The Myth of Specific EQ/Gear to 'Cut Through' the Mix

Discussion in 'Live Sound [BG]' started by matante, Sep 20, 2016.

  1. matante


    Nov 3, 2003
    The title of this thread can be taken as a statement or as a question. I do not claim any expertise here but I'd like to offer an observation as someone who listens to a ton of music, both live and recorded, and has played bass for about 25 years.

    There is this notion that certain EQ shapes and certain types of gear (strings, pickups, basses, etc.) will either help you cut through a mix or get you lost in the mix. These terms are aimed at guitarists as much as they are at bassists, and have become an advertising cliché.

    It seems to be the accepted theory that mid-heavy tones are what will cut through. Others say that playing live is all about highs. Others say that you want to take up that sonic space just above the kick drum. The thing is, I think they're all correct. In my experience as a music listener and audience member I can say that I've heard all kinds of bass tones that were in the forefront of a mix. It seems to be simply a matter of how loud the soundman wants the bass player to be in relation to the rest of the band. He can accomplish this by turning up the bass relative to the other instruments, EQ'ing the bass around other instruments, or EQ'ing other instruments around the bass.

    The truth is, I think we've all heard bass tones, both live and on record, which were very present in the mix, and which we would objectively describe very differently: mid bumped, mid-scooped, even the so-called bedroom tone. It seems to be a myth to say that if your bassline is buried in your band's mix, it's something inherent to your tone. I think it's more accurate to say that the band hasn't figured out it's recipe yet--who's going to fit where and how in the sonic spectrum.
  2. JimmyM

    JimmyM Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Yamaha, Ampeg, Line 6, EMG
    I would buy into that.
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  3. woody357

    woody357 Supporting Member

    Jun 17, 2005
    IMHO when playing live if you are close to your Amy it is hard to hear yourself threw the mix and o think that's what a lot of cats base their thinking when trying to cut threw the mix. Now when I go back and see a video of tha band or listen to a recording my sound is clear never lost or over powering. I think if you are lucky enough to play or a big stage you can move away from your amp and get a true idea of what you sound like. That's just my thinking.
  4. TedH


    Dec 6, 2014
    Westchester, NY
    I believe what you're highlighting is effectively the "reductive EQ" concept. Before futzing around with raising stuff; getting other items out of the way will do it, and often in a more pleasing fashion. I think you are correct in that most people don't want to start with the basics of frequency knowledge and comprehension and apply that to the venue and board, and would rather play around with board controls in the hope of getting somewhere good.
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  5. seanm

    seanm I'd kill for a Nobel Peace Prize! Supporting Member

    Feb 19, 2004
    Ottawa, Canada
    I agree. A great sound man can make just about anything work.

    The problem is, I bet most of us aren't working with great sound men. When I run sound for the band (from stage), I don't have any control over the guitars or the drums. So I can't work around the bass sound. If I want scooped bass, I just won't be heard.

    So I don't think they are EQ myths. They are EQ hints, or best practices, to help you in less than ideal conditions.
    Al Kraft likes this.
  6. Al Kraft

    Al Kraft Supporting Member

    May 2, 2016
    Northern Virginia
    I agree with the concept that there are "hints, rules of thumb and best practices" that can help you get dialed in more quickly, but very few hard and fast, "works every time" rules. I've attended live music events in the same venue where extremely different bands played and the bass players weren't restricted to only a similar mid focused tone to be heard very nicely in in the mix with the rest of the band.

    I also come from the school of thought that the best use of EQ is quite often about taking away a problem - much like a sculptor would say they are removing the stone that's getting in the way of the statue that's inside the block of marble.
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  7. Grumry

    Grumry Guest

    Jul 6, 2016
    As an engineer, I have the best results by removing the noise and unwanted frequencies, rather than boosting what you think you want and covering another part of the mix up.

    If you have a hard time hearing something, try to figure out what's in the way of it, and remove it, rather than trying to push through a space that's already taken.
  8. derrico1

    derrico1 Supporting Member

    Apr 12, 2005
    Charlottesville, VA
    As long as the song's musical arrangement is semi-reasonable. We've all seen local bands w/ two guitars, bass , and keys—bass chugging roots, guitars chugging full barre chords in the same neck positions, and keys pounding out, on every sub-division of the measure, full left *and* right hands chords—the same R-3-5 that everyone else in the band is playing.

    No fixing that w/ EQ. But sometimes bands in that situation treat it as if it were an EQ or a gear problem.
  9. two fingers

    two fingers Opinionated blowhard. But not mad about it. Inactive

    Feb 7, 2005
    Eastern NC USA
    As a sound guy and bass player I can tell you this is a neat theory.....but simply not true.

    Sure, we can make many tones work. There is no one "silver bullet" tone that we "must have" to make you cut through.

    First off, the room has as much to do with it as anything. Physics is cruel. It doesn't care what sound you like. A tone that sounds amazing in one room could get sucked up like a vacuum in another. Yes, there are rules, but only for rooms, not mixes in general.

    Also, physics comes to play when you throw a wall of sound out of some very big boxes anyway. It's kind of like a Fender tone stack. Adjusting one thing affects another. So, adding a little umph to a guitar may bury the bass. Then you have to adjust the bass, which might bury the left hand of the keys (which is not always a bad thing). It's a balancing act.

    Also, the best way to get it done every time is to send the sound guy something a little bright. Every single time I can work with that. Again, physics being what they are..... There's a funny phenomenon in bass sound. If you send me something bright, the bass tones are still there. I can bring them out. However, if you send me something with little or no mids or highs, I can't bring them out. They aren't there. So I can't clear it up for you. If you want a sound guy to be able to do whatever he needs to do with your tone, send him something slightly bright. He can mold that like Playdough.

    Your bedroom tone may in fact sound like garbage in a given room/mix. Sorry, it is what it is.

    As for "sonic space", that's the key. Carving out a sonic space for everything on stage can really give a mix a "3D" feel to it. I love it when that comes together. It's a challenge, but when I get there, it's a very cool thing. It usually involves a lot of tweeking in the mids on each channel and, even in the best case, takes a few songs in to get there.

    What is ABSOLUTELY a MYTH is that a "good" sound guy can make ANY tone work in a mix. This simply is not true. Period. End of story. Glad we could settle that. :thumbsup:
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  10. 40Hz

    40Hz Supporting Member

    May 24, 2006

    A contributing factor that adds to the problem is people not knowing how their equipment actually works. Because the midrange control on the average guitar amp (which is most of them) doesn't actually boost the mids at all. It boosts all the frequencies so that the mids (which are actually scooped) become more pronounced to the human ear. But it can't bring them above the levels of the treble and bass settings. All it can do is minimize the perceived scoop.

    So if a guitarist has his or her treble and bass settings cranked, all the mid control does is basically make everything louder. So the notion of "bumping the mids"on most guitar amps is a myth.

    Most guitar amps can only boost treble and bass - which leads to the all too common "volume wars" many inexperienced bands suffer from. Guitarist-A can't hear herself, so she bumps her volume up - mainly so she can hear her mids a little better. Guitarist-B then can't hear himself for the same reason and bumps his volume higher. And eventually both guitar amps end up dimed.

    Early on in my music days, a real sound person (who genuinely knew his stuff) told me that when it comes to EQ to always: "Cut if you can. Boost if you must." And that rule of thumb stood me in good stead for the many long years before I finally learned how things actually work. Hard to convince somebody if they're from the "Ours go to eleven!" school that turning it down gets you more than turning it up will But so it goes.
  11. Jay Corwin

    Jay Corwin Supporting Member

    Jan 29, 2008
    Sanborn, NY
    Personally I want to sit in the mix while being able to hear everything going on around me. Cutting through the mix sounds counter intuitive to the idea of band sounding like a single unit (exceptions given to solo's). I never understood that mentality.
  12. 40Hz

    40Hz Supporting Member

    May 24, 2006
    Exactly. A band is supposed to act as a cohesive unit and build on the synergy created by multiple musicians playing in concert.

    Today, a fair number of the bands I'm hearing seem to behave more like a kindergarten - where everybody tries to bully their classmates - and then lines up to "take turns" being "it."
    Al Kraft likes this.
  13. Jay Corwin

    Jay Corwin Supporting Member

    Jan 29, 2008
    Sanborn, NY
    This is something I can't convince others about. It's much more pronounced to me because I play upright. I literally EQ my amp at every gig based on what I'm hearing in the room. It has taken a long time to get to the point that I think I'm getting good at it. Now don't get me wrong, it's not like I'm starting from square one every time. I have my base line settings. For the most part I cut, and don't not boost anything during setup. If I can't hear certain frequencies well enough once the bullets start flying, then I'll start to boost where applicable. I'll also cut more if I think I'm washing out one of the other players.

    I know so many acoustic musicians that are of the "set it and forget it" mindset on preamps and such. That mentality will have you sounding like crap in a lot of rooms than you think.
    Last edited: Sep 21, 2016
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  14. two fingers

    two fingers Opinionated blowhard. But not mad about it. Inactive

    Feb 7, 2005
    Eastern NC USA
    I am stealing this and giving you exactly zero credit for it when it makes me sound incredibly clever. :cool:
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  15. bucephylus

    bucephylus Supporting Member

    Aug 18, 2002
    Central Ohio
    All of the comments so far are on target with different dimensions of what is a non-trivial aspect of performance. The OP's post certainly reminds me of some heavy guitar oriented groups I've endured where the guitarists' main objective was to play over everyone else. Also, reminds me of bands with sound people who were very nice, but never took the time to study how a cover tune was constructed, mix-wise. Even when all those issues are sorted out, as @two fingers so eloquently states, you can be up against acoustic conditions that are way sub optimal.

    Every now and then, all the pieces come together. Guess that's part of what keeps us going.:bassist:

    That; and all the money we make doing it. LOL.:D
    seanm and two fingers like this.
  16. hbarcat

    hbarcat Supporting Member

    Aug 24, 2006
    Rochelle, Illinois
    I know this is an old thread on a well worn subject, but I decided to resurrect it anyway to graphically illustrate (literally) an example of a strategy to "cut through the mix".

    Consider this graphic equalizer:


    I use this as a useful starting point for EQing bass in a band mix environment. It must be understood that this is in no way a "silver bullet" (as @two fingers and others have correctly pointed out doesn't exist), but as an experienced gigging bassist and also sound tech, I've found this is simply a useful place to begin adjusting bass tone.

    Following is an explanation of why this is so:

    Starting from the extreme ends of the spectrum, you can see that the sliders are pulled all the way down below 40 Hz and also above 8,000 Hz. This represents both highpass and low pass filters, respectively.

    It's important to keep unnecessary high frequencies out of the mix where they can interfere with other instruments (like cymbols), but especially critical to eliminate very low frequencies which interfere with the kick drum and play havoc with room acoustics, creating boomy echoes that make the entire band sound like a skull pounding, thunderous, muddy noise.

    Also, notice that the frequencies are gradually rolled off from 80 Hz down to 50 Hz. This is to provide room for the kick drum. To achieve maximum benefit, the kick should be slightly boosted between these specific frequencies.

    Next, notice how the bass gradually rises from being flat at 80 Hz to peak at 125 Hz before it gradually falls back to flat at 250 Hz. This is where the "meat" of the bass lives. Again, for best results, roll off the frequencies below 200 Hz for the guitars and keys to keep them from competing with your bass sound.

    By far, the most common reason why a well EQed bass fails to cut through is because the guitar player has his sound EQed with the "smiley face" setting, where he's boosted the heck out of the low frequencies, right where your bass is supposed to reside. If that describes your band situation, and your guitarist refuses to cooperate because he wants his guitar to sound like the voice of Thor, then I guess you're just . . . out of luck.

    The wide area between 300 Hz to about 2,000 Hz is slightly cut because that's where all the competition is from the other instruments that have more midrange emphasis (guitars, keys, vocals, most of the drum kit, etc.). It's generally best to stay out of their way.

    So, this leaves upper mids as a default place to provide clarity and definition to your bass, which is why you see a modest boost between 2,000 Hz to 4,000 Hz.

    I'll repeat that this is not a "one size fits all" or a "set and forget" solution to mixing bass, but I've found that more often than not, this is fairly representative of what I end up with when running live sound.

    Some notable exceptions are when playing certain music genres that may emphasize a signature tone that's a defining characteristic. Many bassists play a combination of bass pickups, strings, pedals, processors, and preamp and tone shaping that yield unusual sounds and will require custom tailored EQing to preserve their integrity, as well as sit in the mix. A few typical examples include distortion or octave pedals, "mudbucker" style pickups, or amps with harmonic content generators.

    Also, bands with unusual instruments or bands that don't have drums. Or don't have any guitars. Or even bands with two basses.

    Really, your ears are your best guide. If this starting point for EQ settings needs adjusting (which it almost certainly will), or even discarding altogether, because it doesn't work, then of course try something else.

    Finally, I'm fully aware of the obvious "flaw" in this explanation, which is the fact that very few bassists are going to be using a 31 band EQ during a live gig. But that's okay, because the point of this is mostly for illustrative purposes.

    Understanding the concepts here and using that information to more effectively utilise the tone shaping tools you do have available is the primary goal.

    This is how I might set my EQ on an Ampeg SVT pro.


    I hope this is useful to someone, and if anybody wants to comment or critique what I've said, I certainly welcome the input.

    - Dan
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2022
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    Jul 25, 2013
    Each instrument and each drum must all be made from different tone woods. Easy fix.
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  18. fokof

    fokof One day ,I'll be in the future

    Mar 16, 2007
    If you REALLY want to cut through the mix , you have to play with one of these iu.jpeg
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  19. s0c9

    s0c9 Supporting Member

    Jan 9, 2014
    1964 Audio artist, Fractal Audio Beta Tester
    Sadly, for most of us.. it AIN’T about the money !! :crying:
  20. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    Back in 1980 I was very close to my Amy at all times. Sadly, we broke up.
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