Equalizers and Compressors FAQ

Below are some common questions you might have about Equalizers and Crossovers. We invited representatives from the Professional Wireless community to help us author these responses so you can hear an authoritative voice address the question. We hope you will turn to us with all your Professional Audio questions.

1. When Do I Need An Equalizer?
Equalizers can do wonders for a sound system. Let's start with loudspeaker performance. An unfortunate truth regarding budget loudspeakers is they don't sound very good. Usually this is due to an uneven frequency response, or more correctly a non-flat power response. An ideal cabinet has a flat power response. This means that if you pick, say, 1 kHz as a reference signal, use it to drive the speaker with exactly one watt, measure the loudness, and sweep the generator over the speaker's entire frequency range, all frequencies will measure equally loud. Sadly, with all but the most expensive speaker systems, they will not. Equalizers can help these frequency deficiencies. By adding a little here and taking away a little there, pretty soon you create an acceptable power response - and a whole lot better sounding system. It's surprising how just a little equalization can change a poor sounding system into something quite decent.

The best way to deal with budget speakers - although it costs more - is to commit one equalizer channel for each cabinet. This becomes a marriage. The equalizer is set, a security cover is bolted-on, and forever more they are inseparable. (Use additional equalizers to assist with the room problems.) And now for the hard part, but the most important part: If you do your measurements outside (no reflections off walls or ceiling) and up in the air (no reflections off the ground) you can get a very accurate picture of just the loudspeaker's response, free from room effects. This gives you the room-independent response. This is really important, because no matter where this box is used, it has these problems. Of course, you must make sure the cost of the budget speaker plus the equalizer adds up to substantially less than buying a really flat speaker system to begin with. Luckily (or should this be sadly) this is usually the case. Again, the truth is that most cabinets are not flat. It is only the very expensive loudspeakers that have world-class responses. (Hmmm ... maybe that's why they cost so much!)

The next thing you can do with equalizers is to improve the way each venue sounds. Every room sounds different -- fact of life -- fact of physics. Using exactly the same equipment, playing exactly the same music in exactly the same way, different rooms sound different -- guaranteed. Each enclosed space treats your sound differently.

Reflected sound causes the problems. What the audience hears is made up of the direct sound (what comes straight out of the loudspeaker directly to the listener) and reflected sound (it bounces off everything before getting to the listener). And if the room is big enough, then reverberation comes into play, which is all the reflected sound that has traveled so far, and for such a (relatively) long time that it arrives and re-arrives at the listener delayed enough to sound like a second and third source, or even an echo if the room is really big.

It's basically a geometry problem. Each room differs in its dimensions; not only in its basic length-by-width size, but in its ceiling height, the distance from you and your equipment to the audience, what's hung (or not hung), on the walls, how many windows and doors there are, and where. Every detail about the space affects your sound. And regretfully, there is very little you can do about any of it. Most of the factors affecting your sound you cannot change. You certainly can't change the dimensions, or alter the window and door locations. But there are a few things you can do, and equalization is one of them. But before you equalize you want to optimize how and where you place your speakers. This is probably the number one item to attend to. Keep your loudspeakers out of corners whenever possible. Remove all restrictions between your speakers and your audience, including banners, stage equipment, and performers. What you want is for most of the sound your audience hears to come directly from the speakers. You want to minimize all reflected sound. If you have done a good job in selecting and equalizing your loudspeakers, then you already know your direct sound is good. So what's left is to minimize the reflected sound.

Next use equalization to help with some of the room's more troublesome features. If the room is exceptionally bright you can beef up the low end to help offset it, or roll-off some of the highs. Or if the room tends to be boomy, you can tone-down the low end to reduce the resonance. Another way EQ is quite effective is in controlling troublesome feedback tones. Feedback is that terrible squeal or scream sound systems get when the audio from the loudspeaker gets picked-up by one of the stage microphones, re-amplified and pumped out the speaker, only to be picked-up again by the microphone, and re-amplified, and so on. Most often, this happens when the system is playing loud. Which makes sense, because for softer sounds, the signal either isn't big enough to make it to the microphone, or if it does, it is too small to build-up. The problem is one of an out-of-control, closed-loop, positive-feedback system building up until something breaks, or the audience leaves. Use your equalizer to cut those frequencies that want to howl; you not only stop the squeal, but you allow the system to play louder. The technical phrase for this is maximizing system gain before feedback.

It's important to understand at the beginning that you cannot fix room related sound problems with equalization, but you can move the trouble spots around. You can rearrange things sonically, which helps tame excesses. You win by making it sound better. Equalization helps.

2. What is a RTA (Real Time Analyzer)
 To make loudspeaker and sound system measurements easy, you need a real-time analyzer (RTA). An RTA allows you to see the power response, not only for the loudspeaker, but even more importantly, for the whole system. Stand-alone RTAs use an LED or LCD matrix to display the response. A built-in pink noise generator (a special kind of shaped noise containing all audible frequencies, optimized for measuring sound systems) is used as the test signal. A measuring microphone is included for sampling the response. The display is arranged to show amplitude verses frequency. Depending upon cost, the number of frequency columns varies from 10 on 1-octave centers, up to 31 on 1/3-octave centers (agreeing with graphic equalizers). Amplitude range and precision varies with price. With the cost of laptop computers tumbling, the latest form of RTA involves an accessory box and software that works with your computer. These are particularly nice, and loaded with special memory, calculations and multipurpose functions like also being an elaborate SPL meter. Highly recommended if the budget allows.

3. What is a Compressor and when do I need it?
 Compressors are signal processing units used to reduce (compress) the dynamic range of the signal passing through them. The modern use for compressors is to turn down just the loudest signals dynamically. For instance, an input dynamic range of 110 dB might pass through a compressor and exit with a new dynamic range of 70 dB. This clever bit of processing is normally done using a VCA (voltage controlled amplifier) whose gain is determined by a control voltage derived from the input signal. Therefore, whenever the input signal exceeds the threshold point, the control voltage becomes proportional to the signal's dynamic content. This lets the music peaks turn down the gain. Before compressors, a human did this at the mixing board and we called it gain-riding. This person literally turned down the gain anytime it got too loud for the system to handle.

You need to reduce the dynamic range because extreme ranges of dynamic material are very difficult for sound systems to handle. If you turn it up as loud as you want for the average signals, then along comes these huge musical peaks, which are vital to the punch and drama of the music, yet are way too large for the power amps and loudspeakers to handle. Either the power amps clip, or the loudspeakers bottom out (reach their travel limits), or both -- and the system sounds terrible. Or going the other way, if you set the system gain to prevent these overload occurrences, then when things get nice and quiet, and the vocals drop real low, nobody can hear a thing. It's always something. So you buy a compressor.

Using it is quite simple: Set a threshold point, above which everything will be turned down a certain amount, and then select a ratio defining just how much a "certain amount" is. All audio below the threshold point is unaffected and all audio above this point is compressed by the ratio amount. The earlier example of reducing 110 dB to 70 dB requires a ratio setting of 1.6:1 (110/70 = 1.6). The key to understanding compressors is to always think in terms of increasing level changes in dB above the threshold point. A compressor makes these increases smaller. From our example, for every 1.6 dB increase above the threshold point the output only increases 1 dB. In this regard compressors make loud sounds quieter. If the sound gets louder by 1.6 dB and the output only increases by 1 dB, then the loud sound has been made quieter.

Some compressors include attack and release controls. The attack time is the amount of time that passes between the moment the input signal exceeds the threshold and the moment that the gain is actually reduced. The release time is just the opposite -- the amount of time that passes between the moment the input signal drops below the threshold and the moment that the gain is restored. These controls are very difficult to set, and yet once set, rarely need changing. Because of this difficulty, and the terrible sounding consequences of wrong settings, Rane correctly presets these controls to cover a wide variety of music and speech -- one less thing for you to worry about.

System overload is not the only place we find compressors. Another popular use is in the making of sound. For example when used in conjunction with microphones and musical instrument pick-ups, compressors help determine the final timbre (tone) by selectively compressing specific frequencies and waveforms. Common examples are "fattening" drum sounds, increasing guitar sustain, vocal "smoothing," and "bringing up" specific sounds out of the mix, etc. It is quite amazing what a little compression can do. Check your owner's manual for more tips.

4. What is the difference between a Limiter and a Compressor?
Limiters are compressors with fixed ratios of 10:1 or greater. Here, the dynamic action prevents the audio signal from becoming any bigger than the threshold setting. For example, say the threshold is set for +16 dBu and a musical peak suddenly comes along and causes the input to jump by 10 dB to +26 dB, the output will only increase by 1 dB to +17 dBu -- basically remaining level. Limiters find use in preventing equipment and recording media overloads. A limiter is the extreme case of compression.

You will hear the term pumping used in conjunction with poorly designed or improperly set limiters. Pumping describes an audible problem caused by actually hearing the gain change -- it makes a kind of "pumping" sound. This is particularly a problem with limiters that operate too abruptly. Rest assured that Rane limiters are designed not to have any audible side-effects.
Adapted from Rane Note 134 by Rane Corporation