Why is it that so many home studio mixes sound overly harsh and out of balance when the pro mixes we love and admire sound natural, warm, and clear? What is the difference maker? Is it expensive plugins? Better acoustic treatment? A console?
The difference, in my opinion, is how they use EQ.
I cannot think of any tool more powerful for the mixer than your standard 4 or 7 band EQ. It’s your secret weapon to clarity, control, and musicality. And if you want to mix like a rockstar, you need to learn to wield EQ like a rockstar. This week I want to teach you how simple EQ is so you can use it to get better mixes right away.
Like Your Volume Fader, Only Smarter
I like to think of an EQ as a smarter, more advanced volume fader. If you think about it, all an EQ does is simply turn up or down the volume of something. Not an entire track, but a specific frequency on a track.
It’s like your volume fader, only way smarter.
Volume faders place an instrument or vocal roughly where it needs to be in the mix to get that perfect balance. That’s clearly an important first step. But the truth about audio is that you don’t need to hear every frequency of every track.
That’s why an EQ is so important; it allows you to remove the unneeded frequencies, and more prominently feature the wanted frequencies. All on a track by track basis. Sweet!
The Only Four Things You Need To Know
While EQ plugins might look different from brand to brand, they all inherently work the exact same. Today I want to quickly break them down for you and teach you the only four things you need to know about an EQ so you can have the confidence to get after it in your next mix.
While an EQ can be as simple as one band or as complex as 7 or more bands, all that matters is that you understand how one band works. The more bands you have, the more control you have, but you are using the exact same settings.
Much like seeing a mixing console for the first time is scary because of all the knobs and faders. Until someone gently points out to you that once you understand one channel strip from top to bottom, you know the entire console because they are all repeats.
Let’s dive in.
This is the most obvious and most important knob you need to know. It simply allows you to select which frequency you want to turn up or down.
Do you need to boost the thump of a kick drum? It might be way down in the 60hz range. The frequency knob will take you there. Need to remove some harshness in that lead guitar riff? You can use the frequency knob to get up to that 2khz or so range and to cut what’s hurting your ears.
Remember, simply turning the frequency knob doesn’t affect your audio in any way. It simply points the EQ in the right direction so you can begin to operate.
Now that you’ve pointed your EQ band to the problem (or solution) frequency, it’s time to turn it up or down. This is where the gain knob comes into play.
Gain is as simple as it seems; a volume knob. It’s the volume fader for the specific frequency you’ve chosen. I’d like to think I could teach you something more here, but to quote Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”
What In The World Is “Q”
It looked weird to have a heading that was simply one letter, so voila!
“Q” is a weird name with an even weirder number value. I’m not really smart enough or interested enough to figure out why you can crank up the “Q” but the number gets smaller, and vice versa.
I think a better name for what “Q” does would simply be “width,” because in my mind that’s all the “Q” is: a width control. You see if you want to boost 60hz with your EQ, you could boost something really narrow so you pretty much only affect 60hz or you could widen the EQ to make your boost a bit more natural, primarily boosting 60hz, but also affecting the frequencies close to it on either side.
Once you’ve identified the frequency and how much gain to boost or cut, “Q” comes in as a nifty way to give you even more control of how that boost or cut sounds.
So we know what frequency, gain, and “Q” do – now the fourth and final thing you need to decide is what EQ type (or shape) to use.
By default most bands will be a bell or a notch. This is what you typically think of when you use an EQ. A bell curve is a little bell shaped boost. A notch, is a little upside down bell (hence a notch) that cuts out a bit of the frequency. Nice and easy.
But on the low and high end of your multi band EQ, you might have the choice to switch from bell/notch to a shelf. A shelf is exactly what it sounds like: a boost or a cut that affects the desired frequency and then extends forever to the left (low end) or the right (high end) affecting all frequencies beyond the same. It makes a shelf looking shape.
Shelf EQ’s can be helpful for “opening up” the top end of a track, without a crazy extreme or targeted boost.
Keep It Simple
Now you know all an EQ is and does. How best to use it, is a different thing. Stay tuned for later this week when I show you some EQ in action. But for now, just remember to always keep things simple with an EQ.
The pro mixers know that EQ is their best chance at making magic in the studio. No plugin will get you the results you want like an EQ will. But just because EQ is super powerful, doesn’t mean it’s complicated. Remember, it’s simply a smart volume fader. Point it where it needs to go and either turn something up or turn something down.
For now, leave a comment below and share the biggest insight you’ve learned about EQ up to this point in your mixing life!