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Shape Your Tone with Creative EQ Tweaks

February 18, 2011


There are two primary ways to use EQ when mixing. Creative equalization is perfect for those times when you want to add a little attitude to a track or make it more stylistically appropriate than when it was recorded. Corrective EQ, on the other hand, comes into play when you need to adjust the timbre of an instrument so it sits well in a mix.

Of course, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Often, you end up doing a little of both when you mix.

All Your Bass are Belong to Us
Because the bass has a major influence on the feel of a song, you’ll sometimes want to modify the character of a recorded performance once the song has developed. EQ, whether as a plugin or on a hardware mixer’s channel strip, can help you sculpt a bass tone that better fits the style and mood of your tune. (If you’re mixing with an analog mixer, it’s helpful to have high and low shelving, as well as a sweepable midrange band or two.)

It’s a given that no amount of equalization will alter a bassist’s technique, style, and musicality. Nor can you make a fretted bass sound fretless. But if you know the sound you’re looking for, you can move your track closer to it once you understand which frequencies to boost or cut. From there, you use your ears and fine-tune the levels.

Here are a few tips for achieving some classic bass sounds.

Up-Front and Rockin’
Looking for that in-your-face sound of John Entwistle and Chris Squire? When you want a note-y bass line to cut through a mix, it’s all about boosting the mids and cutting the lows. Start by adding 6 to 9dB in the upper midrange, and then sweep the frequency control between 1 and 2kHz to heighten the attack. Then, cut the low end by 6dB at 200Hz. You can further enhance the piano-like sound of the bass by cutting an additional 2 or 3dB at 80Hz.

A Little Bit Country
Accentuating the twang in a bass track starts by reducing the mud with a 6dB cut around 200 to 250Hz, then adding 6dB at 1kHz. Next, boost 80Hz by 1 or 2dB to inject some heft into the tone.

R&B Stylings
You don’t need to use decades-old bass strings to get the classic sound of Motown’s James Jamerson. The following EQ curve will help you keep the bass well out of the way of the midrange instruments, such as horns, piano, and guitar: Begin by cutting the upper frequencies—1 to 2dB at 1kHz, and 6 or more decibels at 12 or 18kHz. Next, add 3dB at 200Hz and a decibel or two at 80 to 100Hz. (If you boost the lowest frequencies a little more, you’ll get a sound that works well in a reggae context.)

Looking for that Stax/Volt sound? Instead of cutting at 1kHz, remove 6 or more dB at 5kHz to retain a bit of punchiness in the bass.

Beatle Tone
Although Paul McCartney’s sound evolved over the years, his tone on both the Hofner and Rickenbacker was always round and fat, with a strong attack and solid low-mids. To re-create this sound, add 2 or 3dB at 80 or 100Hz (whichever makes sense with the instrument in your track). If the bass part wasn’t played with a pick, you can add some punch and string clarity by boosting 3kHz by 3 to 6dB. Then, cut 6dB in the 12 to 18kHz range using a high-shelving EQ to smooth out the sound. (If you’re working with an analog mixer that has only a 10kHz shelving EQ, make a less-dramatic cut so you don’t dull the sound too much.)

For a slightly warmer sound, start with a small boost around 80Hz, and then add about 6dB at 500Hz. If you have a 4-band EQ with two sweepable mids, try lowering 300Hz by 3dB to remove any hollowness in the sound, and then cutting 6dB at 12kHz. The combined boosts and cuts in both scenarios give you an authoritative tone that’ll drive rock and blues tracks while being smooth enough to support a ballad.

Fretless Jazz
If you’re looking to recreate the hornlike tone that made Jaco Pastorius famous, you’ll want to reduce the low mids while boosting the midrange. To really nail that sound, you’ll need to record a fretless bass played with the fingers (though the following EQ suggestions will give even a fretted instrument the right attitude). Begin with a 6dB or more boost at 1kHz to add some honk to the sound. Then, cut as much as 9dB at 200Hz. Finally, reduce the high frequencies a decibel or two and boost the low end to taste. To approximate the tone that bassist Marcus Miller gets, make your cut at 800Hz rather than 200Hz.

Compress to Impress
Once you’ve dialed in the EQ you want, you can give your new bass sound a smooth, legato feel with your favorite compressor. Depending on the bass part, set the compression ratio from 3:1 to 6:1, with a threshold level 2 to 9dB below the peak. Start with a fast attack and a moderate to slow release. After a note’s initial attack, you’ll get an increase in gain with a syrupy sustain. To modify the length and behavior of the sustain, adjust the threshold and attack-time controls.

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