When working in a studio environment, it’s important that communication between musicians, engineers, and producers is smooth and effective. However, each one may have their own way of describing what they’re hearing. This article should help clarify some of the more common studio lingo by tying words like ‘warm’ and ‘tinny’ to specific EQ ranges, as well as offering quick introductions to compression, reverb, and delay. This can help you understand how someone else is hearing the recording you’re working on and therefore how to alter it accordingly.
EQ, or equalization, is the process of increasing or decreasing the audible amount of chosen frequencies. For example, if something needs to sound ‘brighter,’ you can increase the higher frequencies; if something sounds too muddy, you can decrease the lower frequencies.
Here are some of the more common terms used to describe sound and how they generally relate to different frequencies:
- Muddy: Too much low mids or upper bass. Attenuate between 200 and 400Hz.
- Boxy: Too much midrange. Try attenuating the frequencies in the 400 to 1,000Hz range.
- Tinny: Too much upper mids or lower highs. Attenuate between 2-8kHz.
- Bright: Frequencies in the upper mid to lower high range. To make something more or less bright, adjust within the 3-15kHz range.
- Airy: Up to the highest frequencies that humans can hear; this range can become piercing and painful if it’s too loud. Between 12.5 and 20 kHz.
- Warm: Can mean less high end, or a boost in the low-mid range. To get a warmer sound, attenuate the 3-6 kHz range and/or raise the 250-450Hz range.
It’s important to make the point that you don’t want to use equalization as a quick fix. During tracking, many of the problems you may experience with the sound of your source could be related to the positioning or frequency response of the microphone, or even the source’s location within a room. While equalization is not a last resort, it should only be applied to enhance the sound or solve a problem once everything else in the recording chain has been addressed.
Here are some standard effects that are usually present in every mix:
Compression allows us to minimize transients, or quick bursts of sound pressure, which helps guard against unwanted clipping or distortion as you record. Compression is also commonly applied after recording, during the mixing process, to even out the level of a track. For example, if a drummer hits their snare much louder at some times than others, you can use a compressor to beef up the level of the softer hits so that they sound just as loud as the normal hits. When compressors are set to do a lot of reduction, you can hear the compression kick in to reduce a transient, which is described as a ‘pumping’ sound. Compression is usually considered the power behind the track.
Reverb is applied to give a fuller, spacious sound to recordings. Some reverbs can simulate the sound of an acoustic space, making it seem as though the recording was done in a different environment. A little reverb is commonly applied to many sources in a pop or rock mix. Too much reverb can give an underwater or buried sound, or make it seem as though a source is very distant.
Delay basically creates an echo effect. Technically, it really is just a ‘delay’ – the delay device takes input, holds onto it for an amount of time that you set, and then lets it out. Delays usually have a ‘feedback’ control that allows you to feed the delayed signal back into the delay device over and over again, so that you get repeating delayed signals. Sometimes this control is called ‘amount’ or ‘repeat.’ Using a little bit of delay on pop or rock vocals can subtly add interest or change the sound of the space they were recorded in, especially when used in conjunction with reverb.
Reverb and delay are usually considered the glue behind the track. They place the instruments in a space and contribute to the blending of the track. If a particular track or instrument is too in-your-face, try adding a bit of verb and delay.
All together, these are some of the most commonly used tools in pop and rock recording. Being able to communicate effectively about them, even with someone who has no engineering knowledge, makes you that much more powerful and efficient as an engineer.