[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Scott Wiggins.]
Learning how to use EQ properly in your music can be a bit overwhelming at times.
- How to know when to use it?
- What frequencies do you cut or boost?
- How to know if you’re doing it right or if you’re overdoing it?
These are all good questions.
Although I will not be able to cover every aspect of using EQ in one post, I will give you advice on the best practices for using EQ in your mix.
First of all, you need to set up an initial balance in your mix with just volume faders and panning (where in the stereo field will each instrument live).
A great way to do this is to turn your mix down to a level where you don’t have to scream over it. You could have a conversation with someone and not have to raise your voice over the music.
Then start balancing your mix just using the volume faders and pan knobs BEFORE you start slapping on EQ or other plugins. Make sure the levels of each track, or the level of the master track does not come close to clipping. You want to leave yourself some “headroom” so when you start adding other plugins on you have room and don’t get close to clipping.
You can either pull all the faders down and then start pulling the drums up, then the bass, then the vocals and so on to build you mix balance, or if you have it sounding close to what you want already but it’s too hot, you can group all the tracks and turn them down together to keep that balance.
The point of doing this initial mix is so you are starting out in the most ideal spot for each track, and that they are balanced with each other as much as possible. You know when you’re done when the track starts making you feel good and sounds musical to you!
EQ before or after compression?
After I’ve achieved this initial balance, then I like to start with an EQ. I like to use subtractive EQ (EQ cuts) before compression to get rid of problematic frequencies that would make the compressor work harder than it had to and not sound as pleasing. Then you can add a compressor, and if you would like to enhance the sound of your track you can use additive EQ (EQ boosts), for example to boost the top end of a snare drum to add more crack.
High-Pass Filter (A form of subtractive EQ)
An example of getting rid of problematic frequencies is getting rid of unnecessary low end information on tracks that are not contributing or key to your low end, like the kick and bass guitar.
Your kick drum and bass guitar are the main contributors to the low end of the mix. You don’t need vocals, acoustic guitars, and pianos for example occupying really anything below 100hz. You can get rid of those frequencies by using a high-pass filter which will leave room for your kick and bass guitar to live in that sub 100hz range, and give you a cleaner sounding low end.
Just this one move on all the tracks that are not contributing to your low end can clean up a muddy mix and do wonders! Try adding just a high-pass filter on non bass tracks and see what it does to your mix. Come back here and leave us a comment to let us know the results. You can do this in a live situation also when mixing your band.
EQ in Mono
A great trick to know if you need to EQ something or not is to put all your tracks up the middle into mono. Everything will be right up the middle on top of each other. Nothing will be panned left or right.
This will allow you to hear if some tracks are covering up other tracks causing frequency masking that makes it hard to hear all the tracks clearly. Not every track is supposed to occupy the same frequencies. Remember the high-pass filter tip above for the low end?
I would suggest starting with one instrument (like the drums) then making sure they are all working together EQ-wise, then add in the bass and make sure the drums and bass can be heard clearly in mono. Then bring in the vocals for example, and as you’re EQing the vocals you will need to be listening to the drums and bass to make sure your vocal EQ moves are not affecting the drum and bass EQ or vise versa. As long as you can clearly hear each instrument in mono then you are ok.
If you add in another track and you can hear everything clearly in mono, then there is probably no need to EQ. Maybe just a high pass-filter is all you need and you’re done!
Once you have gone through your whole mix and all it’s tracks in mono, you can then pop your mix back out into stereo and you will be amazed how everything sounds!
If you can not hear all the elements in your mix while in mono then you know you have an EQ problem somewhere. It is hard to tell where the problem is when all the tracks are playing at once, so that is why I suggest starting with one element, maybe the vocals first, (since they are the most important) and then un-mute or bring the fader up of the next most important element and listen to them with each other to determine if that is where the problem is. If not, move on to the next track and see if when you add it that this is when the problem starts. This will help you determine which tracks are conflicting with each other.
Scott Wiggins is an audio engineer and runs The Recording Solution, which is dedicated to helping producers, engineers and artists make better music from their home studios.