By: Ronan Chris Murphy
When we first get to know a great EQ, we often fall in love with boosting it at a certain frequency. We find those magic points that seem to sound great on everything. It could be the 10k boost of the A Designs Hammer, 5k on an API 550A or the 40Hz boost on the Maag EQ4 (I know everyone always talks about the air-band of the Maag stuff, but trust me, you don’t want to overlook how great they sound in the low end). We have all probably found those magic spots and used them all over lots of tracks because it seems to make every track sound better. We have probably noticed that all these great “improvements” to each track often also have a negative effect on the whole mix.
If you have found yourself in this position, do not feel bad. We have all been there. The reason the mix does not sound as great as you hoped it would is because of two reasons:
1. Too much of a good thing is still too much.
When we listen to an entire mix we experience all the frequencies cumulatively, and even frequencies that we generally find pleasing will reach a point where they do not sound great. With too much low frequency energy in a mix it will sound dull and muddy; a mix with too much mid-range can sound boxy, honky or closed; and with too much in the high-mids or high frequencies a mix can sound piercing, harsh and downright painful to listen to. It does not matter if we reached any of those points with boutique hardware or the free EQ that came with your DAW; too much build-up of any frequency will cause major problems with your mix.
One thing that many less experienced engineers fail to notice is frequency masking. When you boost EQ in a certain frequency range you are masking or covering up those frequencies in other instruments. So that big boost you do to give your guitars a great sparkle will actually start to cover up those same frequencies in the voice or drum overheads, so we then boost that frequency range on the voice and drums, which then starts to cover up those frequencies in the guitars, etc., etc.... We often end up with a mix that is overly bright without a sense of sparkle or presence in any individual instruments.
This is why I usually start with EQ cutting. Don’t worry, every EQ I have ever used that is great for boosting is great for cutting (but the opposite is not always true). If I want more sparkle out of the guitars I will start with cutting lows or mids on the guitars, or reducing the high frequencies in other instruments to let sparkle of the guitars come through naturally. The great thing about this approach is that is helps move your mix closer to your goal without having to worry about some of the problems boosting can sometimes create.
This is not to say we are taking EQ boosting off the table. EQ boosting can be awesome, but if we do a lot of subtractive EQ work first, the result and power of our boosts will be more dramatic and have a much greater impact. When you approach EQ boosting, do not think about making each track sound great on its own, but think about how it makes the whole mix work together. Think about EQ boost being a special feature for individual tracks (or busses) and try not to boost multiple tracks in the same range. Spread the frequency energy of your mix across multiple instruments and your mixes will start sounding taller, wider and deeper.
Ronan Chris Murphy