Welcome back to our studio tips series with house icon Ant LaRock. In this week's edition, he discusses EQ techniques, Reverb, and sampling. Have your own tips? Let us know.
Raise Wide, Cut Narrow
Within every DAW there is a wide array of tools, effects and plugins at your fingertips. You can program sounds on a software version of a 30 year old synthesizer, model it through an accurate emulation of a $10,000 limiting compressor and effect it with an all but extinct rotating speaker cabinet plugin…all from the comfort of your local coffee shop. Let’s forget about this opulence for a second and focus on your most accurate and effective tool for manipulating audio. It was probably the first effect you have ever used on any audio, whether it was your mom’s car stereo or your older brother’s boombox. That effect is Equalization or EQ.
Equalization is the process used to alter the frequency response of audio using linear filters or in simpler terms, boost or cut bass and treble frequencies. I don’t have to talk down to you, if you are reading this, you know about Equalization. Somehow, as much as we all know what EQing is, I very often see it misused. Clients will ask me to check out their projects and I often open them up to see a frequency boosted to the ceiling in some sharp resonant curve in order to hear the part of the audio spectrum that makes that audio element stand out in their song. Let’s take a Hi-hat for example. I often see Hi-hats boosted around the 10khz band with a very sharp spike and the inaudible part of the audio spectrum below 500hz is left untouched. The problem with this is that all of that unheard audio gets compounded, from the culmination of all of your individual channels, until your finished song sounds muddy and unpleasing.
Often when boosting the part of the audio spectrum that you want to hear more of, often times you will clip (or digitally distort) the audio signal. If you were making a salad and there were too many onions in it, you wouldn’t just keep adding tomatoes to try make it taste better, you would take out some onions. So here is my proposal, lets remove some of the audio spectrum that you do not want to hear instead of just adding more of what you want to hear. When you apply this technique, from drums to vocals, I assure you that when all of your audio elements combine to make your finished song, it will feel cleaner with more headroom for mixing and mastering.
I want to take this lesson a bit deeper for those readers I haven’t alienated with my analogies. Now that we are looking at Equalization from more of a subtractive approach, lets apply a technique that I learned long ago called “Raise Wide, Cut Narrow”. “Raising Wide” refers to boosting a certain part of the audio spectrum with your EQ. If you raise a certain frequency in your audio spectrum with a narrow or resonant curve, the end result is often times a displeasing, harsh and unnatural sound. What you have done is almost isolated a thin band of frequency that is often times overpowering and displeasing.
Adversely, if you raise a certain section of the audio spectrum with a wide, sweeping curve, you are much more likely to create a more natural and pleasing sound due to a broadened part of the spectrum being highlighted. Try this with both a narrow and wide curve and see for yourself the difference.
The opposite applies to “cutting narrow” where instead of a wide boosting of frequencies, we will cut a more precise and narrow band of audio from the audio spectrum. This approach to subtracting frequencies produces a more natural sound rather than reducing wide bands of the audio spectrum where you can virtually mute integral harmonics. Again, try this approach and see which approach feels more natural or pleasing to your ears. This “cut narrow” approach is particularly handy for very “surgical” methods of EQing to remove unwanted resonant elements in the mixdown process and it is one of my go-to tools for the mixing and mastering process. There will be many times where this approach may not be suitable but all in all, this simple technique, with the most rudimentary audio effect, will be key to a cleaner and fuller sound.
Reverb, not for everything
Often times I have flashbacks of being 15 years old, stoned in my friends basement, relentlessly playing guitar through a reverb, delay and distortion pedals, all cranked to 11. We love effects and it is probably a big component to why we love electronic music so much. For me, the manipulation of synthesizers and samples through effects, into something completely new, is a thrilling artform. Reverb is a commonly used effect to recreate the natural reflections of audio in a simulated space. Essentially, it is a series of small echoes that tricks your brain into thinking your snare drum is inside a cave or your vocal was recorded in a cathedral. We’ve all used it. Chances are, we’ve all over-used it. I remember using the Roland VS-1680 like twenty-something years ago and I had reverb on everything, I mean, EVERYTHING. That wasn’t the end of my reverb binges either.
Slowly over time I realized that all of these little tiny echoes were making my tracks sound messy so I asked myself what was I trying to achieve with this reverb effect? Well, I knew that I like the sense of space that it created and it added a lushness to instruments and samples. But the harm came when I had a lot of reverb on a lot of tracks. I was listening to a lot of my favorite records, the ones that had an instantaneous vibe to them and I had the epiphany that it was less about how many tracks the reverb was on but on WHICH tracks the reverb was on. You can have a completely “dry” or unaffected song and only have reverb on just a vocal and that one element, that one sound, could create all of the space and vibe that you were looking for.
In my productions today, I have gone from reverb on half of my drum tracks and all the synths to maybe a splash of reverb on a hi-hat and maybe a little on the clap…maybe. My productions have felt more vibey in doing so. I think a lot of electronic music producers will hear a DJ play music in a big, loud nightclub and want to recreate that experience in their studio at home. Let’s not forget that when your music will be played in a big, loud nightclub, it will naturally have that same reverb from the club so there is no need to create that at home. So choose your reverb wisely!
Should I sample this?
I get asked this question quite often; Should I sample? Here is a short answer, yes. I mainly DJ and produce House Music, the foundations of which are heavily rooted in sampling. Chopping up disco samples is one of my favorite things in the world to do. But there are a couple caveats to sampling, in my opinion. For the longest time, the goal with sampling was to mask or manipulate the sample enough that it would be virtually untraceable to listeners. Either we would use a simple “cut and paste” method or effects and filters to manipulate the sample and that still holds true today…most of the time. I’ve always heard very obvious sampling and I may be guilty of it myself as well but it is a great technique for getting a musical idea together quickly.
Now what I feel is not ok is taking an obvious loop, slapping a Loop Masters drum loop underneath it and calling it a track. Labels will not either. The amount of work a record label will have to endure just to clear a sample is insane and costly so that is a pretty easy “No” for them. So my advice here is to be creative and approach sampling in a clever way. If it's a good enough track and gets picked up, your label will manage the rest for you.