Composing Part IV – EQ & Reverb

Mar 06, 2022



The goal with EQ when producing orchestral mockups is to gain clarity.


The foundation of this is done with your choices during the arranging process.


Adding EQ will help to take this one step further.


When adding tracks, you inadvertently can create muddiness and cause certain frequencies to build. We will cut those in order to deal with low-mids and a muddy-sounding mix This is sometimes known as “Subtractive EQ”.



*TOP TIP*: Do not apply drastic EQ to orchestral instruments, as they will start losing their characteristic sound qualities.



EQ is a very broad subject. I will describe the techniques I use most, and also the ones that have the biggest impact. But do not take these numbers and ranges for granted. Use your ear to decide what works for your specific project.


In general, you can cut around 200-350 Hz from most of your instruments (but use your ear to check for the truly muddy frequencies). Do not make a wide cut (high Q) or you will be cutting part of the low end as well.



You can cut a little bit around 3000 Hz, which is an area where frequencies tend to build up too much. You can go wider with the range of frequencies being cut around this area, but do not cut too much, as you may lose some of the definition and harshness.  



The above suggestions need to be subtle cuts. For example, I usually use -3dB as a limit, but sometimes cut a little more.


Generally speaking, you are much better off trying to get a good balance with levels before making drastic EQ changes.


You can cut a LOT of low frequencies from your non-bass instruments. Use a frequency analyzer, which is built into most EQs (I use Fabfilter) to see how much you can cut. You will be surprised. Sometimes my High Pass Filter on violins goes right up to 400-600Hz. Still, use your ear. Don’t just trust visuals.Sometimes my High Pass Filter on violins goes right up to 400-600Hz. Still, use your ear. Don’t just trust visuals.



In general, I cut everything below 20 Hz for most low instruments, leaving only a small number of instruments without high pass filtering. These are certain sub booms or those instruments that provide the lowest frequencies for the mix. You can boost your bass instruments a bit around 40-80 Hz. 


Think of EQ as a way of adjusting levels, but in a more subtle way, affecting just one range of the instrument frequency spectrum. 



*TOP TIP*: In general, you will get better results by CUTTING EQ more and GAINING EQ less. The most experienced engineers will tell you that cutting is better than gaining, as it allows you to truly shape the sound.



If you want one instrument to stand out, find the most characteristic area of that instrument and then cut some dBs of that area for everyone else. Do not cut too much though, or you will start to lose the character that defines the sound color of those instruments. You can boost the instrument that has to stand out a little bit, but with care, because you might end up changing the unique personality of that sound.


I apply very subtle EQ cuts to avoid muddiness. I briefly show how I have my EQs set up in my template in this video.






This is also a very broad subject, but if you understand the following rules you will have the answer to many problems:


  • High pitched instruments - Can tolerate lots of reverb
  • Low pitched instruments - Can tolerate little or no reverb
  • Long Sounding Notes - Can tolerate more and longer reverb
  • Short Sounding Notes - Can tolerate less and shorter reverb


High instruments, playing long notes, legato or slow melodies, will tolerate more reverb. However, if they are playing a fast ostinato, they may tolerate a bit of reverb, but it has to be very short.

A reverb with a tail of 2 or more seconds is considered a long reverb. A short reverb has a tail that is shorter than 1 second.



*TOP TIP*: Make sure there is no reverb on your bass instruments (or at most a VERY small amount).
Unless you are going for the ‘Lord Of The Rings’ sound, make sure there is only a very small reverb on your boomy percussion instruments. 
Cut the low end of your reverbs, especially for those you apply to high pitched instruments. Usually, you will be able to do that within the same reverb plugin.
Understand the difference between convolution reverbs (simulating actual physical spaces using impulse responses) and regular algorithmic digital reverbs. There is a great old article in ‘Sound on Sound’ entitled “Choosing The Right Reverb” that provides a good overview of the different types of reverb. It is a bit dated, but the concepts still apply and it is very well explained.
I use EW Spaces for convolution reverb and B2 from 2C-Audio for regular digital reverbs. There are many other good reverb plugins. These are the ones I use the most.
Some composers will set several buses and aux tracks with different reverbs for various purposes and then set up a send on those tracks that need each type of reverb. At the very least go with a short, mid and long reverb. Below are other examples I use with this method. I don't always use all of them, but I make sure they are available.
  • One for 'panoramic' reverb (long sustained strings, sustained brass, choir -- tracks that need wide/wet sound)
  • One for 'impact' reverb (spiccato, brass stabs, woodwind etc.). This reverb is shorter than the 'panoramic' reverb, simulating a big room, but with a quicker decay.
  • One reverb for bass instruments. I almost never use this.
  • One reverb for low percussion.
  • One reverb for another percussion.
  • One reverb for synth.
  • One reverb for special FX.
This way you can use the right reverb for each purpose, which prevents the sound from becoming too boomy.
I also keep a bus with a very short and fast delay (one repetition) with slightly different delay times for left and right, that also hits a very short reverb. I sometimes use this for creating extra impact with high pitched and short sounding percussive elements.

Do you apply reverb during the composing process or while mixing?

The thing about reverb is that it takes up a lot of CPU processing, which can create problems.
Reverb is a very important element for orchestral music, and I do not want to be restricted in its use. I apply reverb during the mixing process.
There are several reasons for that, but the most important one is that when mixing, your CPU is not as stressed, allowing for more headroom for plugins that are high in CPU usage. 
Sometimes someone else will mix for you, or you will mix in a different studio, where other or better reverbs are available. It then makes no sense to add reverb during the composing process since you are using them only for reference. 
Generally speaking, you will not be able to insert reverb plug-ins on each separate instrument track because you will not have enough processing power.
Loading different buses with different reverbs and then setting up a send for every track that needs reverb is also not an option because that makes the process of exporting stems a mess.
If you are taking this same approach, make sure you decide when to export stems, in order to apply different reverbs as needed (refer to the Buses part of this manual).
If you really need to have the reverbs set up in your composing template project an elegant solution is having them inserted into the Stems Buses. Just keep in mind that you may have 20-30 stems. Not all of them will need reverb. When you inserting reverbs in your stems, make sure that you’ve got enough CPU power. If those reverb plugins take too much CPU processing, as you start composing and the cue gets busier you’ll start having overloading problems. 
I use UAD plugins for my reverbs when I’m inserting them in my composing template Stems Buses. That keeps the reverbs processing away from my CPU.
We’ve discussed the basic concepts, but there’s so much more about reverbs. We interviewed mixing engineer Bobby Fernandez (Danny Elfman, Brian Tyler, etc). Check out the second video of the interview for more reverb tricks and other mixing concepts.

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