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What You Hear is (Not Quite) What You See

Updated: Feb 15

“EQ with your ears, not your eyes”

When it comes to mixing, you’ve probably heard this advice before. Or, you might have seen a digital/plugin EQ advertised as having a particularly “musical” or “analog” flavor, often with a skeuomorphic (hardware-like) GUI to match. Maybe there’s even virtual wooden endcheeks!

First, let’s understand why it’s usually not so good to “EQ with your eyes.” Many plugins have extremely sophisticated metering and UI representations of what a particular band or filter is doing. Depending on the advice you’re heard – or even just the look of an EQ – you may be directed towards showing caution with how much you boost/attenuate, and with how narrow or wide you make your bands.

For example, here’s settings that result in roughly equal results to audio, as they appear first in Ableton Live’s EQ Eight, and then as they appear in Nomad Factory’s Pulse-Tec EQ, with scuffed-up UI modeled on the Pultec EQP-1A:

EQ curve in EQ Eight with spectrum visualizer
Whoa, that's way too much boost!

GUI of the Nomad Factory Pulse Tec EQ.
Whew, now I feel more comfortable.

Since hardware-modeled EQs often replicate the nuances and nonlinearities of their sources, this isn’t simply a 1:1 comparison. You can, however, see where the issue lies EQing “with your ears” vs. “with your eyes.”

Critical Bands, Critical Knowledge

EQing “with your ears,” however, also doesn’t guarantee success. Consider this: you’ve got a complex synthesized bass sound with a decent amount of midrange content, and some harmonically rich saturated electronic piano, both in the same track. Inevitably, it sounds like the two are clashing. Here, you really do want an EQ with some metering, so that you can figure out separate areas to boost/cut to keep things from sounding too muddy in the mids.

Even using EQs with spectral read-outs, you might still encounter that issue. What’s going on? You boosted separate frequencies, but things still sound muddy to your ears.

Enter Critical Bands. Let legendary Prince producer and professional audiologist Susan Rogers explain the concept:

Essentially, your ears are not a perfect machine. Think of them like a bank of filters – and sounds that hit within the same filter band can make everything sound muddy. What’s more, these filter bands overlap slightly (again, not a perfect machine).

Back to your track – what’s the solution to fix things? Don’t EQ “with your ears”, EQ for your ears. You need an EQ that is built with human auditory filters (aka critical bands) in mind for mixing. This is where EQuivocate comes in.

GUI for Newfangled Audio EQuivocate, showing an auditory filter bank mapped out according to the MEL scale.
The auditory filter bank in EQuivocate.

EQuivocate (along with Elevate, Punctuate, and Saturate) is designed to boost and cut along between the critical bands. By default, the frequencies for crossover are based on the Mel Scale (short for Melody Scale). Rather than being spaced based on the slopes given by electrical components (like vintage shelving and parametric EQs), or based on octaves (like most graphic EQs), EQuivocate is based on human perception, and how the ear and the brain receive and perceive sounds.

In practice, this means that you can EQ with either your ears, your eyes, or both, and be confident that nothing is going to muddy up your mix. Since the filters are spaced at even

bands, EQuivocate gives you the perfect resolution at every frequency. Boosts and cuts are never too narrow, or too sharp.

For another take on how to use EQuivocate to get some surprising results, stay tuned for our next piece, on EQuivocate’s Match EQ feature.

(does not require iLok dongle)

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