How to Use an EQ in 4 Easy Steps

EQ

This article is part of our FAQ series, published on our blog. Click here to view the blog archives.

Question: How do I use an EQ the right way?

Equalizers or EQs are one of the most important tools in mixing.

To put it in simple terms, EQs allow mixers to emphasize certain frequencies (boosts) and deemphasize others (cuts).

Equalizers offer you control of the entire frequency spectrum.

Unfortunately using EQ while mixing isn’t always so cut and dry… which is why this is a great question!

Before I proceed, here are a few disclaimers:

  • Understand the settings on your EQ and how they work. If you’re unfamiliar, click here to get an EQ cheat sheet from AudioSkills to get you started.
  • Treat every mix and every track differently… an EQ technique that works on one track, may not work for another.
  • Your ears are key in using any mixing tool, so LISTEN and develop them.

So with all that said…

Here are 4 simple steps to follow to use an EQ the right way.

Step 1: Determine Your Equalization Goals

Like anything in mixing, you can use EQ in multiple ways to reach a variety of goals.

So before you ever grab your EQ, you should know WHY you are doing it, and what you’re hoping to achieve.

If you ever find yourself adding EQ to the mix because you’re “supposed to” or it’s “the next step”… pause and reconsider!

Make sure you know what your goals with EQ really are… here are some potential EQ goals:

  • Help different tracks fit together more cohesively in the mix (balance).
  • Remove unwanted noise (most typically “mud” in the low frequencies) from the mix.
  • Emphasize pleasing frequencies.
  • Help some tracks or parts of the song stand out more.
  • Create more separation between tracks (especially if, for example, you have multiple instruments occupying similar frequencies).
  • Deemphasize harsh or unwanted frequencies.

Of course there are a lot more things EQs can address! In the end, you simply need to be aware of what your goals are.

Step 2: Select The Right Type of EQ

There many different types of EQs, but they all function in a similar way, increasing or decreasing the signal level at specific frequency bands.

Your goals will inform what type of EQ you choose.

As a reminder, here are the main types:

  • Low Pass / High Cut Filters – Removes all high frequencies above a selected point, leaving everything below that point untouched.
  • High Pass / Low Cut Filters – Removes all low frequencies below a selected point, leaving everything above that point untouched.
  • Low Shelf – Reduces (or boosts) the level of all frequencies below a selected point.
  • High Shelf – Reduces (or boosts) the level of all frequencies above a selected point.
  • Peak / Bell Curve – Increases or decreases the level of a specific band of frequencies (can be determined by the width you set, or “Q”)

There are also different types of EQ units or plugins.

Knowing which EQ plugin type you’re using and how it functions is crucial!

Here are the main types:

  • Fixed EQs – The most common EQ in the world. They have a few bands tied to specific frequencies, and knobs allow you to adjust them. This is what you’ll see on amps, some mixers, and most commonly a car stereo.
  • Parametric EQs – The most common EQ plugin for producers. They allows you to use multiple types of EQs, tackle multiple frequency bands, and set various gains. This is the most versatile type of EQ unit and my personal favorite!
  • Graphic EQs – These have sliders that each control a unique frequency range. You’ll find these most often in live sound, but Graphic EQ plugins also have great application in mixing.
  • Semi-parametric EQs – A lot of analog EQs are of this type. So, if you’re using a plugin modeled after analog it might also be this type. These EQs have a set number of bands, but allow you to adjust the frequency and width of them.
  • Dynamic EQs – This is what you’ll find with a De-esser. The gain is variable and increases or decreases based on the level of the incoming signal.

Sort through the options (and what plugins you actually have access to) and choose!

Step 3: Put in Your EQ Settings

The exact steps you take will vary based on the type of EQ plugin you’re using. In general though, here’s a helpful system:

  1. Decide which frequency (or frequencies) you’re going to target based on your goals.
  2. Play your project (I find looping sections to be helpful), and focus on those frequencies in your listening.
  3. Make initial adjustments to gain (either boosting or cutting), starting with slightly larger moves and working backwards to make them more subtle.
  4. Make adjustments to any other settings if necessary or applicable.
  5. Cycle, adjust, and repeat.

Some additional things to keep in mind when dialing in an equalizer:

  • Listen to the track you’re adjusting IN CONTEXT of the entire mix a majority of the time you’re adjusting settings.
  • You CAN flip into solo mode to really focus on problematic frequencies… just be sure to flip back to context before you ever say you’re done.
  • If you’re newer to mixing, I think using EQ presets as STARTING points can be helpful. Try them out then adjust to fit your track needs.
  • Using techniques like EQ Sweeping (doing huge boosts to help your find harsh frequencies or resonances and then cutting) can be very helpful.
  • Mixing is the art of subtlety… don’t be afraid of big moves, but “less is more” is a good overarching philosophy.
  • EQ moves can add up… so be conscious of other moves you’ve made. If you keep boosting the same frequency on multiple tracks, pretty soon your mix will be overpowered.
  • I HIGHLY recommend you try EQ’ing in mono. You’ll be stunned at the results you can achieve.

Step 4: A/B’ing

Listen to the track with the EQ on and with it bypassed.

  • Does it sound better when it’s on? Great work!
  • Does it sound worse when it’s on? Additional adjustments might be needed.

Closing Thoughts

Equalization is such a powerful tool because of the control it gives you over the frequency spectrum. There are a ton of options and strategies out there… but if you know what they are you can use them all to your advantage.

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