How To Make A Track Stand Out (Without Using EQ Boosts)
When you're mixing, making your tracks stand out can be difficult. And while you might be tempted to resort to excessive EQ boosting, this is generally not the best move.
From improving your gain-staging to using subtractive EQ to applying dynamics or other processing to reining in your reverb levels, there are many ways to make your track "pop" without boosting frequencies with an equalizer.
Well-balanced Tracks Are Essential
Before you even think about touching an equalizer, you need to ensure that each track in your mix is set to a proper volume in relation to the other tracks.
If you can't achieve a solid mix without EQ, all the processing in the world won't rescue it.
Increasing the volume of a track produces an effect akin to boosting its upper frequencies with an EQ. Likewise, decreasing a track's volume gives it a darker character and pushes it back further into your mix.
It's important to remember that faders work in both directions. Rather than pushing a fader up to make a track louder, pull other faders down to make competing tracks quieter.
Using consistent levels across tracks will make crafting a balanced-sounding mix easier. Many engineers aim for an average (RMS) level of -18dB (a holdover from the analog days of yore).
Ensuring consistent levels across tracks will make identical fader positions deliver similar results for each track and using a conservative level like -18dB will give you punchy, open-sounding results.
EQ Works In Both Directions
You can do a lot of damage with an EQ — audio engineers should be required to take the Hippocratic Oath before being allowed to touch one!
While it's natural to want to boost frequencies to make a track stand out, overzealous EQ boosts are the number one cause of boomy and harsh mixes. Luckily, like faders, equalizers work in both directions, allowing both cutting and boosting.
When tracks fail to cut through a mix — even after huge EQ boosts — It's usually due to frequency masking. Frequency masking is a phenomenon in which the same frequencies on other tracks obscure the frequencies on the track you're trying to emphasize.
Muddy low and low-midrange frequencies are common culprits. You'll be shocked by the amount of low-frequency bandwidth you can free up by cutting sub-100Hz frequencies on everything except your bass-heavy tracks (typically your kick and bass).
As for low-midrange frequencies, instantiate an EQ on any dull- or muddy-sounding track, create a generous 250Hz–500Hz boost, then sweep it around until you find the most offensive frequency. Then turn the boost into a -2dB cut, and slowly increase the cut until it sounds natural.
Apply Dynamics Processing
If your tracks are lacking punch, sustain, and definition, EQ is not always the best solution. This is especially true when it comes to drums, although it holds true for other instruments as well.
This is where dynamics processing — transient shaping in particular — comes into play. These processors permit you to sculpt a sound's attack and sustain with uncanny precision.
The skilled application of dynamics processors is the professional mix engineer's tool of choice for achieving a radio-ready drum sound that hits you in the chest.
For drums, ANIMATE by Mastering The Mix is a tried-and-true choice. Start by instantiating ANIMATE on each of your individual drum tracks: kick, snare, and toms.
Select the Punch module and increase the ‘amount’ slider until each drum track is jumping out in the mix just how you want. Adjust the filter so you only affect certain frequencies to shape the perfect tone for your channels.
Finally, adjust the output slider to maintain a consistent perceived loudness for each channel (there’s a pointer to help you do this accurately). Increasing the punch will have increased the overall gain and possibly thrown off the overall balance of the mix.
Maximize and Excite It
Are you struggling with a dull-sounding track? Do high-frequency EQ boosts render it harsh and hissy?
If this is the case, then your track is an excellent candidate for an exciter — the go-to processor for adding sparkle and brightness to a sound without resorting to ineffective EQ boosting.
Analogue processors such as the legendary Aphex Aural Exciter and BBE Sonic Maximizer hardware units use digital processing to add harmonic excitement to a track. Modern, software-based solutions like the IGNITE module in our ANIMATE plug-in enable DAW-based studios to get in on the action as well.
Some exciters compress and dynamically alter a track's high-frequency content, filter it, then mix it back with the original signal. Others employ harmonic synthesis to generate high frequencies that are missing from the original source. Some exciter processors incorporate subtle harmonic distortion to add presence to a track.
It's important that you deploy exciters subtly, tastefully, and in context with the rest of your mix. While cranking an exciter may sound pleasing at first, it will sound fatiguing over time.
That said, a well-placed exciter is a great way to make a track sound more present and exciting without the hiss, harshness, and phase incoherence that can result from heavy-handed EQ boosts.
Deploy Modulation and Pitch Effects
If a track sounds flat and one-dimensional, modulation and pitch effects are a surefire way to make it stand out — no EQ required. These processors can add movement to stagnant tracks, add depth to thin sounds, and add width to mono sources.
The three most common types of modulation effects are phase-shifting, flanging, and chorus.
Phase-shifting doubles your signal, shifts the duplicate signal's phase via a series of all-pass filters, then mixes the signals back together. This creates a series of out-of-phase notches, resulting in a distinctive sweeping effect.
Like phase-shifting, flanging doubles your signal. The difference, however, is that flanging delays the duplicate signal by a small and gradually changing amount (generally 0.5–15 milliseconds) then applies a low-frequency oscillator to modulate the duplicated signal, resulting in a slight change of pitch.
The flanger then blends the duplicated, modulated signal back with the original sound, producing a comb filter effect — the characteristic "jet plane" sound. Flangers also employ positive feedback via a control labeled "regeneration" or "resonance" to intensify the effect.
Like flanging, chorus also doubles and delays your signal, although with longer delay times (generally 20–50 milliseconds). Similar to a flanger, a low-frequency oscillator is applied to the copied signal, providing a slight change of pitch.
Thanks to its longer delay times, choruses produce a less-pronounced effect than either phase-shifting or flanging, giving rise to a sound that mimics the effect of multiple instruments playing in unison.
Some chorus effects, such as the fabled Tri-Stereo Chorus from the 1980s, employ more than one doubled voice for a thicker, lusher effect.
What if you want to achieve the thick, lush sound of chorus, but want to avoid the warbling, modulated sound that's an inherent part of the effect? That's where pitch-shifting comes in.
Pitch-shifting, also known as detuning, is a form of "static chorus."
Like chorus, pitch-shifting creates a duplicate of your signal. Rather than modulating the signal like chorus, however, the pitch-shifter applies a subtle pitch shift (measured in cents) to the duplicated signal and mixes it back with the original, resulting in a thicker sound with zero movement.
Pitch-shifting is a great way to create a massive stereo sound out of a mono source.
First, create a copy of your track. Shift the original down 3–10 cents, then pan it left. Shift the duplicate up 3–10 centers, then pan it right.
The end result will sound huge! Just be sure to check your mix in mono — pitch-shifting can sometimes create phase issues when the effect is collapsed into mono.
Back Off the Reverb
Reverb is an important part of any mix. it's essential for imparting depth and dimensionality into your mixes.
Too much reverb, however, will wash out your mix. And no amount of EQ boosting will restore your reverb-drenched mix's definition and impact.
Simply put, the more reverb you add to a source, the further away it sounds. If you want a track to sit in the background add more reverb; if you want it up close and personal, apply less reverb.
Contrary to what you may have heard, drenching a track in reverb won't make it sound huge. Quite the opposite, in fact — didn't the '80s teach us anything?
When you're dialing in reverb levels, it's helpful to do so in context, with the rest of your mix playing. Soloing each track generally doesn't work — what sounds good in isolation can easily reach overwhelming proportions when you bring other reverb-treated tracks into the fold.
Reverb levels are difficult to nail down. A good rule of thumb is to cut each track's reverb level by 1–2dB after you have everything dialed in.
Like we noted earlier, equalizers are powerful tone-shaping tools that are easy to abuse — oftentimes with the best of intentions.
And, just for the record, we're not saying that you should never use an EQ to boost frequencies. That said, if you make smart decisions in other areas, you'll find that your mixes need fewer EQ boosts.