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In this installment of the Foundations of Audio series, author Brian Lee White shows producers and audio engineers how to properly apply equalization (EQ) and improve the sound of their mixes. The course covers the use of parametric and graphic EQs—and filters such as the high/low pass filters and shelf filters—in a variety of musical settings. These principles can be applied to any digital audio workstation platform, including Logic and Pro Tools, as well as analog workflows.
EQ is an extremely powerful tool for shaping the frequency balance of elements in a recording or mix. It can help bring things forward or push them back, allowing you to create or take away focus and highlight important elements while keeping others from being distracting. EQ can help repair poor recordings and make great ones sound even better. Here are some tips that I've learned over the years while mixing with EQ. I find that many inexperienced engineers don't have a goal in mind when they approach a mix.
Because of this, they tend to wander around tinkering with elements out of context. Ultimately, this creates a muddled and uninteresting mix. I think you should have a plan and make a statement with your mix. Try to imagine you're finished mix before you start and use that as a template to push you forward. Try using reference mixes of other songs from a similar genre to inspire you and get the creative juices flowing. You'd be surprised at how easy your EQ decisions can be if you actually have a final goal in your head to work towards.
Many engineers will tell you that they never solo anything when they're working, especially when applying EQ. While I find this hard to believe, the wisdom there is solid. Avoid making final EQ decisions in isolation. I say final decision, because let's be honest. there are times when you need to solo something up and hear what's actually going on with the recording before you can create an EQ strategy. I oftentimes work in isolation to repair any problems from the recording process, such as bad mic placement, weird room resonances, and stuff like that.
Then I will immediately put it back into the mix and continue adjusting relative to other tracks. At the end of the day, all that matters is how it sounds against everything else. No one is going to hear your acoustic guitar in isolation, unless there is a section where it plays by itself. And in that special case, you might think about automating your EQ to do something special there. One other soloing technique I like to use is keeping the lead vocal and bass instrument soloed along with whatever I'm working on.
This way I can be sure not to upset the fundamental foundation of the bass, while simultaneously respecting the clarity and intelligibility of the most important mix element, the vocal. One of the biggest mistakes new engineers make is overusing EQ, specifically too much boosting. If you need to boost more than 6 dB in any given frequency, make sure you're satisfied with your level and pan choices. Many times too much EQ is used to make up for poor balance decisions.
Make sure that turning it up or turning it down in the overall mix doesn't solve your problem before reaching for too much EQ. Cutting takes up less headroom than boosting and is generally more transparent to the ear. As an exercise, try doing a whole mix using only cuts. You might be surprised at the result. Remember that frequency is directly related to pitch. Understand an instrument's frequency range and where its fundamental and harmonic content live.
Try to relate this to the arrangement of the instruments and the key of the song. Consider what instruments share fundamental frequency ranges and which instruments' fundamentals occupy others overtone range. Boosting an instrument's fundamental frequencies can result in different instruments sounding similar and less defined, especially if they're playing in the same octave. Remember, it's an instrument's harmonics, or overtones, that combine in unique ways to create the one-of-a- kind timbre of that instrument on that specific recording.
Use this concept to play up the unique frequencies by either boosting them relative to the fundamental or cut in the fundamental relative to the harmonics to achieve good separation and definition in your mix. Sometimes certain elements in a mix just don't work together, no matter how much you EQ them. This could be due to poor arrangement decisions, like too many instruments playing different things in the same octave, or just plain bad luck come mix-down. Never underestimate the power of the Mute button.
If you're having trouble getting your mix together, experiment with muting certain elements to see if things work better. You may be surprised. I've had mixes that I've struggled with for hours, only to discover that one unassuming non-critical background element was fighting me the entire time, and simply muting it allowed the entire mix to come together instantly. Don't let arrangement vanity ruin your mix. It's okay to mute things sometimes if it's not serving the song as a whole.
If it's causing trouble, get it out of the mix. Presets are great, just not for EQ. Every instrument is unique. Every song is in a different key and tempo. Rooms have different modes and mic placements vary during the recording stage. Use your ears when applying EQ. Of course there are general areas to look in when you encounter problems, but crank up that EQ sweep and listen to the actual signal before you go grab some magical list of frequencies off the Internet.
Your room and your speakers are probably lying to you. Do your best to make sure your EQ decisions are based on the actual recordings and the way you want them to fit in the mix, not a correction of your room's wacky modal response. Everything can't be important. Everything in the mix can't be the star. Figure out your focal points and use EQ to direct the listener to those elements. Use EQ to shape other elements to complement the focal points, not fight them.
Most amateur mixes I here have serious problems in the low end, because of bad room acoustics or too many low- end elements fighting each other and creating mud. Be mindful of tracks with lots of low end. Remember that low frequencies are physically much larger than high frequencies and thus take up more space in a mix. It's common to aggressively cut the low end of tracks that aren't vital to the bass component of the mix using shelves and high-pass filters.
Make sure that low-frequency instruments aren't competing with each other and use complementary curves to help them sit together. Be sure to consider your tempo in the genre of music you're working on when making EQ decisions. Faster tempos often require more aggressive low-frequency control and tend to have less bass frequency content overall. For example, a fast rock tune played at 130 BPM with a bass guitar playing 8th notes tends to have a fairly lean kick drum and bass guitar when compared to the kick and bass of a dub reggae mix at a much lower tempo.
This is because there is literally less time for the frequencies to play out a mingle in the space outside the speakers. Too much low end on a fast-tempo song can take away any definition in the individual low-frequency notes, making them sound like a single note of neverending mud. Many beginning engineers think that EQ decisions must be static in a mix. That is to say the EQ they choose for the verse has to be the EQ that will continue into the chorus. Not so. With today's DAW automation features you can automate almost any parameter of any plug-in, including EQ.
so don't be afraid to change your EQ curves to better suit the arrangement density of the song as it changes. For example, an acoustic guitar in the intro can be made fuller if it's the only instrument carrying the tune. As other elements are introduced, like bass guitar, you can decide to cut some of the acoustic guitar's lower frequencies to better accommodate the new arrangement density of the mix-- EQ automation to the rescue. While there are no hard- and-fast rules for using EQ, there are many techniques laid out here in the course that you can use in any mix.
Experiment with these techniques for yourself, as mixing is an art form and also subjective. One person's concept of a balanced mix could be another person's idea of a terrible mix. So take the techniques you've learned here, listen carefully, practice your art, and most importantly, have fun.
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