By Jack Sharkey

 

Right out of school I scored a gig with a mid-level touring act as Front-of-House sound engineer. This was back when most bands brought their own sound systems, and way before the day when the mixing board was a neat little GUI on a MacBook. There were real knobs and buttons and wires and things. It was like a slice of Geek Heaven.

 

I showed up for the show run-through and heard something I didn’t like, so I went to the graphic equalizer, adjusted the 2.2kHz band byDon't Push That Button! like .5dB and promptly got fired. “NEVER, EVER touch the EQ man, unless I tell you to!” were the last words I heard as I sheepishly made my way out to my car on a frigid March night.

 

After I came to grips with the fact that I had offended a sensitive genius and had probably jeopardized my entire career, I began to understand the important audio lesson I learned that night – it’s all totally subjective. And since it is so subjective, inexperienced sound engineers need to understand that the subjective opinion of the guy in charge is the only opinion that matters.

 

This brings us to the old high-end audio saw about equalizers: “The ideal system is a straight wire with gain.” Meaning that your audio chain should do nothing to the sound of your audio other than increase its volume. There’s a good reason for this: Anything we put in the chain between the source and the speaker affects the sound through phase shifts, introduced distortion and time smearing. Analog equalizers are the biggest offenders.

 

Any equalizer (EQ) boost greater than 3dB throws so much phase shift and time smear into the output that the original intention of the recording is often completely lost. For that reason, equalizers in serious hi-fi systems are generally not used. If you must use an EQ – attenuate don’t boost!

 

But what about the fact that your equalizer simply makes your music sound better to you? You’re the person in charge of your system and your subjective opinion is the only one that matters (the importance of compromising with your significant other is well beyond the scope of this piece). If you want to add an EQ into your system, by all means do so, and ignore the caterwauling of the purists among us.

 

But there are a few things you can do to help you approach an ideal sound without injecting unwanted distortion into your music. Try them first, and if you can, do an A-B comparison with and without an EQ as you make your environmental changes.

 

Get the position right. A change of only a few degrees (on toe-in) or a few inches (on physical position) can make an incredible difference in how a system sounds. Positioning is everything – experiment first before you rely on an artificial means (EQ) of controlling your sound.

 

Fix your room. Nice looking and effective audio treatments can be had for not a lot of money (probably about the same cost as a quality EQ). Try to treat your room first. You can also use your decorations and furnishing strategically to treat your room. Manage first reflections by using the mirror test (Google it) and then apply a mix of absorptive and reflective surfaces. A decent rule of thumb for music setups in particular is to use absorption from the first reflection point backward toward the speakers and reflective materials from that point on to the back of the room. Scattering reflections makes a room seem more lively while making reflections that actually reach your ears so low in energy that your brain can ignore them.

 

Use two subwoofers. Room nodes produce standing waves that may diminish bass response immensely. Using two subwoofers firing at non-square or non-parallel angles to each other will eliminate standing waves and make bass response more even throughout the room. If you can’t add a second subwoofer, experiment with the positioning of sub you have.

 

Avoid presets. Many systems today include preset EQ settings such as ‘Jazz,’ ‘Rock,’ ‘Pop,’ etc. Using these is like using a sledgehammer to hang a picture. There is no nuance, no allowance for what you like or dislike. These presets are just factory designed algorithms that have about an equal chance of increasing your enjoyment as they do diminishing it.

 

Sometimes recordings just sound bad. Use a variety of different tracks and sources to test your system and know that sometimes you have to deal with a clunker of a recording that no decent system or room can fix.

 

I’m not a fan of equalizers (and not just because getting fired over one traumatized me), I just don’t like the way they sound when they’re not integrated properly. Sometimes they are totally necessary, but in today’s world, with the technologies we have and the materials available to us, you might say a more holistic approach to getting your sound right is preferable to an approach that may introduce more harm to your sound than good.