Using the equalizer can be one of the most confounding mixing operations when you’re first starting out. It’s helpful to know that even experienced engineers can struggle with the process sometimes, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less frustrating when you can’t seem to dial in the right sound. With that in mind, here are 5 common EQ mistakes that will keep you chasing your tail instead of making progress towards your final mix.
1. You EQ the mix element while soloed. If you solo just one mix element at a time and work on it, chances are that you’ll get it to sound great by itself, but it won’t fit into the track. Soloing can be helpful for small tweaks once you’re sure it’s going to work, but usually you’ll want to listen to groups of instruments together, or even the entire mix, to make sure that the mix element you’re working on will fit in the track.
2. You don’t listen against other mix elements. As stated above, it’s helpful to listen against another mix element that’s in the same frequency range to make sure that neither one is masking the other. For instance, it might be the vocal against the snare drum, two different guitar or synth parts, guitar against a vocal, or bass against the kick. The idea is to make sure that every mix element has a place in the frequency spectrum so they’ll all be heard in the mix. This is a technique called Frequency Juggling.
3. You don’t use the high-pass filter. The HPF is one of the most powerful sections of your EQ toolbox in that it easily attenuates low frequencies that are just muddying up the mix and not really adding to it. For example, a high-hat will probably not need anything below 200-300Hz, and the same might go for guitars. In fact every mix element except for the bass and kick can be filtered at 60 to 100Hz, and even those might use a little in the 20-30Hz range. You’ll be amazed how clean your mix will sound.
4. You only use EQ boost. Many times, cutting frequencies is much more effective than boosting. The idea is to get most mix elements (with the exception of pads sometimes) to speak in the mix. Usually a little bit of cut on one mix element will let several peek out of the mix where they were all masked before. Also, a mix with a lot of EQ cuts tends to sound more natural as well.
5. You rely on your eyes instead of your ears. Most modern EQ plugins now have a built-in real time analyzer, which can be a crutch or a godsend. The problem comes when you stop listening to the results and just rely on what the RTA shows. This is especially problematic for low frequencies below 100Hz that might not be properly represented by your speakers. Remember, you can’t mix it if you can’t hear it.
Whenever I get a chance to take apart a great mix I’m always amazed at how bad some mix elements sound when they’re soloed. The thing is, they fit perfectly when added to the full mix. That just goes to show that the final mix is what rules and not the individual elements. Avoiding these 5 EQ mistakes can stop your frustration and get you to your final mix faster.
You can read more from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.