Is there a "proper" way to use an equalizer?
October 2, 2004 6:02 PM   Subscribe

Do you use your equalizer? If so how and why? When playing back music I tend to raise the treble and bass extremes a bit only to find that it makes another album, or even another song by the same artist sound like crap. So then I reset everything back to zero for a while and go through the same process. Is there a "proper" way to use an equalizer?
posted by skallas to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Heh. The "proper" way is to get a white / pink noise generator and blast it out into the room while monitoring the returning frequency response on a high-resoultion spetrum analyser, then adjusting the equaliser frequencies so you get a flat-line sound energy response.

Clearly, this isn't what people do with them on their home stereos.

Therefore, just do whatever sounds good - and the high bass and treble and low mid-range is a pretty standard thing to do.

There's really only one caution when using a graphic equalizer - don't have bands next to each other with widely varying levels. Cheap equalizers can cause phase distortion, and effect that is accentuated if you have alternating bands cutting or boosting the signal by large amounts.
posted by Jimbob at 6:10 PM on October 2, 2004

Indeed, the use of a multiband (5-7 or more bands) equalizer is to compensate for crappy speakers and a crappy room.
posted by baylink at 8:34 PM on October 2, 2004

Also: Most software EQs are... not so good. It's much better to use your $500 receiver's EQ than it is the Windows 98 Sound Control Panel EQ.

In a home setting, I try to play a song I know inside and out that has a good range of sound, and is very, very clean. (Current choice: Nine Inch Nails - A Warm Place) Then, I play it at quiet, medium, and loud volumes, and find the EQ setting that makes it sound best.

Then I try not to mess with it.
posted by Jairus at 8:57 PM on October 2, 2004

Interesting. Could I expand the question to Winamp effects plugins like DFX and Enhancer? Apparently some people swear by them. I usually tweak some settings, forget about it, and later wonder where all that echo comes from.
posted by muckster at 9:30 PM on October 2, 2004

DFX is good if you're listening to your music quietly and/or you've got crappy speakers, and you want your music to sound like it's loud and/or not so crappy.

If you've got good speakers, and/or you want your music to sound as close to the recording as possible, then I wouldn't suggest using them.
posted by Jairus at 9:39 PM on October 2, 2004

I recommend two sound enhancement processes:

SRS (either straight SRS or their newer WOW technology) - very nice, natural-sounding 3D sound expansion

BBE - improves clarity of high end but in a different and better way than simply boosting it with an equalizer.

SRS WOW is available as part of Windows Media Player, or you can also get a Wow Thing hardware box. I have three of these. :) BBE, you have to buy in hardware, and it's pretty expensive, although some receivers have it built-in.

Both of these can actually really improve the sound, even if your equipment is pretty good to begin with.

Most other stuff sounds like crap in comparison, although it may have limited uses. In particular, avoid Spatializer and QSound audio enhancements.
posted by kindall at 11:17 PM on October 2, 2004

The way I use my graphic equalizers is idiosyncratic but extremely effective for me. When I had custom earplugs made (best $200 I've ever spent), I had my hearing tested as well and learned that I've got a 20db dip in my hearing right around 4khz. This is the frequency at which ones ears ring and my hearing loss is a result of too much exposure to loud noises. It happens.

The reason I'm telling you this in the context of this question is that when I shaped my EQ in the exact opposite of my hearing profile and play music through flat (-ish) response studio monitors, I find a tremendous richness and, dare I say it, sparkle to the music. What is missing is the exaggerated bass that many listeners prefer.

I'd recommend two things: The first is to play with the fader at 4k, as that is the first frequency at which one loses hearing. The second is to get your hearing tested and shape your EQ to compensate for those frequencies at which your hearing is strong or weak. Then fiddle with the EQ to see what sounds the best to you. There is a tremendous variation in speakers which can be somewhat compensated for using the EQ.
posted by stet at 1:05 AM on October 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

DFX is great for helping fix the damage mp3s do to songs. Here are the settings I think are best in the free version:

Fidelity - 5 - This is basically a filter tuned for the distortion caused by mp3 compression. It cuts the mids slightly and boosts the highs, making the sound a little less flat or muddy.

Ambience - 0 - This is a reverb effect, it sucks under all circumstances and is what causes that echo.

3D Surround - Don't know, they don't let you turn it up in the free version.

Dynamic Boost - variable - This compresses the music, making it closer to the same volume. Most commercial songs are already highly compressed already, so it won't make much of a difference. This can destroy some of the dynamics, especially on more subtle songs, but it can also help some live recordings.

HyperBass - 3 - I like the bass and have a subwoofer, what can I say?
posted by TungstenChef at 3:10 AM on October 3, 2004

I use an equalizer to bring out hard-to-hear parts that are buried down in the mix: interesting background vocals or harmony parts, instrumental tracks, etc. Also use Winamp's vocal-remover plugin for the same purpose, but that only helps on things that are roughly the same level in both lefyt and right channels.
posted by jfuller at 5:53 AM on October 3, 2004

The proper way to use your equalizer is to sell it on eBay to generate funds to buy equipment that will enhance your system far better than the equalizer can. Any extra component in the signal chain, and especially one that makes heavy modification to the signal such as an equalizer, degrades the overall signal. They muddy the sound a bit. Theoretically, if you have peaks or valleys in the frequency response of your system in a particular room an equalizer, combined with the pink noise generator and the frequency analyzer, can help compensate. Only the very best equalizers can accomplish much without degrading the signal. If you can afford that kind of equalizer the rest of the system is probably equally high quality and thus even the minimal effect upon the signal integrity by such an equalizer will likely be noticeable. That brings me back to my original point; you will frequently get the best bang for your buck by selling the equalizer and reinvesting in other areas of the system.

If you really want to use the equalizer get a test tone CD (such as a Stereophile Test CD) and a sound pressure level meter. Radio Shack sells a pretty good meter; I think it is about $40. The test tone CD will have warble tones at various frequencies. Set the equalizer so that all of the frequencies play at the same volume. These can vary around the room so do this with the meter at your listening position. You will probably notice that moving the meter affects the results so clamp it down somehow. Most come with a tripod mount if you have a tripod; otherwise just set it on something with the microphone sticking out in front. For instance if you set it on a table, you do not want reflections off of the table to affect the results. The spectrum analyzer Jimbob recommended would probably be better, but this method will work almost as well and be much cheaper.
posted by caddis at 6:17 AM on October 3, 2004

I've only used an equalizer once since high school. On a road trip out west we were listening to the Complete Monty Python Box set. One disc was very muddy and almost inaudible over road noise. Boosting the middle frequencies fixed the problem.
posted by substrate at 6:40 AM on October 3, 2004

Do what sounds good on your equipment with the recordings you play. Anybody who tells you what is and isn't the proper way to listen is just being a snob.

On the other hand, there are a lot of crappily-made equalizers out there which will do little to no good improving a high quality recording. If you're listening to something like MP3, though, even a crummy equalizer can improve the sound somewhat -- or at least distort it in a less annoying way. I used to use DFX when playing music from Windows, and it did a good job of clearing the MP3 mud. If you have that, try setting the "Fidelity" filter to about 3 or 4, and leave all other filters disabled.
posted by majick at 8:28 AM on October 3, 2004

If you have a good room (few reflections), a clean signal path (good cables) and high-quality speakers (reference monitors), you need no EQ at all. You will hear the music as the artist intended.
posted by erebora at 8:12 PM on October 3, 2004

Everyone's being so harsh on EQs! Lighten up!

An EQ is a great addition to your stereo. Used properly, you can adjust the music to your *taste*. If you play a recording perfectly flat on perfect speakers, you are receving the taste of the producer. That's fine, if you happen to think the producer had great taste.

However, often times, you have a better idea. It's your stereo, and nobody else is listening to it, so adjust it to your preference!

About the only time when you should really consider *not* using an EQ is if, say, you have a live recording that hasn't been particularly heavily produced and you want to have that "in the show" feeling.

EQs are also great at making up for imperfect speakers; sure, you could spend thousands on speakers and get the perfect response you always wanted, or you can just adjust the EQ on your $100 speakers until they sound decent. Which is cheaper/better depends on what you prefer.

As far as phase distortion on an EQ goes, jeez, the designer would have to be extraordiarialy pathetic to screw that up. That being said, I can imagine it might be a problem on a cheap-ass $5 garage sale unit. :-D Get a decent EQ. I have one made by ADC with 12 bands, and I love it.

Really, your CD is not done as the artist intended. Unless the producer's name is the same as the artist's name, it's not the artists' "true vision". I would assume, though, if it isn't produced by the artist, it's still something the artist likes.

Besides, the artist's vision is sometimes absolutely moronic. Case in point, Steven Spielberg. He, after making ET, decided his vision was actually to have people shoot walkie-talkies instead of guns. If they made an EQ for video, and ET was never released unmolsted, you can bet I'd use it to turn the walkie-talkies into guns. Even now I might use it to to change the Reese's Pieces into Smarties. And then there's George Lucas with the original Star Wars series, etc, etc.
posted by shepd at 9:13 PM on October 3, 2004

Oh, hey, one thing to look for, if you somehow have a particularly crappy input, and you're using an EQ, watch you don't overload the input if you EQ _up_. If that might be a problem, you can either EQ _down_ instead, or you can attenuate the sound going to the EQ.

That's not been much problem for me, but I've seen and heard the results and it sounds like ass.

BTW: Most people who tell you not to use an EQ are the same types that will tell you to use tubes over transistors because they sound warmer. DUH! That's because the tubes are colouring the sound. ARGH! Save money and just use an EQ to accomplish the same thing! (can't you tell audiophiles drive me insane?) Of course, then they say "But an overdriven tube sounds better than an overdriven transistor". NO SHIT! Why the fuck are you wanting to blow up your stereo in the first place? If your stereo is too pathetic that you're overdriving it, BUY ONE THAT DOESN'T SUCK. You can get thousands of real RMS watts output from a transistor based amp for the cost of less than a hundred RMS watts tube amp.

/rant off
posted by shepd at 9:19 PM on October 3, 2004

(oh, yeah, for those trying to rack their brains on how to counter me on the watts issue, that's all at 0.01% THD. :-P )
posted by shepd at 9:20 PM on October 3, 2004

all an eq does is boost or attenuate certain frequency ranges. that gives you nothing like the control of a producer, who can control:
  • relative levels of different instruments in the mix
  • relative tonal balance and stereo positions too
  • compression/distortion/effects
it's just a glorified tone control, not a mixing desk (because your cd doesn't have each individual track) (more accurately - even if you have a digital signal processor, you can add more ditortion/effects but it's very difficult to remove them).

so it doesn't let you get anywhere near playing at being a producer.

secondly, the traditional warm sound of valves comes from the way they add certain harmonics (valves have little gain for their cost, so designs have little -ve feedback and poor linearity). that cannot be added/removed by a traditional eq (you can get something like it with dsp, but not a simple piece of hardware that boosts/attenuates certain frequencies) because the effect comes from different frequencies in the music being related (at a very simple level, you can't adjust an eq so that if there's a note played at one octave, you also hear that same instrument an octave higher).

so an eq doesn't do what valves do either (but, to avoid the wrath of shepd, i should add that while i've built a couple of valve amps myself, i listen through solid state - i'm not saying valves are good, just that they're different to an eq).

in summary, an eq does very little to change the internal balance of the music: the dynamics, whether one instrument is louder than another, how sounds at different frequencies "repsond to each other". these things tend to be much more important than absolute levels in broad tonal bands because (1) there's much more information there and (2) our ears and brains aren't "designed" to measure absolute levels anything like as well as they measure these relative, internal cues.

so an eq does very little of any real use. worse (warning! warning! vague generalisations and dismissive sterotypes ahead!), because they're the kind of thing made for and sold to people who are more interested in twiddling knobs, seeing lights flash, and making the bass sounds strangely loud, they're generally going to be designed with more emphasis on knobs, lights, and "impressively large" variations in tone than in keeping distortion low.

so no, i don't have one (or any other kind of tone control) on my main hi-fi. and on other equipment i own, with integrated controls, it's set flat (although something i do sometimes do, on very cheap equipment, is (partially) block bass reflex ports since i prefer little bass to an artificial single frequency thump).
posted by andrew cooke at 4:22 AM on October 4, 2004

The frequency response of your ears changes with the volume of the music. At low volumes, you hear less of the very low and very high frequencies. Some older amps have a button marked "Loudness" that boosts low and high frequencies. So you might want to use the EQ only when you turn the sound down.
Personally, I like to boost the lows a little bit because it makes music sound warmer to me. "If it sounds good, it is good."
posted by fuzz at 6:28 AM on October 4, 2004

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