We all know that EQ is a critical part of the mixing process. But how do you know what you’re supposed to do with it? What frequencies should you be cutting or boosting? Where do you start? Are their good rules of thumb to follow? These are all questions I get on a weekly basis from readers. I understand the frustration, so today let me give you three questions to ask yourself to help guide your EQ decisions in the future.

What Frequencies Are Not Adding To The Track?

Let’s start with a basic question: what frequencies can I take away from this track that simply do not bring anything of sonic value to the table? Have you ever thought about the fact that there is sonic information in every track that just doesn’t do anything for anyone. It’s a waste of headroom. Usually this is the low frequency stuff, below 40hz. Do yourself a favor and use the most classic of tricks, the high pass filter to roll off that unneeded information, because it’s not adding anything but it is taking up volume in your track.

For anything that’s not a kick drum or bass guitar you might as well take that high pass filter up even higher to somewhere around 100hz. Why? Well the sonic information below 100hz is best handled by the low end instruments, so free up some room for that kick and bass combo, and let the rest of the band do what it does best: low mids and up.

What Frequencies Are Hurting The Track?

Once you’ve cut out the neutral, pointless stuff from your track, it’s best to go on the hunt for those problematic frequencies that are making your track sound like poo. Don’t ever assume that your track was perfectly miked and contains only quality stuff. Just about every track, even if professionally recorded, contains some sonic information that is only making things sound worse than they could be. Find them and cut them out.

What I do is boost a frequency something like 12db (extreme, so I can hear it) in a pretty narrow Q and begin sweeping around. What am I listening for? Nastiness. Good old fashion nastiness. Many times I find mud in the 400-500hz range. Sometimes there’s boxiness in the midrange, or a painful brain piercing frequency in the upper mids. Sometimes there’s a awful ring that is exposed on a drum. Whatever it is, I go hunting for what sounds horrible, then I cut it out by 3db to 6db.

This subtractive EQ process does two amazing things for you: it makes your track sound better by removing the nastiness, which in turn better illuminates what DOES sound good in your track. All the while freeing up precious headroom. It’s a win win.

What Frequencies Make This Track Sound Great?

After carving out what’s un-needed and un-wanted you’re left only to ask yourself, what frequency or two are the hidden gems in this track? What do I really like sonically about this track? Maybe it’s the body or crack of a snare drum, or perhaps the air on a singer’s vocal track. Whatever the case it’s not a bad idea to slightly highlight that with a subtle EQ boost if you want the track to stand out a bit more.

Much like when hunting for the nastiness, go on a search for the strengths of your track and simply feature them a bit more. If I do any boosting I prefer a gentle 3db boost or less, with a wide Q. I do this mostly to keep things subtle and sounding as natural as possible. Remember, we’re not trying to completely change the sound of the track (too late for that). Rather we’re trying to enhance what’s already there. Subtle moves are key.

Rinse And Repeat

There you have it, the three questions you should ask every time you pull up an EQ on a given track. By simply removing frequencies that either hurt the track or don’t help and then potentially boosting what frequencies really make that instrument shine, you’re on the path to cleaner, more musical tracks using simple EQ moves.

One final tip for you though: every few minutes make sure to bypass the EQ plugin to gain perspective on how far you’ve come. These small subtle moves don’t sound like much at first, but they add up quickly and your ears have a bad memory.