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In this first installment of the Foundations of Audio series, author Brian Lee White shows how to improve the sound of a mix with compressors, limiters, gates, de-essers, and other dynamic processors. The course explains the fundamentals of sound waves, and amplitude, explores common compressor controls, and shows how to eliminate unwanted noise using gates and expanders. The course also demonstrates best practices in compression and limiting in a variety of audio applications and covers sculpting the attack and decay of individual notes with transient shapers and applying frequency specific dynamics control with multiband compressors. Exercise files accompany the course and include special Get in the Mix session files.
One of the most common questions I get from my students is whether they should EQ their tracks before or after compression, and the answer I always give them is, that depends. I like to consider an addition- subtraction approach when deciding whether or not I want to EQ or compress first: what I'm going to get rid of and what do I want to play up or add? In the case of subtraction, I think about what part of the signal's frequency response I did not like or what I'm going to want to remove before it hits the mix bus. I generally like to get rid of any frequency material I don't want before I hit my compressors or limiters.
That way the compressor's threshold won't be triggered by material I'm going to get rid of anyway. For example, if I have a loop with a ton of low end that I don't need, I might using EQ to filter out all the bass frequencies before hitting the compressor. Since those bass frequencies will likely make the most of that signal's amplitude, they would likely influence the compressor's threshold in an undesirable way. (music playing) Sometimes what happens when you use a lot of compression or limiting is that signal's frequency response, or tonal characteristics, can get a bit flattened out, especially in the low and high frequencies.
In this case if I want to do additive or boost an EQ, I might consider saving that for after any compression, as a way of restoring some of the tonal response or shape to the signal--post-dynamics processing. Don't confuse this discussion of EQ before after compression with the order that you approach them when starting to mix a song. What I'm talking about here is the physical order that your signal will take from one processor to the next as it travels in line through your inserts, not whether you decide to add compression to your track when you first open the session, then add EQ thirty minutes later.
While I generally reach for whatever processor that will take me in the right direction, sometimes I find it helpful to apply compression before I start adjusting the EQ curve, as it helps firm the track's dynamics up in the mix, giving me a better sense of what kind of EQ it's going to need to sit with the rest of the tracks. Otherwise trying to EQ a dynamically wild track can be a bit like trying to hit a moving target. Remember, this adding or subtracting ideology is just a framework that you can use to think through your processing chain; it isn't a hard-and-fast rule that you have to follow religiously.
In many cases, the order just won't matter all that much. Like if I'm doing a few dB of gain reduction on vocal track, I don't always have to use two separate EQs before and after compression to achieve my ultimate goal. With DAWs and plug-ins, it's so easy to play with the signal chain that it's almost a no-brainer to try out different approach, just to hear what they might sound like. So experiment, listen, and think about how the compressor might react to different frequency material.
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