the Frequency Landscape

Before you can EQ a sound, you have to know where to find it.   

Welcome to the frequency landscape, where you learn how to connect the frequency ranges we hear with specific numbers in Hz.

This lesson is going to explain what the range of human hearing is, how we measure it, and where different sounds happen within that range.

It's one of the most important things to understand in the whole world of music production because this is how to connect your FEELINGS with the numbers on your EQs,

and get a technical EQ system that makes people feel good.

Start with "The Frequency Landscape Guide", a free PDF file that goes with this article.

Did you know there are only two basic operations in mixing? 

Volume and Tone.  People will disagree with this but I think it's true.

When we mix sounds inside a session, the only two things we really do are we change the volume of a sound,  or we change the tone.

Everything else about audio engineering is either a detail about volume control, or an extension of tone-shaping.  

Do you believe it could be that simple?  (It is, but it isn't...)

Anyway, learning the frequency range is important because it helps you EQ your sounds without experimenting for hours, and without being afraid that you're cutting off something important.

You're about to learn an amazingly powerful connection between the numbers on your EQ (in Hertz) and the tone of sounds we hear.  

the range of human hearing
We measure our hearing in terms of Hertz (Hz).  

We can hear sounds from 20Hz to 20,000Hz.

"Hertz" measures the frequency of vibration from a sound in air.  

One Hertz (Hz) = one cycle per second 

(The way we hear sound is by the air vibrating against our eardrums.  I know you know that part.)

subsonic sound
Below 20Hz we feel the sound in our bodies without hearing it in our ears.  That's called "subsonic" sound.  Think of how your feet can feel a bridge bouncing from traffic passing, or the floor of a house when someone closes a heavy door downstairs.  That's an example of low-frequency vibration that we can't hear.  

supersonic sound
Above 20,000Hz we don't feel sound or hear it.  Vibration too high for us to hear is called "supersonic".  You might see your dog react to something you can't hear, because dogs can hear higher sounds than we can.  

about abbreviations
20,000 Hz is the same as 20 kiloHertz, also written 20 kHz
5.1 kHz means 5100 Hz
1.95 kHz means 1950 Hz
"-kilo" means 1000, not everyone is a scientist, so just remember that.
You may hear people say, "it's too much at 5k" which means 5 kilohertz, 5kHz, or 5000Hz.  

Ok so far?  We are making a connection between what we hear and the numbers we use to represent it.  Once you have that connection you can easily use any EQ to change the tone of a sound which needs it.  

You will be amazed how fast your sessions move when you get good at this, and how much better your tracks sound when you cut out all the un-necessary tone from your sounds.

Let's talk about musical notes for a second.  

Pitch is a musical term for measuring frequency.  Pitch uses note names from A to G, including the words "sharp" and "flat".  These are the notes on the piano keyboard or any instrument.  

The note “A” is commonly calibrated to 440 Hertz.  This is the “A” below middle C on the piano keyboard, for reference. 

Pitch and Frequency are two ways of talking about what sound you hear.  We will use this connection later, especially when we EQ sub-bass sounds which allow no room for extra bass garbage.

Now let's describe TONE  

The TONE of a sound is what gives us feelings.  It can make us happy, unhappy, calm, excited, curious...  all sorts of interesting reactions come from tone.  

That's why it's so much fun to make music in the first place, we communicate all these feelings with the tone we use.

Tone can even frighten people at a subconscious level -- think of a fire alarm, a baby crying or someone screaming.   The tone of those sounds disturbs us on a physiological level; we are hard-wired to react to it. 

Believe me, you don't want your music to press the panic button in people's ears!  This is a really good reason to learn about EQ'ing!

Here are some words we use to describe tone, to show you that you are already an expert with EQ.   

  • ear-piercing scream (3.5kHz)
  • earth-shaking bass (40hz)
  • bright trumpet (1.6kHz)
  • shrill whistle (6 kHz)
  • tight kick drum (110hz)
  • jagged guitar (2.2 khz)
  • static hiss (12 kHz)
  • clear as a bell (3.5 kHz)

Since we now know that the range of human hearing is 20hz to 20khz, we know that any sounds we can describe will happen somewhere within that range.

I saw something about this in a forum the other day.  

Someone said,

"I hear people talk about cutting the mud out of your mix, but how do I know where the mud is?"

Great question!  'The mud' is usually between 150hz and 650hz. 

But it takes a lot of experience to build up your own connection between numbers (Hz) and tone.

So I made this guide to help you get there faster.  

Here are some common frequency ranges you hear about, with translation into Hertz.

Download the PDF here and keep it for reference:

SUB-BASS RANGE 20 Hz - 100 Hz
This is the place for kick drums and basslines. Nothing else in your mix should be down here unless you really know what you are doing.  Kick drums can go up to about 130Hz.  The melodic part of a bassline can go up to 500hz or more, but the sub-bass is all below 150hz and usually below 100hz.
TIP: Avoid putting both kick and sub-bass into the same frequency range.

LOW MIDRANGE or “Low-Mids” 100 - 250 Hz
Cheap speakers don’t make sound very well below this range.  Basslines and synths with low parts go here.  The bottom end of snare drum can sometimes reach here, and low male vocals. Bassline goes here of course, and piano can easily reach below this, but normally in electronic music it does not.
TIP: High-Pass Filter every sound in your mix up to 250 Hz if it is not playing a bassline or kick drum part

THE MIDRANGE or “the mids” 250 Hz - 4000 kHz
The midrange is the most important part of the mix because it’s where most of the sounds are located. All vocals and instruments go here including the upper end of basslines. Devices like mobile phone speakers and laptops are limited to this frequency range.  For pop music, the mix has to sound good between these limits because most people will be listening to it on the radio, in the car, or on small speakers (even in mono).
TIP: check your mix on small speakers to find out what everyone else will actually hear.

UPPER MIDRANGE or “Hi-Mids" 4 - 12 kHz
This range is where things like melodies and synth leads are happening. Also female vocals, guitar leads, arpeggiator synth parts that go up 8 octaves, flute, etc. Most melodic instruments easily reach this range. Towards the top you hear it more as a hiss than a pitch.  
TIP: when you need a De-Esser on a vocal, start at 6 kHz and adjust it from there.


600 Hz "THE MUD"
Anywhere from 550hz to 650hz there will ALWAYS be a really gross section that you need to EQ out. You hear it in acoustic drums (especially floor toms), drum loops, keys, etc. Instruments like piano and synths and vocals sometimes sound warm and nice at this frequency, but drums don’t. 
TIP: cut acoustic drums and beat loops at 600 Hz. Even -12dB is not too much to scoop out.

7 kHz De-Esser
7 kHz adds a lot of brightness and intangible open space on a sound, especially vocals. However, the vocal sibilant sounds “s”, “t” and “ch” can really be too sharp up here.  
TIP: set your De-Essing sidechain input somewhere from 5kHz to 8kHz to catch the sibilants.

There's a lot more that I couldn't fit into this post.  

Download the whole thing here. (free PDF)

Now that you know the range of human hearing, and you know the important words Hertz, frequency and pitch, you can understand what people are talking about in the studio.

You are in good shape to start learning to use EQ and Filters to work with different sounds.

We are actually connecting feelings to numbers, believe it or not. 

This is why EQ is so amazing… you can make people like your music when they don’t even know why.  

And if you do it wrong, you will make people DISLIKE your music (even if it’s a good song) simply because the tone was wrong at certain key frequencies which hurt their ears.

Music makes you smarter because it combines both sides of our brains --  the artistic creative side plays with tone and feeling, while the analytical side uses EQ, numbers &  frequencies.

It’s just beautiful;  I can feel the two halves of my brain saying, “yeah let’s hang out!!!”  

If you like what you just read, you can learn by doing it HANDS-ON in the FREQLAND course.  Click the pic to check it out.

If you like what you just read, you can learn by doing it HANDS-ON in the FREQLAND course.  Click the pic to check it out.

Steve Knots

Thanks for your visit! If you're new here, check out the session lessons. They're the most exciting new way to learn sound design, composition and mixdown techniques for electronic music production in Ableton Live. -Steve