How the Pros Use EQ
Now you have an understanding of what EQ does and an awareness of the frequency spectrum, you can put this knowledge into practice and improve mixes.
I mentioned earlier that there were four main ways in which you can use EQ:
- Remove nasty elements
- Exaggerate pleasing elements
- Make things sound different
- Create space in a mix
Before I examine these processes in more detail, I want to give you some general guidelines for using an equaliser.
The 7 Commandments of Equalisation
- Be as subtle as possible with parametric EQs. The less, the better. A boost or cut of 3dB is a good starting point. The only exception to this rule is when using top quality analogue gear/desks and their software replicas. In this case, the colouration of the EQ is desired and you can turn those knobs all the way to 11.
- Don’t rely on EQ to change a sound after recording. Get a good sound in the recording phase.
- Cut, instead of boosting, where possible. Boosting frequencies will raise the volume of the instrument/vocal and start eating up headroom. Using cuts also forces you to be more strategic with EQ moves. If you want something to sound warmer, cut the highs instead of boosting the lows.
- EQ for a reason. EQ with purpose. Have a small goal that you want to achieve with every EQ move. If it doesn’t need EQ, don’t use it for the sake of it.
- Don’t apply EQ in solo. The listener will never hear the track in solo, so never mix in solo. An instrument that sounds awful on it’s own might sound great in the mix.
- You can be drastic with filters. Don’t be afraid to cut everything below 200Hz on a guitar or cut everything above 5kHz on a bass. It will give more room for the other instruments. If the guitar sounds too weak on it’s own in a different section, automate the filter to bring the bottom end back in.
- Use lots of small EQ changes rather than a few big ones. In my experience a good mix is the culmination of a hundred or more small moves, not ten heavy moves.
With those tips, you’re most of the way there. You now know a lot more about EQ than the vast majority of home recording enthusiasts—and a surprising number of engineers I know, too.
Stick to these guidelines and you will be off to a running start. Once you have more experience, though, don’t be afraid to stray from the path and experiment. Everyone has a different mixing style, and you need to develop your own opinions and techniques.
Here's those four main processes in a bit more depth.
The Four Key Processes
1. Remove Nasty Elements
This is one of the main ways in which EQ is used. Many people refer to this as subtractive EQ.
It’s important to focus on getting a good sound at the source when recording. If you don’t like the tone of a guitar, move the mic or change the amp settings. If you don’t like the sound of a vocal, choose a different mic or ask the vocalist to take a step back.
Despite best efforts, however, there are always going to be elements to a recording that you didn’t intend to record. A persistent ringing on a drum. Sibilance in a vocal. A prominent room resonance.
Using a narrow cut I can remove these obvious problems in the audio. A surgical cut should always be narrow if you are targeting a particular group of frequencies, and due to the narrow bandwidth you can be a bit more drastic and go for a -5dB cut.
Ensure you apply these cuts with the whole mix in and listen out for a reduction in the bass due to phasing issues as applying any sort of EQ will mess with the phasing slightly.
If you’re struggling to find the problematic frequencies that need cutting, try using The Altitude Mixing Technique. This involves sweeping an extreme narrow boost up and down the frequency spectrum until you notice frequency ranges that pop out at you.
You can also remove larger displeasing elements of the sound with a subtle, wide cut.
If a vocal sounds muddy you could remove a lot of the bass with a -3dB low shelf. If an electric guitar sounds brittle you could add a wide cut between 4kHz and 6kHz. If you can hear too much of the snare wires on the snare apply a -3dB high shelf.
2. Exaggerate Pleasing Elements
Now that you’ve removed the bad stuff and prioritised subtractive EQ you can use some subtle, wide boosts to emphasise the good stuff. This step isn’t necessary, and quite often cuts are enough to clean up the instrument.
As long as you're subtle with your boosts, there is no reason to shy away from them. If you can, use an analogue modelling EQ plugin for this purpose. If not just be sure to use wide boosts of around 3dB.
If a vocal sounds warm a subtle boost could emphasise this warmth without making the vocal sound too muddy. If a guitar isn’t cutting through the mix too well you could boost it at 2kHz to give it a bit more presence and crunch.
3. Make Things Sound Different
So far you have learned how to use EQ as a tool that can chisel away at your mix and shape a song.
You can also use EQ as an effect to change the character of a sound that’s low in the mix.
Subtle EQ moves are important for the key parts of a song—the vocals, the drums, the bass, the lead guitar. But background instruments and overdubs that are low in the mix can be treated more artistically.
Think about the telephone vocal sound. This is a great example of using EQ as an effect rather than a tool.
Experiment with drastic filters and boosts. Don’t be afraid to cut away large chunks of a sound that is low in the mix to create more room for the main parts.
4. Create Space in the Mix
You can also use cuts to make room for other instruments. If a bass guitar is prominent around 120Hz—you can use a frequency analyser or a good old boost-and-sweep to find the most prominent frequencies)—try cutting the kick drum in this range to give the bass some room.
Whenever you boost an instrument or vocal, try cutting the same frequencies in the other tracks. If you're boosting the vocals at 2kHz and 4kHz, cut these frequencies in every other instrument and vocal.
This is called frequency slotting and it’s essential for achieving separation and creating mixes that sound full and clear rather than muddy and cluttered.
You can apply these techniques to any instrument or vocal. Experimentation and practice is key to developing your ears.
Whenever you start to apply EQ to an instrument or vocal, ask yourself what you're trying to accomplish.
- If you're trying to make a vocal more exciting, add some air with a high shelf boost above 16kHz
- If you're trying to make a guitar sound more aggressive, start with a 6dB boost around 2kHz, move the frequency up and down until you find a sound that you like and then dial the boost back to 3dB
Rather than just resorting to an EQ chart, start experimenting with drastic changes to hear what you’re doing and then reduce the boosts/cuts to 3dB once you’ve accomplished an exaggerated version of the sound that you wanted to achieve.
Follow these action steps to complete your transformation into an EQ expert:
- Load up a project in your DAW of choice. If you don’t have any old projects to open, import a song from the music library
- Choose an instrument or vocal to focus on. Something that plays a key role in the song
- Listen to the loudest section of the song on repeat with the full mix in and focus on your chosen part. Consider if there any nasty elements to the sound such as ringing, room resonances, sibilance, harshness, muddiness, brittleness or if it is too bright or too bassy
- Write down your first impressions
- Think about the frequency ranges of the words that you wrote down. If it sounded brittle it will be in the high mids somewhere. If it sounded too muddy it will be in the low mids
- Load up an equalizer and experiment with narrow and wide cuts between -3dB and -5dB to remove these unpleasing elements
- Load up a new equalizer, either a parametric or semi-parametric and use a wide 3dB boost to emphasise the best element(s) of the sound
- Cut the frequencies that you boosted in the other instruments/vocals by 3dB
- Bypass all of the EQ plugins and listen to the difference
- Share this tutorial with one other friend that you know would find it useful - they’ll love you for it