Five EQ mistakes and how to avoid them
EQ is one of the most important tools available to audio engineers. Used correctly, instruments sound great and seem to fit together effortlessly. Used incorrectly, the mix resembles a battlefield with every instrument trying to destroy the others while fighting to be heard. One of the difficulties of EQ is that it is relative – the right settings depend entirely on the raw sound and the mix; there are no specific settings that will work every time. The key to using EQ effectively is to learn how to listen to the raw sound and identify what tonal changes will emphasise its best qualities and make it work in the mix.
- More of everything, everywhere. There is tendency among inexperienced audio engineers to apply drastic EQ adjustments – particularly large boosts. Generally, the patter is like this: “I love this sound, but it needs more bass – let’s boost the lows. That’s great, but now it’s not bright enough, let’s boost the highs. Sounds great, but it’s a little hollow, let’s boost the mids.” And so it goes. Obviously this does a lot of damage to the tone of the sound and it also wastes a lot of time too. Solution: Try to listen to the sound and decide what do you want to do to it before you apply any EQ. If adjusting the EQ in one tonal area is starting to reveal (or cause!) problems in other areas, think carefully before you start chasing your tail – sometimes you just need less EQ (and sometimes in a different place to what you initially thought). Always bypass your EQ from time to time and make sure you’re actually improving the sound.
- Too much bass. This is often a symptom of problems with your monitoring environment – usually either your speakers or your room. Or maybe there’s not much wrong with your monitoring – you just happen to like the sound of too much bass. How you approach this situation depends on how much extra bass you tend to add. If it’s gentle, and it helps you vibe with the music while you work, then you could consider changing nothing. Solution 1: Just make sure it’s adjusted when your mixes are premastered or mastered… On the other hand, your mixdowns might have a wildly uneven bass response. You’ll know this is you if the low end of your mixes sound strange and different when played on different systems. Solution 2: Bring some commercial reference tracks into your studio and spend some time comparing them with your mixes. If your monitoring environment is doing strange things, get more accurate speakers, invest in some bass traps. If you’re mixing in a small room, look towards moving to a bigger room. If these solutions aren’t practical, invest in a good set of headphones to use in conjunction with your regular speakers.
- Not compensating for your monitoring environment. This is a more general case of the previous point. Be aware that you’ll have a natural tendency to mix with an overall tonal shape that’s influenced by your monitoring environment. For example, if your monitoring is weak on bass, you’ll tend to mix bass-heavy. If your monitoring is strong in the mids, you’ll tend to mix with the mids pulled back. If your monitoring has strong highs, you’ll tend to mix dark. Solution: Be aware of this and make a deliberate effort to compensate for your natural tendency. Use more than one set of speakers or headphones for comparison. Listen to a lot of commercial music in your genre to learn how it sounds in your studio. Bonus Solution: If mixing with a slight tonal shift helps you feel the vibe (or in my case, I sometimes mix slightly dark because it helps me focus better and work longer) then keep doing it. Just make sure you remember to compensate in pre-mastering or mastering.
- Using specific frequencies or settings just because someone told you to. Do I really nee to explain this one? Those frequency charts are just guides. That helpful advice is just one person’s opinion, based on a monitoring environment you don’t even know. Those EQ presets are just an example of what it can do. No-one else knows your mix like you do. No-one else knows the artist and the creative direction like you do. Solution: Use your ears. ‘Nuff said.
- EQ even when you don’t need it. This is an issue that’s not often spoken about. In all the flurry of trying to work out how to use EQ, it’s easy to forget to yourself if you need to use EQ at all. Sometimes a part will sit perfectly in the mix without any tonal adjustment at all. Solution: Interrupt your “grab an EQ and start twiddling” workflow. Pause before you do it and ask yourself – ‘Do I really need EQ here? What does this track really need?’.
Keep these tips in mind (or better yet – print them out and stick them to your studio wall!) and start to think about EQ more critically. EQ’s a great tool for an audio engineer; don’t be afraid to use it! Sometimes a track really does need some major surgery. Just be aware that it takes discipline and restraint to use it where you need it, as much as you need – no more, no less.