A long time ago, there was a painter on television named Bob Ross. “Let’s paint some happy little trees,” I would hear him say. He could paint mountains, trees, and streams in just minutes. He was able to paint landscapes very well because he knew what trees looked like up close and from afar.
When I mix a live song, I’m painting a landscape picture like Bob…but with sound. The more familiar I am with musical instruments and sound frequencies (the individual trees and bushes), the more beautiful a painting I can create.
The following is a brief outline of the basic frequency ranges and their characteristics. However, before you jump on down, you need to know two words; fundamentals and harmonics.
A note on a piano has a specific pitch. However, we don’t hear one frequency of, say 659 Hz. Instead, we hear a variety of frequencies that are created by different sine waves produced from the piano string. The sine wave frequency that we hear at the specific pitch as a note is known as the fundamental. Usually, the fundamental is the strongest of the sine waves.
Above the fundamental are these additional sine wave components (harmonics) that are mathematically related to the fundamental. Specifically, they are multiples of the fundamental. Let’s take simple numbers. Say 500 Hz. The fundamental is 500 Hz. Then the harmonics (those related sine waves) occur at 1 kHz, 1.5 kHz, 2 kHz and on up until the energy of the frequency is gone. Now we are talking frequencies as high as 8-10 kHz when a sound is played at the initial 500 Hz fundamental level. Welcome to harmonics.
With those words in mind, let’s continue on to the frequency range overview.
1 Hz to 20 Hz
This is the sub-sonic frequency range in which sound isn’t heard as much as it is felt. Some pipe organs can produce sounds this low. For the typical worship team, you don’t have musical instruments that produce sounds this low.
20 Hz – 40 Hz
This is the start of the bass range. The bass range runs from 20 Hz to 160 Hz. The 20-40 range can be thought of as the sound of distant thunder. The piano and organs can play down in this range.
40 Hz – 160 Hz
In comes the drums! In comes the electric bass! Now your band is starting to get their groove on. [did I just write that?] This range is the start of the lower end of most musical instruments.
160 Hz – 315 Hz
We’ve just left the bass range and entered into the mid range frequencies. This “mid” range runs from 160 Hz up to 5,000 Hz. In this lower end of the mid range, we find our tenor+ singers and many lower fundamental frequencies of instruments.
315 Hz – 2,500 Hz
This mid frequency range carries a majority of the lower harmonic frequencies. Additionally, if we were to cut frequencies above and below this range, we could still here the sounds quite well, though it would have more of a generic rotary-dial telephone quality.
2,500 Hz – 5,000 Hz
This is the “Upper Mid” range also known as the range of “Presence.” This range gives us many vocal harmonics. Frequencies in this range also bring clarity and definition to a sound. Our ears are very sensitive to frequencies in this range.
5,000 Hz – 10,000 Hz
This range is also known as the Brilliance frequency range. Boosting frequencies in this range produce a brighter sound. Note that the highest fundamental frequency produced by an instrument is around 4,000 Hz. Therefore, this brilliance range is filled with harmonics.
10,000 Hz – 20,000 Hz
You don’t hear much, musically, that occurs in this extremely high frequency range. High harmonic frequencies may occur up here but not much past 15,000 Hz that would be even noticeable.
The above is a short and simple description of the different frequency ranges and their importance.
I’ve seen multiple resources (books and web sites) that break these out a little differently. Some even have musical instrument ranges set differently, such as a flute playing up to 2300 Hz where another says 2100 Hz. This frequency chart gives you some more details but has 5 frequency ranges instead of 6. Everyone has an opinion as to specific range numbers but for the most part, the ranges are very similar.
This point is this…sound lives within and across frequency ranges. When you can grasp these frequency range characteristics, it will help you understand what you are hearing and how you can better sculpt your mix.
[A little eq'ing tip; when you see a frequency range for an instrument, don't think you have to restrict that instrument to that range or boost only in the areas that some book or article specifies. There are many genres of music and each type brings a different mixing style. Articles can give you a good starting point for eq'ing an instrument but in the end, mixing is more of an art and less of a science.]