How To EQ Your Recordings – Tips on Equalization from a Music Producer

By Jim Fusco:

Welcome new and longtime fans of the Laptop Sessions to this very special article that I believe will help a lot of aspiring musicians and recording artists make their recordings sound professional while recording them at home.  This article isn’t just in lieu of recording my usual Tuesday night Laptop Sessions acoustic cover song music video- my list of covers to do is actually longer than ever- I just had the urge to write an informative article that many people will find interesting and useful.  Before getting down to business, let me note that I’m hoping to record an extra-special cover song music video this week for inclusion on the music blog next Tuesday night, so stay tuned!

I’ve always battled with trying to make my home recordings sound professional.  I went out and spent hundreds of dollars on acoustic foam that I hung on the wall (and by “hung”, I mean attached to the wall by spray glue, permanent wall tape, and Gorilla glue), invested in some computer processing plugins for my music, and bought great microphones and amplifiers.  But, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get that “home recording” sound out of my songs!  I do have a few tricks now (one secret way of getting the most volume out of my recordings and another to clear everything up), but that’s after the mixing occurs.

This article is meant to focus on the tweaking that should be done while mixing a song down to a 2-track stereo pre-master.  After you’re done recording, go into the EQ (or equalization) settings on your workstation, which I’m assuming is digital nowadays.  I use a DAW (or Digital Audio Workstation)- a Tascam 2488 24-track recorder.  I love it and I really can’t see myself upgrading for any reason for a very long time.  My brother prefers to use the computer and uses Sony’s ACID.  Some use Pro Tools, but I never got into it, even though I’m a huge Mac fan.  To be honest, I use Final Cut Pro for video editing, but I’m not really a fan of that, either.  I used to LOVE Sonic Foundry’s Vegas (before Sony bought them out) for video editing.

One more point before we get to the EQ settings- back when I recorded using analog equipment, I never had to deal with equalizing the multitracks of my songs.  Truth be told, I actually still love analog recording, even though I always worked towards removing that hiss that goes along with recording on old fashioned cassette tapes.  You see, with digital audio recording, you reach a peak at “0”- if your volume goes above zero, it’ll “clip” and you won’t hear anything- maybe a bit of digital distortion.  But, with analog recording, you could allow the levels to go into the red a couple of decibels and still get clear recordings (to a certain degree).  Thus, all my old analog masters are much louder and fuller.  Plus, since there was more room for me to boost levels, individual instruments stood out in the mix more.  Of course, I realize now that what I was doing really wasn’t the “proper” way to record and mix, but honestly, the results were there, so “proper” isn’t really a good argument for me.

Onto EQ- basically, I’m going to give you some pointers on how to EQ certain tracks so that your audio doesn’t sound muddy when you mix it down to a 2-track stereo pre-master.  The theory behind cutting some of these “bands” of equalization (say all the sound below 50Hz) is this: Say you have 24 tracks like I have on my DAW.  Well, when you record, you’re recording ALL the possible sound spectrum that your microphone or pickup can handle.  Then, the DAW records every possible piece of sound information it hears because DAW’s are digital and can pick up any sound, especially when it’s uncompressed PCM files (like .wav or .aiff files on your computer).  The theory here is much like the file-size savings you get when you convert something from a .wav or .aiff file to an .mp3 file.  You get essentially the same sound quality, but at a tenth (or less) of the file size!  How is that accomplished?

Well, with mp3s, it’s a combination of a couple things- first, it compresses the data in a special format that’s smaller in file size than a standard uncompressed .wav or .aiff.  That part doesn’t matter to us here.  What matters is that all-important second piece to the mp3 compression- mp3s don’t carry ALL of the sound information that uncompressed files do.  So, for instance, a high quality mp3 file will have all the sound frequencies, minus the very, very high and very, very low frequencies.  The vast majority of humans don’t hear these sound frequencies anyway, so shaving them off the sound file doesn’t alter the sound we hear that much.  But, since there are less frequencies (and thus, less information in the file), the file size gets smaller.  Now, if you have a lower quality mp3, one of the ways it gets the file size down is to limit the sound frequencies in the file further.  That’s why you get a low quality mp3 that sounds like it’s coming through a phone- there’s not as many frequencies in the file, so the size is smaller, but the sound is affected more.  Once you start cutting into sound frequencies that humans can actually hear, you start altering the sound of the music file.

So, how does all that relate to EQ-ing your music?

Well, we’re essentially trying to do that same second-piece of the mp3 process, but track-by-track.  And, we’re not trying to save file size, we’re trying to save from that “muddy” sound that home recordings get.  So, why does that “muddy” sound happen when you mixdown your recordings?

Well, I’ve always noticed that the sound coming out of my 24-track is pristine during regular playback.  But, when I mix it all down to a pre-master, I notice the difference.  That’s when the recorder tries to blend all your tracks together and fit 24-tracks worth of sound into just two tracks- a left channel and a right channel for stereo.  As you can imagine, that’s not an easy task and there are a lot of “assumptions” your recorder makes when mixing down.  For instance, if two tracks have a sound playing at the same frequency and at the same volume, your recorder may decide to give once precedent over the other during the mixdown process, which brings one sound out and drowns the other one out.

Also, have you ever noticed that live acoustic recordings, such as one person singing with an acoustic guitar and nothing else, always sound so much clearer and louder, especially when it comes from a home recording?  Well, that’s because you only have two tracks competing for their share of the sound space.  And since a guitar and one vocal track don’t compete for as much sound space as, say, a guitar and bass would (without EQ, that is), you get a much clearer recording.

So, the idea is this: we have 24 tracks of sound that use every single possible frequency.   That means that the bass guitar track, even though the part you really want to hear (most of the time, unless you’re Brian Wilson) is in the low frequencies, it still contains a recording of ALL frequencies, from low to high.  Now, say you had a vocal track.  Vocals take up a very specific range of EQ frequencies, as the human voice can only go so high or low- most of the time, we’re right in the middle.  Well, the recorder also records ALL possible frequencies on this track, as well, including ones that would conflict with your bass track.  Now, add two acoustic guitars, electric guitar, piano, drums, etc. and you have every single one of these tracks with sound information in every single possible EQ band.

But, the point is- Every instrument or vocal track only needs certain frequencies! So, why would you have 24 tracks all have hum in the 80HZ range (say from a furnace that was on next door that your microphone happened to faintly pick up) and drown out your bass drum, which thrives in that frequency?  (Just a note- that furnace sound at 80Hz may sound very faint on one track, but multiply it 24 times over and you’ve got a major problem that you wouldn’t have been able to fix without EQ)  So, every instrument needs its own sound space to live in.  If you reduce the number of tracks competing for a certain EQ frequency band, you’ll give every instrument its own “pocket” of sound space in the mix and nothing will get drowned-out.

I will also point out that this is my least favorite part of the recording process- it’s tedious, there are SO many options (do I cut by 3 db or 4 db?), and since you have to go track-by-track, it takes forever.  But, this process is the single biggest reason why my recordings don’t sound “homemade” anymore, so it’s definitely worth the effort.  I just have to remember to go back and read that sentence the next time I go to mix a song…

I figure the best way to go is by instrument:

Vocals: Ah, a very important part.  For vocals, especially recorded at home, you’re definitely going to want to make them brighter and to remove those bassy undertones that appear in the recordings.  For each vocal track (which for me, is plenty) I reduce sound at the 225Hz mark (most EQ setups will allow you to pick a frequency and when you either boost or reduce that frequency, it’ll boost or reduce the frequencies immediately around it, too).  I reduce at 225Hz a lot, up to -10 db, but make sure to listen back in case you’re altering the sound too much.

Then, I boost at 4kHz (that’s kilohertz, as opposed to Hz, or hertz- Hz (hertz) are lower frequencies and kHz (kilohertz) are high frequencies) to bring out the main range of the vocals, as that’s where most of the sound information in a vocal track lies.  I’d give a boost of about 3db.

Finally, if you don’t have a great condenser microphone, don’t worry!  You can breathe some life into your vocal tracks by giving a 1 or 2 db boost at the very high 10kHz frequency.  This will help brighten your vocal tracks.

Guitar: For guitars, especially acoustic guitars, I cut everything below 100Hz, as this will interfere with our bass drum sound- something that should be avoided at all costs.  I cut to -10db here.  Then, you can boost about 3db anywhere between 150Hz and 5kHz, depending on your guitar and the sound you want.  If I have two acoustic guitar tracks, I’ll EQ one with a boost in the lower frequencies and the other with a boost towards the high frequencies to give a balanced, different sound to each.  I like bright acoustics most of the time, so I’ll go towards 3kHz, but for some mean electric guitar, you may want to keep it around 1000Hz.

Bass: Again, you’d think this would be the “lowest” EQ space in your mix, but it’s not- you need that space for the bass drum or your song won’t have a beat!  So, give a cut at 250Hz and below of about 3db.  If you’re like me and like a “crunchy” bass (listen to the bass on “Sloop John B” by the Beach Boys and you’ll hear what I’m talking about), you can brighten the string noise of the bass by adding a couple decibels to about the 3.5kHz range.

Bass Drum: The all-important bass drum lives in the “bottom” of your EQ mix.  Increase the 80Hz frequency (by as much as you want, but start at 3db) or you can go up to the 100Hz mark, if you think it sounds better.  Between 150Hz and 600Hz, though, you’ll want to cut the EQ so it doesn’t interfere with your bass or possibly your guitars, depending on your decision.  So, here, cut quite a bit: up to -10db.  For this, you can also add a bit of “bite” at the 3.5kHz range.

Snare Drum: Also important, you’ll want to get rid of that “boxiness” sound at around 900Hz and maybe give a boost (we’re talking a couple of decibels here) all the way up at 9kHz for some brightness.

Cymbals: Cut anything below 200Hz on these almost completely- why would you EVER need those low frequencies from a cymbal?  This is the perfect example of useless sound information that would muddy-up and get in the way of your bass drum.  Give another cut (slight- maybe 1 or 2db) at 1.5kHz to take away some of the annoying ring and loudness from the cymbals that will cut through your mix too much.  You can also apply these changes to a tambourine track.

Some other tips:

– Cut at 50Hz to reduce microphone “pops” on your audio tracks- I hate when a great take is ruined by a popped “P”, so this should help.

– Piano is a tough one because it actually uses many of the frequencies in the sound spectrum.  But, to make it sound more “aggressive” (Jerry Lee Lewis, anyone?), boost your EQ at around 2kHz.

– To give some “sparkle” to your guitars, especially acoustic, you can give a 1 or 2 db boost to the 10kHz region, as well.

I hope these tips help you out while mixing your recordings.  I know they certainly helped me!  But, just like the old “leading a horse to water” adage, I figured it was best to first educate you on why this process is so important and why it works before giving you the info. you’ll need to get great sounding recordings, even if you’re rocking out in your home studio.

If you have any questions/comments, arguments/beefs, let me know by leaving a comment below!

“The Easy Ways” by Jim Fusco Album Release Party Concert – Full Video!

Happy 2015, everyone!  For my first post of the year, I’m proud to bring you the full video from my concert celebrating the release of my 2014 album, “The Easy Ways”!  In this concert, I play the album in its entirety.  I made a special mix of the album without the lead vocals and lead guitar.  So, I was able to play alongside that backing track to give the audience a real preview of what the album sounded like!

We had a great turnout and performance went off without a hitch.  If you weren’t able to make it, it’s a great opportunity to watch and listen to the whole album!  And, if you went, I’m sure you’ll want to relive the concert again and again. 🙂

The concert, like the album, is split into two sections.  So, make sure to watch both videos.  I’d love to hear any comments about the album and hope everyone enjoys.

Ask the Musician: Recording with limited tracks

By Jim Fusco:

Welcome to a new series here on the Laptop Sessions that I like to call “Ask the Musician”.  On a daily basis, I get questions from young (and old) YouTube viewers that saw my tutorial and informational videos about recording and writing songs.  They ask me questions about my process and the equipment I’ve chosen.  Well, I decided I should share my advice with the world in this new series here on the best music blog on the planet!  The questions are first, followed by my responses in italics.

Our first question comes from TheBeatlesFan1991 on YouTube:

The way i record my songs is through an mp3 because I still am in high school so I’m kinda limited to an extent, and so the way I record is I take a track with just the guitars the rhythm and the lead and then I go and record another track with the guitar parts in the background playing while we record.

I haven’t done this yet its more of an experiment and since I’m guessing you’ve probably have gone through something similar to this and I was wandering if you could tell me if it’ll work or not.

You know, it’s not a bad way to record.  When I was recording with my band, though, we had four of us playing music parts.  So, we recorded the instruments live, then went back and over-dubbed the vocals.  We’re very vocal-based, as I’m sure you can tell.

I’d say the best way to go is to keep the recordings of the music and vocals separate whenever you can, because you want to make sure the vocals don’t get buried or stand out too much.  But, you know, I’ve been through a lot of ways of recording and I think I’ve changed my definition of the “best” way to record about five times.  So, hopefully you try this for a bit and make some changes accordingly.  I hope you’ll keep me posted!

If you have a question, please feel free to write to me on YouTube or leave a comment here on the blog- I’ll be happy to answer it and continue the conversation.

Finish-up Those Christmas Lists: A Musician’s Guitar Collection, Wish List, and Recommendations

By Jim Fusco:

Christmas is almost here and that means your list is probably complete and you’re just waiting for the big day- and hoping that you’ll get that special guitar you’ve always wanted!  Well, if you haven’t made your Christmas list yet, or if you’re looking for an idea for the guitar player in your life, then look no further.  I am here to take you on a journey through my guitar collection and my wish-list, which will hopefully give you some ideas.  Below each guitar will be a description and reasons why I have it and what makes it different from the others.  I’ll even give you tips on what to buy for each type of guitar player!  So, let’s get started…

My Guitar Collection:

Ibanez Artcore AM73T Semi-Hollow Body Electric Guitar


Without a doubt, this will always be my favorite piece of hardware.  It’s just perfect- the styling is classic, there’s great symmetry, and it has that wonderful Bigsby tremolo.  If you’re a classic rock’n’roll fan, this is definitely the guitar for you.  I channel Chuck Berry when playing this axe and the semi-hollow body style is perfect for a much fuller sound than you’d get from a solid-body.  So, I purchased this guitar for three reasons: a) it was literally a tenth of the price of a Gibson that looked exactly the same, b) it’s simply beautiful, and c) it has that great old-fashioned guitar sound.

I will note that I ended up changing the pickups on this to make it a “hotter” (louder) sound.  I put in some serious Gibson pickups and now this thing really rocks!

Ibanez ARX320 Solid-Body Electric Guitar


The Ibanez above may be my overall favorite guitar, but this one is my favorite electric to play.  It’s much lighter than the Artcore guitar above (which induces a large amount of back pain) and is beautiful, as well.  The guitar doesn’t have a ton of features- no whammy bar, no tremolo or anything like that.  But, when I need to rock and it needs to be loud and “cutting”, I pick this guitar up.  It’s a really good multi-purpose guitar.

The guitar is even prettier in person than in the photo- trust me on this one.  There’s good sound and this guitar is a good one for any type of rock music, as it can play both clean and with a lot of distortion.  I asked for this guitar because it looked great, was very inexpensive at the time (it has since gone up for some reason over $100 to $449!), and gives that straight-ahead electric guitar sound without sounding as retro as my Artcore.

Dean Boca 12-String Electric Guitar


Ah, the newest weapon in my arsenal- this guitar is a great value.  Try looking for a 12-string electric guitar online for less than $1,000.  It’s just about impossible, other than the Dean Boca.  I really wanted a new guitar (I had three in mind) because Musician’s Friend had a 20% off sale going.  So, I chose this guitar over the other two because I would get a different sound.  That 12-string sound, used on songs by the Byrds, the Beatles, and many, many others, is so distinctive.  I know I’ll be using this in almost every song I record in the future.  I hope to make it a signature sound of mine, especially because 12-string electrics really aren’t used much in today’s popular “rock” music anymore.

This guitar is definitely for the throwback musician or a guitarist that has tried everything and needs a new sound.  And I would highly recommend this one in particular, as it plays great, sounds great, and looks fantastic.  At around $300, you can’t go wrong, and it’s a guitar I’ll have for life.

Fender Jazz Bass Special Edition


How I got this one?  Well, let’s just say I got it from a desperate person that just wanted to get rid of it.  And, boy am I glad he did!  Let me begin by saying that I had an electric bass already (a really good one, too), but when someone offers you a new Fender Jazz Bass Special Edition for $125, you DON’T say no.  You hand over the money and grab that guitar as quickly as possible.

And that’s what I did!  This thing weighs a ton, but the sound is great- it even smells great due to the quality woods they used.  They style, which is just a natural wood finish, is really beautiful.  Unless I break down and buy either a Hofner bass or a Rickenbacker bass in the future, I really don’t see myself needing anything more than this Fender Jazz Bass.  This one’s good for all types of musicians from rock to blues to whatever!

Rouge Lap Steel Guitar


This one’s just for fun- my parents are always looking for new instruments for me to try and they thought this would be a good idea.  And I love it!  I’ve always loved that lap steel/pedal steel sound.  There have been some great solos done in rock music on these lap steel guitars.  And I’ve already come up with a couple of solos for some new songs I’ve been working on.  This particular one is a quality instrument, as well.

This is a great guitar for “classic rock” (70’s) fans and country-rock players.  But, I’m going to attempt to use it in some creative ways in my music, so I hope you’ll stay-tuned!

Ibanez AEG10 Acoustic-Electric Guitar


I asked for this acoustic-electric because we were playing more live shows and I needed something that was easier than using a microphone or an acoustic pickup.  This isn’t the greatest guitar in the world, but it does have a nice Fishman pickup…that blew out on me and I had to have repaired.  Alone, I wouldn’t play this as a normal acoustic, but when plugged-in, it definitely gets the job done, especially for the price.

Ibanez AW100 Acoustic Guitar


This is my first real guitar.  I wanted an acoustic that was around $300 and I asked the guy at Guitar Center which one to get.  And then my love for Ibanez began.  This guitar is great- I will admit that the frets are now worn-down, but other than that, it’s a great solid-top acoustic that sounds bright and stays in tune well.

Laurel Mandolin

I was given this guitar as another “see if he likes it” gift- and this one was a real home-run!  I love playing the mandolin and this is a quality instrument, as well.  If you know someone that plays in an acoustic band, really recommend one of these- it adds a great folky dimension to the sound and can be great for soloing, too.

Arrow ST-369 Classical Acoustic Guitar


If you’ve ever seen my acoustic cover song music videos on the Laptop Sessions music blog or on YouTube, then you’ve seen this guitar.  Coming in at about 45 Euro and making the trip across the Atlantic home with me is this nylon string acoustic guitar.  It’s small, so it’s very portable.  It’s not very loud, but in a nice room, the tone is really great.  It’s SO easy to play- I honestly play this guitar more than any others because I can just sit down and feel like I’m a pro.  It’s fun to solo on this, as well- I really think everyone should have a guitar like this!

Wish-List of Guitars (Relatives, please take note!)

PRS Soapbar Semi-Hollow Electric Guitar


I’ve always loved the look and quality of PRS guitars, but most are very, very expensive.  This one combines good looks with a kind of Rickenbacker styling, plus it’s semi-hollow, which gives that great warm sound I like.  Problem is that it’s not going to be much of a different sound.  I’m just hoping it plays really nicely…

Gretsch Double-Jet Solid-Body Electric Guitar with Tremolo


Okay, so I really want a Gretsch.  I really would like a Duo Jet (which George Harrison is holding on the cover of “Cloud Nine”), but this guitar is so classic-looking…and costs about $2,000 less…  Has the Bigsby tremolo, but this one is solid-body, which should provide a different sound.

Cordoba CK-25 Ukulele


While in Hawaii for our honeymoon, I really wanted a real Koa wood ukulele that was made in Hawaii.  Starting at $700, I figured it was out of my price range for an instrument I’d use so rarely.  And even though I had the opportunity to purchase this Cordoba all Koa wood uke for only $170, I passed on it because of how little I’d use it and the fact that it wasn’t made in Hawaii.  Maybe when we go back for our 25th or something… 🙂

Fender Player’s Deluxe Stratocaster Solid-Body Electric Guitar


My brother Mike has this guitar and I LOVE it.  It plays so well- I need to have it.  He has the natural blonde maple fretboard that’s so much easier to play than rosewood, so it’s great for soloing.  Plus, I can’t believe I don’t have a Fender electric.  I want the blue model with the blonde maple fretboard, but I’d change-out that ugly-looking pickguard.  This is a must-have for me someday.

Finally, I’ll say that I would love to get a Martin like my Laptop Sessions partner (and fellow Traveling Acai Berry) Steve.  His guitar is BEAUTIFUL and plays like a dream.  I understand now why Martin guitars are so expensive.  Also, if you’ve seen some of my recent acoustic cover song music videos, you’ve seen my colleague Noreen’s amazing Gibson 12-string acoustic guitar from 1967.  Just put that on my “yeah right- not in your lifetime” wishlist!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip through my guitar inventory and my wish-list.  I hope this gives you some great Christmas, birthday, or any other holiday ideas!  And, of course, I would love to hear about your guitars and why you got them- hey, maybe one of your guitars will make it to my wish-list, too!