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A New Superhero

One of my all-time favorite actors, Denzel Washington did a movie two years ago called The Equalizer. The premise of the film, which was based on a TV show of the same name from the late 1980s, features Denzel as an everyday joe, who is a little eccentric and has a dark past. He’s actually a retired spy from the CIA with a sense of justice and fair play that pushes him into helping people in desperate situations. The TV show used a slightly different approach but both the series and the movie pitted a fearless, trained operative against bullies of the worst kind to level the playing field for the victims. To me, this is the absolutely BEST kind of drama. Like Seven Samurais and The Magnificent Seven, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In The West, the good guy is a not-so-pristine hero who helps people who are truly in need of intervention.

To an imaging producer, an equalizer is a box or plug-in used to adjust or correct frequency characteristics of audio we are using in our work. (Most producers are on a first-name basis with this tool, so we usually just say EQ.) Strictly speaking, we become the ‘equalizer’ when we use this tool. We become the champion of justice and fair play.

When a track is crippled by poor acoustics or electronics, we step in and try to ‘fix’ it so that the track is whole again and can stand on its own. When one track ‘bullies’ another, like Clint Eastwood’s no-name character in Pale Rider, we glide in, toss some dynamite in a key place and make the bullying stop, allowing the weaker track to shine through.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, equalization means:

1. to make equal

2. a : to compensate for

b : to make uniform; especially : to distribute evenly or uniformly <equalize the tax burden>

c : to adjust or correct the frequency characteristics of (an electronic signal) by restoring to their original level high frequencies that have been attenuated

Here’s a bit of trivia you might find interesting. When Bell first started to wire the world for telephony, they purposely adjusted the EQ of telephone equipment to a very narrow frequency range to match the most essential parts of human speech. They were rightly concerned with what we now call bandwidth across those tiny copper wires, especially over long distances. So they reduced the frequency range to NOT include anything below 300 Hz (then they called them cycles) while everything above 3,400 Hz was also cut off. To this day, you will find pre-sets in your EQ modules called ‘Telephone’ which do the same thing. This, in spite of the amazing progress made in frequency transmission, particularly with fiber-optics. The ‘telephone’ setting has a unique sound and feel to it that listeners will for many years yet perceive as being ‘on the phone.’

Most of the work we do with EQ however, has less to do with correcting the sound of an individual track and much more to do with achieving a balance between all our tracks. Nearly all the time, the spoken word has very little power when compared to the music. Understanding the frequencies and their place in the aural spectrum is critical to making your promo or sweeper ‘print’ to the listener’s ears. As a musician, it helps me to show the spoken vocal range of frequencies placed on a piano keyboard.

Note that most of the human vocal range matches what the scientists at Bell Labs decided was essential for telephone use. Smart guys! Here’s another really cool coincidence: most of the music provided in production libraries falls OUTSIDE those frequencies. They purposely cut out instruments that share the spoken vocal range so your vocal tracks will pop through. If they do use those instruments (piano, lead guitar, saxophone), they carefully reduce the gain on them to again, allow your VO to pop through.

If you are not using production library music, you have to put on your Iron Man costume and beat the bad guys back. Throw a dip in frequency response (attenuate) those frequencies that are in the spoken range and suddenly, your VO will rise up out of the fog of music and become clear again. Sure, you could just drop the gain on your music track, but where’s the art in that? Using EQ to make your VO pop will give the entire piece a sense of unity, like the music was perfectly matched to your VO and vice versa.

This technique of balancing your music against your vocal with EQ can be used in a ‘purist’ fashion, with little or no compression, or can be emphasized with compression equally well. And you get to pick which hero costume you wear when you do it.

Personally, I’m really leaning toward my new favorite equalizer hero, Deadpool, but I really don’t want to scare the neighbors.

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