Using an equalizer is one of — if not the most — important aspects of mixing. That's why it's essential that you learn to use it properly.
In this post, we'll explore how to use — and not abuse — the mighty EQ. We'll go through some common pitfalls inexperienced engineers are confronted with, and we'll give you useful tips to help you avoid these irritating difficulties.
#1 — Using Subpar Monitoring
Before you even think about messing with the frequencies of a mix, you need to ensure that your monitoring situation is up to the task. Because if you can't hear it, you can't mix it!
If you're working in a professionally designed studio, you can skip this part. Everyone else, however, likely has some work to do.
Untreated rooms suffer from a huge number of common sonic deficits, including flutter echo, standing waves, boundary proximity issues, and more.
That's where acoustic treatment, such as absorption and diffusion panels, bass traps, and monitor decouplers, come in. These indispensable items will help level up your room's sound. You can employ room correction software in lieu of — or preferably in tandem with — acoustic treatment.
Beyond that, make sure you're using high-quality studio monitors and that they're positioned properly, in the shape of an equilateral triangle, with their tweeters at ear level.
Be sure to take advantage of your monitors' built-in adjustments if they're available. It's an easy way to tailor their sound to your room.
Last (but certainly not least) monitor at a consistent — and safe — volume. The proper level for most small home studios is around 73–76dB SPL (C weighted).
#2 — EQ-ing a Poorly Recorded Track
Equalizers are powerful tools, and they're capable of fixing a wide array of frequency-related issues. That said, there's only so much you can do if you're dealing with a badly recorded track.
So, before you resort to aggressive "turd polishing," give your track an honest appraisal. If it was captured poorly, no amount of EQ-ing or processing is going to make it sound like a professional recording.
Your best option is to re-record the affronting track. If this isn't a possibility (for example, you're mixing somebody else's project), you may want to consider other options.
For example, sample replacement offers an easy, effective way to fix lesser-sounding drum tracks. If you have access to a DI'd guitar or bass track, try cleaning up the track with noise-reduction software, then use amp simulation to give it a finished sound.
As for keyboard parts, there are many outstanding audio-to-MIDI applications out there that let you replace the offending parts with virtual instruments.
Once you achieve a solid-sounding track, you'll be able to use EQ to optimize its sound, rather than to apply time-intensive frequency maneuvers to an out-of-whack recording.
#3 — Not Clearing the Mud
Inexperienced mix engineers often hear a muddy-sounding track and assume that it's suffering from off-kilter upper frequencies. Likewise, they'll assume that a harsh-sounding track needs a high-frequency cut.
These are oftentimes not the case, however.
Rather, low-frequency mud and unwanted resonances are likely clogging up your mix. Both of these issues — even if they're largely inaudible — can cause dullness, boominess, shrillness, and more.
Your protection against unwanted low frequencies is a highpass filter. This kind of filter is a standard feature on most parametric EQ plug-ins — including the stock one that comes with most DAW software.
For bass-heavy instruments, begin with your EQ's minimum cutoff frequency and a gentle 6–12dB slope. Increase the cutoff frequency until the track begins to sound thin, then decrease the frequency until you get a sound you like.
For instruments without a lot of low-frequency content, start with a cutoff frequency around 30Hz and follow the same steps as above.
The book Fundamentals of Physics describes resonance as "the phenomenon of increased amplitude that occurs when the frequency of a periodically applied force is equal or close to a natural frequency of the system on which it acts."
Resonances occur when a created frequency interacts with the natural frequency of something else within your mix. You'll generally perceive this as an out-of-control vibration or a buildup of a specific frequency or set of frequencies.
Not only do resonances rob your tracks of dynamics and headroom, but they also sound ghastly. Like, nails-on-a-chalkboard ghastly!
Our RESO plug-in offers you a simple solution for getting rid of unwanted resonances — automatically.
Just place it on a track, then click the Calculate Targets button. RESO will create Target Node and supply you with helpful setting suggestions for achieving a resonance-free track.
#4 — Relying on Presets
There are no one-size-fits-all EQ-ing solutions.
And while tutorials with by-the-numbers frequency curves for specific instruments can help familiarize you with the key frequencies of various sources, they won't teach you how to tweak the EQs in your own mix.
This is because no two tracks are the same.
Likewise, using generic EQ plug-in presets will rarely give you the sound you want. Just because an EQ curve works in one situation, doesn't mean that it will produce similar results in another.
After all, the plug-in programmer hasn't even heard your mix! So, how are they supposed to know which EQ settings will sound best?
This is why it's important to trust your ears when making EQ decisions.
If this sounds like too much guesswork for you, our MIXROOM plug-in offers an effective alternative. MIXROOM is an intuitive EQ that analyses your mix then supplies application-specific presets and target frequencies based on a reference track.
Just instantiate MXROOM on your track, choose an applicable channel preset, or create a custom target value with the Target icon on the bottom left corner of the plug-in's interface and import a reference track.
MIXROOM's Target EQ Curve helps you dial in a professional sound without the mind-numbing trial and error. What's more, you can use the Add Smart Bands button to implement EQ bands that match the Target EQ Curve.
Anyone searching for an intelligent starting point for EQ-ing will appreciate MIXROOM.
#5 — Tweaking Tracks in Isolation
When you're EQ-ing a track in your mix, it's vital that you listen to it within the framework of your entire mix. Inexperienced mix engineers will often solo each track in their mix, then sculpt it with an EQ until it sounds perfect to them.
However, when they play their full mix back, the EQ'd track either disappears, overwhelms other tracks, or simply sounds wrong in context.
While there's nothing wrong with using an equalizer to add character or to "sweeten" a track, that's not the primary function of an EQ when you’re mixing.
Rather, equalization should be deployed as a way of carving out space for each track in the frequency spectrum so that each track fits together with the other tracks in a balanced, musical way.
At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how jaw dropping your track sounds in isolation if it sounds bad when the rest of your mix is playing. After all, your audience is going to be listening to your full mix, not your individual tracks!
#6 — Boosting Instead of Cutting
Equalizers are among the most powerful tools in a mixer's arsenal. Thus, you can do a lot of damage with an EQ!
It's intuitive to want to boost frequencies to make a track stand out. That said, ham-fisted EQ boosts are a surefire path to boomy and harsh mixes.
Fortunately, EQ bands work in both directions, allowing you to both boost and cut.
If your track fails to cut through your mix — even after a judicious EQ boost — It's likely due to frequency masking. Frequency masking is a phenomenon in which the frequencies on other tracks conceal the same frequencies on the track you're trying to emphasize.
Muddy low and low-midrange frequencies are common offenders. You'll be stunned by the amount of low-frequency bandwidth you can free up by cutting sub-100Hz frequencies on everything except your bass-heavy tracks, such as kick and bass.
As for low-midrange frequencies, place an EQ on any dull- or muddy-sounding track, create a large 250Hz–500Hz boost, then sweep it around until you find the most offensive frequency. Then turn the boost into a smaller cut. Start with -2dB and slowly increase the cut until it sounds natural.
And remember, a little EQ goes a long way.
Unless you're aiming for a blatant "effected" sound, avoid being heavy-handed with your equalizer's gain controls.
A slight 5–10kHz bump may be all you need to add sparkle to your acoustic guitar, piano, or synth track. You can also apply a tiny boost in the 500–600Hz region to add body or cut a bit around 250Hz to lend more clarity to your track.
#7 — Using the Wrong Tool
If high-frequency EQ boosts render your dull-sounding track harsh and hissy, perhaps an equalizer isn't the right tool for the job. Rather, an exciter might be a better choice.
An exciter is the recording engineer's go-to processor for adding sparkle and brightness to a sound without resorting to ineffective EQ boosting.
Some exciters compress and dynamically alter a track's high-frequency content, filter it, then mix it back with the original signal. Others use harmonic synthesis to generate high frequencies that are missing from the original source. Some exciters employ subtle harmonic distortion to add presence to a track.
Regardless of which exciter you choose, use it subtly, tastefully, and in context with the rest of your mix. Many engineers have learned the hard way that no matter how ear-grabbing an exciter sounds when you max it out, it can get fatiguing after a while.
Regardless, when it's used properly, an exciter will make a track sound more present and exciting without the hiss, harshness, and phase incoherence of a heavy-handed EQ boost.
For a highly effective modern take on the exciter, check out our ANIMATE plug-in. It's guaranteed to get your sound jumping out of your speakers — no EQ boosts required!
Bonus Tip: Use a Reference Track
When you listen to your own mix for hours upon hours, you're bound to lose your sonic perspective. That's why knowledgeable mix engineers use reference tracks.
So, what's a reference track? In a nutshell, it's a professionally mixed and mastered song that you use for a reality check, and it will ensure that your song sounds as great as — or better — than the next song on your listener's playlist.
If you use our REFERENCE plug-in, cueing up a suitable reference track is easier than stealing candy from a baby. Just import your preferred, preferably within the same genre you're working on.
After that, listen closely to the reference track and use it as a guide for how yours should sound. This will help you with levels and automation, plus it will aid you greatly in determining which frequencies you need to adjust with your EQ.
If you don't master the equalizer, you'll never master the mix — it's that fundamental to the process.
Our blog is an excellent reference for new (and even more seasoned) mix engineers. It's loaded with helpful tips and tricks we've gained from our hard-earned industry experience.
So, keep following our posts, and learn how to do things the right way — no hit-and-miss experimentation necessary!