One thing that separates amateur sounding mixes from professional sounding ones is EQ.
Good mixers know how to wield EQ with confidence and intentionality. They use it to take good recordings to the next level. While amateur mixers know they “should” be using EQ, but they only tend to make things sound worse.
Have you been there? I know I have. Thankfully, at its core proper EQ is only a two-step process. And after reading this, you’ll know exactly what to do each and every time you drop in an EQ in your mix.
Step #1 – Clean Up The Mess
The first (and arguably best) move you should make with EQ is to clean up the frequencies that don’t need to be there. That’s right, good old subtractive EQ for the win.
Why does this work and how should you approach it?
Simply put, each track you’ve recorded, as awesome as it might sound, is likely filled with frequencies that don’t need to be there. It could be low end rumble, mid range mud, or harsh highs. The point is, that not every frequency is useful on every track.
By finding what sounds nasty and cutting it out, you do two things:
- You reveal the better sounding parts of your track more clearly
- You free up headroom in your mix
These are two very helpful results because both give you a mix with more clarity and musicality. And remember, headroom in the digital world is paramount.
Practically what does this look like? Well for me, when I’m ready to pull up an instrument or vocal in the mix I grab my EQ, drop it in, and then go hunting for at least two bad sounding frequencies.
On this kick drum I found that 167hz and 452hz sounded nasty – so I cut both by around 7db!
To do this, simply create a narrow boost (yes, I said boost) upwards of 12db or more and begin slowly sweeping around the frequency spectrum till you land on one or two spots that sound really nasty. Sometimes these are also the places that tend to overload your track as well.
Once you find the nasty spot, pull that boost down into a cut of 3-6db as a starting point.
It’s amazing what one or two strategic EQ cuts can do to make a track sound more clear and present in the mix. Even a simple high pass filter can make the mids cut through better!
Step #2 – Enhance The Best Parts
Now that you’ve cleaned up the messy parts of your track it’s time to enhance what’s left. This is where some boosting is in order.
Listen to your track and ask yourself, “What do I need to hear more of?”
All we are trying to do now is slightly enhance what’s already good about the track so it becomes just that much better. We aren’t trying to change the sound into something it’s not. Rather, we’re enhancing what’s already there.
Similarly to our method above, grab your EQ and begin to do an extreme narrow boost of 12db or so and sweep around. Find the spot or spots that give you more of what you want.
Once you’ve discovered the precise frequency you like, dial the boost back down to a more reasonable 3-6db. Yes, your ear will be sad and want to hear more of the boost, but you must trust that you are boosting the right things and that a 3db enhancement actually makes a difference.
On this kick drum I wanted to hear more weight down low and more smack of the beater. I boosted at 53hz and 6khz respectively.
Why Such Small Boosts?
“But Graham – why only subtle boosts? Can’t I do as much as the track needs?”
Yes, you can do whatever you like. But that doesn’t mean it will sound good.
You see – subtle EQ moves are the secret to keeping your mix sounding natural and musical. It’s extreme boosts and cuts that tend get us into trouble. This is especially true with most digital EQs that come stock in your DAW. They sound great – but don’t push them too hard when boosting.
And as some might point out – many great mixers are advocates of drastic EQ boosts. One of my favorites is Chris Lord-Alge. He’s been known to push things as high as 12db or more on multiple tracks (especially when it comes to drums).
But one thing I would say in response to that: He’s working with tracks that were recorded very well in very good sounding rooms.
If you recorded drums in a bedroom or basement studio and then went EQ trigger happy and dropped in multiple 12db boosts, you’d start to hear more and more of your bad sounding room. This is exactly the opposite of what will make your mix have more clarity and depth.
I know it’s hard to do subtle EQ moves. We are hard wired to want to hear drastic improvements when we mix. But trust me the little mix moves do add up to huge results.
Remember, EQ Is Only Good For Two Things
Mixing can be overwhelming. And it’s easy to overdo it with things like EQ.
But if you stop for a moment before you insert your next EQ and remember this, you can’t go wrong. EQ is really only good for two things: cleaning up the bad and enhancing the good.
It’s a cut or a boost. That’s it.
Both subtractive and additive EQ moves have their place, just be sure you are intentional about them and your mixes will be better for it.
Let me ask you – do you feel confident when you EQ? Do you feel like you know what you are trying to do? If not, does following these two simple steps seem like a helpful plan for you?