EQ tips for better Mixes

EQ is one of the most important parts of mixing. It helps you acheive the balance and effect you're looking for. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules for using eq in your music which makes this a bit of a difficult skill to master. I've been mixing music for more than 15 years and have learned and experimented a lot in that time. I'm going to share some tips with you that will help you get to better mixes.   

First thing's first. My number one and only real "set in stone" rule to mixing: Listen to the material in whole, then gain stage your tracks and then listen to the material in whole again before you do anything else. If you don't know what you're going to change, edit, process and why... you're fighting a losing battle. Understand the material in front of you then decide what you want to do and what's the best tool to use. 

I'm not going to get into the different types of eq's or get too technical as that might impede you from discovery and actual learning. 

My goal here is to give you concepts to try and to integrate into your work flow that may help. 

Know why you want to use an EQ: Ok, so you've listen to the material and it doesn't sound how you want it to sound. But, Is it peaky?(hurts your ears) uneven? (too much bass or highs.) Is there a lot of clashing? Meaning, does it sound like a hot jumbled mess? You can fix that. OR it sounds great, everything is clear present and in it's own space as is... and maybe you do nothing. Chances are you're going to have to do something though. 

  • You want the listener to enjoy the song so you don't want too much distraction or even worst ear fatigue. 
  • You want the song to be balanced and pleasant along the frequency range. 
  • You don't want instruments hogging or fighting for the same space or drowning out other elements of your mix. 
  • You want a certain effect. (telephone, lo-fi...etc) 

Start at the bottom -  It's easier to get your mids and top end in order if you've tackled the hardest part first... the low end. A sloppy low end can easily ruin the rest of your mix. You mainly will only have two instruments going down there, kick and bass. Because these two elements are so powerful and occupy a good chunk of the frequency range you have to work with, you want to make sure you figure out who leads and who follows. You want to carve out space for each so you can hear both distinctly. Filtering can help you here. Lo and hi pass filtering can help you control bass frequencies. 

Magic in the mids - Yep! that's where the magic is. All up in the mids. Before I work the mids I like to set an eq on my master channel and turn on the hi and lo pass filters. I take the lo pass down to 4K and the hi pass up to about 100hz. I do this so I can hear the mid range of what I'm working on and tweak until everything sounds good in there. this also gives me a bit of indication of how the mix is going to translate into smaller speakers. 

Working the HIGHS - Ok, so here is where I used to mess up  ALOT. Quick way to a harsh mix is to not do enough from 3k up. A lot of your perceived loudness and air comes from this range and there's usually a bunch of other sonic information up here to be sorted. You don't want your S's getting mixed up with your hi hats and your reverb tail. You want the sizzle but you don't want it to hurt so before boosting for air or clarity make sure you comb through the top end of your tracks and make space and notch out some of that harshness (if it exsists) with an eq. Don't rely solely on de-esser's for this because they're like a big thick paint brush when what you really need is one of them little water color brushes. 

Gain stage as you EQ - As you make adjustments to the frequencies you're working on, you want to balance the level of the plug in or hardware you're using to the original signal so you can actually hear the difference you're making. If you're boosting it'll just make it louder which will usually trick you into thinking it sounds better. So as you tweak keep level matching. I tweak listen then turn the plugin off so I can hear the original signal and compare. 

Cut Cut Cut - I'm sure you've heard or read that It's better to cut than it is to boost. Why? Because you want to create sonic space, especially if you have a busy mix so try cutting first. I will generally get all my cutting out of the way before getting into compression so im not getting any unecessary, weird pumps out of the compressor. There's a bit of debate around this but it really comes down to the material you're working on and what works best for you.

When you're cutting play with the bandwidth and try not to go more than -1 to -3 dB unless necessary. You'd be surprised how small eq changes are perceived in translation to other systems. 

Boosting - I advise using caution here too. When boosting, make sure you're matching the level of the original signal. It's tempting to perceive the volume increase as "sounding good." Also, if you find your self boosting more than 3-5 db you may need to go back and gain stage that channel again then revist cutting. Boosts are usually wide but play with the bandwidth until you're satisfied with the range of frequencies you"re affecting. I will usually reserve boosting for after I've done any necessary compression. 

Sweeping - This comes in handy when you're trying to hunt down bad frequencies. Even if you don't have an eq that'll let you solo certain bands you could set one of your bands to a narrow Q boost it about 12-18 db and carefully sweep it across the signal. What you're looking for is any thing that sounds unpleasant or harsh (I know anything boosted that much might sound bad but you'll hear the difference.) Once you've found that frequency that you want to cut drag it down to -1 to -3db and listen then adjust accordingly. Be careful not to get carried away with this. Remember to listen in context.    

Measure yourself -  Use small amounts of boost and cuts, listen then adjust accordingly. It's easy to go too far trying to make something fit. You also have to keep in mind that there may be other processing going on. 

Don't use EQ for Volume - It's just not what it's used for. Use your faders for that.  

Don't EQ in solo - This is a big no no. Why? because you can get something sounding really great while it's solo'd but it might be a different story once you bring the rest of the mix back. Even if you're listening for bad frequencies you might get cut happy while solo'd and make the track sound unnatural. Don't solo unless you're looking for something specific. 

Conclusion - It's easy to want to get into it and start making changes but I advise you to take some time and try these techniques as they have helped me along the way. Know your material, know your tools and know why you're using them. Grab a source and an eq and experiment. See what your results are. Any way I hope this helps you get to the killer mix we both know you can create.


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