Recently, we’ve been covering some of the software and hardware needed to start recording and mixing your own demos and songs. If you’ve been digging into home recordings, you may have already started to fiddle around with plug-ins.
Plug-ins are everyone’s favorite/least favorite piece of gear. On the one hand, buying nice plug-ins is both tempting and addicting. On the other hand, so much can be accomplished with the stock plug-ins you’ll find on every DAW.
For example, EQ and compression are by far the two most powerful plug-ins in your arsenal. They are also included in literally every DAW ever. The difference between the stock EQs are negligible and the difference in compressors won’t be useful to you until you’ve mastered the stock compressors.
Admittedly, learning to use EQ is not terribly exciting – initially that is. It can seem fairly tedious and the changes are subtle. However, the more you experiment with it, the more exciting it becomes.
Subtle EQ changes have incredible effects on an entire mix. Let’s learn the basics of harnessing this power.
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Think Of EQ Like A Really Fancy Volume Fader
When you’re first setting up a mix, you’ll probably start with levels. What you’re doing here is balancing the instruments within a mix. Your EQ does a similar thing.
Within a track, you have a broad range of audible frequencies. Using EQ, you can turn up or down a specific frequency within a track. Often, the mere act of turning down a bad sounding frequency by 3 db can make the entire track shine.
Basically, you’ll boost and cut your tracks until you achieve the proper balance within your individual tracks. Eventually each track will individually feature the wanted frequencies.
What Can You Do With It?
What you may notice, is that a bunch of tracks that sound great individually, don’t sound very good when they’re put together. Especially on tracks that are not professionally recorded, you’ll notice that the more you add, the worse it gets.
Often a bass track will have too much of a certain frequency, and end up completely masking the kick drum. This can be a frustrating problem, because the kick and bass may sound great on their own, but don't achieve the desired result together.
By altering the kick drum EQ, you can find the frequency at which the kick sounds best. For example, you might find the 80 hz, 200 hz, and 1950 hz all sound great. Then, get into your bass EQ, and put a notch in those frequencies so it isn't competing with the same space as the kick.
Suddenly, if your tracks are balanced properly, you’ll hear the kick jumping out. Unmasking the desirable frequencies in every instrument is one of the primary uses of EQ.
You may also notice that recorded tracks do funny things. An acoustic guitar track can sound great, until at one point in the song it starts ringing at really weird frequencies. Similarly, a bass guitar can sound perfect until the player hits a certain note that gets too loud.
EQ can control these out-of-control tracks by simply taking a notch out of the frequencies that are causing the trouble. You can clear up a muddy vocal, make a snare sound fat, and give an acoustic guitar track life all with subtle EQ moves.
The weird thing is, these moves on their own are barely noticeable. When you first start using EQ, your moves will be way too big. They’ll sometimes be wrong. Learning how to use EQ properly takes time and practice.
Let’s dive into the nitty gritty of EQ.
What Do All Those Knobs Do?
Just like a DAW, EQs can be a little intimidating to open up. There are lots of knobs, lots of features, and lots to know. However, while the look of EQ plug-ins and hardware can differ depending on the company, the basic functions do not change.
Here are few terms you’ll need to know and a brief guide to the basics of EQ.
What Is Frequency?
This knob allows you to select a frequency to turn up or down. Basically, when you turn the frequency knob, the little dot on the EQ line will move left or right. This is how you find the frequency you want to edit.
Simply doing this will not actually change the sound at all. Rather, it simply points to the frequency that you’ll eventually be altering.
What Is Gain?
Using the gain knob, you can turn a frequency up or down. The gain knob will show you how much you're changing the loudness of the frequency. It can be as subtle as 0.5 db, or as obvious as 10 db.
Gain is just a volume knob for frequencies. Often, it’s useful to turn up the gain by +5 db, and then move the frequency knob around searching for the bad/good frequency you want to edit. Once you find it, you can adjust the gain until you’ve reached a net positive outcome on the track.
What Is Q?
Q is a confusing name for a somewhat confusing mathematical principle that determines the width of your boost or cut. When you see Q, think “width”.
In a nutshell, the higher the Q value, the narrower the band of your boost/cut. Say for example, you notice a frequency at 1250 hz is really jumping out at you in an acoustic guitar track. You’ll want to make the Q value really high when you cut this frequency, to avoid affecting the rest of the track.
Or, if you want a very natural, subtle boost/cut, it can be smart to make the Q value smaller, and the boost/cut wider. This way it affects a wider band of frequencies, making the edit sound more natural.
Once you’ve found the frequency in question, determined the proper amount of gain, you will next start dialing in the Q value to obtain the perfect EQ move.
Different EQ Types
On most EQ plug-ins, you’ll have a few different types of EQs to choose from. The most common will be bells and notches. When you boost a frequency, you’re making a little bell shaped movement. When you cut, you’re making a notch in the frequency.
However, on the high and low end of your EQ, you’ll find another option: shelves. This means that instead of coming up and coming back down (like a bell) the shelf goes up, and then extends to the left or right forever.
Shelves are often used to open up the top end of a track consistently and naturally. However, you should be careful using shelves, because if you’re using them too consistently over many tracks it can start to become obvious.
Often, finding frequencies to cut in the lower end of a track can be a better way of opening up the top end.
How To Start Using EQ
By now, you’re acquainted with the ins and outs of an EQ plug-in. You’ve probably already started messing around and experimenting with it. Learning how best to use EQ will be a learning process that will take many, many mixes. But I want to get you started!
For this example, I want to walk you through how I would typically go about EQing a lead vocal…
There are so many things that affect the quality of the track, and this begins with the literal quality of the recorded track. The type of microphone, the room it’s recorded in, and the specific qualities of the singer’s voice will all be very important.
This is certainly not the only way to EQ a vocal, but this will give you a good place to start.
- Import a professionally mixed song into your DAW. It should be a song in a similar genre to the song you’re working on, and it will serve as your reference track for the whole mix.
- Listen to the differences in tonal quality between the mixed song and your unmixed song. You may notice that the mixed vocal sits nicely on top of the rest of the mix. The vocal is clear and crisp.
- Start by playing your unmixed song. Open up the EQ for the vocal while the rest of the instruments are playing. It’s very tempting to solo the vocal track right off the bat – avoid this temptation. It’s far more useful to hear how the track sounds in context.
- The first thing you’ll want to do is cut all the frequencies below 50-60 hz. Just get rid of them. You do not need these frequencies in a vocal track, and doing this has a subtle effect on the whole track.
- Next, move to the low frequencies. Turn the gain up on the second lowest band, and move the frequency around in the 100-400 hz range. You’ll probably find an area that makes the vocal sound really muffled and weird.
- You’ve found a bad frequency (maybe)! Turn the gain down on this frequency by 2 – 4 db. You’ll probably hear the high end get a little clearer. This effect may be subtle, but if it’s repeated on a few frequencies, it can start to have a major impact.
- Move into the mid range. Do the same thing, boost a frequency by 5 db, and go looking for a woofy/muffled sound in the 350 – 600 hz range. You’ll probably find something gross around 400 – 500.
- Cut these frequencies by 2 – 4 db. Whatever seems natural.
- Next, go looking in the top end. Boost a frequency by 5 db, and go hunting between 600 – 4000 hz. Here, you may find a harsh frequency that needs a cut, or a nice sounding frequency that needs a boost. Either way, on the high end make sure you’re making subtle moves, as EQ tends to be more noticeable up there.
- Lastly, you may want to employ a shelf on the top end of the vocal (8000 hz and up). This is debatable, but do what sounds good.
- Your vocal should sound noticeably better. Now, solo the track, and bypass the EQ on and off. Hopefully, your EQ moves have made the track clearer and crisp. If you find some more weirdness, get a little more specific with your EQ moves. Narrow down the Q, boost a little less, cut a little less, etc.
- Always reference what the vocal track sounds like in the context of the other instruments. If the track is playing nicely with the other instruments, you’ve done a good job!
EQing Other Instruments
EQing a vocal is fun, because the differences are so noticeable and a well-mixed vocal track instantly brings the whole song to a new level.
You can basically use the same general steps when you are mixing every other instrument in a mix. Here are few random tips I’ve found helpful.
- Employ a high-pass filter on most tracks. This means cutting all frequencies under 50 hz. The only exceptions are in the bass and kick tracks. Here, you may not cut the low frequencies at all, or you may just cut under 30 hz or so.
- You’ll often find a bad sounding build-up of frequencies around 400 hz. Something about small rooms makes this frequency build-up badly. Be careful though – some instruments need this frequency. If you cut it too hard, your mix may end up feeling dead.
Should You Use EQ Charts/Presets?
We’ve all seen the charts that list different instruments and the frequencies you should be boosting or cutting. Within most EQ plug-ins you’ll have a bunch of presets like Hard Hitting Kick.
These methods are tempting, and can be used if only to hear the difference EQ can make. However, you should not rely solely on these techniques. The sound of a guitar or a voice varies wildly from instrument to instrument and player to player.
Using presets and charts is not cheating, but it’s also not really teaching you anything. If anything, use these presets and chart as a jumping off point, but ultimately you need to be relying on your ears to tell you what is making a difference.
Expect to learn something new about EQ every single time you mix a tune. You’ll find your ears developing quickly the more you mix.