Essential Skills for MusiciansOct 17, 2022
Photo by Ben Collins on Unsplash
I was recently asked, 'How important is it for musicians to understand frequencies and EQ?’
For anyone working in music- whether you are writing, performing, producing, or mixing, recognizing and understanding frequencies in audio and music production is a vital skill.
Every sound we hear is made up of frequencies.
Music is sound and at its core, every sound is made up of frequencies. For example, the middle A on the Piano is 440Hz.
Sound is the product of a wave, which is produced when something vibrates like when you strike a drum, pluck a guitar string, or when your breath vibrates your vocal cords to produce speech or singing. The vibrations travel through the air at various speeds, and when they come in contact with our eardrums they are perceived as sounds.
The speed at which they travel is their frequency and the frequency of the vibration over a period of time determines the pitch of the sound. Hertz, abbreviated (Hz), is the unit of measurement used to describe the number of complete cycles of the sound wave over one second.
All objects produce sound waves at different frequencies.
Low-frequency waves are longer, they travel more slowly than high-frequency waves.
Low-frequency waves are perceived as bass tones, and high-frequency waves are perceived as treble tones.
High frequencies are more directional and can travel further than low frequencies before they disperse.
Humans can hear frequencies ranging from 20-20,000 Hz, the higher the frequency, the higher the pitch. The intensity or amplitude of the wave determines how loud it is.
Frequency and amplitude give us both pitch and loudness.
Why do I need to know about frequencies?
Understanding frequencies and the frequency ranges of different instruments, voices, and sounds, and how they interact with each other is vital in music production.
When you are writing and arranging a song, choosing the instruments for that song, the tones of the instruments, and what is playing in various parts of the song, what range the instruments are in, etc., all of this is about frequencies and is the key to making a song sound professional versus amateur.
The best composers, arrangers, songwriters, and producers understand that they need to leave space in the frequency spectrum for each individual instrument and vocal in the song. Doing so results in a mix that sounds huge and like a hit as opposed to small and like a demo. Sound engineers create space in cluttered mixes by manipulating frequencies.
Knowing what frequencies do and how they work in the mix will help you understand why certain sounds might not fit together.
-It gives you the ability to hear the difference between various instruments, so you can identify issues with the sounds that are coming from specific instruments rather than just thinking there's a problem with your overall mixing process.
-If something sounds off, being able to go to the source and locate the problem frequency will help you fix it much more efficiently than just trying different things at random.
-Understanding frequencies makes it easier to create a balanced mix.
-If you are a guitar player, knowing frequencies and EQ is what helps you dial in an appropriate guitar tone.
-If you’re a drummer, putting a little thought into what’s going on with the other instruments and vocals and where they are in the frequency spectrum, will allow you to put together a drum kit that fits instead of competes with everything else. Lead vocals and snare drums are often competing with each other for the same space. The best drummers know that if they want their snare drum to be heard they need to tune it to a different frequency range than the vocal.
One other very important reason to know about frequencies is that it helps you make fast decisions about what to do with EQ. EQ is simply the manipulation of frequencies and is an important part of mixing in the studio and live shows. Properly applied EQ will create space in a crowded mix, and clean up problems like muddiness, and vocals not cutting through the mix, as well as feedback.
Knowing frequencies and EQ allows you to:
-Pull a band's sound together into something easy to mix, and easy to make sound great.
-Identify problem frequencies and address them quickly, which is very important when performing live. You need to be able to eliminate feedback so you aren't stuck in a screeching mess for an entire show.
-Have better sounding live shows by EQ'ing the sound system and stage monitors. If you are a singer and you can’t hear your voice in the monitors because it’s too muddy, you will get much better results when you can identify the specific frequency that needs to be adjusted. For example, ask the sound engineer to take some 315Hz out of the EQ on your mix rather than telling them it just sounds bad.
When you understand frequencies, you can communicate better and suddenly your voice is crystal clear, much easier to hear, and now your performance is better.
These are just a few reasons why musicians should understand frequencies and EQ. Even if you don't have any experience with EQ, knowing about frequencies will help you understand why certain sounds might not fit together well and how to fix them quickly.
Audio and music production is all about frequencies—and you need to understand them to create your best mix. It will make a huge difference in your work, whether you're producing and mixing in a studio or doing live sound.
By: Michelle Sabolchick