How to Use EQ

Using an EQ lets you blend different instruments together, so that their frequencies don’t clash. But how do you do it right?

Equalizing is the practice of using an EQ / Equalizer. Without even knowing you, I am 100% sure that you have used an EQ at one point or other in your life. Maybe not when making beats, but if you’ve ever turned up the bass in your headphones or in a music app on your phone, you’ve used an EQ. Yay!

An EQ is simply a device that is able to add specific frequencies to a track (or take them away). Used in the context of mixing beats, an EQ lets you blend different instruments together, so that their frequencies don’t clash.

Let’s look at a couple of easy ways to use an EQ to your benefit.

Hi-pass EQ to get instant clarity 

Every track consists of a bunch of frequency information – A LOT of frequency information actually. It goes from very low (0hz) to very high (30khz and up). And a whole lot of this information is redundant. Not all of that information is necessary for each and every instrument. A guitar track, for example, usually doesn’t benefit from anything below, say, 150hz. So why keep all of these frequencies? You can aslo ask: what happens if we do keep it?

The problem isn’t very apparent on one single track. Soloed out, there wouldn’t be much of a difference when removing this information. But stack about 20 tracks together with useless rumble in the low end, and you’ve just polluted this area with a lot of junk. That’s why on every instrument that doesn’t really need low end (so everything except basses and kick drums), you should put a hi-pass filter on the channel and remove everything below a set frequency. 

Removing the rumble on your tracks is very easy to do, just follow these steps: 

  1. Solo the track you’re working on
  2. Put a hi-pass filter on your channel strip 
  3. Play with the cut-off frequency right up until the moment you can actually hear a difference in tone when you toggle the bypass on the filter
  4. Dial back a notch, to just before where you start to hear the effect. 
  5. Bam!

You won’t hear a big difference on one track – but you will get a MUCH clearer mix if applied across every track in your DAW!

The “muddy-frequency” 

If there’s one question that get’s repeated ad infinitum when it comes to mixing, it’s: “how can I make my mix less muddy?”. You know what I’m talking about. It’s not clear, it’s dirty, it all sounds kind of muffled. While there are many, many things that can contribute to this, part of the problem could be that there is just too much going on in and around what is sometimes referred to as the “muddy-frequency” region. 

Normally, I’m not a big fan of providing you with standard EQ solutions (and I’ll talk about why in a second), this is one of those rare cases where I think it’s appropriate. The muddy frequency is a range of frequencies. It refers to the frequency region from around 200hz to 400hz. A lot of different instruments have information in this region. Especially melodic instruments. And adding it up can lead to a bit of a muffled sound.

It’s important to be mindful about this and it’s why you’ll often come across advice that says to cut away 3 to 4 db in this area for some instruments such as guitars, vocals or piano. I’m here to tell you today that yes, that’s quite true. Removing a bit of information there can definitely help. But don’t overdo it! Removing it on every instrument can quickly lead to a very thin sound altogether.

So do hack away here – but be careful and certainly keep listening and trusting your ear. If you feel it’s not necessary, it probably isn’t. Listen for instruments that have a lot of information in the 200-400hz area – and cut some of it out using an EQ.

Bonus tip: you can use a spectrum analyzer to get a clear view of the frequencies on a track! 

The “pain-frequency” 

2khz is like the mother of all that is nasty. I don’t pretend to know why, but ramping up this frequency too much can certainly lead to overly harsh sounds. Amp up the volume on a song that has too much of it, and you’ll definitely see people scattering away, screaming life & death and all that is holy. 

If you feel like there’s a bit too much “awch” in your song, use a spectrum analyzer to check if it’s because you’ve got too much 2k going on. A nice little cut of 3-5db with a wide Q on the tracks contributing to the problem will take care of the problem. Again, as with the “muddy frequency” tip: make sure you don’t overdo it. If you cut away too much, you’ll have a muffled sound in no time. Especially on vocals 2khz is where much of the clarity resides.

Just starting out? Learn this method first! 

Okay, so you’ve been playing around with EQ. And hey! You’ve noticed that you’re able to add more of a certain frequency (boost) or remove certain frequencies (cut)! Great. But what to do?

If you go around looking for advice on the topic, you’ll see two kinds of people: Those that tell you to always and in any situation use EQ cuts, because boost EQ is evil, it’s a sin and something wicked will come after your little ones at night if you use it. And those that are a little more relaxed about it. To them, it doesn’t matter: use whatever you want. Going down that rabbit hole is going to lead to a lot of confusion on your part. Believe me – I’ve been there. 

“So what should I do… cutting EQ or boosting EQ?” 

Well, if you want my advice, as long as you are very aware of what you’re doing – you should be fine either way. However, if you’re just starting out I seriously advise you to learn to make a mix sound good using cutting techniques first

Here’s three of the most important reasons why I feel that, as a beginner, you should learn how to carve space into your mix first with cutting instead of adding with boosts: 

  1. If you cut away problem areas you’ll be opening up headroom for other instruments to fit in. That’s one major thing you need to learn when starting out: carving out space for other instruments and getting things out of the way of each other. 
  2. It teaches you to really listen and focus on the sounds of your instruments. If you’re looking for some problem to cut, you’re actively listening to what you’ve got to work with. Another skill that is super important if you start out. 
  3. Boosting EQ leads to added phase problems. The gist is of is that when you run a signal through an EQ and filter out certain frequencies (or boost them), a phase shift will occur. Remember what we talked about in the intro of mixing? Phase mismatch is a huge reason why your mixes sound bad! In this case, cuts can sound better: there’ll be some phase shift in the frequencies you’re affecting – but you’re lowering them in volume anyway relative to unchanged frequencies. 

Take-away: practice cuting EQ first. If you’ve got the hang of it, then you’re OK to start boosting. 

Stay away from EQ Cheat Sheets

I’m writing an entire article (well, a big rant really) about this right now, so I’m just going to mention the cons of an EQ cheat sheet right now.

1. It’s NOT the holy grail. 

First off, 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 prosaic, yes, but they are also incredibly vague . Really… “beef”… what the hell is that? 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. 

They can give a beginner a starting ground for learning what the different frequency ranges sound like, but a much – MUCH better alternative would be to simply open up a track and work with a band pass filter. That way you can check out what your recorded instrument sounds like in different ranges, by filtering out the rest. 

2. A cheat sheet cannot tell you what to do. 

Secondly, EQ cheat sheets – perhaps unwillingly – 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 tantalizing. Mixing – and especially equalization – 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’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 – just like we talked about before. 

4. They can make you forget some crucial points. 

Finally, EQ cheat sheets neglect to teach us some of the most important things when mixing and just gets away with providing 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.

If you’ve got an EQ cheat sheet – then get rid of it, right now! Otherwise, move along. Nothing to see here. 

Crucial Tip: Stop the fight between your bass and your kick! 

If there’s one area in the frequency spectrum that has both the potential to make your mix super awesome or indeed a terrible, god ugly thing to listen to… it’s the lower end. See, bass frequencies take up a LOT of space in the mix. They’re like a bunch of angry dudes in a boxing match. And if you’ve got too much of them hanging around in your mix; they’re going to take it to the street – and fight to the death. The death of your mix, that is. 

Luckily, there’s a very simple thing you can do to stop it. It’s called complementary EQ. I’ll give you the cliff notes and lay out the steps to fit a bass with a kick drum. The absolute most basic way to end the battle, is to only have one instrument feeding the lower end. Practically, though, that’s not possible. Most songs always have at least two instruments (kick & bass) playing in the lower end. 

That’s where complementary EQ comes in and here’s how to do it: 

  • First off, you’ll want to decide whether your bass or your kick drum will be responsible for the sub bass lower end of the spectrum. Let’s say I want my kick drum to play that part 
  • Slap an EQ on both tracks – doesn’t matter which one, as long as it gives you two parametric EQ bands (bell curves) 
  • For this example, I’ll set my kick EQ to a slight boost (3-4db) at around 80hz, and a slight cut (again 3-4db) at around 110hz – depending on the sample you’re using, you’re going to want to alter the EQ values 
  • The most important step is this: on your bass track, you’re going to want to do the exact opposite. So cut where you boosted the kick, boost where you cut the kick.

If you follow these steps, it’s going to make sure both instruments aren’t fighting each other for space too much.
A lovely way to make a very clear lower end.

TIP: A great plugin that helps you with this exact problem is Trackspacer. This plugin creates space in a mix by carving the frequencies that the main track needs into another track in real time.

Similar to a sidechain compressor, but a thousand times more powerful and transparent. It’s considered a secret mixing weapon by many artists, producers and engineers. I recently jumped on the bandwagon and use it in almost every track to fix issues. You can grab it over here for around $80 and save yourself hours of mixing.

How to hear exactly what you’re doing with EQ 

A lot of times, it’s pretty damn difficult to really hear what you’re doing with all those knobs and twiddle bits on an EQ. Unless you’re making extreme adjustments, everything you’re doing is very, very subtle — until you bring it all together. 

Of course, your monitoring system plays a big role. If you don’t have a speaker system that translates well, you’re going to have extreme difficulties really hearing what you’re doing. A second parameter is your room acoustics. But since this post isn’t about how to fix your hardware, let’s not focus on those things too much right now. Because there’s actually one very easy way to hear exactly what you’re doing with EQ when mixing. It’s almost embarrassingly simple. 

Ready? Here goes… 

Mix. In. Mono. Yep, that’s all it takes to make sure you hear your EQ moves as clear as possible. Why? The biggest reason why you should spend a lot of time mixing your track in mono is that a wide stereo image can be very, very misleading. You could have two parts playing on opposite sides and never, ever hear anything wrong with how those two parts blend together. 

And how could you? It’s a fact that our ears are used to hearing things come from different sides all the time. See, spreading things out in the stereo spectrum is a great way to get separation in your instruments. Our ears hear something coming from a different side and they immediately KNOW that it’s two different things. 

So… why even EQ, right? Why not just spread it out left and right and say: “to hell with EQ”? 

Well, most listening situations are in fact not really full stereo situations. Think bar, restaurant, car,… music will almost always come from one place and when it arrives to your ears, it’ll effectively act as a mono signal. So it’s important to make sure your mix sounds good in mono as well. 

Now, how can that help you EQ better? 

We’ve already answered that question implicitly: it’s because you won’t be distracted by thinking the instruments already blend together well, because of the illusion of separation created by the stereo image. When you’re EQing your tracks, try doing it in mono instead of stereo. Then enjoy how much easier it is to separate your instruments that way! 

So much for EQ…

There is obviously a lot more about it, but really it’s all about practice. We’ll talk about compression in Part 3 of our Mixing Beats series. Or revisit Part 1 The Fundamentals here.

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