Subtractive EQ Will Make Your Mixes Better

2011 Dec 12, 2011

The more you mix, the more you come to realize that EQ is your power tool for delivering great mixes. But like any tool out there (like a chainsaw for example) there is an optimal way to use it. Using a tool properly can wield great results, and the opposite is just as true. Today I make the case for using EQ “properly.”

To Boost Or Not To Boost, That Is The Question

If you’ve dabbled in audio for any length of time you likely are at least loosely aware of what an EQ is and how it works. EQs give you the ability to increase or decrease the volume of a specific frequency. This is great for sculpting your tracks and allowing them to sit well together in a complex mix.

But if you’re like me when I first got into mixing, you tend to boost a frequency more often than you cut. Be honest, you do. We all do this (at least at first) because it’s easier. We listen to a kick drum track that seems to be lacking in bottom end, so we grab our EQ and boost something around 80hz. Bam. Instant improvement, right? Not so fast.
If this is the way you work across the board, then after mixing an entire song with a few dozen tracks, you will have a sonic mess. If all you primarily do is boost frequencies, then in essence you’ve simply added more noise to your mix. You’ve turned up the volume of more and more frequencies. Not good.

Think Backwards With EQ

Rather than boosting frequencies you want to hear more of, why not work backwards and remove frequencies that are cluttering up your mix? This is the essence of subtractive EQ. Listen to your tracks to identify “problem” frequencies, ones that perhaps take away from the best frequencies of that track. In the previous example of our kick drum, instead of boosting some low end, we could just as easily cut out some mid range to low mid range frequencies, getting rid of mud and “opening up” our low end that is already there in the kick drum track.

Think of how many of us mix. We tend to want more bottom end as well as plenty of top end clarity in our mixes. So what do we do? We boost some low end and some high frequencies either on a track by track basis or on the master fader. In essence though, we could achieve the same sonic result by simply scooping out some mids. Only this way we take away noise instead of increasing it.

Subtractive EQ Takes More Patience

I admit that I always heard that many top pros prefer to cut with EQ rather than boost if they can. But I never actually followed the advice. Why? Because it takes way more patience and focus to look for what to cut rather than to boost what you want more of. Subtractive EQ is philosophy of mixing really. One in which you look at tracks not to simply improve them by adding, but to remove their weaknesses.

Is there then no reason to ever boost with EQ? No, I’m not saying that. If you do boost, the name of the game is subtlety. Make subtle boosts and remember that our ears get used to changes in audio quickly so we tend to over do things as our ears no longer “hear” our previous boost.

If you’ve never experimented with subtractive EQ, today is your day. Give it a shot on your next mix. Take more time to think and experiment by pulling out frequencies rather than boosting and moving on. I bet your mixes will improve big time.

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