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Frequency Consciousness: Avoiding a Muddy Mix

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    Frequency Consciousness Avoiding a Muddy Mix Music Production DMVFrequency Consciousness – It is not a new yoga fad, though it should be. How often have you felt like a live mix seemed muddy? Had trouble hearing the bass over your guitar? Or the kick drum? You don’t want a muddy mix, and there are good technical reasons it is a particular problem for modern rock music.

    Below we will consider how to be more frequency conscious. Then after you read this you can think of a better phrase than ‘frequency conscious’ but I think we can all agree it sucks.

    The basic reason that rock music often suffers from muddy mixes is that it tends to use instruments that all live close together in frequency range. A place like BlueRoom Studios has a lot of tools to fix a crowded mix – from the obvious EQ and panning to the esoteric ducking or side-chain compression. But here, I hope to help you think about how you will arrange and tweak your gear before you head to into a studio to avoid a muddy mix. Those tools are still very useful, but your best mix is one that starts with a frequency conscious arrangement and get more subtle tweaks in the mix.

    Dynamic Range

    To understand the context that your frequencies will fit onto a recording, first think about dynamic range. Maybe you are a guitar player and are already thinking, “Yeah Mr. Sinner is just gonna tell me to turn down my bass. Soundman/woman keeps telling me that.” Well, 90% of the time I see live bands it is a problem, yes, the bass frequencies of the guitar are covering up the bass guitar or keys. So yes I probably would tell you that.

    The more sophisticated answer however takes into account dynamic range. When you record, what you put into the box will be compressed. The loudest bits will be pushed down. It will often be compressed dramatically and with modern tools, this will not even be obvious. Without getting into more complicated physics explanations, this should tell you that you have much more dynamic range to work with live. There is more room for those bassy parts of your guitar signal. The issue is that guitar players should turn the bass knob down 2 or so notches live and 4 notches for recording, but we will come back to that.

    Bottom line, you have less dynamic range to work with on a recording so how much your frequencies are fighting for space makes a more dramatic difference.

    The Fundamentals

    Another key concept is note fundamentals versus harmonics. In the figure below, I played the same note, a low E, on bass and guitar, direct to the computer. I ran them through Amplitube’s Fender Bassman, a good test for this since that is a bass amp though guitar players have actually used it more. This is a quite clean amp and the sound on the left was a mild jazzy sound.

    Avoiding a Muddy Mix DMV Music Production Recording Studio DC Maryland Virginia

    Figure 1

    The ‘fundamental’ frequency, the lowest resonance, of the Es here are – guitar, 82 Hz and bass, 41 Hz, indicated by the yellow lines on the left panels. This is is what we refer to casually as the ‘note.’ Yet you can see even this one string produces sound across a wide spectrum.

    When we add a distortion pedal, here a boutique Boss DS-1 clone[1], you can see a new crop of upper frequencies. The green lines are in the same place for reference.This would be true, all other things being equal, when you add overdrive or distortion to your signal. Interestingly, this can cut both ways as far as frequency arrangement. If you look again at the figure, you will notice this pedal actually cut the fundamentals and the loudest points are now the second or third octaves up of each instrument.


    The Instruments

    All instruments have frequencies, we think of an ordered set of those as being notes, but percussion instruments have frequencies – but they are complex enough that it is hard to find the note.

    To elaborate on why you may not hear the bass over the guitar, or kick over the bass, beyond the mix levels, there is ‘masking’ – yes like the tape. One sound covers another up. The interesting thing about masking is that it is as much a perceptual thing as physical. The idiom “you could hear a pin drop” speaks to the perception of masking. In a sonic space with more than one thing hitting at the same time, even though the masked sound is quite loud, we lose awareness of it because of relative volumes. This effect is much greater when the frequencies are close together – the low bass notes are not going to cover up the hi hat.

    Those ideas in mind, lets look at how bunched up we are.

    Figure 2

    Low note/string (Hz) Highest typical note/string
    Bass 41 198 (12th fret of G)
    Bass Vox 82 329
    Guitar 82 659 (12th fret of E)
    Tenor Vox 131 523
    Soprano Vox 262 1047
    Keys Could be anywhere. Usually same as bass/guitar.

    These are the fundamentals, but thinking again about figure 1, most of your frequency content overlaps when you introduce harmonics.

    So what is a now frequency conscious person to do?

    There is no one-size fits all here, it depends on the type of music and the particular song. I will even temper my one specific point of advice above about turning the bass knob down on guitar with an example. Modern metal, which I am as guilty as the next of loving, is exemplified by a ‘scooped’ mid-range tone – think Pantera or Metallica. Contrast that with much of Slayer though, plenty of mid range on tap – still heavy.

    But again, with the caveat that things are song/style dependent, here are some specific techniques in arrangement and gear use that are underutilized:

    • Again, check that that awesome bass knob on 11 that sounds awesome (it does) on your guitar actually comes through when you’re on stage or recording demos/practice tracks.
    • Use the ‘Low Cut’ switch on your mixer. You may note it is usually at 75 or 80 Hz. Again, only the drums, bass, and keys should be down there.
    • If you are using a lot of delay or reverb, it may have a low cut. Chances are you will barely notice that is cut, even when cut dramatically, but can clean up the mix a lot.
    • If you’re gonna scoop the mids, scoop lower. The ‘mid’ knobs on guitar or bass amps really don’t follow much of a standard; I find mids that seem to peak from 300 to 1000Hz! If you have a low mid/high mid or a parametric EQ option, look again at figure 2, or look up whatever instrument you play. If you can cut low mids without sacrificing your tone, say 200 to 500 Hz, good. The sound engineer is going to cut them in the mix anyway.
    • Do you really need to be playing the root all the time if the bass player is?
    • When the vocals are in, switch your pickup setting or simply play closer to the neck for a less trebly tone that stomps all over the 1000+ Hz range we mostly hear consonants in.
    • Play quieter when other similar frequency parts are the focus. Some guitar players and drummer will need to read this twice – play quiet does not compute.
    • When on keys, you have the easiest time switching octaves, try it. If it doesn’t work, tell your bandmates to read this and get their heads out of the mud.
    • On drums, take a look at the frequency response of your kit with an analyzer. The one above in Figure 1 is by Melda and is free. A snappy kick beater side sound is often focused around 2000 Hz. Watch an analyzer live and see how widely different your cymbals and even drums can peak depending on where you hit them.

    [1]   Yes, cue laugh track. Haha!

    dsc04135-2-1Scott Sinner is a musician and recording engineer. He released his first album in junior high and has since appeared on over a dozen studio or live albums on vocals, guitar, bass, cello, accordion, banjo, keys, and drums. His music has ranged from banjo and accordion goth-rock to sludge metal. He is the singer and guitar player for Washington DC based Alternative-Rock band Foglings and they are currently recording a full-length album in his home studio ‘Multicellular Labs’.

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