Doing the side by side comparison of your own recording next to one of your favorite pro recordings can be a humbling experience. Great engineers like the Bruce Swedien, Rich Breen, Bil VornDick, Al Schmitt, Michael Wagener, Joe Ferla and many others have years of experience (in addition to gobs of raw talent) that translate into great, knowledgeable, ears.
Now you get to have fun by mucking around with the work of the masters. Google any of the engineers above to find out the titles of some of their work. Now go out and buy a CD or two, or even download a file from iTunes or other music service, if you must (though mp3s just don’t have the resolution you really should have for this exercise).
Import a track into your DAW again and now insert a good parametric EQ into the channel. Now start messing with the track. Start by adding a low shelf boost of … say … 6 dB at a corner frequency of 150 Hz. Listen back and forth between the EQ’d and un-EQ’d track as you activate and deactivate the EQ. What happens to the feel of the tune? What about other frequencies? Do any other areas of the frequency spectrum change? What happens to the high end? What about the mids? Does it sound like anything has been added to these to frequency bands?
Now remove the shelving EQ and change the setting to “peak”. Set the “Q” to 0.7 and boost 6 dB at 350 Hz. Now what does the track sound like? Would you like some Mississippi with that mud pie? Now do the opposite and suck out 6 dB at 350. Thinner than a toothpick on the Atkins Diet? Do things sound brighter? What about the mood again?
Now continue the exercise at different frequencies. Try some honkiness between 500 Hz and 1kHz. Give yourself a buzz cut with a bunch of 3 kHz. Tone down some “essssssiness” at between 6 and 8 kHz depending on whether the vocalist is male or female. Add some extra “air” with a shelving boost at 12 kHz.
By now you should get the idea. Start with a great recording and learn what’s great about it by wrecking it with the gratuitous use of inappropriate EQ. If during your experimentation you notice the work of the masters starting to sound like your own recordings, you will know why — and what to look out for the next time your record and mix.
Note: This article appeared as part of a guest editorial in the January 2012 issue of Recording Magazine