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One of the most common critiques I have when I review my students' mixes has nothing to do with the mix at all. When the signal you're working with was poorly recorded, sometimes EQ is just not enough, and knowing when the signal just isn't going to get better using EQ is an important skill when working towards the big picture. Take a listen to this guitar that I've purposefully recorded using poor mic placement. Notice the clipping in addition to the overpowering signature of the room's acoustics and the hollowness of the guitar sound.
(music playing) You might be surprised, but many novice engineers would find this to be a perfectly suitable starting point in the mix process and then wonder later what they did wrong with EQ or compression when the mix didn't turn out well.
The reality is that no amount of EQ can make this guitar sound like it could have if I would've taken more time to place the mic correctly and capture a good source signal. First off, EQ will never be able to remove the sound of the room from this recording. In fact, there really isn't a tool that I've worked with that can effectively remove the reverb from a recording to my satisfaction. Also, the distortion caused by clipping the analog-to-digital converter inputs can't be repaired with an EQ, no matter how hard I try.
EQ can only improve on what's there. Think of it this way. If you can make a signal sound 20% better with EQ and your source signal is 50% of what it could have been had you taken the time to record it correctly, you will never end up with 100%. It's really that simple. If you start with compromised material, you need to have reasonable expectations of what EQ can do for you. Can EQ make a poorly recorded signal sound better? Yes, but you wouldn't wonder why your homemade stew doesn't taste as good as your favorite restaurant's after knowingly using crummy ingredients, so don't expect EQ to do the same thing for your mix.
In fact, over-EQing tends make things even worse. Too much EQ, especially on acoustic instruments, can result in a strained unnatural-sounding signal. So how do I prevent this from happening? You listen. When recording a signal, ask yourself, am I going to need a lot of EQ to get this sounding right? If the answer is yes, then maybe consider a different mic placement, instrument, or signal chain. Seriously, it's not rocket science. If the input signal sounds bad when it's coming in, then do something right then and there.
As an exercise, try pretending EQ didn't exist and try to capture a signal that will have a pleasing frequency balance using only basic recording techniques like mic selection and placement. Now don't get me wrong, performance always triumphs audio fidelity. So if I have captured the perfect take with less-than-ideal sonics, I will work with it and use EQ to improve it. Sometimes I will even work with the sonic shortcomings as an aesthetic. Got a clipped signal? Add some more distortion and make it a statement.
Got too much low-end mud that no amount of EQ is going to clean up? Throw in a telephone effect and call it a conscious decision. Some of the world's best music has been recorded in less-than-ideal spaces with less-than-ideal gear. But all things being equal, do your best to capture a clean balanced signal at the source and you will be more than halfway to a killer-sounding mix. Don't rely on the old adage "we will fix it in the mix." If you're beating yourself up over a mix that just isn't working, maybe go back and evaluate the bigger picture to make sure the arrangement and recording quality stack up.
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