eq-and-sound-design

Every now and again, I get asked some questions in regards to EQ from friends who are diving into music production.  Why they come to me, I’m not sure.  I’m not fully qualified to be giving professional advice and like I always say, “music and producing music is subjective” so what works for me, may not necessarily work for you or anyone else.  Either way, I guess I should feel flattered that they ask me for advice because it means I must be doing something right, or they just know I’m utterly obsessed with creating sounds that I’m the easiest outlet for them to get a quick answer.

So what is EQ?  Well, in it’s easiest terms EQ stands for “Equalization” and its purpose is just that.  To equalize a sound so that it sits properly in the mix.  Not every sound will work with one another even if they hold the same sonic properties, so EQ exists to allow the two to work together.  This is done by applying “boosts” or “cuts” at certain frequencies to balance out their dynamics, punch, and clarity.  EQ is (for me at least) probably the most important tool in my production process.

When I was first starting out, I would always play around with the EQ Eight from Ableton and fell in love with it from the very beginning.  I think it is one of the best EQ’s you can get simply because of its ease of use.  I know others swear by Fab Filter products and other VST plug-ins, but for me, the EQ eight has served me quite well over the years.  Realistically, any EQ you have is more than enough.  It’s more about learning the capabilities of your EQ and how to use the tools you have, rather than using what everyone else is.  Ultimately, no EQ will make you sound better if you aren’t putting in the work to make each sound clear and concise from the beginning.

So when should EQ be applied?  Should you always EQ your sounds during mix down?  This question is quite tricky because there isn’t a simple answer.  You really have to decide for yourself, listen, and understand the direction you want to take your mix.  What I can say is that EQ should be added to every track and set depending on where it sits in the audio spectrum.  For example, cutting all the lower frequencies on mid-range to high-end frequency sounds will clear up a lot of space on the bottom end.  It can help clean up some unwanted/unknown frequencies that could possibly result in a sluggish mixdown.  With that being said, there are a few rules you can follow to decide on whether or not applying EQ is necessary.  Below are a few points I have learned over the years that may or may not help.

1) Analyze your mix before you apply EQ

Once you have produced a loop or arrangement of all the sonic elements you plan to use, take a break and come back for a listening session.  Start at a lower volume and drop down all your faders.  If you’ve applied eq already during the production process, disable them for now.  Press Play and slowly start to bring in each element starting with the kick drum.  Setting a good volume for the kick drum on a low output setting of your sound card will give you a great starting point for a mixdown.  Once you have a good level for the kick, you shouldn’t feel to much harshness as you increase the volumes output.  Things will get louder, but you will notice that it still sounds good as volume increases.As you introduce each new element to this mix stage, pay close attention to how each sound is affecting the sonic stage you are mixing in.  Where does each sound feel like it is coming from?  Does everything sound like it is driving directly in the middle of the road?  Can things maybe be placed a little to the left or right to create more space?  The reason I ask this is because sometimes a simple pan pot can eliminate the need for unwanted eq adjustments.  If everything is being shot down the middle, then you’ll want to create some space between them to spread stuff out.  Take notes, and pay close attention to how each sound responds.  Things that get lost will need to be addressed.

2) Focus on producing a great sound right away

I see it all the time.  Producers who rush to get an idea out and use EQ to design a sound, rather than designing the sound so they don’t have to use EQ later on.  Your sounds should be taking the most amount of time to create and if you are using samples or presets, then be sure to understand which area of the frequency range these sounds will occupy.  If all your sounds are bass heavy, and under 100 kHz then no amount of EQ will help to separate them.  It can help to make them all work together, but  the sound will be a number of bass tracks molded to coexist together rather than on their own.Over my experience, I learned that sound design is a crucial step.  It doesn’t matter if you are using pre-made stuff or not.  Choosing the right sounds for a track, and understanding their placement on the sonic stage will help you avoid heavy EQ’ing later on, and save you time.  In my past as a beginner, I placed EQ on everything and was making very shortcuts and boosts to try and shape the sound.  Now, I rarely use EQ at all unless I need to adjust a few dB a certain frequencies to give a sound a bit more punch.

Take the time to analyse your sounds, use the soft synths or hardware synths HP/LP/BP filter to sculpt and then cut unwanted frequencies (whether below or above the sounds main working area) and make subtle boosts and cuts during mix down to balance everything out.

3) Less is more

I’m sure you have heard this before in any other scenerio and the reason you hear it so often is because it is true.  Using less EQ is more benefiicial then extreme cuts or boosts.  There are a few scenerios where using sharp Q’s and deep cuts are necessary, but rule of thumb is not to over process your sounds.  Keep things simple and easy so that if a fix needs to happen, you don’t need to attempt open heart surgery to do so.  Too much of anything causes headaches later and more work so ‘KISS’ up and produce smart.

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