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Analyze Your Spectrum For A Better Mix

6:00 am Home Recording

When we mix a song, one of the things we are always listening for is tonal balance - that’s right, the old bass & treble bit. Too much bass and it’s boomy or bottom-heavy. Too much midrange and it’s squawky or boxy. Not enough treble and it’s muffled or dull.

Of course, problems like this are relatively easy to hear, diagnose, and fix with a bit of EQ. Drop that bass, boost that treble! But what about subtler problems? What about cases where you know there’s something wrong with the EQ but you aren’t sure just what? No problem! Riding to the rescue is the spectrum analyzer, which allows you to see what’s going on with your EQ, so that you can fix the sound.

Every Picture Tells A Story, Don’t It?

A spectrum analyzer may take the form of a display on the front panel of a hardware EQ unit or other frequency-processing device. Or, it may appear on your computer screen as a function of your recording software. In any case, the principle is the same: the frequency spectrum is divided up into narrow bands, and the distribution of frequencies in the audio material run through the analyzer is displayed in real time, typically in a series of vertical bars representing the intensity in the various bands. Like this:

Some analyzers, especially of the software variety, may also have an option to display the spectrum as a continuous line plotting intensity vs. frequency, like this:

Compare and Contrast

In order to effectively apply the spectrum analyzer to tweaking the EQ of your mix, it would be helpful to know what the display looks like when a known good mix is run through it. To this end, I suggest playing some CDs whose sound you like through your system, carefully observing the spectrum display that goes with the sound you are hearing.

When it comes time to do your mix, you can make it a general rule to EQ the overall mix until the spectrum is about the same as the ones you observed when you played your “target” CDs. There’s no need to be slavish; the actual sound has to be the final standard. But there is no doubt that the something that is wrong with the EQ is often revealed by the shape of the corresponding frequency spectrum.

Note that you can apply the spectrum analyzer to individual tracks as well, observing the spectrum of, say, a single guitar or vocal. (Software analyzers make this especially easy.) In this case, I’m not really sure that the spectrum tells you as much as your ears about how the instrument sounds when it’s heard alone. If you are going to analyze and tweak a single track, you should be listening to the full mix while you do it. And again, let your ears, not your eyes, be the final judge.

In Search Of…

If you have a piece of hardware with a spectrum analyzer display on the front panel, you probably already know it’s there. But if you are using a software DAW, you may have to hunt a bit to find the analyzer and figure out how to invoke it. Time to dig out the manual (probably a pdf file these days)!

Depending on your DAW software, you may not have a built-in spectrum analyzer. For example, I have Cubase Essential 4 (Windows) and there is no such function mentioned in the manual (although I think Cubase 5 has one built in). Anyway, no worries, Mate. There are a large number of Cubase-compatible VST spectrum analyzer plug-ins that you can download, many for free. (For example, here’s a free one that looks pretty good.)

If you are discerning enough to use Logic Pro (or Express) 8 on a Macintosh computer, like I do, you will find an “Analyzer” button right there in the EQ display. Check it out!

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One Response
  1. John Smith :

    Date: October 26, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    Check out Voxengo SPAN!
    Its just the best spectrum analyzer ever!!

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