EQJim asks,

I’m planning on ordering your Understanding EQ package. I was just wondering something about EQ in recording. Could you please explain why we have to EQ instruments in a recording? If we see a live performance without sound reinforcement there is no frequency manipulation. Why is it so different from recording and what we hear out of speakers? Is it an issue of sonic space?

This is a REALLY good question.

Why is it that I can listen to musicians playing in front of me and it sounds fine, then when I record them I have to do all this manipulation to get them to fit well together?

The problem is fairly simple, and yet it causes all sorts of trouble. So what’s the problem?

Recording isn’t natural.

When you’re sitting in front of a bunch of musicians playing in a room, you’re not thinking about how to deal with the muddyness you’re hearing. 🙂 You simply listen.

The combination of good musicianship (knowing how to get a good tone from one’s instrument) and your ears makes for a pleasant experience.

You don’t need to EQ your ears.

Sadly, once you stick a mic in front of all the instruments, things start to change.

For one thing, when you record a single instrument, you’re usually placing the microphone fairly close (within a few feet) of the instrument. If you put it too far away, you pick up too much room sound. Multiply that by how many instruments/tracks you need to record, and that’s a lot of extra noise you don’t want.

Also, with the mics so close, they hear the instrument differently than you would hear them from across the room. It’s a cleaner sound, but it’s not as “natural.” We don’t listen to guitar amps from 1 inch away normally. 🙂

That adds to the unnatural nature of recording. Things like proximity effect come into play. That guitar amp may not sound very bass-heavy, but when you slap a mic 1 inch from the speaker it picks up a lot of extra low end.

That’s just one example of the “unnatural” things that happen when you multi-track record musicians.

There’s nothing wrong with it. But you need to be aware that all those somewhat “unnatural” recordings don’t tend to blend together well.

Enter EQ.

Everybody’s sitting on top of each other. EQ lets you separate them, give them each their own “spot” in the mix…making everything sound “natural” again.

When you think of EQ this way, it helps you make decisions in context of the entire mix, rather than trying to make each instrument sound awesome by itself.

What matters is how they all “play together” in the mix. Take something away from one track to make room for another.

To learn how to use EQ (and a fun technique for training your ears), check out:


P.S. Don’t assume that mic placement doesn’t matter. The best EQ I’ve ever used is called a microphone. Move the mic around. THAT’S how you get the sound you need in the mix. Sure, you’ll still need to use EQ, but you’ll have a lot easier time if you first EQ with the microphone.

6 Responses to “Why EQ is Unnatural”

  1. Jorge

    Very interesting thread. I think there are several questions involved. First is why instruments need to be tracked separately and the answer could be because it gives you the most freedom to combine them in a creative process called mixing that, as a matter of fact, is separated from natural either because perfect gear does not exist to reproduce exactly the original experience, or because you want to create something ‘even better than the real thing’. With this we could conclude that ‘single tracking is needed’. Having said that, the second question is why some factor, like the room sound by example, contributes to a pleasant experience during a single instrument live performance but become ‘too much’ when is recorded from a mic placed sticked to my ear. The only answer I can imagine is that this is because the recording-reproduction process is far from perfect to reproduce the acoustic phenomena.

  2. Xan

    I had an interesting experience with EQ yesterday. I have just finished mastering the new Beltane album and this time round.

    I didn’t have the usual issue ov bottom end build up & with that things getting “flubby” (looks like I nailed that one this time!). Instead it’s gone the other way instead – too bright.

    And this is where the fun really begins cause reducing brightness and making things thicker is a hell ov a lot easier, and possibly more satisfying too. Quite often I like to use stuff that is actually no EQ to do subtle EQing, and this is a great chance for that.

    For instance a compressor with a “warm/smooth” switch set to smooth will kill a little top end. In fact compressors do anyway so you can use this to your advantage.

    I also used a tape simulator plugin. Good fun if the mix is bright enough, if your dealing with cleaning up mud or “flub” it’s the last thing you want.

    But I think the most interesting thing I did was process one track by recording it onto Chrome Cassette – yes cassette!! – and then back to digital. I didn’t use dolby, I wanted to loose as much top end as the process would give. I didn’t attempt to super saturate the levels as I was not looking for tape saturation. (Which btw does not work with cassette – you overload the pre’s in the machine long before you get a hot-to-tape level).

    It did the trick for that song nicely. If I had needed more cut perhaps I would have tried a ferric tape instead ov a chrome, but the amount was ideal.

    It’s a fun thing to try. 🙂

  3. boris

    nice article ! may I add the Headroom phenomenon. in the “real” natural world , headroom doesn’t exist really. our ears don’t reach a odb max threshold . a sound can be as loud as possible , and a second can come and even cover this first one without any problem and so on. accumulation is not an issue, so different sounds don’t really fight for space, as they’ ve got as much space as they want…the human ear doesn’t distort sounds and loudness isn’t an issue. unless two instruments sounds and play exactly the same sound at the same time , the human ear is very good at discerning very small variations between them both, in a natural environment.
    eq, compression are tools that really come to play an important role when you need to fit a lot of sounds in one “box” ( recording sounds with a max of 0db ) and headroom becomes your first problem. now that there is a maximum, and the “natural” space is lost , the human ear is too good not to realise the “cheating” all those parameters. we then need to compensate with eq ,dynamic, space.
    I don’t know if I am clear enough and I apologies as english is not my first language.

  4. Hector Del Curto

    For the kind of music I play and record the goal is to get the most “natural sound” possible and at the same time recreate a room that we wouldn’t be able to afford which will have the acoustic quality that we want (example a concert hall). So, for the first part which is getting a “natural sound” from the instruments we choose the microphones and preamp that will be capable of capturing the frequencies of that particular instrument. Even if I paid top dollars for the equipment there will always be an amount of coloration, therefore I try to approximate the color to the “natural sound with the help of EQ. for the room I use a combination reverb and delay, which also ads coloration, and also the coloration that the room I record in ads to it. Also EQ will play a role in adjusting this colors. The better the choice of equipment, room and mic placement the least amount of EQ I will use.
    Now, and here is my question. We use left and right for panning and also cut low frequencies to place the sound on the top or cut high frequencies to place the sound on the bottom (roughly). With the invention of surrounding now is possible to place sounds horizontally as well as vertically, so have you ever mixed or thought about mixing in surround?what are the major differences when you do it in terms of EQ for sound placement? Also,what do the market says about surrounding? Should we move in that direction? Thanks,



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