Dealing with Multiple EQ’s

Q: I’m an amateur bassist, and my current setup consists of an active bass, multi-effects pedal and a combo amp. All of these have equalizers built in, and I’m really unsure how to use them all to the best of their potential.

The multi-effects pedal has the most versatility, having separate modules for high and low equalizers with an option of 3-band, parametric (though I’m not sure how those work) and off for both, giving six bands max. Because of this I tend to use the pedal the most for my EQ settings as I want each one to have a consistent sound and don’t want to mess around with the knobs on the amp or bass in the middle of playing. The amp has a 5-band EQ (which can be used as just 3-band or turned off), and I usually keep this on but flat to keep things consistent. The bass’s EQ is one I tend to use for quick, on-the-fly adjustments without interrupting playing. What I want to know is if this is the optimum usage of all three EQs? Should I turn off the amp EQ to make it easier to keep a consistent sound? In addition, I also tend to use the effects pedal between the bass and amplifier, but the amp has effects loop jacks for after the built in EQ. Would this be better?

A: This may well be one of those posts where the comments below have more insight than I can provide, but I’ll give this my best shot.

In my experience, the EQ’s built into multi-effect pedals are the worst sounding EQ’s of the lot. Bassists usually don’t need to get too crazy with their EQ as (cliche as it is) most of the sound is coming from your hands.

That said, there are times when you really do have to tweak the EQ a bit to adjust for the room. I typically leave everything as flat as possible. During soundcheck, I may tweak the amp a little bit to adjust for the room, and then use my bass EQ (or technique) to compensate for the rest.

The most important thing is to know how the different frequencies impact your sound. I think of it this way:

  • Low Bass range: Fullness of the bass (careful though, it is easy to make it muddy)
  • Low mid range: Punch or “burp”
  • Hi mid range: Clarity and articulation
  • Treble: The snap or sizzle (upper transients as well)

If you have a parametric EQ, it’s good to get familiar with it. Basically, you have a knob which selects the frequency you want to adjust, and a knob that effects the level (cut or boost).

I think the easiest way to get the feel for a parametric EQ is to set everything flat and go through them one by one:

  1. Boost the frequency level all of the way up and slowly turn the frequency selector knob to hear which frequency you will be adjusting.
  2. Find the sound you want to cut or boost and then adjust accordingly with the level knob.
  3. Go through and do that for each frequency range.

Be sure to explore the sounds which are possible through your hands (altering technique, where you pluck, how hard you pluck, and so on). Most pros I know tend to play with both the amps and the bass pretty flat. While some guys use delays, reverbs, and other effects for sound shaping, you shouldn’t really have to go too hog wild with your EQ to get a good sound!

I’m sure the comments will be worth checking out as there are a lot of readers here who have really explored various EQ’s and how they affect your tone.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

Get Ask Damian Erskine in your inbox.

Don’t miss an Ask Damian column. Sign up for email alerts (every Wednesday).

Share your thoughts

  1. Just want to share the little knowledge I have: sure, most of the sound is coming from your hands, but your EQ lets it come out the best way. I use a Spector euro 5 (active, with bass/treble boost knobs) and its adjustments really make A LOT of difference, especially when playing with effects (i use a Boss ODB, an EHX Bassballs and more to come). My distortion comes out really different if I boost up my highs, particularly when doing that strong metal playing. It gives it a lot more punch, I can post a little sample if anyone’s interested.
    Bottom line, I think you should have a standard amp EQ and make any necessary tweaks on your bass. Another piece of info which I got from a friend who is an audio engineer, it that the “punch” on bass, especially for slap, is on 3000-5000hz, so if your parametric eq goes around that, try tweaking those.

    • Ps. If you can’t hear yourself, boost the mids. I’m looking at you, metal kids with those silly “V” EQs. No one will hear you that way.

  2. I find that a gentle scoop around the 250-400Hz area really helps stop the “lumpiness” of a bass sound (i.e some notes being very loud, and some notes being quiet). If you feel the slight suck makes your tone a little overly hollow, add some midrange on your onboard EQ – it should add the presence you need while the amp filters out a little of the blurriness. Due to the nature of the technology, I prefer to cut on the amp and boost on the onboard EQ if necessary.

    “The mids” is too bland a term to be meaningful on bass – those silly “V” EQs result in you not hearing yourself, and those silly “frowny face” EQs can result in you not hearing yourself or the guitar. Each jump in 100Hz between 200Hz and 800Hz is a world of difference – all can be considered “the mids”.

    • For the “bass” areas, I would never recommend boosting under 40Hz, or over 80Hz. Under 40Hz really only helps the B-string, and will make it far too deep and rumbly. Over 80Hz is a very honky area of the bass frequencies that can make the 12th fret area of your lower strings shake your entire house. If possible, you should find a frequency to boost between 1.6kHz and 5kHz to really carve out your sonic frequency – and finally, consider 10kHz and above to be your ‘modern tone’ knob – the more you boost, the more modern you sound, and the more you cut, the more vintage.

    • And finally – if you have access to fancy EQs, you should also have access to a fancy compressor. I think it’s THE most important part of a modern tone on a modern amp, and the more you EQ, the more compression you need. Some people swear by flat EQs and no compression, but we’ll let those guys go on not being heard 5 feet away from the stage ;)

    • How about when you don’t have parametrics? You just have a “mids” knob :)

    • Unlike some passive tone stacks, most amps with a mid knob have the specific frequency in the specs sheet- that will help you decide whether or not you want to boost it because you want more of that frequency, not just because you want “mids”.

  3. There are so many variable and possibility here I could write a book. But I will try and keep it simple generally I set my bass wether active or passive in the middle and adjust the amp accordingly. Then especially with active bass you can get a quick boost or cut on the fly. When pedals come into play like a proccessor I would use e the on board eq to either match the tone of the amp cean the add the effect and adjust the eq in the processor to clean up the effect or dirty it up even more. But like I said it all depends on gear and preferense. Its music experiment with your sound. You might find what you are looking for.

  4. Tend to agree with Damien and the comments posted below. For me – the on board bass controls (passive or active) should be the first port of call for any adjustments. Your pickups and the position/technique of your hands will create the sound you are looking for – if they don’t – look at more techniques and tonal positions! After this the amp EQ should be the next thing to look at. After all, this EQ system (hopefully) has been designed to match the style of the amplifier and it’s specs. Quite often the fx pedal eq can undo or negate any changes made to your pickup/tone selections so it can be easier to leave it flat (even it is had 200 bands of frequency to play with) – Then there is the effect of Digital or Analog pedals in the signal chain – never-ending really! LIKE to John J Smith on the Mids!

    • Well it’s just following the signal chain which make obvious sense.

    • To be honest I use no pedals (except a Boss Tu-2 Tuner) for most work these days. There was once a time when my pedal board was full with stuff i never touched live (Bass Distortion, Flanger, Bass Wah, Looper) and the occasional use of Chorus, Delay and various Envelope Filters or Compressors. With pedal setups the signal chain was extremely important and I was constantly playing with order to tweak the sound. Too many variables let alone the EQ settings on each. Today I walk into a gig (in one trip) with a bass, leads and Markbass Head/box configuration that suits the room. Plug in and ready to go i less than 5mins, not having to fiddle with pedal settings, checking batteries, lugging the board around. Out of the venue before the singer if there is any easy load-in!!!!! (G’day Chris – love the fact that there are Melb bass players on this site!)

    • Yeah I’ve been through the same thing, buying and selling looking for the perfect tone that doesn’t exist. I actually don’t even have an amp anymore. I just run straight into a PA with a Tech21 preamp. I use IEM system so it’s pointless having an amp as I find it cancels out what you’re hearing in your ear monitors. So I see your 5min set up and raise you 3min :).

  5. @John J Smith -For Metal usually you want the bass to fill in the low end and not necessarily stand out in the song. An EQ with boosted treble and bass helps all the instruments sound good together. You obviously don’t want to scoop your mids but they should stay somewhere around 5, your bass around 8, and your treble at about 6 that is how I get my tone and I’m very happy with it but really you just have to find what sounds good to you.

    • It’s not about standing out, but i think most people like to be heard, that’s all. And of course, experimenting is always the best thing to do.

  6. set it all Flat, don’t bother with the EQ in the FX unit unless your after something specific, be carefull with amp EQ tho, bass middle and trebble all set to 12 oclock may not be flat, do some research on your amp to find the settings that are FLAT and use subtle adjustments,
    don’t try and set your sound I the home environment and expect it to work live, it wont!
    live use with a powerfull amp and good cabs flat settings is trhe way forward.
    85% of your tone is in the fingers.

  7. One more thing – no need to crazy on the EQ. 3db in either direction is significant, and 6db should be your max.

  8. With the active EQ on your bass there is something to be very careful of. if you can’t hear yourself properly when playing with others, it’s very easy to go twisting all the knobs up to try and hear yourself, ruining your tone. so make sure you have your amp loud enough so that you can clearly hear your tone.

  9. As a general rule you eq should be adjusted at your amp first with your bass set flat. Don’t even worry about plugging your fx in yet. If you find you have to eq your amp hard to get a good natural clean sound you probably need a better sounding bass, different cabinets, or a different head. Don’t be afraid of your horn driver, the PA has powerful horns and your direct out is running through them, you need to have some idea of how much treble you are sending in the FOH system. There is very little that sounds worse than a bass with the treble wound up flat out to compensate for a muddy sounding or poorly adjusted amp and cabinet.

    Once this is sorted then add the multi fx, the first thing you will need to do is to use the fx unit eq to get the sound back that you had before you pugged it in. Most multi’s color your sound a bit and you will need to tweak it to get it to sound natural again. Once you have found the optimum gain and eq on your multi you can start to copy that setting to different memory locations and add your effects. The whole point of eq on a multi is to adjust the sound for the effect you are using; chorus sounds better with more mids and less treble, distortions need the highs rolled off and bass boosted. As a general rule all the factory presets on these units sound atrocious so give yourself a good long lead time to program your unit before you need to use it in earnest.

    The eq on your bass is the last thing you need to touch because it is the first thing you will reach for when you are playing live. If everything in your signal chain sounds great already a little cut and boost at the front end should make a big difference :)

  10. ive learned that not all eq sound the same. this is a very complex question with too many variables. when in doubt turn off all EQ’s set everything flat. This is your starting point. Turn up your amp until you reach band SPL. At this point you must use your ears to gauge what you need more of. Since your SPL is where you need it to be then its a matter of adding or subtracting mids, bass and or treble. I generally shoot for mids first since I want to hear every note I play so I prefer a nice bump in the midrange. I let the house system carry the deep bass. I really don’t need super deep bass on stage and high end I roll off since I am not a slapper. That’s about it for me.

  11. It´s all in the fingers…. almost…

  12. I really think this whole ‘it’s all in the fingers’ thing is just about the most overrated thing in the bass world. Is it fancy EQs and loud amps? Nope – it’s all in the pickup location. WHERE the pickups are located on your bass gives 85% of your tone. If you don’t like the sound of your bass, it’s most likely because of the location and style of your pickups, and playing towards the neck or towards the bridge, or any nuance, won’t get rid of the tone you don’t like.

    • Haven’t you just contradicted yourself? If it isn’t all in the fingers and it’s overrated then you can just put your fingers anywhere on the bass and use any technique you like and acheive the same tone because the pickups pre-determine it. But you also stated that playing towards the bridge or neck changes tone dramatically so the fingers DO have it. If I ride the bridge pickup controls and use my fingernails over that pickup I will enhance the treble aspects of my sound. Playing with onboard pots and EQ knobs will merely further enhance that treble or bring me back to a more neutral sound and negate the finger work & hand position. If I ride my neck pickup and palm mute with my thumb (eg- to play Dub/Reggae lines) then I have a dramatically different tone again. Surely the finger/hand technique far outweighs any possible EQ adjustment on an amp/pedal for tonal variation and even pickup style/position. Much like a car engine needs a driver to control the throttle and maximise efficiency & performance, a good bass player must learn to use the pickups & pickup placement on a particular bass in conjunction with his/her finger technique to produce a suitable tone to begin with.

    • Of course your attack will change the response of your instrument, but that applies consistantly on every bass and pickup setting. No amount of palm muting or neck riding will dial out the timbre of a Stingray bridge pickup – and that’s what I’m saying. You always hear “it’s all in the fingers” but no technique change will give a fretted P-Bass a Jaco sound. What kind of pickups or where the pickups are is never mentioned, and they’re important, because I owned basses I could not get a sound I liked out of, regardless of EQ or plucking position. But of course, there’s the crowd that’s only after “what works”, and not something specific or trademark.

  13. My input: Don’t forget about how you sound in the final mix! You may sit there at the beginning of the night and have tweaked your sound to perfection, then when the rest of the band comes on and the venue is full of punters, all that lovely tone you just squeezed out is lost in the mix. It’s all great to have it set up the way you like it for studio environments, but in a live setting things work differently.
    It also depends on the music you’re playing and what other instruments you’re playing with. Each situation is different and you have to adapt your settings to suit.

  14. Yes, flat is best. The simple, shortest, uneffected path from your pickups to speaker produces the best tone. Less is more. Flat on bass, patches on effects and adjust as little as possible at amp.

    • Hey Dan I picked up a 97 p bass mia the other night you probably already know that … but i’m so excited i could just crap!! playin mar 2-3

  15. Pretty much everything you need to know about eq can be found in this thread:

    http://www.talkbass.com/forum/f15/eq-bassics-thread-144312

  16. This is my take. I’ll keep it simple and short, dont mind my manners:
    Disable the EQ in the multi, unless you need a fast EQ switch for something (ie: slap).
    Adjust EQ on amp to fit the room you are playing, though smart positioning of the cab is best.
    EQ on bass to taste, but keep it real (as said, 6db on any EQ band is almost too much cut/boost)
    If being D/O’ed before your amp, cut the bass on the amp so you hear yourself better and your amp works cooler.
    Hope it make sense to you =)
    Best of lucks

  17. EQ is the right medicine for the specific disease… I won’t use the EQ to sculpt my tone, I use it to fix “sonic anomalies” in the room. No matter how you tweak your EQ you will always sound different in different rooms. A daisy chain of EQ:s won’t do life easier. I colour my tone at the strings, with my fingers. No other coloration is needed. If I try different amps or preamps, I always tend to search for the same sound: mine. Flat, more or less. But that’s me…