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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.
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 I want to EQ or compress first. What am I 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 do I not like or what I want to remove before the signal goes through a compressor or limiter. Why? Because I don't want the compressor's threshold to be triggered by material that I want 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 use an EQ to filter out all the bass frequencies before hitting the compressor. Since those bass frequencies will likely make up most of that signal's amplitude, they would likely influence the compressor's threshold in an undesirable way. Sometimes what happens when you use a lot of compression or limiting is that a 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 boosting EQ, I might consider saving that for after I add compression. That way I can restore some of the tonal response or shape to the signal post- dynamics-processing. When you first start mixing a song, don't worry too much about what order you add your effects. I generally reach for whatever processor that I think will take me in the right direction. However, sometimes I do find it helpful to apply my compression before I start adjusting the EQ curve.
It helps firm the track's dynamics up in the mix and gives 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 religiously follow. In many cases the order just won't matter all that much.
Like if I'm going to do a few dB of gain reduction on a 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 approaches, just to hear what they might sound like. So experiment, listen, and think about how the compressor might react to different frequency material if you reorder the effects. And if you want to learn more about compressors and dynamic processors, be sure to check out Foundations of Audio: Compressors and Dynamics Processors in the Online Training Library.
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