1. Play with mic placement
I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: proper mic technique and working on good mic placement practices can change your life. So often the "fix it in the mix" mentality reigns supreme and a mediocre mic placement is becoming more acceptable as a practice. One of my recording mentors prescribes an exercise in which you’re not allowed to use EQ or compression to mix a simple multitrack, using only faders and your mic placement to temper the sound. I've always found this to be a really eye-opening exercise, especially for the YouTube generation of engineers.
If you don’t believe this can make an appreciable difference, take nothing more than a simple dynamic mic and a guitar amp, and try to get a dozen different tones from the guitar setup by moving said mic around. By simply varying the proximity to the speaker cone, the distance to and from the amp, and the angle you place the mic at, you can shape the sound immensely with the smallest of adjustments.
Taking 10 minutes during the tracking phase of your project to find the best placement for whatever source you’re trying to capture can translate to saving hours on the backend chasing the sound you’ve been looking for. At a time when engineers seem to have more commitment issues than a high school senior’s dating life, working to get these sounds early on and committing to them seems to be a lost art.
2. Judge your sound by phasing
Any time you use multiple mics on a source – be it drums, a guitar cab, a cajon, literally anything – phase coherence is something you need to be aware of. While this is an important issue, and the results of an offset in phase is often undesirable, the obsession with phase is something that I would categorize along with a number of issues in recording that have become a bit of a "monster under the bed."
With the shift to working "in the box" in the recording industry, many people end up mixing more with their eyes than their ears, becoming obsessed with how sounds look on the screen rather than how they actually sound. Sure, it’s great when all the waveforms line up perfectly, and everything looks pretty on screen, but how does it sound?
Many of the records we revere and love were mixed without the incredibly detailed levels of metering and analysis we have available to us today, and many of them have technical imperfections that would make the skin crawl of those who mix in this overly academic manner. Piggybacking on the point of mic placement, use your ears in your multi-mic setups as well. If you’re getting the sound you want – even if it’s a result of less-than-perfect phase coherence – live with it! At the end of the day, no one is going to see what you did, only hear the final product.
3. Suppress with multi-band compression
While some people may argue that, in a way, multi-band compression is a type of EQ, the way it functions from a typical equalizer couldn't be more different. Most multi-band EQs allow you to set separate bands of the frequency spectrum and apply individual compressors onto only those bands. Using a multi-band compressor in place of EQ has become a practice I've been using more often in my own mixes as of late.
When you have a problematic frequency in a sound, it may only become problematic intermittently (certain words or phrases in a vocal, or maybe certain notes on a bass or guitar part). Reaching in to eliminate them with an EQ can sometimes be like using a hatchet to kill a fly.
When you EQ, you have to take an all-or-nothing approach unless you take the time to automate all your EQ moves. However, depending on the problem you’re chasing, automation can often be tedious at best and impossible at worst. Multi-band compression allows you to suppress or push back the offending issues without eliminating them completely. This can allow you to keep characteristics of a sound that may be desirable most of the time while ducking issues that stick out or become an issue for one reason or another.
Aaron Staniulis is not only a freelance live sound and recording engineer, but also an accomplished musician, singer, and songwriter. He has spent equal time on both sides of the microphone working for and playing alongside everyone from local bar cover bands to major label recording artists, in venues stretching from tens to tens of thousands of people. Having seen both sides at all levels gives him the perfect perspective for shedding light on the "Angry Sound Guy." You can find out more about what he’s up to at aaronstaniulis.com.