Last-Minute Panic Guitar Fixes
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
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:
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
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.