Pianos and keyboards fill lots of different roles in various genres and songs. It is sometimes necessary to utilize EQ when mixing these instruments. When it comes to EQing piano and keyboard instruments, there are no simple step-by-step instructions; every mix is unique. However, there are certain considerations we should take into account when EQing piano and keyboard, which is what this article is all about.
Before we go any further, I should state that there are no hard rules with EQ or any other mixing process. The tips mentioned in this article are simply suggestions and techniques worth considering when EQing piano and keyboard instruments. No procedures work 100% of the time, and every mix is unique in its own needs.
Here are 11 pro tips for EQing piano and keyboard:
- Consider the sound of the piano/keyboard
- Consider the role of the piano/keyboard in the mix
- Consider the genre
- EQing piano/keyboard in the context of the mix
- EQing against competition
- Affecting depth with EQ
- Eliminating low-end rumble
- Rid of potential resonances
- Adding “air”
- Adding presence
- Always A/B test
Let's discuss each of these tips in more detail to give you important considerations when EQing piano and keyboard instruments in your mixes.
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Consider The Sound Of The Piano/Keyboard
This first tip is important to cover first. Not only do pianos (and keyboards) have some of the largest musical ranges, but there are numerous timbres/patches available to us.
For example, a grand piano will sound different than an electric piano, and electric and digital keyboards often come with a massive catalogue of different sound patches, spanning from pianos and organs to more other-worldly pads and fully-editable synthesizer patches.
So it's difficult to give specific details on EQing keyboard instruments (and even the variety of pianos) without understanding the exact sound and musical range in which they're played.
However, once we can understand the sound of the instrument, we can consider what the more characteristic frequencies are and which frequencies are competing with other instruments in the mix.
Between the massive variety of potential keyboard tones and the many roles pianos and keyboards play in different song arrangements and mixes, it's sometimes a guessing game when finding the “characteristic frequencies”.
The range between 1 – 4 kHz can be EQed to bring out distinctive characteristics in the keyboard tone. Work this range to help fit pianos and keyboards into the mix at large.
From there, it's worth evaluating whether boosting the characteristic frequencies enhances the mix. Additionally, we may want to deal with any frequency masking between the piano or keyboard with other instruments.
Consider The Role Of The Piano/Keyboard In The Mix
Once we garner a better understanding of the sound of the piano or keyboard instrument, we should think about its role in the mix.
Sometimes the piano, keyboard or synth plays a major role in the mix, and other times it plays a supporting role. These instruments have a wide variety of roles in music, so it's important to understand their role in the mix.
In solo piano performances, it's often enough to set a high-pass filter to eliminate low-end rumble and leave it at that (if at all).
When fitting a piano or keyboard into a denser mix, it's critical to understand its role and EQ it appropriately. This often means high-pass filtering it similarly to the guitars, yielding space for the bass elements without making the piano or keyboard sound thin within the context of the mix.
EQing piano, keys, and other instruments with lots of mid-range is largely about finding a spot for the element within the mix rather than blindly boosting and cutting preset frequency ranges.
In songs where the piano/keyboard is one of the main instruments, we may consider brightening it up with EQ (high-shelf boosts tend to work well). If there are vocals, we may want to back off the piano/keyboard in the vocal intelligibility range between 3 – 5 kHz range to help the vocals punch through.
In songs where the piano/keyboard is a supporting instrument, we can make it sound further away by cutting the top-end subtly with a high-shelf cut. We'll likely want to use mirrored EQ with more important elements to avoid frequency masking and try to find a band where the keyboard may be able to poke through a bit in the mix.
To learn more about shelving EQ, check out my article Audio Shelving EQ: What Are Low Shelf & High Shelf Filters?
Consider The Genre
Considering the genres and the song more specifically can give us great insight into how we may want to approach piano and keyboard EQ.
What is the typical mix aesthetic of the genre? Is it natural like jazz, heavily processed with huge bass like electronic dance music, huge and in-your-face like metal?
Where does the piano (or keyboard) fit into the general mix aesthetic? From our examples, we may skip EQ altogether with jazz but have to fit it into its own spot within the frequency spectrum in EDM. How can we get it to fit with the vocals and within the guitars in metal?
Although every mix is different, there are certain genre-specific trends to consider when EQing piano and keyboards.
EQing Piano/Keyboard In The Context Of The Mix
EQing in the context of a mix is key for mixing in general and certainly applies to pianos and keyboards.
There's not much use in shaping a piano or keyboard track to perfection in solo. Sure, it's worthwhile to solo these instruments and sort out any blatant issues (low-end rumble and hum, harsh resonances, etc.). Still, it's generally a waste of time to EQ pianos, keyboards, and other instruments by themselves.
Beyond the fact that the tone of the piano/keyboard was likely a conscious decision from the artist that we ought to preserve, the mix is about all the instruments in the arrangement, not just the individual instruments. That is, of course, if the song isn't a solo piano performance.
The truth is that individual tracks will often be made to sound worse by themselves to serve the greater mix as a whole. A great mix is often the sum of imperfect parts, and it's often necessary to process pianos and keyboards in an “unflattering” way to make them fit perfectly in the holistic mix.
The denser the mix, the more truthful this statement becomes.
Be sure to A/B your EQ decisions by turning the EQ on and off and listening critically to recalibrate your ears.
If the EQ on the piano or keyboard improves the mix, keep it. If it doesn't, don't hesitate to readjust the EQ parameters or even get rid of the EQ altogether.
EQing Against Competition
With such a wide range and tonal variety, pianos and keyboards are liable to compete with many other instruments in the mix.
When EQing, it's common to make “mirrored EQ” moves to reduce 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.
In many songs, the piano/keyboard and vocal are at the forefront of the mix. Having both elements up front in the mix can cause issues of frequency masking, where neither the vocal nor the piano is particularly defined.
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.
So, if you're tasked with mixing a piano/keyboard and vocal-rich song, EQ can be an invaluable tool in allowing both to be pushed up in the mix while still maintaining their separation.
In most cases, the vocal will take precedence over the piano in terms of the mix elements' hierarchy of importance.
Vocal intelligibility is often enhanced with a boost somewhere in the 3 – 5 kHz range. If we can find a sweet spot for vocal intelligibility, we can use an EQ cut to duck the piano/keyboard frequencies that would compete with the vocal.
Conversely, if we have a sweet spot in the piano/keyboard's frequency content (often in the 1 – 4 kHz range, as previously discussed), we can consider boosting that band and cutting the same in the vocal.
Related article: Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Vocals
The piano/keyboard is also liable to compete with guitars (both acoustic and electric). Consider which instruments are more important in the mix and make decisions from there.
It's often the case that subtle mirrored EQ in the mid-range can help pianos, keyboards and guitars all be heard without significant degradation to their sound.
Subtle, broad EQ moves are often all we need in these cases, though some mixes require more aggressive processing. Again, every mix is different. This is only a tip.
Affecting Depth With EQ
EQ can affect the perceived depth of a piano or keyboard (and other elements) in the context of the mix.
As sound waves travel naturally, the high frequencies are attenuated at a faster rate. Higher-frequency (shorter-wavelength) sound waves lose energy faster due to friction as they cause the air molecules to vibrate. This is part of the physics of sound.
In addition to the distance factor, closer sounds are often heard as having more pronounced transients (the initial attack of a sound). The transient spikes of a sound or musical instrument contain a lot of timbral information in the upper harmonics of the sound. By reducing the high-end with EQ, we can effectively dampen the transient harmonics and give the illusion of a sound being further away.
So when it comes to mixing, we can use EQ to attenuate some of the high-end of a piano or keyboard to give it the effect of being further back in the mix. Conversely, we can pull the piano or keyboard closer to the front by boosting some of the high-end.
Shelving filters are great for this.
For a more aggressive approach, we can also use low-pass filters to make the piano or keyboard sound duller and push them toward the back of the mix.
Eliminating Low-end Rumble
Eliminating low-end rumble is an essential task in most mixes.
Low-end rumble refers to low-end frequency content that doesn't provide any musical information. It's the noise that muddies up the bass elements of the mix and eats away at precious headroom. In addition to the typical culprits of mechanical noise (footsteps, ventilation, touching the mic or mic stand, traffic, etc.), I also typically group low-frequency electromagnetic interference in with low-end rumble.
This low-frequency information isn't needed and is best eliminated altogether. This job is best accomplished with an EQ's high-pass filter.
We can start with an HPF cutoff frequency of 20 Hz (the lower limit of human hearing) and work our way upward until the piano or keyboard become noticeably thin in the context of the mix. From there, we should back up about 15-20% and set the filter.
As we continue mixing, it may very well be the case that the low-end of the piano or keyboard interacts poorly with the mix's low-end elements, notably the bass guitar and kick drum. In this case, increasing the high-pass filter's cutoff frequency is often beneficial to a point where the bass and kick can be heard more clearly.
Use your ears when setting high-pass filters, as there's more than meets the eye (knowing the cutoff frequency).
Firstly, we have the psychoacoustic phenomenon known as the “missing fundamental”, which states that our brains can effectively fill in the fundamental information of a musical instrument (the note being played) when presented with only the harmonics of that instrument (and the specific notes being played). This means that we can still comprehend the low-end information of a piano or keyboard, even if they're high-pass above their low-end frequencies.
Secondly, EQ causes inherent phase shifting. At low frequencies, such phase shifting can lead to constructive and destructive phase relationships between the piano or keyboard and the other bass elements, especially at and below the cutoff frequency. Beware of such phase relationships, as they'll affect the overall mix in addition to the attenuation caused by the high-pass filter.
To learn more about high-pass filters, check out my article Audio EQ: What Is A High-Pass Filter & How Do HPFs Work?
Rid Of Potential Resonances
When dealing with pianos recorded acoustically, we may find annoying resonances in the audio. These resonances can come from the instruments, the microphones used to record them, or, more commonly, the acoustic and physical environment.
This is also true of certain patches in keyboards and synthesizers, especially when they're programmed quickly by musicians.
Regardless of how they come about, resonances aren't exactly flattering to the mix. If you hear annoying resonances in the piano or keyboard tracks, you can seek them out and notch them down using what I call “the parametric sweeping technique”.
As the name suggests, this technique takes a parametric EQ. Boost a narrow band (6 dB or more is a good starting point) and sweep the band across the frequency spectrum. As the resonant frequency is boosted even more by the EQ, it will really poke its ugly head through the mix. Once found, we can adjust the gain of the EQ band to the negative and notch the frequency from the signal.
Always A/B test your findings by toggling the EQ on and off. Repeat the process if you didn't quite find the right frequency (re-doing the step) or if there are other resonant frequencies worth addressing (by introducing another band in the parametric EQ).
To learn more about parametric EQ, check out my article The Complete Guide To Parametric Equalization/EQ.
I should add that we should never go looking for offensive frequencies for the sake of it. Boosting a narrow band of parametric EQ and sweeping it across the spectrum will make every boosted frequency sound bad. However, it can be an effective strategy to find resonances that we hear before applying any EQ.
If the piano or keyboard deserves a bit of brightness in the mix, we can boost around 8 kHz and again above 10 kHz.
These gentle bell/peak filter boosts can help give a sense of brilliance and life to a piano or keyboard without necessarily altering its tone. It's a great, subtle way of making these instruments more present, especially if they play bigger roles in the mix.
Presence can often be added to a piano or keyboard by boosting in the 3 – 7 kHz range. Be careful when doing so not to mask the vocals.
In denser mixes where the piano and vocals are the two primary elements, it may be worth considering automating the presence of the piano against the vocal. In other words, boost the presence range of the piano when there's no vocal, and bring it back down again when the vocal is present.
Always A/B Test
We can get carried away with EQ on pianos and keyboards. There's often a lot we can do with keyboards in the mix, and the wide variety of tonal options make it even more of a challenge to get perfect in every different mix we work on.
With so many options, it's sometimes best to use the subtlest of EQ moves or even no EQ at all.
So when we're EQing a piano or keyboard (in the context of the mix), it's paramount that we periodically check our work by bypassing the EQ altogether.
Turning the EQ on and off is known as A/B testing. We're comparing A (the EQ on) against B (the EQ off) and deciding which sounds better in the mix.
It's too easy to lose our objective perspective when mixing, and A/Bing our EQ moves gives us a reminder of what our EQing actually sounds like while recalibrating our ears.
It's important to have an objective understanding of whether the EQ we're using benefits the mix or not. Be as impartial as possible when making a decision.
When A/B testing, tune the EQ off and listen for about 10 seconds. Turn it back on and listen for another 10 seconds. Repeat the process and decide whether to keep the EQ, readjust it, or get rid of it.
Beyond bypassing, we can also choose to toggle different frequency bands on and off in many EQ plugins. In these A/B tests, we're keeping the EQ engaged but toggling different bands on and off and judging whether they improve the mix or not.
If you're interested, be sure to check out my video on the top 5 A/B tests worth incorporating regularly into your mixes:
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 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
Be sure to also check out my top overall 11 EQ tips for mixing in this video: