We all know that equalization, or “EQ,” is one of the most important processes in mixing. However, it's often difficult to get the most out of EQ in our mixes, finding ways of using just the right amount for great balance across the frequency spectrum.
In this article, I'll present you with what I believe to be the top 11 best EQ tips to help you utilize this process to your fullest advantage in your mixes.
The top 11 best EQ tips for mixing are:
- Use EQ in the context of the mix
- Always A/B test your EQ decisions
- High-pass filter [almost] everything (but not too much)
- Consider the role of the track or bus being EQed
- Use mirrored EQ to reduce frequency masking
- Start big and end small with EQ
- Use EQ to affect the depth of certain elements
- Automate EQ
- Not everything needs EQ
- Don't go looking for offensive resonances that aren't there
- Beware of build-ups across the mix
I talk about these 11 equalization tips in the following video as well. Check it out if you'd like a supplement to this article (or if you prefer the video format)!
Let's discuss each of these tips in more detail throughout the rest of this article.
Use EQ In The Context Of The Mix
The first EQ tip I have for you is to EQ mostly in the context of the mix. This may seem pretty obvious, but it's all too easy and common to spend too much time EQing tracks in solo without considering their role in the entirety of the mix.
While there are certain issues of noise and resonance that may be addressed in solo, it's typically ineffective to apply EQ to tracks in solo.
We can easily find ourselves chasing the perfect tone and EQ curve in a single track, only to have it clash with other elements when the entire mix is being played back.
Rather, it's generally better to EQ individual elements in the context of the entire mix. In other words, it's much more effective to EQ our tracks with all the tracks playing together.
Once again, perfecting a track's EQ in solo can lead to lacklustre results when it's mixed with everything else. Similarly, it's often the case that EQ will cause a track to sound rather unnatural by itself but perfect in the greater context of the mix.
I have a YouTube video on the importance of mixing in the context of the mix rather than in solo. Check it out here:
For example, a background acoustic guitar may be thinned out significantly in the mix to not interfere with other mid-range instruments (electric guitar, bass guitar, vocal, keyboards, piano, etc.) while still having its “strumminess” heard in the mix. In this example, the acoustic guitar would sound terrible on its own but appropriate in the mix.
Now, this strategy can be a bit overwhelming in denser mixes that have a high number of tracks playing at once.
My advice here is to develop a hierarchy of mix elements, where you list out the tracks of the mix in order of importance.
From there, you can opt to mute all the tracks and go through the following step-by-step process:
- Unmute the most important track first and EQ it if need be.
- Unmute the next most important track and EQ it if need be relative to the track(s) already unmuted.
- Make any necessary adjustments.
This way, we can make room for the most important tracks and then use EQ to fit the less important tracks into the mix as well. Furthermore, if there's ever a case of frequency masking (there almost certainly will be at some point), we know which track will take precedence over the others by referencing our hierarchy of elements.
Of course, we do not need to follow these steps to perfection. Think of them more so as a guide than strict orders. Thinking of EQing in the context of the mix this way can help with the overwhelm we may feel, especially when it comes to denser mixes.
Always A/B Test Your EQ Decisions
A/B testing is perhaps the most critical habit to develop in mixing.
Put simply, A/B testing is testing “thing A” against “thing B” to decide which option is better.
When it comes to EQ and mixing, we can A/B test specific bands within an EQ by turning them on and off. We can also A/B test EQ units/plugins themselves by turning them on and off.
Mixing is full of psychoacoustic mind games. When A/B testing, we can combat our ears' natural tendency to rapidly acclimatize to whatever it is we're hearing. Yes, even if we're making poor mixing decisions (especially if they're only subtly worse), our ears will often quickly adapt to the changes as being the new normal.
By A/B testing our mixing moves (including EQ, of course), we can go back and forth to determine if our decisions are improving the mix or not.
Consider, for example, that we're A/B testing whether an entire EQ insert is benefitting the mix or not. We can bypass the EQ and listen critically for 10 seconds or so to readjust our ears. Switching the EQ back on, we can listen critically to the changes it makes in the mix. A/Bing a few times can give us a much more objective idea of whether the EQ helps or not.
For more information on inserts, check out my article Audio: What Are Inserts? (Mixing, Recording & More).
I should mention that it's vital for us to level match our EQ as much as possible when A/B testing—in other words, having the track at the same perceived level/loudness whether the EQ (or specific EQ band) is on or off. This is because of loudness bias, which states most humans will naturally prefer the louder version of something.
Level matching is easier said than done when it comes to EQ, as equalization is effectively frequency-dependent gain control. However, if we can manage to adjust the output of the EQ to get as close to the same levels as possible, it will help with our objectivity.
Remember that mixing has enough mind games. We don't need any more!
Taking a note from the first tip, it's nearly always best to A/B test our EQ moves in the greater context of the mix rather than in solo.
I have a YouTube video discussing the most important A/B tests you can incorporate into your mixes. Check it out here if you're interested!
To learn more about A/B testing, check out my article A/B Testing & Its Importance In Mixing (With 5 Best Tests).
High-pass Filter [Almost] Everything (But Not Too Much)
Perhaps the most important EQ move we have is the high-pass filter. In fact, it's so important that I often explain it separately from EQ.
Related article: Audio EQ: What Is A High-Pass Filter & How Do HPFs Work?
The human range of hearing is universally accepted as 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. However, we're much less sensitive to the low-end and high-end.
Furthermore, much of the frequency content in the low-end is unmusical noise. It often eats up headroom and interferes with bass elements, muddying up the low-end.
High-pass filtering can solve these issues by effectively eliminating or at least reducing the low-end noise from the tracks or buses of a mix.
It can be worthwhile to high-pass nearly every track in the mix that doesn't have musical content. This way, we can make room for the elements that do have musical content in the low-end.
As an aside, we may even want to high-pass the bass elements near or just above the low “limit” of 20 Hz to help reduce frequencies below the audible human range.
Reducing low-end energy to help solidify and strengthen the sub-bass and bass ranges of the mix may seem counter-intuitive. However, frequency masking in the low-end (like elsewhere in the mix) will lead to worsened definition.
Additionally, phase issues can be particularly detrimental in the low-end. The long waveforms of low-end frequencies can experience significant destructive interference if the phase relationships between the low-end elements (including noise) aren't complementary.
Therefore, removing unmusical low-end rumble/noise from other tracks can help improve the overall low-end of the mix.
For more information on phase issues and how they affect the mix, check out my article Mixing: What Is Phase & Why Is It So Important To Get Right?
While we're on the topic of phase, I need to address how phase shift is a natural side effect of EQ. A high-pass filter will cause a positive phase shift at and below the cutoff frequency. For every order (6 dB/octave) increase, there will be a total phase shift of +90º with +45º at the cutoff. I'll sort this out in the table below:
We can also see this visually in the following graphs, representing the amplitude-frequency and phase shift-frequency relationships of a first-order high-pass filter, respectively:
So then, if we were to high-pass a track right at its lowest fundamental, we'd be causing not only a -3 dB drop in amplitude at the fundamental but also a positive phase shift (the steeper the HPF, the greater the phase shift).
Both these factors can be problematic if the fundamental frequencies are important in the mix. If this is the case, I'd encourage perhaps lowering the cutoff frequency or, alternatively, utilizing a linear phase EQ instead (which is designed to produce absolutely no phase shifting).
To learn more about linear phase EQ, check out my article The Complete Guide To Linear Phase Equalization/EQ.
I talk about phase relationships and their importance in mixing in more detail in this YouTube video.
Beyond the low-end and high-pass just below fundamental frequencies, we can also often get away with filtering well above the fundamentals of certain tracks. This is particularly the case if there would otherwise be a build-up of frequencies in the low-mids.
For example, mixes with solid bass guitar in the low-end and low-mids may benefit from high-passed electric guitars.
Assuming standard tuning, a 6-string guitar's lowest fundamental frequency (open low E string) is 82 Hz. However, these guitars have much more harmonic content above 82 Hz, and even if the guitars are playing low open E notes, we can get away with high-passing them a bit higher.
Doing so can make room for the bass guitar in the low-mids without necessarily having a major impact on the tone of the guitars. Of course, it's vital that we use our critical listening skills when opting to high-pass guitars to ensure we're not ruining the mix in the process.
I talk about critical listening in more detail in this video.
Another related aside worth mentioning here is the psychoacoustic phenomenon of the “missing fundamental,” which states that our ears and brains can effectively register the fundamental(s) or “notes” being played by an instrument when sufficient harmonic content is present.
In other words, in many cases, we can still hear the notes of a track even if we high-pass filter above its fundamentals. This is a win-win, as we can make room for the bass elements (and their important first few harmonics) without necessarily losing the clarity of the high-pass filtered instrument(s).
Before moving on to the next tip, I also should mention that overdoing high-pass filtering will lead to a thin mix. Use your discretion and ensure you keep important low and low-mid information in the mix.
I have a video detailing EQ's side effect of phase shifting. Check it out here:
That's a lot of information, but I think it's worthwhile to share. Let's move on.
Consider The Role Of The Track Or Bus Being EQed
This tip ties in nicely with EQing in the context of the mix. It's also enhanced by having a well-thought-out hierarchy of elements (a list of all the mix's tracks in order of sonic importance).
For each track or bus we'll be EQing, it's worth asking what the role of the track/bus is in the mix.
Is this a lead element that needs to be heard up front and centre?
Is this a strong rhythmic element that carries the beat throughout the entire song?
Is this a background element that fills in certain harmonic gaps?
Is this a harmonic element crucial to the song's harmony and melody?
More important tracks may benefit from less destructive EQ, while less important tracks can be fit into their own “pockets” in the frequency spectrum.
The denser the mix, the more aggressive we may need to be with EQ to get the results we desire.
Use Mirrored EQ To Reduce Frequency Masking
Frequency masking happens when two or more sounds compete for certain frequency bands and become ill-defined within those bands. They effectively “mask” each other, and our ears have difficulty perceiving them as distinct sound sources.
Frequency masking desensitizes our hearing and causes us to lose separation and balance in the mix. It can happen across the frequency spectrum, from the low-end to the mid-range and even in the high-end (though it's generally less of a concern in the high frequencies).
While there are plenty of strategies to combat frequency masking in a mix, EQ is generally considered the primary tool for the job. After all, it is effectively a frequency-dependent gain control.
More specifically, “mirrored EQ” is effective for reducing frequency masking and competition in certain frequency bands. Mirrored EQ is the act of boosting a certain band in one instrument or group of instruments while cutting that same band in competing instruments or groups of instruments, all in an effort to reduce frequency masking.
Let's look at a visual representation of this (a picture is worth a thousand words):
Here, the pink EQ is boosted around 100 Hz and cut around 2,000 Hz. The blue EQ is cut around 100 Hz and boosted around 2,000 Hz. This is an example of mirrored EQ.
Ideally, we would want the boosted frequency bands to be within a range that best characterizes the audio it's boosting. Similarly, we'd want the cuts in the other tracks to be in less important frequency ranges according to the timbre or character of the sound.
This is, of course, easier said than done when the whole point of using mirrored EQ is when two or more tracks compete over the same frequencies. However, when done correctly, it can really add much-needed separation within a mix.
Here are a few common clashing elements to be aware of:
- Kick drum and bass.
- Bass guitar and guitar.
- Guitars and pianos (both acoustic and electric).
- Vocals and everything else.
- Background vocals and pads.
I have a YouTube video dedicated to frequency masking. Check it out here:
Start Big And End Small With EQ
Starting big and ending small with EQ in a mix can mean multiple things. Let's break down how we can understand this tip:
- Starting with the “biggest,” most important elements.
- Starting with the “biggest,” highest-energy section of the song.
- Starting with the “bigger” buses versus individual tracks.
We already discussed how starting with the most important tracks can be beneficial when EQing, and how doing so can reduce overwhelm when starting with EQ in our mixes. Revisit Tip 1 if you'd like clarification!
Next, we can start with the song's climax (often the final chorus) when it comes to EQ and other processes. The idea here is that there's likely the most competition (tracks playing simultaneously) in the climax of the song. It's also the case that the tracks themselves are likely to be at their highest energy and, therefore, have the greatest amount of harmonic content.
So we can start by EQing the tracks present in the climax and strive to make this section of the song as big and professional as possible. Once we're finished with that section, moving to the sections of lower energy will be a bit easier (it's generally easier to tone down a mix than to pump it up).
Go ahead and fit any new tracks in with the tracks already EQed in the climax and consider automation if necessary (we'll discuss automation in more detail in Tip 8).
Finally, starting big with EQ also refers to a top-down approach, which can be incredibly effective in mixing. Top-down mixing is basically processing the mix bus before the instrument busses/groups before the individual tracks.
For example, suppose there's low-end noise and/or a particular resonance in a group of instruments. In that case, we can address these issues on that instrument subgroup/bus rather than inserting an EQ on each individual track of that group.
To learn more about buses and subgroups, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• What Are Audio Buses? (Mixing, Recording, Live Sound)
• What Are Subgroups? (Audio Mixing, Recording, Live Sound)
This saves time, energy and processing resources but can also improve the mix as we'll be dealing with fewer EQ-induced phase issues, and our EQ moves will likely help “glue” certain instrument groups together.
I have a video where I discuss top-down mixing and its benefits in more detail. Check it out here:
Additionally, I also discuss “starting big and ending small” as a mix philosophy (including top-down mixing) in this video as well as the concept of “glue” in this video.
Use EQ To Affect The Depth Of Certain Elements
High frequencies naturally dissipate more quickly as sound waves travel through the air. We can take advantage of this natural acoustic property to help place certain tracks in the dimension of depth in the mix.
High-shelf filter boosts or high-frequency bell curve boosts can be used to bring tracks/elements closer. Conversely, high-shelf cuts, high-frequency bell curve cuts or low-pass filters can push tracks/elements back.
Mixing is about balance, and spatial balance is part of a great mix. While reverb and delay are often considered the primary tools for creating “space” in a mix, EQ (and other processes) can also be used to help create depth in the mix.
Beyond EQing the tracks themselves, we can also EQ the delay and reverb effects returns to play around with the overall sense of depth these other effects will have in the mix.
Check out my top tips for depth in the mix in the following video:
Automation is a powerful tool in mixing. It can easily take a good but boring mix to an exciting, professional product.
With modern digital audio workstations, there are virtually limitless opportunities for using automation in our mixing. Let's discuss just a few ideas of how automating EQ, specifically, can help a mix sound more interesting:
- Make the chorus open up by making it brighter with high-shelf filters.
- Make sections sound fuller or sparser by automating a high-pass filter cutoff downward or upward, respectively.
- Move elements closer and further throughout the mix.
- Help reduce frequency masking as certain elements are introduced. Bring the EQ of the anchor track back to its original position as the competing element(s) are removed.
Get creative with EQ automation in your mixes!
I have a video discussing my top 11 automation tips for mixing. Check it out here if you're interested.
Not Everything Needs EQ
EQ is an important processor, but it may not always be needed.
It's sometimes the case that a track has been recorded well enough that only a bit of high-pass filtering is necessary, if that (see Tip 3).
Sparser mixes often don't require as much EQ, as there is less competition across the frequency spectrum.
Also, consider the genre. For example, pop and electronic music are often much more processed than jazz and classical.
Don't Go Looking For Offensive Resonances That Aren't There
Notching out problem frequencies is a great way to rid of annoying, piercing or otherwise unwanted ringing resonances in the mix.
A common technique for finding these resonances is to boost a relatively narrow band within a parametric EQ and sweep it up and down the frequency spectrum. Listen for particularly nasty boosted resonances and promptly notch them from the signal as they're found.
While this strategy can be effective, it can lead us astray, as any narrowly-boosted band will sound problematic, which may lead us to notch more frequencies than we should, causing more problems than were originally there.
My advice is to use this technique only if you can hear problematic resonances in the signal before boosting any frequency bands.
It's also worthwhile to guess where the resonance may be and boost there rather than sweeping across the entire frequency spectrum. Remember that our ears quickly acclimate to what we're listening to, so time is of the essence when it comes to finding these resonances.
If you can find what you believe to be the problematic frequency, notch it out and ensure to A/B your EQ moves (see Tip 2) to ensure that what you've done is actually helping the mix.
Beware Of Build-ups Across The Mix
Being aware of the potential build-up of frequencies in a mix is essential, especially in denser mixes where many tracks have content in certain frequency ranges.
The frequency band most commonly affected by build-up is the low-mids, generally in the 200 – 500 Hz range. That's why many mixers suggest cutting in this range to reduce “muddiness” in the mix.
Because so many instruments and vocals have significant energy in the low-mids, often between 200 – 500 Hz, there can be a build-up of these frequencies in the mix.
Be aware of how this build-up affects the mix.
Test if there's significant build-up with mix bus EQ. Insert a bell curve cut on the mix bus EQ and cut a few dB in the lower mids. If the mix opens up a bit and becomes clearer, you likely have an issue of frequency build-up across the mix.
Although it may be tempting to simply leave the mix bus EQ as it is to solve the problem, it's generally better to solve this build-up at the source by finding specific tracks and/or busses and making the EQ adjustments there. That way, we have more control over which elements are more or less present in the importance low-mid range.
I've focused this section on the low-mids since they're typically the most prone to frequency build-up. However, it can be worthwhile to utilize this technique in other frequency bands as well.
Other EQ Tips For Common Elements
- Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Bass Guitar
- Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Electric Guitars
- Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Acoustic Guitars
- Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Pianos & Keyboards
- Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Vocals
- Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Kick Drums
- Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Snare Drums
- Top 7 Best Tips For EQing Drum Overheads
- Top 11 Best Tips For EQing The Mix Bus
Determining the best equalizer for your audio needs takes time, knowledge and effort. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive Equalizer Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help in determining your next EQ purchases.