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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.
When applying EQ in a mix there are a number of common mistakes made by novice engineers. Here I want to talk about three of the big ones: trying to make every instrument's stand out in the mix, trying to make too many instruments fit into a mix, and EQing tracks in solo. Not every track can be the star in a mix. All instruments can't have the spotlight at the same time. Instead, you can use EQ to help direct the listener to what the focal point of the song is at any given moment.
In fact, you can use EQ to make one or more instruments purposefully sound more dull in order for another instrument to stand out. Photographers use depth-of-field extensively to achieve this same effect. They place the subject of the photo in focus while background elements may be made intentionally out of focus to help draw the viewer's eye towards the subject, and make for a more interesting composition or organization. We can do this in music or post-production too using EQ.
For example, the lead vocal track is usually the main focal point of a pop mix; however, vocals and electric guitars share many common frequencies and can compete in a mix. If the guitar is too in focus, the vocal can be lost and not be the focus of the mix. Instead, you can use EQ to shape the guitar sound around the vocal track. For example, you can reduce the high- mids between one and 4k maybe to allow the vocal to shine through the mix and effectively blurring the guitar sound in that EQ range.
You can apply this principle to all aspects of the mix giving, each element its own space. This yields a well-balanced mix, much like a photograph with great composition. Let's return to our photography example. Photographers don't light all elements of a photograph with the same bright light. Just like not every instrument in a mix can be the star of the song, not every element in a photograph should shine. Instead, certain elements get separate lighting or are cleverly positioned in the background, allowing them to look good, but in context with the rest of the elements.
In music and post-production, we often use EQ to create this balanced composition. Another aspect that also relates to the composition of a photograph, as well as to creating a balanced mix of a song, is arrangement. Simply having too many elements in a photograph or in a mix can cause either to be cluttered. Specifically in a mix, if you find that no matter how hard you try to fit elements together things still sound muddle, try muting certain elements or even more drastically, adjusting the song or arrangement to create a less-is-more situation.
Never be afraid to question whether elements in a mix actually belong in the song. Finally, don't EQ tracks in a vacuum. That is, don't make your final decisions for an instrument's EQ setting based on listening to it in solo. Now I'm not saying you can never solo an element to get a better handle on what's going on with the track; however, just like you don't separate one element from its surroundings in a photograph, you should make your EQ decisions by listening to each instrument in the context of a mix.
So context matters in all EQ decisions, as does retaining focus on the most important elements in a mix. In my opinion, the greatest mixes are artful examples of sonic context, like a photographic with perfect composition, pushing and pulling the listener's attention to better strengthen the emotional feel and delivery of the piece.
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