What's the Frequency Kenneth?

audio audio engineer audio eq critical listening learn frequencies mixing music Feb 01, 2021

If you're old enough to remember, that was the name of a song from the band R.E.M. in the mid 1990s.  What's the frequency is also a question that a lot of sound engineers and musicians struggle with.

One of the things that can wreak havoc with a live performance is feedback.  I'm sure many of you can relate... have you ever struggled to get the vocal over insanely loud stage volume and found yourself dodging feedback bullets left and right?  While you search frantically with the EQ to figure out which frequency it is, the audience and band are glaring at you. It's not a pleasant situation to be in.


When you can’t identify frequencies it can be very difficult to get things to sound the way you want them to.


For example, how to make muddy sounding vocals really shine and pop in the mix.  How to mix so you can hear all of the instruments without them interfering with each other.  How to EQ the PA system to work with the room acoustics.


The one thing that can take care of all of that is EQ.


But what if you have no idea where to start with EQ?  You might be making all kinds of adjustments to the EQ but you still can’t seem to get the results you want.


The trick to using EQ to create great sounds and mixes is being able to hear and recognize frequencies.


Many people struggle to learn frequencies and have a difficult time committing them to memory.  There are a variety of frequency trainer apps that you can use with your smart phone to learn frequencies, but not everyone has success with this.  One problem is that most people try to memorize frequencies instead of actually learning them.  Trying to memorize the tones from these apps can be difficult when you have nothing tangible to relate them to. 

A 400Hz pure tone sounds very different from 400Hz in an acoustic guitar or a drum.  It might be easy to pick out an 800Hz tone in the app but can you tell if the mix is too heavy in 800Hz?


The key... (see what I did there?) to learning frequencies is training your ears in Critical Listening. 


When you can identify frequencies you’ll be able to:

  •  use EQ effortlessly
  •  eliminate feedback in live performances
  •  get the best sounds from your instrument
  •  create professional quality mixes
  •  improve the stage sound


One way to start learning frequencies is by using iTunes or the PC equivelent.  While in iTunes, open up the Equalizer (under 'window' in the itunes menu bar) and play one of your favorite songs, something you've listented to a lot.  While listening, select a frequency on the EQ and adjust the sliders up or down while you listen to how that frequency affects the mix.  Listen to what it sounds like when you boost 500Hz and then when you cut 500Hz.  Then try another frequency.  

This is just one way to practice critical listening and learning frequencies.

Learning how to listen critically will open up the world of mixing and change the way you hear music.  You’ll not only know what a kick drum should sound like, you’ll know how to make it sound that way. You’ll  know how to re-create what you hear in your reference mix and how to make your live mix sound like the record.   

Critical listening can be done anywhere.  The more you do it the easier it becomes and once you get the hang of it, your mixes will really start to improve.


Spend some time listening today.




 By: Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato

For more info on learning critical listening and frequencies, check out LISTEN!