The piano is one of the most important instruments in music production, not only because piano keys are used as the map for MIDI controllers, synthesizers, and other instruments, but also because it sounds great and can be used for a ton of different purposes.
It’s a versatile instrument that’s great for compositional purposes, however, sometimes it’s hard to get it to sound right in the mix, which can be ameliorated by a few Channel EQ settings.
To EQ a piano, adjust 20Hz to 80Hz for power and boominess, 80Hz to 180Hz for boominess and bass, 180Hz to 300Hz for fullness or muddiness, 4000kHz to 1000kHz for depth or boxiness, 1000kHz to 5000kHz for definition, clarity, presence, and air, and 5000kHz to 20,000kHz for sparkle and brilliance.
In this tutorial, I’m going to show you how to go about using the Channel EQ piano presets to make your own, and then we’ll explore each frequency range and how it pertains to the piano.
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Using Presets to EQ a Piano
Garageband and Logic Pro X both come with a ton of great piano presets that are actually quite good. Both software includes literally hundreds, potentially even thousands of presets for the instruments, dynamics processors, and effects plug-ins and these presets can also be applied to plugins.
However, in the case that you’re not using either of these programs, I’ll include some screenshots of the Channel EQ presets for the piano here. You can use these as guidelines for the EQ plug-in in whatever DAW you’re using, however, I recommend using Fab Filter’s Pro-Q EQ from Plugin Boutique because you can solo frequency ranges to hear what they sound like in isolation.
For this pre-set, I altered it slightly by bringing down that boost between 1000kHz and 5000kHz by 2-3 dB.
This preset is also quite extreme in the high-end. I dropped this one down between the range of 5000kHz and 20,000kHZ by around 2-3 dB.
For this one, there is a boost right around 220Hz that I attenuated by just a bit, just because I find that range doesn’t need to be boosted much on the piano.
For this one, I slightly changed the location of the attenuation around 200Hz.
This one is kind of strange, in the sense that it’s almost like a volume boost. There are some variations in the frequency spectrum, but it’s mostly a boost right across the board with the exception between 200Hz and 500Hz. I changed this one a little bit by making it a little less extreme and more varied.
It’s important to remember that these are presets, and they’re meant more to be a guideline than anything else. As I’ve explained before in my EQ guide, how you EQ your piano will depend a lot on the notes you’ve played, the type of piano, and how it was recorded. I explain more about this later.
1) Set Up the Preset in the Channel EQ Plug-in
Down in the smart controls, you have to go into the drop-down menu after turning on the plug-in and you’ll find the Channel EQ plug-in in the “EQ” option. Make sure you’ve selected “Track,” instead of “Master,” because if it has been set to the latter, you’ll change the EQ on every single instrument.
2) Bring Up the Channel EQ and Then Go Into the Drop-Down Menu
To bring up the actual plug-in’s interface, you just have to double-click on the plug-in in the list. From here, it’ll bring up the interface of the Channel EQ plug-in, and then you can select the drop-down menu to find all of the presets.
3) Choose the One That Sounds the Best to You
There are about 19 pre-sets to choose from and what preset you choose depends a lot on the type of keys you’re using. For instance, there is a big difference between an organ, a ragtime piano, and a grand piano, and how you set up the EQ will change accordingly.
Truthfully, I think there are two important things to keep in mind when selecting the preset:
1. The type of Piano
2. What octave the piano is playing in.
What Type of Piano?
There are three primary types of pianos, including the grand piano, the upright piano, and the electronic piano like this great Yamaha model from ZZounds. To be completely honest, whether you use the “Piano” preset – which I assume is meant for the upright piano – or the “Grand Piano” preset, it’s not going to matter a whole lot.
The way you play the piano will have a much bigger difference on how it sounds than whether you use the right channel EQ preset, which is one reason why I recommend people to take piano lessons via PianoForAll (from their website), which is the cheapest and most efficient way of doing so, but I digress.
The primary difference between the grand piano and the upright piano is that the grand piano’s strings are hit by the hammer using a horizontal mechanism, with the weight of the hammer returning back to resting position, compared to an upright piano which is done more vertically.
The result of this is that the grand piano tends to have a much smoother vibe with a more relaxed attack. Grand pianos are often known for having much better sustain (how to increase sustain in my guide), which is a term describing the way that notes can ring out for longer and more naturally.
Additionally, there are electric pianos, organs, clavinets, and other keyboard instruments. Garageband and Logic feature presets that accommodate a number of types. With all that said, you really shouldn’t overthink this. Just choose a preset that you think makes sense.
Piano Playing Higher Notes
For example, if your piano is mostly playing higher notes, it would be best to choose something like “Piano Bright” or “Piano High.”
Piano Playing Lower Notes
But if your piano melody is playing low notes, you would choose something like “Piano Low.”
4) Adjust the Preset to Meet Your Needs
While you could use a lot of the presets straight out of the box, I find it’s best to adjust them a little bit to fit exactly what you want which is the same thing I argued in my article on EQing flutes. For instance, I find that the presets tend to be a bit extreme sometimes in terms of their boosts and cuts.
If you’re anything like me, you like things to sound bright, airy, and clear, so I would choose the “Piano Bright” as my favorite piano preset. However, there is a massive boost at the end of this preset that is a little much, so I’ll bring that down by just a bit.
This is how I go about setting up the EQ on the piano, however, there are many cases where I’ll set up an EQ entirely on my own without any presets in mind. For this, I find it’s useful to have a guideline of what certain frequencies sound like on the piano.
The Frequency Range of a Piano
A great way to familiarize yourself with the EQ range of a piano is to take one of the Apple Loops in Garageband or Logic Pro X (by the way, I have a guide on how to use them), load it into your DAW, and then bring up the channel EQ plug-in to experiment with various boosts and cuts.
Using the brief guideline that I’ve shown you below, you can really see where certain parts of the piano sound on the frequency spectrum. EQing a piano is not unlike EQing a guitar; depending on how you’ve set up the boosts and cuts, and at which point those adjustments take place, the sound of the instrument can be changed dramatically.
|Frequency Range of the Piano||Term||Quality|
|20Hz to 50Hz||Sub Frequencies||Power|
|50Hz to 80Hz||Upper Sub Frequencies||Boominess|
|80Hz to 120Hz||Lowest Bass||Bass, Boominess, Warmth, Thumpiness, Fullness|
|120Hz to 180Hz||Lower Bass||Boom and Bass|
|180Hz to 300Hz||Upper Bass||Fullness or Muddiness|
|400Hz to 1000kHz||Low-Mids with a Tiny Bit of Bass||Depth or Boxiness (Hollow)|
|1000kHz to 2500kHz||Lower Mids||Definition and Clarity|
|2500kHz to 5000kHz||Upper Mids||Presence and Air|
|5000kHz to 10,000 kHz||Highs||Crystal and Sparkle|
|8000kHz to 8500kHz||Hammer attack||Adjust the hammer attack (sound of the hammer hitting the strings)|
|10,000kHz – 20,000 kHz||Highest||Brilliance|
20 Hz – 50 Hz – Sub Frequencies
At this point in the piano’s frequency range, there isn’t much going on, even if you’re playing the bottom register of the piano. You could probably go ahead and cut out this area by just a bit, but don’t cut them out completely because there are probably at least some lower-end frequencies cutting through this part of the mix.
50 – 80Hz – Upper Sub Frequencies
There are very minimal frequencies in this range, as well, even when playing the lowest notes of the piano. However, if you were to jack up the area between 70Hz and 80Hz, you may notice that some of the lower notes may boom for just a moment. EQing this range will play with the sound by just a little bit, but we still haven’t reached the point of the piano where the vast majority of changes could be made.
80Hz to 120Hz – Lower Bass
Now we’re getting to the good stuff. The range between 80Hz to 120Hz is where all of those boomy bass notes lie. If you want to bass-boost the piano and really get those lower notes to shine through and add a lot of warmth and “oomph” to your sound, this is where you want to be.
At 80Hz, there are some frequencies in there that, if boosted, will really rumble. However, it isn’t until you reach between 100Hz and 120Hz that the boosts really add extra rumble and bass.
120Hz to 180Hz – Upper Bass
We’ve entered the lower-mids at this point. I describe this area as a point where the bass combines with the mid-range frequencies. Frankly, this is an area where it can sound a bit messy if you’ve boosted it, so tread lightly in this particular region. Personally, I would opt more for attenuation of around -2dB at 146Hz or so to get the piano to sound good.
Obviously, this depends on the piano and how it sounds on the mix, as well as how it’s been recorded, what type of model, the room it’s in, etc. Regardless, it’s a good thing to try just to see what happens.
180Hz to 300Hz – Fullness or Muddiness
This area, like the range before, is another transition area. It’s a combination of some bass frequencies with a bit of the mid-range. It’s also where the muddy frequencies can be, however, not completely. I think a good guideline for this area would be to just cut it out a tiny bit.
This is going to have the effect of really cleaning things up a bit. I would go so far as to say that this area shouldn’t be boosted at all, because it’s going to sound the best if you’ve attenuated the frequencies a bit, rather than boost it. Give it a shot and see what you hear.
400Hz to 1000kHz – Depth or Boxiness
This is the area where the boxy frequencies come into play, or the depth, depending on you much you’ve boosted/cut. This part of the frequency spectrum is important for the piano. It’s a general rule to be sparing with EQ boosts and cuts, but I would say this area is particularly sensitive. Err on the side of boosting by just a tiny bit and not cutting it.
If you boost the frequencies in this area, you’re going to get that hollowed out, boxy sound, but if you cut them too much, on the other hand, the piano will sound dull and lifeless.
1000kHz to 2500kHz – Definition and Clarity
I would argue that this area is where the majority of the higher notes on the piano lie. This is another important point of the piano’s frequency range, and any boosts in this area are really going to affect parts of the piano where there are any higher notes.
For instance, if you’re using a piano riff that is a few octaves up, this area is going to affect how the piano sounds a lot. I would almost never cut this area.
2500kHz to 5000kHz – Presence and Air
This is the point in the frequency range where you can get the piano notes to stand out in the mix in a big way. It’s also where you add some of those “airy”-type frequencies. To my personal preference, this is another point where I wouldn’t be doing too much cutting, simply because you’ll pull all of the air and presence out of the mix.
5000kHz to 10,000 kHz – Crystal and Sparkly
This is a range where you get the crystalized, sparkly, sound, as well as the hammer attack. To my ear, the hammer attack frequencies are between 8000kHz and 8500 kHz. That’s the point where the hammer is smacking against the strings and making the sound that’s characteristic of the piano.
Boost this area and you’ll get a lot more sparkle or a lot more of the crystalized sound.
10,000kHz to 20,000kHz – Brilliance
Similar to the lowest part of the frequency range, there isn’t much going on here. I wouldn’t go so far as to say you could cut it out or anything like that, but boosts and cuts in this area aren’t going to do much for you. I would say just to keep it the way that it is and let some of those higher frequencies, some of that sparkliness, to shine through.
Important Things to Note
1) The Differences Between Pianos
Obviously, there are a ton of different types of pianos, keyboards, and organs as well, so how you set up an EQ on the keys really depends on the type of instrument you’ve chosen. There are clavinets, organs, ragtime pianos, and organs, just to name a few, and how you EQ them depends on not only the instrument itself but also the notes that you’re playing on it.
2) Solo Piano
If the piano is a solo instrument in the recording, it’s best to go easy on the EQ, because there won’t need to be much added to it. If there some type of tonal problems with the instrument, it’s best to fix it in the recording stage rather than in the mixing stage.
However, assuming you’re using a piano VST like what I’ve recommended in my piano VST guide or some other type of MIDI instrument, this won’t be an issue, or at least it shouldn’t be anyway. Native Instruments also has awesome piano and keyboard sounds as part of Komplete 13 which is the best bundle of instruments and samples you can get from zZounds.
3) Recording Your Own Piano
A lot of factors can influence the way the piano sounds, and it depends largely on how the piano was recorded. If you’ve recorded the piano in a large room, there is going to be a lot more reverb, and the sound will tend to have a distance or long-hall vibe to it. Smaller rooms tend to have a warmer sound.
Microphone placement is another important component to recording a piano, and even the specific type of microphone is going to impact the way it sounds in the final product. If you’re on a budget, I’d recommend Audio Technica’s 2020 or 2035 from Amazon because it’s great for everything and it doesn’t cost a fortune.
Another factor when recording a piano is where it’s actually sitting in the room. For instance, a piano set in the center of the room will sound much different from a piano recorded in the corner of the room. According to Audio Recording, pianos recorded in the corner tend to have a lot more bass.
4) Don’t Forget About Effects
Things like reverb, delay, and ambiance make such a tremendous difference in how the piano sounds. There is something about the piano that just lends itself to things like reverb. It just seems like the piano is built to have reverb on it, and if you’re serious about that effect, you won’t be disappointed with a premium reverb like Eventide’s SP2016 from Plugin Boutique.
5) If It Sounds Good Leave It Alone
This one is self-explanatory. If the piano already sounds good to your ears, maybe there doesn’t need to be any changes made to it.
YouTube Video Tutorial
EQing a piano, like other instruments, really doesn’t take much work. You just have to pay attention to how it sounds and determine what changes need to be made if any. There’s a good chance you may not even need to use an EQ on piano, especially if you’ve used a VST piano, a sample, or even an Apple Loop, which tends to sound pretty good out of the box.