EQs are a must-have in almost every audio situation. Musicians use them on their pedalboards to change their sound. Live sounds engineers use them to clean up problem frequencies and match their system to the space they’re in. Recording engineers and mix engineers use them in the studio for both clean up and coloration.
With so many different uses, it’s no wonder there are literally hundreds of EQs out there that generally do the same thing. While some of these EQs offer additional features such as side-chaining or analog modeling, even the most unique ones follow the same general principle: break incoming audio out into distinct frequency bands that can be raised or lowered independently of one another.
EQ Order Matters
If you find yourself in a situation where an EQ is required on a track, you should be following the basic order of operations for EQ. Sometimes spot treatment can be done without going through these steps, but following them upfront can go a long way to avoiding the need for a second EQ further down the chain. The order is:
If you’ve read our guide on additive vs. subtractive EQ, you should already know why these three types of moves all hold a special significance in the mix. If you haven’t here are a few highlights.
Filtering is an important part of your EQ process to clean up both the lows and highs of your mix. By starting with a hi-pass filter, you can get rid of any low-end build up occurring around your kick drum and bass in other instruments. Using a low-pass filter can do the same to make room for cymbals and airy vocals in the higher frequency range.
Following your filters, EQ cuts should be applied to get rid of the things you don’t want heard in your mix. This includes anything that might overlap another instrument, such as rhythm guitars that are masking vocals in the mid-range.
Finally, boosts can be used to add color to your sound and make things pop out. I prefer to add boosts in broader strokes (using a wider Q) than when I make cuts since narrow boosts can sound harsh and unnatural. A few dB for a boost is almost always sufficient; if it’s not, you might be trying to add something that just isn’t there.
Recovering After Cuts
One of the biggest elements we haven’t touched on before is what to do with a sound that’s weak after being EQed. This can happen to anything that’s had some serious notches taking out of it during the cut step of the EQ process.
Whether you’re dealing with too many cuts or cuts with a wide Q, anything that’s had a lot of frequency content removed can sound anemic and weak. Rather than reaching for some boosts to even it out though, there’s a better solution – go for the output gain.
Gain staging is a huge part of level matching between plugins and ensuring you’re not tricking your ears into thinking something sounds better or worse just because it’s louder. By matching the input level before your EQ to the output level after, you can ensure you’re making the most unbiased edit decisions as you work.
For engineers that apply a lot of cuts, this is a much better solution than layering on boost after boost to try to bring your audio back to life. Adding a few dB of gain at the end of the EQ stage is completely normal if you want to keep things consistent.
Need More Juice?
Sometimes no amount of additive EQ or output gain is going to help you recover what you have to sacrifice to clean up your audio, which is where saturation can step in to save the day. Saturation, or harmonic distortion, can add some color to your sound and bring it back to life. It’s a quick and easy way to add some tonal variation to your sound without reverting back to the full-spectrum audio problems you were dealing with before EQing.
Using tools like Gain Reduction Deluxe, we can add some warmth and depth to these sounds based on the content that’s left after all EQ parameters have been set. Best of all, if you need to go back and tweak your EQ, a saturation plugin will continue to work on the audio as you work, constantly adapting and changing based on the audio you’re feeding into it.
Engineers that are comfortable with these concepts can generally make better mix decisions when it comes to setting levels, committing automation, and deciding on where and limiting the need for multiple instances of the same tools on each track. That’s not to say a second EQ might not be helpful on occasion – some great results can be had from an EQ/Compressor/EQ chain. I’m simply saying that knowing how your tools work can help you know when they should be used for maximum effectiveness.
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