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EnginEARing Part 6: The Frequency Chart I Meanings Within The Frequency Spectrum
By Glen Stephan on May 3 2011 08:00 PM | Permalink | Author Info
Once we have gotten used to listening analytically to the sounds and music around us (Part 4) and to recognizing the frequencies of those sounds (Part 5), we are ready to take a little more in-depth look at the audible frequency spectrum, and the roles that the various frequency bands tend to play in what we hear.


To help guide us through the audible spectrum, we have a frequency chart at our disposal. We can view this chart interactively by running the web-based browser applet, or as a large-format poster suitable for placing in our studio or classroom.

This chart graphically displays the frequency range of most of the major musical instrument types available today, along with a graphical mapping of the standard Western scale of musical notes using a visual representation of a Frequency chart detail 1piano-style keyboard indicating their approximate location within the audible frequency spectrum, a section mapping the approximate frequency ranges often associated with many of the descriptive terms used to describe certain subjective audible attributes of sound (e.g. “mud”, “brightness”, “warmth”, etc.), and finally a mapping of the approximate locations of each of the frequency bands in a full 31-band 1/3rd-octave graphic equalizer.  The chart also breaks the whole frequency range down into the five color-coded “domains” of “Sub-bass”, “Bass”, “Midrange”,  “High-Midrange” and “High frequencies”

In the online version, we can move our mouse over the various parts of the chart to display on the right specific information regarding the frequency-related characteristics of each specific instrument and the various frequency domains themselves.

In the poster, color-coded “data boxes” to the right of the chart contain descriptions of many of the common sonic characteristics often attributable of each of the five frequency domains identified in the main chart.

What does this chart really tell us? As part of building our critical and analytical listening skills, it tells us a few helpful things. But first a caution as to what it does NOT tell us:


The very first point is a caution that this frequency chart and other charts and tables like this do not offer direct solutions or recipes that tell us what to do in our mixes - not if we ever want to be any good at mixing. Looking up the information in this chart on, say, kick drums or male vocal helps illustrate of some general attributes common to many instances of those instruments, but in no way tells us either explicitly or implicitly what we actually should do, and information like this should never be read in that way.

We need to remind ourselves that if this engineering stuff were simply a matter of reading a few simple recipes like “boost here and cut there”, great engineers or producers would be a dime a dozen, and would be worth even less. No, the reason we know and admire names like Alan Parsons, Quincy Jones or Chris Lord Alge is because they don’t follow such generic cut-and-paste recipes. They follow their ears and their muses.

Then why have the frequency chart at all? Because when used right, it can make a great tool to help train our hearing - not by deafly following any instructions or charted recipes, but by helping us take our understanding of what we’re hearing to the next level.

In part 5 of this series we learned a technique for training our ears to recognize the various frequencies it hears. With this chart in hand, we can now take that association a bit deeper. Not only can we now tell (just as an example) whether we hear a lot of 4k in the kick drum or not, but we can now learn to associate just what that 4k means to the sound and how it may be commonly described by others.


Someone once said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. The idea behind this wonderful statement was that words just can’t adequately describe what we actually hear in music and sound, no more than dancing can describe what we see in architecture.

Frequency chart detail 2While this can be true to a large degree, critical listeners have developed a vocabulary of their own over the years that helps convey certain sonic properties on succinct words. Descriptive words such as “muddy”, “tinny”, “sibilant”, “air” and many such others help us understand each other when we are describing what we do or do not hear or want to hear in our mixes.

It’s important to note that there is no exact, scientific meaning to many of these words. Some of them, such as “mud” and “honk” can often differ from one ear – or even one mix – to the next. For instance, one song may sound “muddy” because of an excess of energy somewhere near the 200 to 400Hz range, another may call a buildup of upper midrange in the 2kHz to 4kHz range as “mud”. Still others will call something “muddy” because of a lack of clarity or definition in the high frequencies. But any way you slice it, “mud” still typically refers to a particular lack of clarity, whether it’s due to too much of something in the lower or mid frequencies, or not enough of something in the high frequencies.

Other words can have more than one meaning. For instance “air” sometimes refers to a type of feel of intimacy, clarity or natural presence one can get from a clarity or accuracy of reproduction in the frequencies above 13kHz or so, other times it can simply refer to quiet spots or rest points in the composition or arrangement.

A few words, on the other hand, do have a bit more of a specific accuracy in their definition. A good example of that would be the concept of “sibilance” or “sibilant”, which refers to the high frequency sounds caused by the human voice when pronouncing the “sss” sound in words like “source” or “central”, or the hard “t” sound in words like “tinsel” or “tiger”. These sibilant sounds occur in the 5kHz to10kHz range, with most of the energy usually falling closer to the 6kHz to 8kHz range within that.


Even with the subjectivity and lack of specificity in the meanings of these kinds of descriptive words, those with decent critical and analytical listening skills use them on an everyday basis to communicate pretty effectively to each other. When Andy tells Betty that the chorus sounds “muddy”, Betty can usually give that chorus a listen and figure out what Andy is talking about without having to specifically know beforehand exactly what kind of “mud” he means.

This is not so easy for those of us still developing our ears and our vocabulary. We may not quite yet have our ears tuned to the point of recognizing the difference between “mud” and something else, or may not know what to call it even when we do hear it.

This is where the information in the frequency chart (both the online applet and the poster) can help. First, in the bottom of the chart itself, below the piano keyboard, is a graphical representation showing common frequency ranges often associated with many of the descriptive words musicians and engineers often use. Second, the specific data boxes to the right of the chart are loaded with information about when and where these sonic descriptors can apply.

By using this chart as a reference while listening to music, as well as listening to the comments of others with perhaps a bit more experienced ears than ours, we can help link what our ears are experiencing both with the possible frequency ranges responsible, and with the descriptions others use to explain what they are hearing themselves. In both ways, we are giving our ears a further education in critical and analytical listening.

Then we can combine these references with a simultaneous exercising of our EQ as described in Part 5, - except now we start with all bands set to zero gain (in the middle with no boost or cut), and push the individual sliders up and down in turn. This exercise can help us hear many of the characteristics described in the chart for ourselves almost on demand. For example, play around with our EQ in the bass ranges to hear how it can affect our perceptions of “warmth” or “boominess” or “muddiness” or do a similar exercise in the upper midranges to hear how it may affect how “clean” or “tinny” or “sibilant” it may sound. And so on.

It is again important to note that while these descriptions can and often will apply to what we are actually hearing an any given mix, it remains up to us and our ears to determine exactly when and where they actually do apply, and when and where they are “good” or “bad” to have in that specific instance. While “mud” is generally considered a bad thing and “air” a good thing, sometimes the opposite may be true where some “mud” is desirable and “air” can be overdone. Only we can judge that on a creative and subjective level. But like any good judge, we cannot make such decisions without first hearing the evidence and understanding what it means.

Next up: EnginEARing Part 7: The Frequency Chart II Frequency and Arrangement

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