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Making the Most of Match EQ

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One of the more interesting plugins that comes pre-packaged with Logic Pro is Match EQ. Match EQ lets you "copy" the frequency spectrum, or fingerprint, of a source track and apply that spectrum to a target track. It essentially compares what your song sounds like to the source and compensates for the difference, hence the name "match". The most common and practical use of Match EQ is for mastering a final mix, but it can also be an extremely useful tool for bringing out individual instruments and even for new or special effects. In this tutorial we'll discuss how to get started using Match EQ and look at a few different ways you can use the basic features to put it to use.


Why Use Match EQ?

"Good composers borrow, great composers steal" - Igor Stravinsky

Perhaps we could modify this quote to be "Good mix engineers borrow, great mix engineers steal." In this case all that we are "stealing" is a frequency spectrum, although I am not really sure if that's something anyone can really claim ownership to anyway.

The reason for doing this is that you it allows you to stand on the shoulders of engineering giants. Thanks to iTunes, Amazon, etc. you have practically the entire catalog of recorded music at your disposal. You can analyze the greatest recordings and mixes ever made and apply some of that wisdom to your own track.

Of course it wouldn't make sense to do this for its own sake, but only if the source tracks you are choosing sound great and can make your track sound great too. If you pull an mp3 off of iTunes that has been over compressed and lost its shine, you risk making your track sound worse and not better!

Match EQ can be a great shortcut for figuring out what it is that makes those recordings sound so good. One of the more admirable reasons to use Match EQ is for learning. By comparing the frequency spectrum of a track you like the sound of to your own mix you can learn the differences between them. After using it for a while, you'll begin to see patterns and start to develop your own sense for how a final mix should be EQd. The ultimate goal here would be to one day ditch the Match EQ and instead use a better quality mastering EQ and your own ears as judgement. Using Match EQ as a stepping stone could be a good method to develop that sensitivity to frequency when you're starting out.

Match EQ can be a great way to save time and energy when deadlines are looming and efficiency in the studio is crucial. You can use the match as a starting off point, getting you 90% or even 99% of the way to a great sound with hardly any effort. This can be a great help if you are constantly in need of ways to get music at professional level quality out the door quickly, perhaps if you regularly write TV or library music.

It can also be used for similar goals of efficiency by saving a "default" sound for a specific project. One reason could be for applying a cohesive sound to every cue in a film score. Perfect the mastering settings on one cue and you have a rough blueprint for use on all the rest.

Another use of Match EQ is to create "your sound", a particular way of EQing a mix that is unique to you. You can save a template of your favorite source tracks, or even just one single source track that is definitive to your tastes. This is better than just a default factory setting because it has some of your particular interests and preferences already ready to go, and then you just have to make tweaks to it on a per song basis.


Some Basic Guidelines

Before diving into the specific examples, I'll discuss some basic things you should consider when using Match EQ.

Source

Perhaps the most critical step in the entire process is choosing an appropriate source track to use as your template. In simple terms, you are looking for a source track that sounds like what you are trying to achieve. If you have a pumping dance song, it should be pretty clear that you would want to find another pumping dance song as your source.

It's important that your source not only be stylistically accurate, but instrumentally accurate as well. If you have an orchestral recording that is all strings you can't just throw any orchestral recording into your template and match the EQ. You should find a source track that is also all strings, and that uses them in at least close to the same way. If your track never has screeching high violins, your source track probably shouldn't either.

Current Track

Before matching the EQ of your track to that of a source, I recommend that you get your mix as close to perfect as you can. When it's being used for mastering, Match EQ is most effective in small doses. By that I mean that you only want to apply a small amount of it, so your track should already be pretty close to the end result anyway. What Match EQ will usually do is make you aware of some of the gaps in your frequency spectrum and help you bring out those areas that you otherwise didn't know were lacking.

For example I've found that I almost always mix my cues too dark, and only after experimenting with Match EQ do I become aware of what a difference it makes to brighten the mix up. You might discover that you are leaving a hole in the mid-range or that in general mixes in your style actually have less of a boost below 200Hz than you thought.

Adjusting Settings

As you'll discover the first time you use it, you will just about never want to apply the match at 100%. This setting will need to be adjusted to taste on a per track basis, but I've generally always found that closer to 20% is a much better sounding application.

Just because you've matched your EQ to a great sounding source track doesn't mean that you have to take the results verbatim. Match EQ gives you the opportunity to adjust specific frequency ranges even after applying the match. This gives you greater control to modify the EQ to even better detail. You might match your song to a source track and still find the high end lacking, and so you have some flexibility to go beyond just a "literal match".


For Mastering

Most of the time that I use Match EQ it's for mastering. As I mentioned before, the key here is to choose an appropriate source track. The source should be similar in dynamics, instrumentation and even energy level.

Using A Source Track

Last year I was asked to write a knock-off of Vince Guaraldi's fantastic music from the Peanuts cartoons. Not only was it important to be authentic with the harmony, melody, and instrumentation, but I thought that having that Charlie Brown "sound" was also a critical element.

Here's the rough mix of the piece, without any mastering EQ. Notice that it's thick and muddy, and overall doesnt really sound very good.

Choosing a source track for this didn't require much hunting, and I settled on "Skating" from the album A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Here's the process I used to match the EQ from Skating to my own track:

1. Drag and drop the audio file into your Logic session. If the file is a compatible format this can usually be done by dragging directly out of iTunes and into your arrange window. Make sure you are putting the song onto a stereo audio track.


If Logic wont let you drop the file in, you probably have a file format conflict such as a protected AAC file. You'll need to find a way to convert the track to something more Logic friendly like mp3, aiff or wav.

2. Instantiate Stereo Match EQ on your Main Out channel strip

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3. Select "Template: Learn" to tell Match EQ to listen to what's about to come in and treat it as the EQ to match.


4. Solo the source track and let it play. You should probably let the entire song play, but you could just play a long enough section that covers everything you might want to match. In other words, don't just play the drum solo but make sure you are picking up every element.

5. As the song plays, you'll see the EQ being learned.


6. When you're done playing your selection click on Template: Learn again to set it.

7. Now we need to learn the original track. This time choose Current: Learn and play back your song (remember to mute the source track!)


8. As your song plays you'll see Match EQ picking it up. When it's done click Current: Learn again to set it and then choose Match.


9. By default it will match your EQ with the source 100%, which I have always found to be too much.


10. To me it sounds thin and weak. Although the match found that I didn't have enough high end, it overcompensated. Instead, adjust the match settings to a balance that sounds right. I've settled on 64%, which is actually much more than I usually choose (usually I apply only in the 10-60% range). The key here is to use your ears. It's less about a number that "looks right" and more about a level that sounds good!


11. Here's how the new mix sounds. Match EQ has helped us not only solve the problem of muddiness by bringing out the high end and cutting back some of the low end, but it also gave us a sound that more closely resembles the original Vince Guaraldi piece.

Default Settings

Logic comes with many default factory style settings, such as alternative, blues, dance, funk, etc.


It is worth clicking through a few of these to see what kind of effect it has on your song, but in general I much prefer finding a specific source track to emulate.

Sometimes, though, a time crunch can prevent you from having the luxury of diving into your iTunes collection to find the perfect fit. In that case the default settings can be a helpful shortcut.

Notice that if you're using a default setting, you don't have to learn anything for your template. So just by clicking on a setting you are already halfway done. Then follow the same process as before from Step 7: "learn" your current material by clicking on "Current: Learn", play back a section of your song, and then choose Match.

For this example cue I wrote for a short film, it needed to be a gritty rock piece:

I was in a rush but I knew the mix could use some work, so I tried the "Rock 01" default setting. I'll admit that the difference is subtle, but it was enough to add some much needed clarity to the mix.


Notice from the image that I settled on an Apply amount of 39%. Of course 0% would do nothing, but notice here how 100% sounds terrible:


It requires you to use your ears and is generally left up to your taste, but you need to play with the Apply setting until you find a balance between helping and ruining your track.


For Single Instruments and Sections

Although mastering a full song is the most common use for Match EQ, it doesn't have to be the only one. Another great way to use it is for specific sections or instruments.

For example if you have a solo piano in your song, you could find a great sounding piano recording as a source EQ for use on just that instrument.

The only difference to keep in mind is that you'll want to instantiate Match EQ on the instrument track, not on the Main Out track. You may need to place it on the Main Out first so that you can learn your source track, but then it should be copied over to the instrument so you don't apply it to the whole song.

Here is a simple piano piece I wrote to show some basic harmony concepts to a student:

Nothing too fancy, but I could always do more to make it sound better, especially because I used a sampled piano and not the real thing.

The first step is to find a great source recording. In this example I've chosen David Lanz's performance of Painting the Sun. It seems to use generally the same range of the instrument and has is close enough to a similar feel.

Following the same steps as before, I'll Match the EQ from Lanz's recording to my own. I end up with this result:


The match actually took out a lot of the upper mid range, giving it an overall duller sound. The match also boosted some low end and the very shimmery high end. On its own it doesn't feel terribly different, but when you listen back to the original version of the mix it's easy to hear that mid-range sticking out.


For Effects

Practical purposes aside, Match EQ can be a fun toy just like any other plugin. With some experimentation you can use it to discover some sounds you might not otherwise think to use.

Take this drum loop for example:

Pretty straightforward. If we try some different sources maybe we can come up with a slightly fresher sound.

First, for a more mainstream approach, let's try using this vinyl sound effect as a source:

Nothing is different about the process for matching EQ. We're following the same steps as before: learning the source sound effect as the template, learning the drums as the current material, and then matching them together.

The result, at 100%, gives us a grittier take on an otherwise straightforward loop.

Next we'll try using this sound effect of a man saying "Attention" for the source:

The result is even more interesting, and certainly not a way it would usually occur to me to EQ drums.

Although these two examples are not groundbreaking, I think you can see the potential they suggest. As you try more diverse and unexpected sources, you'll begin to hear your drum loop in completely unique ways.

What other sound effects could be used as source material, and on what other instruments? What about a door slam for a snare drum, or a woman's whisper for a hi-hat? Maybe a thunderstorm sound applied to a pad, or the EQ of a dog bark on a guitar solo?


Conclusion

As useful a tool as it is, Match EQ is not without it's faults. A main criticism could be that it promotes laziness, making it easy to just slap on a setting without really listening to the results. Always keep in mind that it's a shortcut but not a perfect solution.

Even if you find a good match, you still need to be critical with the results and make sure it's as good as it can be. The plugin allows you to make adjustments to specific frequency ranges, but more often than not I find it better to add a separate EQ after Match EQ in the audio chain. That gives you a less cluttered workspace and makes it easier to tweak it even more.

But as a starting off point for finding a great mix, or even for creating unique effects, Match EQ is a great plugin that should be taken advantage of more often.

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