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
    Los Angeles
    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


    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Yamaha, Ampeg, Line 6, EMG
    I would buy into that.
    jjk2007 and Passinwind like this.
  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.
    40Hz likes this.
  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.
    Gearhead17, 40Hz, Grumry and 2 others like this.
  7. Grumry


    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. Gold Supporting Member

    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:
    bass nitro, Al Kraft and Atshen like this.
  10. 40Hz

    40Hz Supporting Member


    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

    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
    Gearhead17 and two fingers like this.
  14. two fingers

    two fingers Opinionated blowhard. But not mad about it. Gold Supporting Member

    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:
    bass nitro and sevenyearsdown like this.
  15. bucephylus

    bucephylus Supporting Member

    Aug 18, 2002
    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.
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