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The Beginner’s Guide to Frequency Ranges

soundwave fequency

We talk with readers who are deep into building out their car sound systems. They’re enthusiastic audiophiles, pushing the limits of the sound experience one can have in a car, and they know exactly how to get what they like.

But when it comes to the numbers, they just wing it. When we mention the midrange or infrasonic frequencies or anything ending in kilohertz, it turns out these audio explorers arrived at their setups through trial and error.

More power to them. As a beginner, though, wouldn’t you rather arrive at your perfect soundscape a bit more scientifically?

Our beginner’s guide to frequency ranges is here to help. After some background info, we’ll dive into each range, and tell you how to recognize it, how to boost it, and what it adds to your listening experience.

Quick Reference Guide

 If all you want is a tab to keep open while you shop for an amp, all the info below is summarized right here.

Frequency Ranges (20 Hz – 20 kHz)

OctaveRangeCenterDescriptionInstrumentsProblem
120-40 Hz32 HzSub-bass, punchKick drum, bass, organRumbling
240-80 Hz64 HzLow bass, depthKick drum, bass, pianoThud
380-160 Hz125 HzBody, fat, boomingDrums, bass, keyboardUnclear
4160-320 Hz250 HzWarmth from all instrumentsAcoustic instruments, vocalsMuddy
5320-640 Hz500 HzHorn, honkTexture balance on all instruments and voicesHonk
6640 Hz – 1.25 kHz1 kHzAttack, distortionAttack on snare drum, guitars, and percussionNasal
71.25-2.5 kHz2 kHzCrunch, crispnessBackground vocalsGritty
82.5-5 kHz4 kHzClarity, presence, edgeAdds clarity to solo instrumentsFatigue
95-10 kHz8 kHzMetallic, sizzle, crystalCymbals, stringsSiblance
1010-20 kHz16 kHzAir, light, opennessCymbals, bellsHiss

What is Frequency?

You probably already know that sound is a wave. Waves have two main measurements: amplitude (height), and wavelength (distance between peaks).

Frequency is the inverse of wavelength. It measures how closely packed the peaks of a wave are. One cycle of the wave is the space between two peaks. When we measure a wave at 1 hertz (Hz), that means that one cycle of the wave takes one second to pass through a fixed point in space.

Frequency corresponds to pitch. The lower the frequency, the lower the pitch. Some pitches, called infrasonic or subsonic notes, are too low for humans to hear. Others, called ultrasonic frequencies, are so high humans can’t hear them.

Frequency range chart

One other thing you should know about the Hz scale: its relationship with actual pitch is logarithmic. As frequency increases exponentially, pitch increases linearly. If you play a note, then play another exactly one octave up, the frequency of the sound doubles. That’s why the scale gets into kilohertz (1,000 hertz) so quickly.

Got all that? Great. Let’s talk bass.

Bass (20 Hz to 160 Hz)

OctaveRangeCenterDescriptionInstrumentsProblem
120-40 Hz32 HzSub-bass, punchKick drum, bass, organRumbling
240-80 Hz64 HzLow bass, depthKick drum, bass, pianoThud
380-160 Hz125 HzBody, fat, boomingDrums, bass, keyboardUnclear

What it is: The lowest frequency audible to humans. While you might feel frequencies below 20 Hz, you’ll never hear them.

What generates it: Kick drum, bass guitar, stand-up bass, pipe organ.

What it adds to your soundscape: Because bass notes have the most physical impact on the world, they provoke some of the most visceral reactions right away. These are the notes that shake your windows and rattle your bones. Everyone who’s ever been to a concert knows the feeling of getting punched by a kick drum from fifty feet away.

In addition to shaking and rattling, bass is important for adding depth and definition to your musical experience. Music with better-defined bass feels more substantial, and contributes to the feeling of being lost in the sound.

How to know when you don’t have enough: Your music sounds hollow, thin, or tinny.

How to boost it:

  • Adjust the bass up on your car radio.
  • Replace your stock speakers with better-quality aftermarket options.
  • Install a powered subwoofer with an amp. Make sure you tune them properly to the head unit.
  • Place the subwoofer on the car-side wall of your trunk, facing away from the driver.
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Mid-Bass (160 Hz to 320 Hz)

OctaveRangeCenterDescriptionInstrumentsProblem
4160-320 Hz250 HzWarmth from all instrumentsAcoustic instruments, vocalsMuddy

What it is: The missing link between deep bass and mid-range sound. Also called lower midrange. It’s the range of the average male vocalist, or a cello if you’re into classical.

What generates it: Typical male vocals, cello, any acoustic instrument played in a low range.

What it adds to your soundscape: Extra volume at this range makes lower-frequency instruments sound more clear and defined. Despite the word “bass” in the title, this range is much less about percussion than the lower registers, and is important for tonal balance.

How to know when you don’t have enough: You aren’t able to distinguish lower notes, and male vocalists frequently get lost in the sound. Generally, a lack of mid-bass amplitude gives music a “hollow” quality: bass is the foundation of your palace of sound, treble is the facade, but the lower midrange makes up many of the rooms inside.

How to boost it:

  • Upgrade your door speakers. Aftermarket speakers get much better response in the lower to upper midrange. Try to find speakers with a resonant frequency near the bottom of this range (80 Hz).
  • Insulate your doors with a sound-dampening material, such as Fatmat.
  • Before installing your new speakers, gasket them with foam tape in order to create a more solid seal. At all costs, avoid putting sound system components in direct contact with solid parts of your car.
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Midrange (320 Hz to 2.5 kHz)

OctaveRangeCenterDescriptionInstrumentsProblem
5320-640 Hz500 HzHorn, honkTexture balance on all instruments and voicesHonk
6640 Hz – 1.25 kHz1 kHzAttack, distortionAttack on snare drum, guitars, and percussionNasal
71.25-2.5 kHz2 kHzCrunch, crispnessBackground vocalsGritty

What it is: This is the range that the human ear is the most sensitive and responsive to. We’re much more able to perceive the differences between notes in the midrange, so most music has its melody somewhere around here.

What generates it: Typical female vocals, acoustic instruments played in a higher range, white noise.

What it adds to your soundscape: Our ears and brains have evolved to find midrange sounds the most pleasant, probably because the sounds of nature and the average human voice sit somewhere in these frequencies. Given that small distinctions have an outsized effect in this range, you’ll find that it’s the easiest one to control entirely by adjusting your head unit.

How to know when you don’t have enough: Without midrange sound to play peacemaker, the noise from your tweeters and woofers will come out harsh and dissonant. To continue our building metaphor, this is the comfortable furnishings you put inside.

How to boost it:

  • Since your ears are tuned to the midrange, boosting it takes the least work. Start simple by increasing the volume on your head unit.
  • As always, replacing your car’s factory speakers will have a big impact.
  • If playing music from a sound file, try to compress the files as little as possible. Taking up a little extra space will grant you a big return on your investment.
  • Mask road noise with sound-dampening material in your floor and door panels.
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Treble (2.5 kHz to 5 kHz)

OctaveRangeCenterDescriptionInstrumentsProblem
82.5-5 kHz4 kHzClarity, presence, edgeAdds clarity to solo instrumentsFatigue

What it is: The range above midrange, where higher-pitched noted are located. 

What generates it: High-pitched drum attacks, falsetto vocals, notes on a guitar’s high E string.

What it adds to your soundscape: Treble combines the sensitivity of the midrange with the clear presence of the higher ranges, making it a part of the spectrum you should be exceptionally careful with. If boosted just right, it makes each individual instrument stand out clearly, especially during solos.

How to know when you don’t have enough: The high-register instruments and vocals in your music lose definition and sound like they’re bleeding together. Beware, though: it’s way more likely that you’ll end up with too much amplitude in the treble range. You can tell that’s happening when listening makes your ears tired.

How to boost it:

  • Carefully increase the volume on your head unit.
  • Replace your factory speakers.
  • Install tweeters with a high-frequency threshold, and hook them up to correctly tuned amps.
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Brilliance (5 kHz to 20 kHz)

OctaveRangeCenterDescriptionInstrumentsProblem
95-10 kHz8 kHzMetallic, sizzle, crystalCymbals, stringsSiblance
1010-20 kHz16 kHzAir, light, opennessCymbals, bellsHiss

 

What it is: All the sounds above the treble range that are still audible to humans. Above 20 kilohertz, you’re into notes only your dog can hear.

What generates it: Hi-hat, cymbals, high harmonic vocals, steel instruments. Acoustic instruments can play in this range if specially tuned.

What it adds to your soundscape: The evocative name of this range tells you all you need to know. A few well-placed notes or a defined harmony in the brilliance can tie a whole song together. While humans are less sensitive to frequencies above 6 kHz or so, they produce an effect a lot like bass, bypassing the ears and going directly to the body and brain.

How to know when you don’t have enough: Without the right amount of boosting, your music will start sounding growly or muddy as imbalanced bass takes over. Conversely, if you boost the brilliance too much, you’ll start to hear hissing and sibilance.

How to boost it:

  • Use an amp with a low-pass filter to cut out ultrasonic sound.
  • Tune your amp gains up until you hear distortion, then back down until you don’t anymore.
  • Install an equalizer in your car to tune your whole sound system from the same control panel.
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Conclusion

Sound systems and sound enjoyment are incredibly subjective. Some people are all about that bass, while others prefer to do most of their listening in the midrange.

We knocked the wing-it approach in the intro, but it’s also true that science can only take you so far. Once you have a firm grounding in the different ranges that make up your car’s sound, you’ll be better equipped to build the perfect audio setup.

Keep this article close by for reference. If it helped you out, tell us in the comments below!

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