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Last-Minute Panic Guitar Fixes

December 1, 2010

By Kent Carmical

How can it have gone so sideways? We’ve recorded tracks to the best of our abilities and gear—pushing man and mail-order recording equipment beyond all limitations, and now when it comes time to mix, the guitars sound wretched. They’re stepping all over other instruments, and when they’re not doing that, they just sound plain weak! What happened? It all sounded so good while tracking. . . . Was the room funky? Is the gear lame? Too late to answer those questions—that train has passed. Whatever the reason, you can’t rerecord, because the band is long gone. Take a moment. Panic, drink, or drop to your knees in prayer— whatever you need to get your wits back—you’re going to need ’em, Boyo, because guitar-track EQ surgery requires a sharp mind and steady hand.

EQ Giveth, and it Taketh Away
When tweaking EQ, the long-held opinion is to boost less and cut more. Human ears can hear a boost easier than a cut, but that just makes things worse if you boost the wrong frequencies. (A bit of psychoacoustic knowledge for the brain: A 6dB boost is about as apparent as a 9dB reduction.) Try not to get sucked into the vortex of endless EQ twiddling endlessly. If a slight adjustment doesn’t do the trick, chances are extreme ones won’t either, but as always, experimentation is encouraged.

A Fine Line Between Boomy and Full: 100–200Hz
This is a tricky range to mess with, and you can easily make your track sound like sonic sludge, so when tweaking, take small steps instead of giant leaps. Also, listen to your settings at low and high volumes, soloed as well as in the mix. You need to find a nice middle ground, because this frequency range’s perceived volume differs greatly depending on playback volume.

Boost 100Hz 1–2dB to add “fatness” or “fullness” to incredibly thin-sounding guitars. Cut 100Hz 1–3dB to remove boom on guitars and increase clarity in relation to the bass track. Boosting 200Hz can help even out the guitar sound if some notes are jumping out, while others sound dead. If all the notes seem to disappear into an indistinguishable mess, cut 100Hz 2–3dB and boost 200Hz 1–2dB.

Tweak Outside the Box: 800Hz
Resist the urge to boost this frequency; it generally makes a crummy guitar sound even crummier. However, if your acoustic guitar track sounds like elves replaced your beautiful Martin with a cigar box, cutting 800Hz 2–3dB can help restore the impression that you actually tracked with a quality instrument.

Sharpen Up: 1.5kHz
Boost 1–2dB to enhance the attack on rhythm guitars; this is especially effective on open chords. Cutting 1.5kHz 2dB helps if the guitar track sounds dull and lifeless.

Hit ’Em Where They Live: 3kHz
This is a very important frequency for guitar because most of the attack and “distinction” lives here. Boost this frequency 1–3dB to enhance projection, but be careful, because too much boost can cause “listening fatigue.” Cutting a couple of dB in the 3kHz range will pull an in-your-face guitar back a bit and allow other midrange instruments to be heard.

If multiple guitar tracks all have an identical tone, carve out some individuality by applying 2–3dB of boost of 3kHz on one, and 4kHz on the other, and 2kHz on a third. As an alternative, try cutting these same frequencies.

If boosting 3kHz doesn’t give enough attack, especially on acoustic, 2dB of boost at 5kHz should do the trick. But overdo it on the 5kHz and it’s Shrillsville for the ears. Distorted electric guitar also benefits from a 5kHz boost of 1dB, especially if grind is the sound you crave. Giving a lead guitar track a 2dB boost can make the notes more distinct and crunchy. Cut 5kHz 2–3dB to soften out a thin- or shrill-sounding guitar track.

Close to the Edge: 7kHz
If your guitar track sounds like a wet blanket, a slight boost of 1–2dB at 7kHz will add sharpness and bring the track more into focus. Cut 2–3dB if the track has so much edge that your ears want to secede from your head.

A Brilliant Sheen: 10kHz and beyond
If the track is lacking brilliance and clarity, a quick 3dB boost at 10kHz can really bring out the ka-ching in acoustic and electric guitars, but too much will make the high end sound heavy and offensive to the ears. Start reducing 10–15kHz 1dB at a time if the extreme high end sounds out of whack.

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