I've been covering some intermediate and advanced EQ'ing techniques with my SAE Institute class this week and it's got me thinking about the importance of EQ'ing and my general approach, so I thought i'd put those thoughts down in a blog post. My friend Seb who is a much more talented producer than me in terms of mixdown ability was very good at EQ'ing, and I think generally the correct use of EQ is a vital skill in sculpting a professional sounding mix. There is a very good reason why on a mixing console you will see an EQ on almost every channel. And unfortunately yes it does take a while for you to be able to develop an ear for how to enhance or remove parts of a sound using EQ. That being said, there are a few tips and tricks as listed below that might help you in developing your EQ'ing skills further.
1. What do I like and dislike about the sound?
I remember reading an interview with Noisia where they were discussing how beginner producers may not know what it is they like about a particular sound and what they don't. This struck me as a very insightful point. I've found since that by spending time critically listening to sounds and really consciously identifying what I like and dislike about it, I am able to much more easily enhance or remove part of the sound using EQ.
2. How do I find the right frequency to adjust?
Obviously this will depend on the context of the track and the sound that you are working with. However there are a few basic rules you can follow. Firstly, the old boost with a tight Q and sweep the frequency spectrum is useful in identifying the frequencies you want to cut or adjust in some other way later. Just beware that if you boost, sweep and cut a large number of times (and thus punch many holes in your sample or recording) you can end up with a rather un-natural tone. Another trick to finding frequencies to remove and thereby reducing clutter in your mix is to simply bandpass your sample or recording, and move the high pass and low pass turnover frequencies until you hear it starting to affect the tonal qualities of your sound. If you shave 100Hz of frequency content off of each side of your sound, you are making that sound smaller and more compact and therefore easier to work with in the context of a full mix.
3. How do the changes you've made with EQ work musically?
Another great rule of thumb is EQ'ing in a way that makes musical sense, so for example if I am EQ'ing drum sounds I tend to low pass the drum sound at the frequency that corresponds to exactly one octave below the tonic peak of the drum sound. Conversely, a lot of producers will apply EQ rules that they have read about without any consideration for musicality. It's important to remember that frequency and pitch are one and the same thing, so that an octave represents a doubling or halving of frequency. It's impossible to EQ musically in all scenarios, however bear in mind that notching out 300Hz or 500Hz to remove mud on every sound makes no musical sense.
4. Trust your ears...
In the example above I spoke about cutting somewhere between 300Hz and 500Hz to remove mud, this is an often spoken about rule of thumb on the internet when it comes to EQ. My favoured approach is that I would only do this on sounds that absolutely need it. This involves identifying what cuts you need to make, and therefore trusting your ears. My method is to use the boost and sweep technique anywhere between 1 to 3 times on every sound, removing completely different frequencies each and every time rather than arbitrarily cutting a frequency because i've read about it sounding bad. It's hard when you are starting out because you don't necessarily have the confidence in yourself and your ears, but the more you practice identifying problem frequencies, the better you will get at it.
5. How do I know what Q settings to use?
You've probably noticed that certain Q settings sound more natural than others. We've spoken about sweeping and cutting problem frequencies with a narrow Q, this is generally a good way to go, you should aim to remove nothing but problem frequencies. If you cut too much or too wide you'll significantly alter the original tonal characteristics of the sound. Then again, if this is your desired result, then go ahead. Converse.ly when boosting, a narrow boost will create un-natural sounding changes to the harmonics of the sound, which the human ear is quick to pick up. In general it is better to say use a shelving EQ to brighten a sound than using a narrow boost at 12kHz or another similar set frequency.
6. Do I EQ before or after compression and other effects?
This is something that you can experiment a bit with. Often changing the order of certain plugins will yield very interesting and creative results. However if you are not wanting to experiment and you are just looking for a straight, clean mixdown, I would suggest that you make EQ cuts before effects, then boosts after. This is because you don't want to say compress (and therefore make louder) unwanted frequencies, or you don't want to send unwanted frequencies into a reverb, chorus or flanger which will make said frequencies much harder to identify and remove after they have been through this effect. Similarly, boosts after a compressor or effect are generally better because often times an effect and in particular a compressor (but also things such as distortion and saturation) will reduce the dynamic range of a sound and therefore negate any boosts you have made with EQ.
This advice also works with auxiliaries and busses, while you can certainly EQ an auxiliary channel my opinion is that correct EQ'ing on a sound as an insert should negate this, as an auxiliary is after all only a copy of an original and already EQ'ed sound that's then run through an effect.
7. Can I EQ a full mix?
Yes and no. If you are confident enough to do so, then go ahead. However you should only be making overall tonal adjustments to your mix on your master bus, not fixing problems or reducing clutter at this stage. If you find yourself notching out problem frequencies on your master, you probably need to go back and find the sounds causing this in the first place and treat them appropriately. It may also be the case that you want to leave any overall tonal adjustments to your mastering engineer which is perfectly fine.