The Dos and Don’ts of eq

This is going to stir up some controversy, but you can bet that this is not the usual guide on “how to eq”, this article is different.

I won’t be saying “carve out some 6KHz from your strings, cut 250Hz from the snare” and stuff like that. I won’t, not because it’s wrong but because this is never going to teach you how to eq: all those tips are details, snippets of information and even though they can be useful (in the right context) they leave aspiring mixers with all their doubts, second guessing themselves for days, weeks, months…

I am going to help you prevent the most common mistakes and build a structured approach from the ground, and you will see why the “solo” button is your enemy and it has been working against you all along. When you are ready, you won’t need anyone or anything (a person, a preset, an AI) to tell you which frequencies you should cut or boost because you will HEAR them. Now let’s start with the Don’ts of eq’ing.

  1. Do not eq in solo

It really doesn’t matter how things sound in isolation so unless you want to go back and forth a thousand times (listening to the whole track and then the instrument again and then back to the whole track etc…) it is just easier to process the sound whilst the rest is playing as well. This also applies to compression and all the other aspects of mixing. That solo button is only useful when you are editing an instrument, not when you are mixing.

If you have always eq’ed in solo you might think that eq’ing in context is going to take longer but the opposite is true: follow the approach explained in this article and things will start making sense, you’ll never go back to processing sounds in isolation.

  1. Do not do anything “because you have to”

In other words, don’t give anything for granted, it is very common for people to say things like: “in my last song I boosted 5KHz on the kick and it sounded awesome so I am going to do the same on this one”….it doesn’t work like that. This is literally like saying “the last time I cooked spaghetti I added a teaspoon of salt right before draining them and they tasted great so I am going to do the same today without tasting them first”…maybe they tasted great already and the extra salt will ruin them, or maybe they need two teaspoons, there really is only one way to find out: tasting them.

So going back to your kick sound, yes there are specific high frequencies that you can boost in order to emphasize the clickiness but depending on the actual kick, the song, the arrangement, the tempo etc you might end up boosting or cutting different frequencies, gently or aggressively. By all means you might even end up CUTTING the very same frequencies you boosted on your kick the last time, it might sound clicky already in this new mix so you have to trust your ears and take the sound where you want it to be bearing in mind that there is no such thing as “I always boost this given frequency on this given instrument”.

  1. Forget the presets

People often refer to presets as a good starting point, this can be true sometimes but most likely they will just put you off trail. If you want to try eq presets just because they’re there obviously you can do it as long as you use your judgment, alter them accordingly to the song and remember that whoever made them (even if they come with the sample library you are using right now) was not listening to the arrangement that you have in front of you right now.

  1. Do not aim for static eq settings

It is unrealistic to expect that every instrument will have the same eq settings throughout the entire track, so whether you use automation or duplicate the track be prepared to the idea that a given instrument might well need multiple eq settings in order to sit right in the mix. Let’s say you have a nice guitar with a great low end: you can keep the low end when the guitar is playing on its own at the beginning of the track but then when the bass guitar and the kick start playing as well your low end might sound cluttery, hence you might opt for a different eq. The same guitar might have a 3rd eq when the vocals kick in, or the lead guitar…. this is not mandatory, you just need to be aware of the possibility.

Let’s now talk about a few basic principles that can serve as a guideline: the Dos.

  • First, get your levels and panning right

As I wrote in the article Mixing with a plan, it’s very important to get these two out of the way before you start eq’ing. At this point the relationships between sounds are already estabilshed and when you eq you will adjust the eq output in order to keep the instrument where it was in the mix: this means that if your instrument sounds quieter with the eq on (because you’ve made certain cuts) you can make up for the loss of volume, or if it sounds louder than before (because you’ve boosted certain areas and made it more prominent) you might have to lower it down just a bit.

  • Listen, truly listen

Be open minded, examinate the sounds, where they are, where you want them to go and what you need to do in order to operate that transition. What corrections will you make? Leave behind you the preconceived idea of how the eq should look like for a given instrument because it doesn’t matter.

  • Pretend it’s a live band

Especially if you are new to eq’ing in context (i.e. not soloing instruments) pretend that you are mixing a band in a small venue where you cannot isolate the instruments anyway because you’re always going to hear the direct sound coming from the stage as well, take a deep breath and follow the steps below.

  • Check the three areas of the spectrum

You can sort out the lows, mids and highs one at the time. Pay attention to the low end, pick ONE instrument which will be the lowest instrument in your mix… this is generally either the kick or the bass, try both options and see which one works better for the song, then use high pass filters so that all the other instruments sit nicely on top of your kick+bass and each one has its own spot… make space by carving out frequencies, for example if the kick is your lowest instruments and goes down to 0-20Hz high pass your bass and make space for the kick down below, but also check where the body of the bass is (let’s say 80-120Hz) and carve out some space for it by cutting the same region on the kick, and so on, you get the idea. In the and you will have one region of the lows occupied by your lowest instrument alone (kick or bass), the area right above it where the second low instrument is predominant (bass or kick), the guitars and some other instruments being predominant in the “next slot” and you can decide whether you want to get rid of the low end clutter on the instruments that don’t have a big low end anyway or not, it’s generally good practice but if you overdo it your mix might sound empty so use your judgement as always. With orchestral mixes you can pretty much use a similar approach with the low percussions going down to the subs and then the lower strings sitting on top or vice versa, the other sections will follow.

Shift now your focus to the high end: here you want to carefully boost instruments but avoid boosting the same frequency on too many instruments because they will just compete for the same spot, so for example if you boosted 4KHz on the snare don’t boost the same frequency on the vocals, keyboards etc, find other areas to emphasize instead and make all instruments work together. Be careful when adding highs to the cymbals because they’re quite easy to hear anyway, see the last point about references in that respect.

When it comes to the mids you need to be particularly careful about resonances and frequencies that make instruments sound boxy or muddy, do surgical cuts and remember that boosts in this region tend to be quite noticeable so be gentle.

  • Start from the groups, then instruments

If you can process a bus and fix multiple instruments simultaneusly, that will save you a lot of time, so try that first when you have the option, for example fix the low end of all guitars from their bus group and then do fine adjustments on the single tracks as needed. It does apply to vocal bus groups, drums, whole orchestral sections and it’s the key to a quick and effective mix.

  • Treat your FX channels

Don’t forget that your reverb, delay and other FX might add clutter to the bass and lower mids, or might sound too obvious towards the high end so apply eq to these channels accordingly. Certain reverbs can be a bit muddy so if you are using a lot of reverb (eg when mixing orchestral music) keep your resonances in check.

  • Use references

As always, references are your friends: they will tell you whether your low end is too much, the snare is too thin/chunky, vocals are too bright/dark. The guitar tone (even though it’s manily influenced by the amplifier, the instrument itself and the performance) can really benefit from fine adjustments in the mids and your reference tracks will make sure that you’re getting an appropriate tone for the style of the song….or if you want to push that tone a little bit further they will be useful for comparison anyway. It’s very easy to ruin a mix with cymbals that are too bright, especially the high-hat can be really annoying, it’s mainly a matter of levels but do cross check your cymbals against the references when eq’ing as well.

Do you have questions about this article? Contact me.

Check out my music!