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7 crucial EQ bands to help balance your mix

by Ian Shepherd

Original image by penmachine - Click here for more infoI was taught these EQ “rules of thumb” when I first started out as a trainee, to help learn the art of mixing - each EQ band influences different qualities of a mix or instrument, and I thought you might find it useful if I shared them.

Later in the post I’ve also embedded another great video by Joe Gilder. Like the one in my using compression post recently, it gives an excellent introduction to the different EQ settings and parameters, plus some great real-world examples of using EQ in Pro Tools, although the ideas are applicable to any DAW.

Before we get to the tweaks, I want to stress that these are just ideas, guidelines and starting points. Always remember the golden rule of EQ:

Balance is everything

You can’t just add a load of 100Hz and expect your bass to sound rich – the key is to get each area balanced with every other, so that all the instruments complement each other, and don’t fight. This may even mean cutting out some frequencies to stop them clashing with other instruments – you can probably lose everything below 1kHz on a hi-hat mic, for example.

Balancing the mids – roughly 200 Hz to 2 kHz – is particularly important, since the 2K area is the most sensitive region of the ear, and getting the mid-range right is essential for things to sound warm, natural and real.

Some crucial EQ  bands and what they sound like

50-60 Hz

  • Thump in a kick drum
  • Boom in a bassline
  • Essential in dub, dubstep and reggae !
  • Too much and you’ll have flapping speakers and a flabby mix
  • Too little, and the mix will never have enough weight or depth

100-200 Hz

  • This EQ band adds punch in a snare
  • Gives richness or “bloom” to almost anything
  • Too much makes things boomy or woolly
  • Too little sounds thin and cold

200-500 Hz

  • Crucial for warmth and weight in guitars, piano and vocals
  • Too much makes things sound muddy or congested
  • Too little makes them thin and weak

500-1000 Hz

  • One of the trickiest areas
  • Gives body and tone to many instruments
  • Too much sounds hollow, nasal or honky
  • Too little sounds thin and harsh

2 kHz

  • Gives edge and bite to guitars and vocals
  • Adds aggression and clarity
  • Too much is painful!
  • Too little will sound soft or muted

5-10 kHz

  • Adds clarity, open-ness and life
  • Important for the top end of drums, especially snare
  • Too much sounds gritty or scratchy
  • Too little will lack presence and energy

16 kHz

  • Can add air, space or sparkle
  • Almost too high to hear
  • Too much will sound artificial, hyped or fizzy
  • Too little will sound dull and stifled


How EQ works – settings and parameters

As promised, here’s Joe’s video introduction.





The only thing I would add to this is to underline what he says about judging final EQ settings in the context of a mix – solo first to get in the right region, then listen with the track to see if it works. And, be cautious when using low cuts in the way that he demonstrates – you risk overdoing it and losing some of the natural sound of the instrument. Finally:

Newton’s 3rd Law (of EQ)

Of course all this is only the tip of the iceberg – every one of these comments has exceptions, caveats and alternatives. Returning to the idea of balance, bear in mind that

For every (EQ) action there is an equal and opposite (EQ) reaction

For example, if you add too much to the 2 kHz EQ band, eventually anything will sound thin and harsh. If you compensate by adding some 100 Hz to warm it up, you’ll end up with “scooped mids” and the sound will be thin and lack body. So you add some 500 and suddenly you’re back where you started, but it all sounds a bit processed and un-natural.

So I’ll finish with a final rule of thumb for you:

Less is more !

- and an outstanding resource, to an interactive frequency chart with even more rules of thumb and suggestions for the best EQ band to use eachinstrument. I don’t agree with all of them, but as Joe said in his video, there are no rules in audio – use your ears !

More information

If you found this post useful and are interested to find out more about using EQ, you might like to check out my video tutorial pack Home Mastering EQ – to find out more, click here. It was written specifically for mastering, but lots of people have told me it’s helped them in mixing, too.

To see exactly why EQ is so crucial in mastering, check out this post:

How EQ can make your music sound louder – using LESS compression and limiting
 
 

facebook comments:

30 Responses

  1. Different frequencies of the human voice give us different information. Lower frequencies carry info about gender, health, size, and the upper s, t and f’s carry verbal meaning.

    How many badly EQ’d PAs in public places have you heard – you know the train company employee is male, bored and 45, but you don’t know anything about the trains.

    All the different frequency corridors seem to carry with them different emotional or cerebral interpretive tendencies. Big basslines get people dancing, a crooning melody and a lyric with pathos leaves no dry eye in the house, and the angelic voices hitting the long high notes go all the way to God. Right?

    Interesting analog to this is in written script. Cover the top half of a random sentence you’ve never seen, and try to read it, just interpreting the bottom of the letters. It’s quite difficult. Then do the reverse, try it with another random line but this time cover the lower half of the text. Most people find ttex easier to interpret.

  2. Ian Shepherd says:

    I remember someone talking about an acoustic modelling plugin designed to make railway tannoys more intelligible by reverse engineering the architecture around them.

    Rumour had it you could buy the same thing working in the opposite direction to make your audio sound like it was coming from any British Rail tannoy speaker in London.

    :-p

  3. Rob says:

    The most single most useful tip I have for EQ is to use it to take away bad rather than add good whenever possible. Some of my other favorites are:

    “Sweeping” to find the frequency you are looking for is also great — I like to turn up the gain all the way and just sweep the frequency back and forth until I find the frequency I am looking for. This is especially useful when you can tell two instruments are fighting but can’t really tell where the problem areas are.

    “Feathering” your EQs is also very valuable, bringing up a frequency band on one instrument while reducing the same frequency band on other similar sounds to give them more space — I have found that I have a much easier time getting the bass guitar and kick drum to play nicely if I give the kick a boost around 60 Hz and a cut around 100 Hz, then bring up my bass guitar and cut it at 60 Hz and boost it at 100 Hz, for example. (Note: frequencies are estimated, this will be different for every session)

    This one only applies to tube EQs (or very well modeled tube EQ plugins). If you want a bit more “punch” out of the low end on a kick drum but don’t want to boost the level too much, just patch two EQs in a row on the channel, the first being a tube EQ. Boost the low end a lot, maybe 12 or 15 dB. This will give you some of that nice, pleasing tube saturation on the low end. Unfortunately, the low end will be WAY too loud, so you simply crank the low end back down on the second EQ, and voila! You retain the nice warm tube compression on your lows, it will really punch through the mix, without artificially raising the volume of the bass frequencies and creating mud.

    You touched on it with the hi-hat example, but I cannot overstate the value of hi and lo pass filtering! If you don’t need it, get rid of it! You can’t have every instrument in your mix blasting out from 20-20k, you will just have a huge mess. You probably don’t need anything higher than 10k on a kick drum, or lower than 150 Hz on a guitar. This leads me to my last tip:

    ALWAYS listen to the track in the mix. A lot of times a properly EQ’ed track will sound weak soloed. Conversely, you will often find that as soon as you get your kick drum sounding beautiful and full by itself, it sounds awful and oppressive with everything else. You need to take the whole mix into account when you are EQ’ing or you will drive yourself insane. This will keep you from overdoing it. As a side note, I would also like to add that sometimes fairly aggressive EQ’ing is the best option, particularly if you are mixing an improperly recorded track. Just use your ears, and if it sounds good then it is the right thing for that track.

  4. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Rob,

    Some good tips, thanks ! A few comments:

    - I boost and cut in equal proportions – YMMV.

    - “Sweeping” is something I do all the time. I’m more cautious about “feathering”, but it can work if instruments are fighting in the arrangement. Better to change what’s being played, though, and then just EQ everything to sound it’s best, in an ideal world.

    - Nice idea about the parallel EQ/distortion processing – I have a post planned on this.

    - I only hi and low-pass if necessary, but they can be useful strategies.

    - Absolutely about listening in context – but solo-ing is also useful ! Balance is everything, as someone once said ;-)

    Thanks for reading and contributing !

    Ian

  5. Jess says:

    Thanks very useful

  6. Pablo says:

    dude, this was extremely useful, spechully the explanation on which bandwidth does what… its 2:35 in the morning and i cant really listen to my recording since there are people sleeping, but the way u described it, i can almost feel it without having to hear it… thank you from the bottom of my heart

  7. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hey Pablo, glad you found it useful ! Check out the interactive chart that I link to at the end as well, it’s VERY cool.

  8. Tyler Smith says:

    I like to boost around the 2khz range (ish) for kick drums. Find that it helps to add the illusion of more punch (as this is the freq range the hammer operates in,) without actually adding anything to the low end (250hz and lower.) Sometimes this is just what my kicks need to add presence, when I don’t want to muddy up the low end.

  9. Jake says:

    Thanks for this. All of your articles have made me take my pants off in celebration. I have since put them back on and am eager to get at some of my mixes.
    Cheers,
    Jake

  10. Ian Shepherd says:

    Thanks Jake, that’s a compliment I’ve never been paid before ! It was a little scary at first because here in the UK “pants” means underwear… but I see you’re from over the pond so that’s cool :-)

  11. Steve says:

    Here’s my favorite EQ trick of all:
    Let’s say that your snare is making this overtone that you do not care for. Like a combo between a boing and a resonance sound. This undesired sound (if you listen very carefully) makes a note or very close to a note. Hum that note to yourself, then walk over to the piano/keyboard and go up and down the keys until you find the note and octave that you’re humming. Ok, stay with me:
    Now that you know which note it is, you look it up on a “musical note frequency chart” like this one:
    http://www.intmath.com/trigonometric-graphs/music.php
    It tells you the EXACT frequency of your offending overtone/ring on your snare (or whatever sound source you apply this to) and then you simply dip with a very sharp Q that frequency on the snare drum, and that annoying tone has magically disappeared.
    If your offending tone is in between two notes, then you might need to sweep between the notes’ respective frequencies to find the problem.
    What makes this so great is that you can get rid of your problem without the rest of the track suffering from too much dip.
    I got this tip from a Bob Katz video here, and it’s worked wonders for me:

  12. Salad says:

    Hugely useful info, one or two little nuggets I’m itching to play around with – thanks! Great site, look forward to future posts.. Cheers

  13. Ian Shepherd says:

    Thanks, glad you like it ! Check out the “Best Of”… http://productionadvice.co.uk/best-of-mixing/

  14. john wronski says:

    wow — extremely use full thanks

  15. navarre says:

    Does anyone ever automate eq parameters? As you mention, a kick can sound beautifully EQ’s by itself, but in a mix it may muddy things up. But what happens during breakdowns where various elements come into and out of the mix? Won’t certain instruments sound awkward without their frequency complements there to fill in a given frequency range? Therefore, does it seem reasonable to automate a given EQ db setting to change with the arrangement of the song? This is something I’ve always wondered. Really helpful post.

    Thanks!

  16. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hello, and thanks for the question !

    Yes – I automate EQ sometimes – not so much on things like drums, but certainly guitars, vocals etc. The most common example for me is probably solos, for example. I always enjoy watching the fader automations on a big desk :-) You need to be careful not to make the changes too large, and reduce the contrast between sections too much, but it can certainly be a powerful technique.

    Ian

  17. Ivan says:

    What happens when you get two sounds, with close to identical frequencies? Which one do you cut or boost?

  18. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Ivan,

    Whichever sounds best :-)

    A little more helpfully, I would always opt to try cutting first, and see how it sounds, so if one is a boost and one is a cut – go for that one first. If you can give me a specific example I might be able to be more helpful. Possibly pan them to different parts of the mix, to stop them clashing ?

    Ian

  19. Simphiwe says:

    Thank you very much guys!
    You have no idea how many years it took me to learn EQ but still get confused.
    You summed it all up in just a few and clear words.

    I am in South Africa, helping kids get off crime through music but never had the time or money to go for audio training. I am definitely subscribing here.

    Very helpful tips.

    Simphiwe

  20. linton says:

    thanx guyz this helpful,
    correct me if i’m wrong, i think it also depends on what type of eq one maybe using shelving, graphic but full parametric is the best and requires more time

  21. gerald josh says:

    woo.. am gr8ful ian and others for ur teaching en contributions. i av learnt a lot en gud to put them to practice. i also wnt u to recomemd me the best audio sckul.

  22. linton says:

    gerald, i would suggest cape audio college, u can google it .

  23. adiblol says:

    Thanks for this post. I don’t have any formal education in sound engineering but I enjoy remastering bootlegs of local bands.

  24. Revolutionisttt says:

    Hey man, I’ve been trying to figure out good EQ settings for this new ASUS Ultrabook I got and this was of immense help. Taught me a bit about how EQs work as well, so that was a cool bonus.

  25. DJ X412 says:

    Hello guyz. You really helped me to fiqure out how EQ’s work. I spent a year trying to make my demo sound good and more professional but my mixdowns were so muddy that i coundn’t suggest what made them so dull. I went back to my first tracks to study every channel’s eq and applied your guides, then i found professional mixdowns was looking for. Now my album is gonna be released soon.

  26. Dennis says:

    Wow many thanks for all advice throughout the post and comments!! I’m relative new to producing but tips like these make life a lot easier… especially when you keep in mind “less is more” and use EQ to shape and not to overly boost everything. Also the different ranges and what they do, great great tips!!!

  27. Ian Shepherd says:

    That’s great news, glad it was helpful !

  28. Max says:

    SOUND is my LIFE!

  29. RJ says:

    Aww, Joe’s video is now private. :(

  30. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi RJ,

    Fixed – thanks for the heads-up !

    Ian

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