There`s a ton of different things that make a great live guitar tone, but just one thing often makes the biggest difference – correct use of the mid frequency. It shocks me that so many bands I see, either at gigs, festivals, or play alongside with my own band, neglect this critical part of achieving the tone they so desperately seek, If you want an awesome, powerful, face-melting tone that cuts through the mix then you simply cannot afford to neglect the mid range of your guitar and amplifier. Poor EQ-ing has been the bane of so many rock gigs for far too long. From unsigned gigs down at the local pub to headliners of Reading festival, it never ceases to amaze me how many guitarists and sound engineers get this wrong.
I recently played a bunch of summer gigs with a huge variety of bands (from indie to djent to prog-pop) and one thing that stood out to me was one band in particular. Their two guitarists had fantastic, lush sounding clean parts but when their opening track kicked in with the full band and distortion, the guitarists sound completely disappeared into thin air. Either, it’s a Houdini trick or the mids on the drive channels were set way, way too low. This gig and so many more would have been much more enjoyable, and so much tinnitus prevented if people just EQ-ed their guitar tone properly. No matter what genre your music falls under – be it prog, metal, djent, rock or indie, getting your live sound and show nailed is essential.
Mids, Mids, Mids
A great live tone starts with the EQ. Crank those mids. It`s as simple as that. Human hearing is focused in the mid range. The rest of the band covers the majority of the low and high frequencies. Just think, from a very simplistic point of view, a drummer and bassist cover the lows, cymbals and vocals cover the highs, so that really only leaves one place for the guitar – the mid frequencies.
When creating a live tone, I ask myself two simple questions:
- “How good does my guitar sound?”
- “Can I hear my guitar clearly in the mix without the volume of the amp being excessive?”
If you can answer a firm 100% “yes” to both questions, you`re in the right ballpark, but if your sound is great, yet gets lost in the mix, you may have to do some tweaking. Likewise, if you can hear yourself clearly but your tone sucks, you may need to make some adjustments too. This though is very rare in my experience. 99% of the time a guitarist`s tone sucks because they`ve spent countless hours tweaking a cool tone in the bedroom but not realising it sounds nothing short of a flabby mess in the band mix.
A guitar that sounds great on its own rarely sounds good with the full band. This goes back to the whole mid range issue. We hear the mids so much better than the other frequencies that when a guitar is played on its own, the mids can be a bit grating, so it’s natural to cut them. That sounds much cooler, but if you play with this tone in a band mix, everything gets lost.
Mids aren’t particularly cool but whether you like it or not, the mid frequency is the only place you`ll hear the guitar clearly in the mix. Take a look at fig.1. This is a common EQ setting for many guitarists. Using a setting such as this, you`ll struggle be heard in a band mix.
You can get your guitar to cut through the mix in one of two ways. That`s to either increase the mids or increase the overall volume of your amp. The latter is what most guitarists are guilty of when they struggle to hear themselves in the mix. The only beneficial thing increasing the volume does is to naturally raise the level of the mids, but it will also be raising the level of the low and high frequencies too, so this is where a LOT of problems arise. See fig.2.
Notice how bringing up the overall volume brings up the mids, allowing you to be heard in the mix but also brings up bass and treble up to damaging levels. The overall volume of your guitar will be excessive and damaging to not only your ears but to the mix as a whole. The damage excessive low end frequencies can do to your ears are huge. it’s no surprise really as bass frequencies are far more powerful and have much more energy than higher frequencies.
By having a decent amount of mids in your playing, you’re able to reduce the volume and the whole mix sounds infinitely better, your ears will certainly thank you for it. See fig.3.
That`s much better. The overall volume is reduced, your tone is more balanced, the sound engineer has more flexibility and headroom with the PA, and most importantly you and your audience will be able to hear your guitar clearly without damaging your precious ears. See, that`s why a scooped sound sucks for live use.
More mids = Less volume needed = Less dirge from the bass and less harshness from excessive treble = Less chance of unwanted feedback = Less use of a noise gate/suppressor = more sustain
One of the simplest ways to improve your live tone is to purchase a stompbox EQ such as the Danelectro Fish and Chips or the Boss GE-7. Both will give you a lot more flexibility when it comes to sculpting your sound. I personally prefer the Danelectro. Get one and try it in your amps FX loop.. It will make a huge difference and allow you full control of the mid range.
More guitarists are starting to realise the importance of mids in their live tone these days but most rarely understand how to use the mids properly. The areas that the mid range of a guitar covers is debatable but I usually look at it as the area from the 500hz – 4khz region. Anything below is bass and anything above is high end.
A great way to master your mids is to either buy an EQ pedal (the Danelctro Fish and Chips is superb) OR mic up your amp to your computer and use an EQ plug- in on your favourite DAW. Have a play about with the frequencies in the 500hz-4khz region. Boost and cut various frequencies and train your ear to determine which frequencies do what. Experiment to find the exact frequencies where the guitar jumps out and comes alive.
To put it simply boost:
- Low mids (500hz to 1.5hz) to fill out the sound
- High mids (1.5hz to 4hz) to cut through
Try boosting a lot (10Db or so) and sweep the frequencies until your hear where the guitar sounds thick yet bright. This is the spot you want. Drop the boost back down to about +2 or +3 at this point and your guitar will have the necessary thickness to cut through the band mix without being overly bright. You don`t need to boost much in the mid range as your ears will pick up small increases within this range. If your guitar starts sounding honky, a small cut in the 1-2 kHz can round out the sound. If your guitar lacks presence, you can pull it to the front of the mix by boosting in the 3 kHz area.
It would be easy to give you a load of specific amp and equalizer settings, but all gear reacts differently. It really does depend on the player and the whole gear chain. For example, Slash`s amp settings will be drastically different to that of Stephen Carpenter `s of Deftones. This is why it`s essential to improve and then trust your own ears.
Checklist for killer properly EQ-ed live tone
- Buy an EQ pedal (recommended) and put it in your amp`s FX loop at your next practice
- Turn on EQ pedal and get singer or someone else to systematically raise/lower each fader to min and max settings focusing on the mid faders
- Run through a song you know well
- Find `sweet spot` – the sound where your guitar is thick, yet cuts through the mix.
- Lower volume of amp to as low as possible while still being able to hear yourself clearly in the mix
- Keep tweaking to find a balance between the amp volume and the settings on the EQ pedal
- Tweak again from these settings at your next practice.
Many guitarists often turn to gear to save them in their time of need. It`s usually unnecessary and form of procrastination. It’s far more beneficial and cost effective to maximise what gear you already have. That being said, there is a piece of gear that is fantastic for bringing out the mids and that’s the Ibanzez Tube-Screamer. Ever since Misha Mansoor of Periphery discussed his love for the pedal, sales have increased big time. Djent lovers adore this pedal and with good reason. Getting a djent guitar tone is quite dependant on the mid range. This is what gives it that `djent-ish` sound.
The Tube Screamer brings out the mids very well indeed. Even if you don’t play djent, it`s a great overdrive pedal to have in your arsenal. I`m not in djent band (although there are djent sections) but it’s my first choice overdrive for when I want a lead boost or extra grit. Try one out before you buy. I never recommend buying gear purely on other reviews.
No matter what gear you buy, if you neglect your mid range and you play live, you`ll encounter problems. So, next time you play with your band, if you`re not happy with the mix, check your mid range first. Once you get the mid range sorted, you`ll be infinitely happier with the sound of the mix. You band and audience will thank you for it too.