This section explores some best practices and general guidelines to get you headed in the right direction. These tips and techniques will save you time learning and time practicing.
Boosting vs. Cutting: Everyone says not to boost, but rather cut frequencies. The reasoning behind this is that adding to frequencies is done by adding gain, making it louder. Our ears tend to think louder sounds equal better sounds, but unfortunately that doesn’t remove the clutter or muddiness of your track. Generally, it’s much better to find what area of the frequency spectrum sounds jumbled, figure out which instrument should have prominence in that area, and then cut out the same areas occupied by other instruments. I’ll also combine this tip with another common one: Use narrower cuts and wider boosts. Check the image below to see what I mean.
Check Your Sounds In The Mix: Your intuition might tell you to solo the instrument in question while EQing in order to better hear what you want to cut or boost. While this can be helpful, you’re not getting an idea of what the instrument sounds like in the middle of the whole song. Try making changes while everything else is playing. This gives you a feel for how it will sound in the mix, rather than on its own. And because your listener will only hear it as a full tune, what matters is that it sounds good in line with everything else. And besides, sometimes EQing something when soloed actually makes it sound worse when you play all the channels at once.
Fill Out The Entire Spectrum: The best tracks have the entire frequency spectrum filled out. Listen to any commercial radio song, or even your favorite club tracks, and you’ll notice the full spectrum is used. Often, for newer producers, it’s easy to fill out the spectrum because there is a tendency to add too many elements. When a mix is too busy, of course the spectrum will be filled! The hard part is using all the frequencies with minimal elements, or having a bunch of elements and getting them to sit well next to each other. Unfortunately, this skill is honed only with lots of experience. However, there are two great tips you can start with. One is to make use of ambience. Having an atmosphere or ambience to your track will fill the frequency spectrum, yet it remains blended in the background and, when done well, adds to the mood or vibe of your song. The other tip is to use high-pass and low-pass filters only as needed. For example, while highpassing your snare around 150hz is great for reducing interference with your kick drum, during a break-down where the kick’s low end is cut, try removing the high-pass filter on the snare to retain some sort of low end presence. This is easily done through automation. As another example, if you’ve got a part of your track where there is just a minimal beat and bass line, you can remove any highpass filters from your hi-hats to add more presence where your lead synth would normally be.
Analyze Your Favorite Tracks: This tip is one that really helped me improve quickly. Quite often, I will load up a song in Ableton Live and drop an EQ-8 onto the channel. When you enable the spectrum analyzer in EQ-8, it can show you what changes when a new sound begins in the song. For example, you might notice what space a hi-hat fills when it drops in by watching the spectrum. Additionally, by using high- and low-pass filters, you can hear where certain sounds cut out, which is a great way to figure out where in the spectrum each element sits. In the example image below, I’m using only a single instrument, not a full track, but I’ve highlighted the spectrum analysis button for easy reference.
Making Large Changes: If you find yourself making wide boosts on your master channel, chances are you will get better results by fixing your instruments at the source. This tip applies to many, many areas of sound and music production, and is no different with EQing. For example, if you’re applying 6dB of gain or EQ boost to the 1khz zone on your master, look at which instruments are occupying that space. EQ the instruments individually to make them fit better. Alternatively, switch up your sounds so they fit well enough together that you don’t need to EQ anything. These approaches will almost always provide better results than slapping a giant shelf filter on your master output.
Make A Few Versions: While this particular tip is time-consuming, it’s worth trying at least once. When you’ve got a song ready to bounce, save it and export three different versions. First, bounce your current version. Then, go back and start fresh with your EQs and see how it alters the tone of your final product. Bounce that, and repeat the process a third time. Doing this when you finish a song will help you to learn and better understand how equalization settings affect your music. It will also give you a better idea as to what kinds of go-to EQ settings you will want to use in the future.
High-Passing Reverb And Other FX: Unless you’re going for that reverb bass sound that you hear in many techno tracks, it’s a wise move to run all your reverbs and delays through a high-pass filter. This clears the low end from muddiness and unwanted rumble.
Unintended Results: As hinted at earlier, EQing can result in more than you expect. While you might think you’ve achieved more clarity, it’s not unrealistic to have changed how the entire mix sounds. For example, cutting a few decibels in a certain range will change how the instrument itself sounds, but it can have an effect on your whole song too. Does the song sound hollow or full? If your EQ’d instrument is panned, does it sound more or less panned once EQ is applied? Be sure to make use of the bypass button on your EQs to check your changes every so often!