What is EQ?
The main goal when mixing a song is to translate what the musicians intended the listener to hear into what is actually heard. There are many barriers you can face along the way, but one of the most essential tools to make this happen is through EQ.
Broadly speaking, there are two main uses for EQ:
- As a sculpting tool to make sure each instrument has room to be heard in the limited available space in the mix
- As a creative tool to make a deliberate and audible effects on the audio
The first method is like the work of a builder, laying the foundations of the mix. The other is like an interior designer, adding the finer details to the mix. Both are important to the end result, but here we will discuss how to avoid your mix resembling a pile of rubble with a few scatter cushions on top.
What’s the best way to start a new mix?
If you’re mixing your own songs, the key is to take things slowly. Focus on what the mix sounds like as a whole by throwing the faders up and listening to everything all together and take note of the areas where the mix sounds muddy or busy. Maybe there’s an instrument you can’t make out properly or everything sounds too bass heavy, or some instruments sound harsh. These sorts of things are where EQ can come to your rescue.
First impressions are also key, and our ears are very good at getting used to things, so you may find things that originally sounded wrong quickly seem fine. That’s why getting those first notes down is so helpful because you can reference back to what sounded wrong straight away.
How do I fix issues that I hear?
Often you’ll have a number of instruments fighting for the same space in a mix, but only one can win, as we only have so much room to play with. Your first decision to make when faced with a clash should be deciding what comes first. For example, kick drum and bass guitar have a tendency to fight with each other. The decision of which gets to win really depends on your song and the genre you’re working in. There is no hard and fast rule here, but generally a kick drum will have one fundamental note around 50-90Hz that it will appreciate taking control of. A bass guitar will have a whole range of fundamental notes up and down that region so you may find it can afford to give in on the kick drum’s area.
Working our way up the frequency range, you may have a similar struggle between the higher end of the bass guitar’s harmonics and the low end of a guitar. Some engineers like to make drastic cuts to the low end of a guitar and let the bass guitar fill in the gap, others prefer a gentler blend between the two and this depends very much on what each instrument is playing.
For example, with a guitar playing big powerful chords and a bass guitar playing root notes underneath this, you can get a very big perceived guitar sound even with taking everything under 200Hz out of the guitar because the bass will fill in that area. However, if your bass guitarist is playing more complicated pattern with higher notes and different rhythms, you may suddenly find that fat guitar tone sounds weak without that low end that the root notes were simulating.
Other key areas to consider are the 500-1kHz range where a lot of instruments overlap. This can be a busy area and decisions will have to be made on what is going to take the spotlight. This may vary over the course of the song, so automated changes to the EQ can help to bring instruments forward and backwards in the mix to highlight different phrases.
Around the 1-2kHz region is where your vocals will come through, but it’s also an important area for a guitar or piano to be heard. In pop music, the vocal track is generally the star of the show, compromises have to be made with the rest of the instruments.
So can I follow these rules no matter what?
These are all good general rules for frequency areas and can act as a good guideline for where to start, but the most important thing to remember is to use your ears to make these decisions. Every mix is different, and no two sets of ears are the same. It’s also worth mentioning that you may not be able to easily distinguish right from wrong when you’re first starting out as a recordist — that’s where the experience of a professional engineer is invaluable. If you’re having trouble, many mix engineers offer critical listening services to help you identify issues.
What if I’m feeling overwhelmed by all these decisions?
If you’re having trouble grasping some of these ideas, listening to professionally mixed music is a great place to start. Find yourself some music you like, put it into your DAW (Logic, Pro Tools, Audacity, etc.) and try soloing regions of frequencies with an EQ.
By isolating a certain frequency range using what’s called a “band pass,” you can hear what the mix engineer has done in that zone to give priority to different instruments. If you sweep this band pass filter up and down, you should hear different instruments and frequencies coming in and out in the mix depending on their importance in that range.
Any final advice?
Less is often more when mixing. Try to find the minimum change you can do to achieve what you need to achieve. You don’t want to alter the character of the instrument too much because you may end up with a hollow sounding mix.
Coming from the opposite direction may also help with problem instruments. Try cutting way more than you would normally then bring it back in slowly until it sounds right. Our ears are far better at hearing what’s wrong that what’s right.
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