Why You Should Not Use an EQ Cheat Sheet when Mixing
What are EQ Cheat Sheets and why should you steer clear?
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m referring to two types of lists. Lists that give you a detailed breakdown per instrument what sounds reside in the different EQ ranges. And lists that do it the other way around: per EQ range they give you a general idea of what sounds you can expect for a couple of instruments.
These kind of lists are seductive. They promise to give us, beatmakers and producers, a sort of holy grail in hand. One list to read or memorise, and you’ll never have any problems with EQ ever again. You’ll not only understand EQ, the lists say, you’ll also know exactly what to do with your EQ when you encounter a dull sounding snare drum, for example.
Moreover, they’re not only seductive, they’re also incredibly prominent on the web! A simple google search says more than words:
EQ cheat sheets claim to be a solution to all of your EQ problems. But I’m here today to tell you that’s complete bull****! It is false, it is a trap and as someone who tries to teach my readers how to make their music sound great, it is incredibly frustrating to see how many people fall for these EQ cheat sheets.
Of course, everything has two sides. In all honesty, EQ cheat sheets are not all spawns from hell. There’s a couple things they’re useful for. So let’s list up both the positive and the negative first, after which I’ll let you decide for yourself if you want to use an EQ cheat sheet the next time you run into one.
And as with everything, it’s not all bad. In fact, there are a couple of situations in which I would say: go ahead and check one out! For one, an EQ cheat sheet can provide you with an “ok” starting point. They’re especially useful for a beginning producer or mixer!
1. Use it as a starting point to learn
EQ cheat sheets can serve as a good introduction to what equalisation actually is and what it can do.
For someone who hasn’t had much experience listening to music as sounds rather than notes, an EQ cheat sheet can be a good way to make sense of all the overwhelming info.
2. EQ cheat sheets can be useful for sound design
It’s a pretty good way to check where you need to be if you want to make a snare drum sound ‘fatter’ on it’s own – I mean when you are designing the sound – not mixing it!
The prosaic descriptions of parts of a sound are inspiring, pretty, fun,…. That may not seem very useful, but remember that creativity is strongly linked to how something is represented visually!
There you have it, there’s actually a couple of things that an EQ cheat sheet could be used for. It can serve as general guidance for the beginner who is just familiarising himself with equalisation and it’s pretty useful when doing sound design.
The primary reasons I would not recommend using an EQ cheat sheet are mostly applicably in a mixing situation. As I just mentioned – it’s OK in my book to use one when doing sound design that’s not in context with an entire song. However, there are a number of fundamental problems with them when you turn to one for mixing, which I’ll address here in turn.
1. It’s NOT the holy grail.
An EQ cheat sheet may look like the perfect solution to your problems when mixing, but it really isn’t!
It pretends to give you an idea of where the different problem areas in your mix lie. E.g. saying things like “400hz is where the muddiness in a snare drum resides” is completely idiotic. That completely depends on the snare drum sound and the rest of your song.
Following on that, the descriptions they offer of a specific frequency for any one instrument are incredibly vague. Don’t agree? What the hell is “beefy” exactly? It doesn’t say anything!
In a real mixing context, every song is different from the last. A static list does not know what your current song sounds like and most certainly cannot tell you exactly what you should do to improve the sound of one particular track in context with all the other tracks.
2. An EQ cheat sheet cannot tell you what to do.
EQ cheat sheets teach a very dangerous principle. In essence what they say implies: “This is what you should do to your different instruments when you’re mixing it”. That’s a problem for various reasons.
A one stop solution is always tantalising. Mixing – and especially equalisation – is a pretty complex and overwhelming undertaking. Having a list to tell you what you should do is therefore very attractive – but dangerous.
The problem, is that this makes it so you don’t stop to think to listen to what you’re actually doing to your sound. This kind of thinking opens the way to taking blind mixing decisions.
The detail in which some describe the effects of various frequency ranges in different instruments is staggering. This only adds to the belief that they can offer you a guideline in what you should do – while in reality you really should never do any mixing move without thinking it through and listening to what you want.
3. Don’t let them tempt you to boost EQ.
If you’re using an EQ cheat sheet, you are exposed to a tendency to boost EQ ranges you think you need to accentuate, rather than cutting away problem areas.
In an EQ cheat sheet, you’ll come across phrases like “this is where the clarity of the guitar resides”. Tell me, if you have a problem with the clarity of the guitars in your current mix and you read something like that… wouldn’t your first idea be to boost that area?
If your goal is simply to design a sound, I’d say go ahead with boosting. But if your goal is mixing, you should be focusing on taking away the problem frequencies instead.
4. They can make you forget some crucial points.
EQ cheat sheets neglect to teach us some of the most important things when mixing and instead give you empty tips.
Making in-context mixing decisions is incredibly important if you want to get something to sound coherent. Just taking one instrument and saying that it needs to sound fatter, looking at an EQ cheat sheet to determine what frequency to attack and then blindly going for it, will not get you anywhere. A much better alternative would be to first check if you can’t make room for the instrument you’re trying to fit in the rest of the mix.
Just because you’ve got a long list of EQ tricks you could do, doesn’t mean that you should! An important part of a good mix is having a good workflow and making the best decisions possible as you go along.
That means: find and detect problems & fix them – in the context of the entire song. It doesn’t mean that you should check each instrument against a long list of frequencies just to see if you’re getting the most out of that one instrument.
What To Use Instead Of An EQ Cheat Sheet
Practice. A lot.
If you want to learn how to mix your music well, you need to keep practicing well. If there could be one thing that I can teach you right here and now to make your music sound better, it would be to do a little bit of mixing every day. If you keep practicing, especially with EQ, you’ll notice you’ll start to really hear the sounds that your music comprises of.
Yes, there are some uses to an EQ cheat sheet when it comes to learning what frequencies are and how an EQ can help you make the most out of the sounds you’ve got, but it can only serve as a very general starting grounds. They’re no substitute at all to mixing by ear.
As mentioned, a much better way to learn what a frequency spectrum is, how sounds can be altered by changing the spectrum with an equaliser and where different characteristics of your sound reside, is to simply work with a bandpass filter and check the sounds out for yourself. That will teach you much, much more than a simple text description that you won’t remember anyway.
Doing this for even ten minutes every day will most importantly teach you to detect certain characteristics in the sound you’re looking at and determine where any problem areas might be residing – so you can cut them out a little to make it blend in with the rest of the music.
Try an instrument frequency range chart
One of the biggest problems with EQ cheat sheets is that they are much too detailed. They give the illusion of “knowing” where certain characteristics or problem areas reside in the frequency range of your specific instrument. In reality, that can never be the case as every sound is different.
However, I do appreciate the fact that beginners would really like some guidance. Just saying: “listen to the sounds and you’ll get it eventually” sounds a little bit too much like what we do as mixers and producers is really some kind of inherit magical ability that no-one can really learn.
You can learn, but I think a much better way to go about it is to practice. That being said, it’s always nice to have some general guidance. That’s where “The Interactive Frequency Chart” can come in handy – there’s some ‘spectrum data’ per instrument as well, but it’s really quite general. Which I like.
The great thing about this one is that it’s not really pretending to show you where certain problems might be lurking or how you can go ahead and “improve” the sound of your track, it’s simply a great overview of what frequency ranges your instrument is most likely covering. That’s a great place to start.
What do you guys think?
All this is my opinion, of course. I appreciate that I could be terribly wrong and I am very much aware that all of the above is probably not going to resonate with a lot of producers and mixers out there that do still use these EQ cheat sheets on a daily basis.