Have you ever struggled with EQ? Do you find that your tracks don’t sound as good as the records you are referencing? Have you ever battled with getting an element to sit into your mix? Have you ever mixed a song, thought you did well, and then compared it to commercial releases only to feel like your mix wasn’t good enough?
Don’t worry. You are not alone. If you answered YES to any of those questions, we need to talk about EQ.
EQ is often a very difficult tool to master, but it doesn’t need to be.
I strongly believe that aside from balance, EQing is the most fundamental and critical part of mixing. I remember the first time I opened an EQ. I had no idea what to do with it other than to think about it like my car stereo system.
It takes most of us many years to get any good at EQing, and 10,000 or more hours to master it. So how do we get on the fast track to mastering it more quickly and easily?
It CAN be done. But before we can get on the fast track to improving our EQ skills quickly, we need to understand what to not do. There are 3 major mistakes that engineers make when learning to EQ.
- Using EQ Charts & Guides
- Relying on Analyzers and EQ Matching
- Skipping Over The Fundamentals
There is also a clear method to mastering it. More on that in a minute. First a bit more detail on the most common mistakes
Mistake #1: Relying on EQ Charts
Ever seen one of these?
Good. Now throw it away.
Charts are good to get a basic and broad understanding of what the range of an instrument is, or to give you a musical word for a frequency range that others may also use. (For example, “warmth,” “sheen,” or “whack.”)
A major mistake most newer engineers make is when they see a word associated with a frequency range and they immediately go after the word when equalizing. Instead of actually listening and figuring out what a sound needs in context of a mix, they make an adjustment based off the chart they saw online.
For example, a new engineer might thing, “let’s add presence to this because we need it to sound brighter.” But instead of adding a pleasing brightness, they make the instrument sound extremely harsh. Another example is let’s remove the “bite” out of this sound because “bite” must be bad since we are mixing a softer track.
Most of us have done this at some point.
There are so many variables in a recording that simply generalizing is ludicrous in terms of EQ. What is “bite” on one sound can be “honk” on another or what is considered “warmth” on one song can be “mud”on another.
4khz can sound extremely harsh and shrill, or it can add beautiful top-end clarity on a source.
It all depends on the source and the context.
Thinking of frequencies in terms of words on a chart is dangerous. Throw out the chart. START USING YOUR EARS!!!
Mistake #2: Relying on Analyzers and EQ Matching
As we have just established, a chart is a chart. It is a loose guideline. The same goes for analyzer plugins. They can be extremely deceiving.
One trend I see and have experienced is that someone will open an EQ plugin, reference their mix or instrument to a great sounding mix or instrument, and then try to chase it with their EQ plugin.
Useful? Sometimes. Dangerous! Very.
I want to make a clear distinction to explain why:
In the very beginning of learning to equalize, this can be useful to get a basic direction of where you are and where you need to go. For example, if I notice after EQ matching that everyone else on earth seems to have less 700 Hz in their guitars than I do, maybe I should pay more attention to controlling that area. OR maybe everyone else has more top and bottom end/low midrange on their guitars? Which is it!?
Oh the madness…
However, while these tools can be slightly useful when learning to use EQ, they are a crutch and most importantly the EQ curve that works for the reference source may NOT be the best EQ curve for your source in the context of your song.
One size rarely, if ever, fits all.
I believe EQ matching is a great illustration of this point. Sure, EQ matching your mix to your favorite tracks can be cool, but you are not mixing mixing those tracks and you aren’t learning how to make a great mix yourself.
You are simply settling for a sub par mix and relying on EQ matching to help you get closer to a great mix.
The same thing goes for looking at an analyzer: It looks like you have a massive spike at 400 Hz. The guitar sounds great in the mix. But, you cut 400 hz by 3 db because you glanced over at the analyzer and it “looked” wrong. Now the mix feels disconnected, the guitar is too thin, and you are wondering why.
These visualizers are tools. Occasionally, they are useful. BUT…
If you actually want to learn to become a boss with EQ, you need to train your EARS, not your EYES.
Looking at a chart and chasing graphs is not really training your ears. Listening to a mix and adjusting the EQ curve of your mix by ear is. To properly train our ears we need to avoid these tools as much as possible.
Beginners and intermediates like to take shortcuts and wonder why they haven’t mastered the skills to become great even more quickly. It is because they aren’t training correctly, or because they are training the wrong skill. This is definitely not the way to get on the EQ mastery fast-track.
Mistake #3: Skipping Over The Fundamentals
A massive error nearly everyone makes in any sort of new skill acquisition is to quickly get through the very fundamentals and go straight into the more complicated parts.
Fundamentals are everything, and most people are too impatient to master them. Human nature and our egos tell us that the more complicated it is, the more “better” or more important it is.
Unfortunately, this natural intuition is very deceiving as usually, the best results lie in simplicity, and true mastery of the fundamentals.
I have. Many times! It happens, especially to beginners and intermediates, and this is a perfect example
Here, I’ll tell you a story:
Midway into my career, I had been getting very complex in my mixing. I watched some DVD where a guy mixed a song and used 6 to 8 plugins on every channel. Because of this, I thought I had to also. The only problem was that my mixes weren’t very good.
Over time, I slowly started using fewer plugins and less complicated tools because I needed to work faster as my demand increased. Then, something amazing happened.