What is EQ?
“EQ” or equalization is a functional tool used in audio engineering that allows sculpting of the audio signal to better suit the overall mix. It is one of the tools we use on a consistent basis to help build a mix when working. While it can be one of the most useful tools in an audio engineers arsenal, it can also cause major problems if used incorrectly.
How should I use EQ?
EQ can be used to “shape” audio so it fits into a mix more effectively. Imagine the audio you’re about to mix as a big picture puzzle. The only problem is, each audio element or “puzzle piece” isn’t cut to fit together. So in order to make the pieces fit, you need to “carve” out the less desirable frequencies while enhancing the primary frequencies. This “carving” allows you to sculpt the mix into a beautiful piece of art that mimics what you (or the artist) had in the head to begin with.
This can sound daunting, but with practice and ear training, you will start to understand what frequency ranges “work” within individual tracks or elements. Keep in mind, EQ is a tool to help you realize a vision. It is only useful if you use it to help you solve a problem. Just because there is audio doesn’t mean you need to EQ it.
If it sounds good it is good!
How do I start using EQ?
First, listen to the element you want to work on. You need to make a creative decision if it needs to sound different. This can be difficult when first starting out, so use reference tracks! Listen to a song you like and attempt to single out the element you’re working on. Listen to that element in the reference song, then compare it to yours. You will likely hear some stark differences, but take your time and start to identify what is different about the sound.
Perhaps your vocal track seems “thick” or “muddy” compared to what you’re referencing. Use a boost on the EQ to accentuate the sound and find the problem area(s). then, using the EQ, cut away until it sounds less “muddy”. As you continue to find these problem areas in individual tracks, your ears will slowly train themselves to hear these problems faster and with greater accuracy. Its a slow process, but eventually you’ll be able to EQ elements without thinking about it!
A cut is worth 1000 boosts
When starting out, cutting with eq is generally the simpler thing to do. It allows you to “reveal” the other frequencies in the sound, thus accentuating those elements. However, you may which to experiment with boosting instead of cutting. Some recordings may only sound “dull” or “lack clarity”, while others need more “oomph” or “fatness”. While you could cut out everything else in order to “fix” the issue, sometimes a boost is the way to go.
This may contradict some other online “teachings”, but in the end there really are no rules! This is an art as much as it is science, and what works for you getting to the best final product is all that matters.
Why do I need to EQ?
This really depends on what you are working on. A lot of times, recorded tracks, (especially acoustic instruments) need some “help” to sound like we expect them to on the recording. This is mainly due to the way our ears hear audio vs how microphones record audio. When we place microphones, we tend to place them in areas we wouldn’t normally listen to the instrument from. For example, a kick drum on a drum kit…
A lot of times, we will place a microphone inside the physical kick drum so we can capture a specific sound of the drum for later use. This however is not where you would listen to the drum. You would likely be standing back listening to the drummer play the kit. Because we are attempting to capture a specific sound from the kit for later manipulation, we tend to put microphones in “unique” locations. Depending on the mic and the location, we then also capture tonal resonances that may not be as pronounced in that instrument when listening more “acoustically”. This is why EQ is such an important and useful tool. It helps us sculpt the tone and create a more “natural” or “visionary” tone.
Why not EQ the whole mix?
Well… instruments tend to have overlapping frequencies. In “good” areas and “bad” areas. While you may pull 400hz out of drums, the bass guitar might have a “growl” that is in that same frequency area. If you pull it out on the whole mix, you would effect the drums in a “good” way, but the bass guitar would now suffer in tone because of that cut over the whole mix.
While we do use EQ in this fashion, it is usually to enhance the mix as a whole, not to fix individual problems within the tracks of the mix. EQ’ing “top down” can lead to more problems than it can fix, so we usually say “fix it at the source”. This allows your “puzzle pieces” to fit together cleanly instead of mashing it all together and attempting to cut or boost everything to fix a problem.
You will find many styles of EQ are available for use and each one having its best and worst case uses. from broad and “rich” sounding, to surgical and “edgy” there are tons of choices. My best advice is to learn the basic tools you have in your arsenal first before moving on to different styles. The tool doesn’t make the master until you’ve mastered the use of the tool.