Decoding Graphic Equalizers: Get Past “Scooping” Your Tone

I get a lot of calls and e-mails from fellow bassists and guitarists alike pertaining to all sorts of equipment problems. One of the most recessing issues I deal with is walking someone through the steps of setting-up their graphic equalizers (you know, the thing with all the sliding tabs that you arrange to look like a smiley-face). Most guitarists do not have to deal with this. Generally speaking, guitar amps sound pretty well with just a few Volume-Low-Mid-High settings to manipulate.

But for bassists, this is often not the case. It is not that our amps are inferior; rather, there are many other considerations outside the amp that bass players must take into consider such as room acoustics, instrument timbre, and of course, musician prerogative. Many easy-to-use amps we first grow comfortable with have the same settings as the aforementioned guitar amps. But when we make that first leap to a bigger gig, and need a bigger amp, we are presented with a number of options regarding amps, and most of these intermediate to higher-end amplifiers have a graphic equalizer.

With this comes the problem that when we first begin to look at these types of amps, we feel overwhelmed not only by the price-tag and options, but the anxiety of “how the heck do I work this thing?” This article will explain how graphic equalizers work, and how you should approach setting their tone in order to get the most out of your amp.

How Graphic Equalizers Work

Graphic Equalizers are set-up in a way so that you can visually perceive the settings of your tones (hence the designation “Graphic”). They allow you to do pretty much the same thing as a Parametric Equalizer, which is adjust the parameters of your tones (hence the designation “Parametric”). However a Graphic Equalizer puts everything into a visual perspective so that you can actually “see” what the tones coming out of the amp should sound like. Graphic Equalizers are given a prefix like “5-band” or “9-band.” The number refers to how many tones you can actually control. Typically speaking, the more “bands” will allow you to tweak the tone ever-so-precisely, and some players favor this. However, some players love the simplicity of a “5-band” or just a Parametric Equalizer.

There are typically three setting options: Cut, Neutral, and Boost. Neutral is in the middle, sort of like the Equator on a globe. Cut is below that line, where you actually “cut” the parameter of the tone. Boost is above the line, which allows you to “boost” your parameter for that tone. When you slide the tabs into these particular areas, they will do exactly what you think: either “cut” or “boost” the output. By leaving the tab at the “neutral” line, you will leave the signal at the output that is set by your other equipment (your instrument, effects pedals, etc.). Most often, Neutral lines will have a little “click” that will let you know when you have locked it into neutral or when you have taken it out of neutral. Please, by all means, play around with your amp so you know what I’m talking about.

How to Approach Setting Your Tone

Typically most people just arrange all the sliding tabs into a smiley-face shape. This is what many musicians refer to as “scooping your tone.” This can work for some musicians. Funk players often “scoop” their tone to get the most attack out of their slapping and popping techniques. But this arrangement is not always appealing to every player. When searching for the tone that is right for you, start from scratch: leave all the settings at the neutral position. Then go from left-to-right, adjusting each tab until you find the right sound. This will take some tweaking, especially if you change venues, as each venue has distinct acoustic characteristics that must be compensated for. It is important to note that if you boost a signal you are actually over-driving that tone. This is caused by the signal being amplified past its typical signal volume, and pushes more signal through the amp. Doing so can add stress on the speakers. However if this is the sound you want, bear in mind that this can cut the speaker’s life-span. For these reasons it’s a good idea to leave the tabs in the neutral position, and just use the tabs for cutting tone except when you have found a room with acoustics that requires boosting, or if you want that sound.

Becoming proficient at setting Graphic Equalizers in order to get the tone we want in various playing situations helps us and thus the band sound our best. The time it takes to become familiar with how our Graphic Equalizer performs at different settings, with different equipment, in different venues, will be time well spent.

For those of us who shy away from amps with Graphic Equalizers when shopping for an amp or from Graphic Equalizers in general, taking the time to test drive them in the store, as just outlined, will show you the full range of sounds that can be achieved. Store personnel often have spent time checking out the equipment and can be a big help when it comes to helping us find settings we like.

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  1. Welcome to No Treble, Jeff. Great article to start with! If I may, I’d like to add two things:

    1. I believe the scooped tone is way overused. When discussing EQ with other bassists, I always ask some version of: “when was the last time you went to a concert, and the low end of the PA was so overboosted that you felt as if you needed the bathroom… and yet you still couldn’t tell what the bassist was playing?” For many styles, the real thump comes from low-mids, not the actual lows. The thump kicks in around the 150Hz area (depending on cabinet design). The articulation of the note can be found (usually) around 2.2K, which adds top end and attack without hiss, clicks and ticks from string/fret noise. Scooping generally takes away from both of these areas, much to the detriment of the bass sound out in the house.

    2. A great way to learn how a graphic EQ works is to set all levels flat – at center. Play an Em pentatonic scale 2 octaves, from open E, to E at 9th fret, G string, and back down. Play slow quarter notes and listen to each note carefully to hear your FLAT.

    Next, boost the first slider by 75-80% above flat, and play the scale again, listening to each note. It will be VERY different. When you’re done, return this slider to center FLAT position.

    Repeat the process with each slider in its turn. Each time, you’ll hear which frequencies are boosted, and what it does to each note in the 2 octave scale.

    The second half is to repeat the process, but cut each band in its turn by 75-80%.

    For many, taking 15-20 minutes to perform this exercise is an excellent first step on learning how to use a graphic EQ.

    Again, great article, and welcome to No Treble. I look forward to reading more soon!

    Keep Thumpin’!

    Lane on Bass

  2. Jeff Gorham


    Thanks for the expansion and kind words. I’m glad this article made it to see the light of day…it was long over-due!

    You’re right about the 105hz area…I usually keep my amp pretty flat, but cut the bass a little, and cut the highs just a smidge…this works when I don’t have to worry about acoustics, and is a nice, thick sound.

    Your system here is pretty much what I do when I set-up my sound from scratch, when my “typical” settings won’t cut it…Everyone, Heed Lane’s advice, as well!

  3. Welcome Jeff! That made sense.
    Myself, I prefer to leave the EQ completely flat most of the time. If the sound is wrong I experiment first with placement of the cabinet before EQ – distance from the back wall, distance from me, surface underneath the cab etc. I will only tweak the EQ a little if that all fails.

    To many bassists think because they have buttons on their amps they have to use them.

  4. michael

    I think pretty much the way Phil does….I leave the EQ on the amp flat and control tone, dynamics and volume from the bass itself by playing at different places on the bass ( at the base of the neck, the middle and bridge ). I will use the volume and tone knobs on the bass if I have to, but since we have a sound man, he will take care of the EQ out front,which is another reason I run the EQ flat ( I figure it makes the sound man’s job easier.)

  5. The only thing not mentioned here is where the bass player is standing when all the adjustments are made. If it’s a small gig with little to no help from the house system, where you stand is critical. Also, how your bass sits in the mix while the band plays along. You want your bass to sound good to your audience, so you might want to step off the stage and stand in the middle to back of the room too.

  6. jims69camaro

    a wireless setup is invaluable when trying to set your tone for a particular venue. you can go sit with the sound guy, at the back of the room, at the bar, by the restrooms, where ever you need to in order to nail your tone. follow jeff’s and lane’s advice about setting your EQ, and test it at several points in the room. also, adjusting your cabinet can aid in setting up, but remember that the room will be full of people (hopefully!) when you play so it might be necessary to tweak it once people start arriving.

  7. Great thread and solid contributions from all of the “lowminded” participants (big compliment).
    I tend to start at flat and boost or cut each frequency to taste as you all mentioned…but…
    I tend to work from the right to the left.
    I find that having the highs and mids sounding right first allows the low end to be dialed in to its optimal setting more accurately.
    Dial the low end in first and then when you tweak the mids and highs it has a “psychoacoustical” affect on the bottom.

    Maybe not for everyone but I have been tweeking sound for 35 yrs and this methid has served me well.

    Keep it LOW bretheren !

  8. Tim

    You also need to take into account what the other instruments are doing to their EQ. For example, my guitarists tend to use a very extreme scoop, with the bass and treble set at about eight or nine, and the mids set at about two or three. To compliment this I use what’s commonly referred to as the frown. Scooping is called a smiley face from the shape it makes on the graphic EQ. A frown is just the opposite. It has low bass and treble and higher mids. I use this because I’m not competing with the guitarists for sound ranges, and the sound as a whole sounds much fuller since all of the ranges are accounted for. Even if my bass alone does not sound great, it works best for the sound setup as a whole. And if I ever have a standalone part, I can simply step on a pedal to go to a different channel with a different EQ setting that makes the bass sound good on its own.

  9. Treeratrecords

    my harmonics on my fender jazz sing the most using rear pickup and boosting exactly 365 HZ. around that is what I base my tone of of, I know I’m going to want to slap at some point, so I’ll find where the highs in the speakers top out, and give a slight boost there, while cutting a mid just below it. I know I’m going to want to rumble the room and really be heard on the low end, so I do the same with the lowest freq the speakers can handle. A rule of thumb is less is often more, so I try not to boost anything over 2db. I often play out of different cheap rigs at hourly rehearsal spaces, and I always start out flat, and work the EQ out little by little, instead of just diving in and setting it up the same every time. different amps have different sound, a 4 10 GK will sound different than a crate 2 15, and where in the room is the cab? what band or sound I’m I playing with? also bass and pickups change things a bit, so I keep that in mind if I have more than one bass I’m playing, like my active spector and my passive fender jazz.

  10. curbie1150

    always remember, though no-one said it here, I’ve read it many places. EQs’ do a much much better job of cutting than they do boosting. keep that in mind while adjusting. try not to think of what sound or tone you’re trrying to boost. think of what is too overpowering, and cut that instead. room accoustics play a huge role in it. especially how far from a wall it is. you may hear it big time being right next to it and a wall. but go out in the audience and the sound is lost.

  11. I tend to adjust mine until it sounds good to me. On a new amp, rental or backline amp I’ve never used, I start flat and go from there.

  12. that was about as informative as a fart in a wind storm.

  13. It’s funny – I find that my best tone on all my basses (neck or bridge, fretted or fretless, pick or fingers) comes with a slight scoop of 250Hz and 400Hz. Nothing too crazy, just enough to hollow out the bottom enough for the guitars to sit undisturbed. It creates a nice separation between the deep bottom and high end of your bass tone that doesn’t get in the way or get buried by other instruments.

    The other thing that isn’t mentioned is that even though graphic EQs provide a lot of flexibility, exactly where those sliders lie in the frequency spectrum is ultra important. Every slider can be on a good frequency, or all of them can be on ones you don’t like.

    In my experience, you’re only boosting or cutting a few frequencies anyway – and that’s why I love and recommend multi-band semi-parametric EQs. Pick the exact frequency, and the exact amount.

  14. Just my opinion, but I think a graphic eq on a bass amp is overkill. A powerful amp with Low, Mid and High is all I need.The tone control on the bass, and playing style will handle the rest. Keep it simple, I say.

  15. […] 35-60Hz.  Some cabs are designed to have a midrange emphasis, some are designed to have a more “scooped” sound (which often wreaks havoc on live sound).  Depending on the tone of the amplifier you may want to […]