Equalization or equalisation is the process of adjusting the balance between frequency components within an electronic signal. The most well known use of equalization is in sound recording and reproduction but there are many other applications in electronics and telecommunications. The circuit or equipment used to achieve equalization is called an equalizer. These devices strengthen (boost) or weaken (cut) the energy of specific frequency bands or "frequency ranges".
In sound recording and reproduction, equalization is the process commonly used to alter the frequency response of an audio system using linear filters. Most hi-fi equipment uses relatively simple filters to make bass and treble adjustments. Graphic and parametric equalizers have much more flexibility in tailoring the frequency content of an audio signal. Since equalizers "adjust the amplitude of audio signals at particular frequencies," they are, "in other words, frequency-specific volume knobs.
In the field of audio electronics, the term "equalization" (or "EQ") has come to include the adjustment of frequency responses for practical or aesthetic reasons, often resulting in a net response that is not actually "flat". The term EQ specifically refers to this variant of the term. Stereos and basic guitar amplifiers typically have adjustable equalizers which boost or cut bass or treble frequencies. Mid- to high-priced guitar and bass amplifiers usually have more bands of frequency control, such as bass, mid-range and treble or bass, low-mid, high-mid, and treble. Some amps have an additional knob for controlling very high frequencies. Broadcast and recording studios use sophisticated equalizers capable of much more detailed adjustments, such as eliminating unwanted sounds or making certain instruments or voices more prominent.
Equalizers are used in recording studios, radio studios and production control rooms, and live sound reinforcement and in instrument amplifiers, such as guitar amplifiers, to correct or adjust the response of microphones, instrument pick-ups, loudspeakers, and hall acoustics. Equalization may also be used to eliminate or reduce unwanted sounds (e.g., low hum coming from a guitar amplifier), make certain instruments or voices more (or less) prominent, enhance particular aspects of an instrument's tone, or combat feedback (howling) in a public address system. Equalizers are also used in music production to adjust the timbre of individual instruments and voices by adjusting their frequency content and to fit individual instruments within the overall frequency spectrum of the mix.
The most common equalizers in music production are parametric, semi-parametric, graphic, peak, and program equalizers. Graphic equalizers are often included in consumer audio equipment and software which plays music on home computers. Parametric equalizers require more expertise than graphic equalizers, and they can provide more specific compensation or alteration around a chosen frequency. This may be used in order to remove unwanted resonances or boost certain frequencies. For example, an acoustic guitarist who finds that their instrument sounds too "boomy" may ask the audio engineer to cut the low frequencies to correct this issue; or a guitarist who finds that the amplified instrument sound has too much finger noise may ask the engineer to reduce the high frequencies.
Although the range of equalization functions is governed by the theory of linear filters, the adjustment of those functions and the flexibility with which they can be adjusted varies according to the topology of the circuitry and controls presented to the user. Shelving controls are usually simple first-order filter functions which alter the relative gains between frequencies much higher and much lower than the cutoff frequencies. A low shelf, such as the bass control on most hi-fi equipment, is adjusted to affect the gain of lower frequencies while having no effect well above its cutoff frequency. A high shelf, such as a treble control, adjusts the gain of higher frequencies only. These are broad adjustments designed more to increase the listener's satisfaction than to provide actual equalization in the strict sense of the term.
A parametric equalizer, on the other hand, has one or more sections each of which implements a second-order filter function. This involves three adjustments: selection of the center frequency (in Hz), adjustment of the Q which determines the sharpness of the bandwidth, and the level or gain control which determines how much those frequencies are boosted or cut relative to frequencies much above or below the center frequency selected. In a semi-parametric equalizer there is no control for the bandwidth (it is preset by the designer) or is only selected between two presets using a switch. In a quasi-parametric equalizer, the bandwidth is depending on the gain level. With rising gain, the bandwidth gets wider.
A graphic equalizer also implements second-order filter functions in a more user-friendly manner, but with somewhat less flexibility. This equipment is based on a bank of filters covering the audio spectrum in up to 30 frequency bands. Each second-order filter has a fixed center frequency and Q, but an adjustable level. The user can raise or lower each slider in order to visually approximate a "graph" of the intended frequency response.
Since "equalization" in the context of audio reproduction isn't used strictly to compensate for the deficiency of equipment and transmission channels, the use of high and low pass filters may be mentioned. A high-pass filter modifies a signal only by eliminating lower frequencies. Thus a low-cut or rumble filter is used to remove infrasonic energy from a program which may consume undue amplifier power and cause excessive excursions in (or even damage to) speakers. A low-pass filter only modifies the audio signal by removing high frequencies. Thus a high-cut or hiss filter may be used to remove annoying white noise at the expense of the crispness of the program material.
A first-order low or high pass filter has a standard response curve which reduces the unwanted frequencies well above or below the cutoff frequency with a slope of 6 dB per octave. A second-order filter will reduce those frequencies with a slope of 12 dB per octave and moreover may be designed with a higher Q or finite zeros in order to effect an even steeper response around the cutoff frequency. For instance, a second-order low-pass notch filter section only reduces (rather than eliminates) very high frequencies, but has a steep response falling to zero at a specific frequency (the so-called notch frequency). Such a filter might be ideal, for instance, in completely removing the 19 kHz FM stereo subcarrier pilot signal while helping to cut even higher frequency subcarrier components remaining from the stereo demultiplexer.
In addition to adjusting the relative amplitude of frequency bands, an audio equalizer may alter the relative phases of those frequencies. While the human ear is not as sensitive to the phase of audio frequencies (involving delays of less than 1/30 second), music professionals may favor certain equalizers because of how they affect the timbre of the musical content by way of audible phase artifacts.
High-pass and low-pass filters
A high-pass filter is a filter, an electronic circuit or device, that passes higher frequencies well but attenuates (cuts or decreases) lower frequency components. A low-pass filter passes low-frequency components of signals while attenuating higher frequencies. Some audiophiles use a low-pass filter in the signal chain before their subwoofer speaker enclosure, to ensure that only deep bass frequencies reach the subwoofer. In audio applications these are frequently termed "low cut" and "high cut" respectively, to emphasize their effect on the original signal. For instance, sometimes audio equipment will include a switch labeled "high cut" or described as a "hiss filter" (hiss being high-frequency noise). In the phonograph era, many stereos would include a switch to introduce a high-pass (low cut) filter, often called a "rumble filter", to eliminate infrasonic frequencies.
In the graphic equalizer, the input signal is sent to a bank of filters. Each filter passes the portion of the signal present in its own frequency range or band. The amplitude passed by each filter is adjusted using a slide control to boost or cut frequency components passed by that filter. The vertical position of each slider thus indicates the gain applied at that frequency band, so that the knobs resemble a graph of the equalizer's response plotted versus frequency.
The number of frequency channels (and therefore each one's bandwidth) affects the cost of production and may be matched to the requirements of the intended application. A car audio equalizer might have one set of controls applying the same gain to both stereo channels for convenience, with a total of five to ten frequency bands. On the other hand, an equalizer for professional live sound reinforcement typically has some 25 to 31 bands, for more precise control of feedback problems and equalization of room modes. Such an equalizer (as shown above) is called a 1/3-octave equalizer (spoken informally as "third-octave EQ") because the center frequency of its filters are spaced one third of an octave apart, three filters to an octave. Equalizers with half as many filters per octave are common where less precise control is required—this design is called a 2/3-octave equalizer.
Parametric equalizers are multi-band variable equalizers which allow users to control the three primary parameters: amplitude, center frequency and bandwidth. The amplitude of each band can be controlled, and the center frequency can be shifted, and bandwidth (which is inversely related to "Q") can be widened or narrowed. Parametric equalizers are capable of making much more precise adjustments to sound than other equalizers, and are commonly used in sound recording and live sound reinforcement. Parametric equalizers are also sold as standalone outboard gear units.
A variant of the parametric equalizer is the semi-parametric equalizer, also known as a sweepable filter. It allows users to control the amplitude and frequency, but uses a pre-set bandwidth of the center frequency. In some cases, semi-parametric equalizers allow the user to select between a wide and a narrow preset bandwidth.