3 Major Mistakes Commonly Made By Equalizer Users

April 4, 2016 9:24 am0 commentsViews: 47

Back in the late 1990s when we all started using Winamp to play our MP3 music files, I lost my head over its built-in digital equalizer. After playing around with different settings, I settled on boosted basses and a small peak around 10 kHz.

At first, the sound seemed to be perfect. From time to time, however, I could hear some nasty distortion—particularly within the lower frequency range. It turned out, instead of improving the sound, I had made it much worse.

Back then, I did not realize all the mistakes that I was making, some of which are quite common among people who are fond of equalizers. Here is an outline of the most frequent mistakes you may have made during your listening experience.

1. Using an equalizer as a fancy effect

The main purpose of an equalizer, as the name suggests, is to make all the sounds equal.

Different devices transmit the sound differently. In the output signal some frequencies are relatively weakened, simply because of the hardware characteristics of your device. If you recall using other headphones, you will probably remember how bass sounds are much stronger in some of them. And equalizers should compensate for those differences.

Even though most equalizers have some predefined profiles for different music genres, like jazz, rock, pop, etc., a single equalization setting should be applied to all sounds. An equalizer should only be used for the correction of hardware imperfections, not as some fancy effect. After all, artists and producers have already applied all the necessary effects in the recording studio. In short, there is no point in changing the music of your idols already crafted in the best way possible.

2. Making music louder

Contrary to what some rock music fans say, louder does not always mean better—especially, when this cannot be properly handled by your hardware or software. When you try to transmit a signal with more power than the power supply is capable of producing, the signal will be clipped, as seen in the picture below.


Clipping distortion due to too much amplification (red signal)

Clipping causes some buzzing noises randomly popping up in your music. The same effect is intentionally used to change the sound of electric guitars in rock music.

A similar effect may occur in DSP (digital signal processing), when the signal is amplified by software. A digital signal is not continuous, but it consists of discrete samples—signal values measured at regular time intervals—which have to fit within a specific range depending on how numbers are represented in the computer memory. If a sample is amplified beyond the maximum value, it will not be properly stored by the software—its value will be limited to the possible maximum.

Software equalizers actually change the values of the digital signal samples. So if you need to boost the bass frequencies, it is better to reduce volume for treble frequencies instead. If your music is too quiet, you can always turn up the master volume on your speakers.

Loud settings

Loud settings

Silent settings

Silent settings

Since sound volume is measured on a logarithmic scale, simply shifting equalizer settings down will have the same equalization effect, but without sound distortion.

3. Applying extreme adjustments

Natural sounds (other than digitally generated) consist of multiple frequencies called harmonics. These frequencies are not close to each other, but they are scattered all over the hearing spectrum. If you apply different loudness to each frequency, you will change the timbre of the sound.

Most software equalizers operate within 10–15 dB loudness correction range—both up and down. So, cumulatively, the difference between the lowest and the highest settings is like city traffic vs. rock concert (30 dB). That might not seem to be a big difference, but it is often enough to drastically change the timbre of the sound.

Even though an equalizer only corrects sound imperfections, the effect of the former does not necessarily cancel out the latter. As a result of a relatively large correction, further distortion of sound might occur. So if you need to apply extreme values to your equalizer, you should rather make it subtle.

Extreme adjustments

Extreme adjustments

Subtle adjustments

Subtle adjustments

How to correctly adjust the sound

The hardest part of setting an equalizer properly is to calculate the correct adjustments. One way to do this is to use a dedicated device to measure the loudness of different sound frequencies. This way, however, is quite expensive and complicated.

A much easier solution is provided by applications such as Neutralizer for Android. The software examines the user’s hearing and compares the results with those of an average person. Then, it calculates equalizer corrections best-suited for the currently used output device (loudspeaker, headphones, etc.), preventing any of the earlier mentioned mistakes.

Note that some Android phone vendors prevent non-system applications from changing system equalizer settings, and provide their own solution, e.g., most of the new Samsung devices have a tool called Adapt Sound, which gives very similar functionality.

Sławomir Czerwiński from www.JAVEO.eu

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