The equalizer is the most crucial and versatile tool when it comes to sculpting the sound of the mix. If used properly, EQ can drastically enhance even something that could be considered a rather mediocre recording. But when it comes to metal, even a perfect recording requires thorough EQing since there’s a lot of harmonic content present and a lot of frequencies build up. And considering most of those occur in guitars, knowing how to EQ metal guitars in your song is extremely vital.
EQing metal guitar explained
Despite the fact that there’s a wide variety of metal music, one thing that they all have in common is extremely distorted electric guitars. And as audio producers, we have to make sure that we maintain and even enhance the energy of those guitars, but yet make them more contained and therefore listenable.
The main problem with heavy electric guitars is that they have a very broad frequency range with a lot of build-up in low frequencies. The frequencies tend to overlap with the sound of other instruments in the mix, which is rather unwanted unless you want your mix to be a clattering mess. If not, the EQ is a perfect tool for the job since all that it basically does is making some frequencies quieter and other louder. But there are things that might help you even before you apply the EQ.
Proper recording setup
Generally speaking, the more you are prepared for the recording session, the fewer problems you’re going to have to fix on the mixing stages. Choosing the right electric guitar is important, but it’s even more crucial to choose the right amplifier. If you have only one amp at your disposal, make sure that you have the right settings for the project, but note that these days it’s totally okay to record DI guitars and use emulations. But if you prefer to use the real amp, make sure that your mics are set properly.
Usually, the best place to put your mic would be on the edge of the cabinet’s speaker. Putting it in the middle will give you a lot of build-up in the mid-range, although some engineers prefer it that way. If you also use a bass amp, try to use different mics on it. This might give you a slightly different tone and frequency response which could result in less masking between the guitar and the bass.
Always double-track your rhythm guitars unless it’s a very informed and creative decision of yours not to do so. Doubling the guitar sound obviously will make it fatter and wider. But also, it cancels out some very offensive frequencies. And we couldn’t emphasize enough how crucial it is to capture a perfect performance. No amount of EQing could save a poorly played guitar part.
If you recorded your tracks properly, the chances are that you’ll end up with a pretty decent mix that at first glance might not even need EQing. Unfortunately, it’s never the case. Even if you did a top-shelf job, some issues are unavoidable. But the good news is that it’s very easy to fix when you know what to listen for. But before we dive into the actual EQing, let’s establish that it doesn’t even remotely matter what type of EQ you’re using unless it’s an EQ with fixed frequency bands.
So you might as well use your favorite EQ or experiment for a bit since there are a lot of interesting options on the market. When it comes to the EQ, the only thing you should be aware of is the coloration.
Some digital equalizers are extremely clean. Others will add just a smudge of harmonic distortion. Which one to use and when is completely up to you. But generally speaking, a clean digital EQ is perfect for cutting frequencies, and vintage EQs might be used for boosting since they can add some character.
The best place to start EQing a heavy metal guitar is a low-cut filter with a pretty steep slope. There is a lot of information in sub frequencies that we don’t really want, considering that it significantly overlaps with the sound of bass guitar. There’s no easy answer to what frequency to put a low-cut on. Somewhere around 80-100 Hz should be enough for a 6 string guitar. But if you use a guitar with an extended range, be extremely careful since improper low-cut could thin out the sound significantly.
Boosting low frequencies is preferable, but you have to be careful with that as well. As a general rule, you have to separate bass and electric guitars as much as possible. So if you, for example, wanted to boost a 100 Hz on electric guitars, it’s rather a good idea to make a gentle cut on a bass guitar at the same frequency. Some tiny surgical cuts are completely unnecessary on the low end but could help you greatly if you’re going for a very polished sound. Make a very narrow Q and swipe through the low end until you find an unpleasant resonant frequency.
When it comes to heavy electric guitars, the low mid-range is where most of your attention should go to. Usually, there are a lot of build-ups somewhere around 200-500 Hz, which is significantly cluttering the mix. A rather wide cut of 2-3 dBs should fix the problem, but if your guitar still sounds muddy, try to make the cut even deeper. If your guitar sounds a bit boxy, you can find the frequencies that are causing this somewhere between 300 Hz and 2 kHz. The cut here should be as gentle as possible since it’s very easy to make the guitar sound thinner than it should be.
There’re a lot of resonant frequencies around 2 kHz and above. So swiping a very narrow notch in that area should help you to identify unwanted frequencies. Then a gentle cut between 2 and 3 dBs should do the trick most of the time, but if you still find the sound very annoying, try to make a more aggressive cut.
Generally, it all depends on the style of the sound you’re going for. If you want a raw and aggressive sound, make very wide and gentle moves with your EQ. If your goal is a polished sound, use your EQ more aggressively and surgically.
When it comes to the high-frequency spectrum, electric guitars tend to significantly overlap with cymbals. A high-cut filter could fix this problem, although this step is completely unnecessary if your electric guitars don’t have a conflict with cymbals. Where to put the cut is a rather difficult question since it completely depends on the situation. Quite a few professional audio engineers cut as high as 5 kHz, but feel free to experiment and find a solution that suits you the best.
If you want to add some sparkle and shine to your electric guitars, make a shelf boost somewhere around 4-10 kHz. This is where having an EQ with a vintage coloration comes in handy. Although the clean digital EQ will do just fine. But beware, though, the higher the boost, the more build-up in the high end you will get, especially if your cymbals already sound very aggressive. But also note that many professional audio engineers tend to leave the high end of heavy electric guitars completely unaffected.
Mid Side EQ
If you have an equalizer with M/S capabilities, there’re a few interesting tricks you can perform on the sound of your heavy electric guitars. You can use these tricks separately or in addition to the EQing techniques listed above.
Firstly, place a very aggressive low-cut filter on the side. This will give your electric guitars a tighter and more refined bottom end without making it sound thinner. Where to put the cut is completely up to you, but we recommend starting your experiments somewhere around 200 Hz or maybe even higher than that.
Secondly, make a high shelf on the side. This will make your electric guitar sound brighter and wider without affecting the bottom end. Combining these two EQ moves could give you a more refined and polished guitar sound that would sit significantly better in the mix.
Finally, boost some low frequencies in the middle. This will make your guitar sound fatter and bigger without affecting the overall balance of the mix. But since the bass guitar is almost exclusively recorded in mono, you should be aware of a possible overlapping, which in turn could easily ruin your mix.
The most important thing to remember here is that what we covered about how to EQ metal guitars serve as a set of mere recommendations and not rules. To quickly recap, we suggest that you start with low and high-cut filters, make some wide cuts somewhere between 200-500 Hz and somewhere around 2kHz. Very narrow and surgical cuts should fix unpleasant resonant frequencies, which you should be able to find with a swipe. A high shelf boost should be able to add some sparkle and shine to the sound of your heavy electric guitar.