Equalization | Home Recording Basics

In the last installment of our Home Recording Basics series, we discussed how to best prep your tracks for the all important mixing process. Mixing is an art form that takes years of dedication and practice to learn and develop, and while it'd be impossible to cover every nuance of mixing in detail, the next set of posts in this series will give basic overviews of different mixing tools at your disposal.

Today, we're starting with an exploration of equalization.

An equalizer, or EQ, affects the tone of a signal by boosting or cutting different frequencies. In many ways, it is the best and most vital mixing tool of all. It can fix problems from the recording process, create separation between instruments, and even be used as a special effect.

Typically, EQs are broken into multiple frequency ranges or bands that control the low, low-mid, midrange, high-mid, and high-frequency ranges.

EQ Controls

Most EQs have three basic controls: frequency select, gain control, and "Q" or quality.

Frequency Select: This allows you to select the frequency you want to manipulate with that particular band. Sometimes this option is limited by the band it controls, meaning the low band may only control 20Hz-500Hz, the mid band 200Hz-3kHz, and so on.

Gain Control: This lets you control the gain of the selected band/frequency. You can add or "boost" a frequency by turning the gain up, and cut or "attenuate" a frequency by turning the gain down.

“Q”: Q stands for quality, and it controls the slope of your EQ curve, which affects the overall shape and sound. A high Q value makes the band focus on a specific frequency, while a low Q value affects a wider range of frequencies. However, this effect varies based on the EQ shape you're using.

EQ Shapes

EQs come in many different shapes, and they each have their own unique effect on the overall sound.

Filter: A filter is the most basic form of EQ. It removes all of the frequencies above or below the selected point. A high-pass filter (HPF) cuts all of the low end, while a low-pass filter cuts all of the high end.

High Pass Filter

Shelf: A shelf is like a more advanced filter. Instead of completely removing all of the frequencies above or below a certain point, they simply reduce them. For instance, if there’s a little too much low end in the kick drum, you could cut the low end by 3-6dB without completely removing it. Shelves can also be used to boost all of the frequencies above or below a certain point.

Shelf EQ

Bell: A bell is the most common and most versatile EQ shape. It looks just like all of those awful graphs from algebra class. They're used to boost or cut a frequency range based off of a selected point. It's also the most greatly affected by the Q knob.

Bell EQ

Types of EQs

No two EQs operate the same way, so take some time and get familiar with the EQs you have at your disposal. Learn how they work and what they excel at. Most importantly, learn what they sound like.

Fully Parametric EQ: Most digital EQs are fully parametric and feature fully selectable frequency, gain, and Q values for each band. Typically 5-9 bands.

Semi-Parametric EQ: Semi-parametric EQs are common to see on analog consoles. The mid bands have fully selectable frequency, gain, and Q values, but the high and low bands tend to use fixed valued. Typically 3-5 bands.

Fixed Frequency: Fixed frequency EQs only let you choose certain values. They're more for broad, additive EQ and don't work well for "surgical" EQ moves. Each band has a few selectable frequencies and fixed gain intervals. Typically 3-5 bands.

Graphic EQ: Graphic EQs are mostly used in live sound to surgically correct problem frequencies in the room. They usually have 32 fixed bands and no frequency or Q controls.

EQ Tips

Mixing is never the same twice. No two songs are alike, so you'll never make a good mix the same exact way you did the last time. While there are no magic tricks to getting a good mix, these guidelines are a good start.

  • Never “fix it in the mix”—get it right at the source! The better the recording, the better the mix.
  • Cutting frequencies makes things sound cleaner and clearer.
  • Boosting frequencies changes the way something sounds.
  • Cut Narrow, Boost Wide. If you're going to cut a frequency, use a narrow bell (low Q), and if you’re going to boost a frequency, use a wide bell (high Q).
  • Frequency Sweeping Method: If a certain frequency is sticking out but you're not sure which one, try boosting a band with a very high Q value and sweeping through the frequencies until the offending sound jumps out.

Your first step when EQing should be to clean up problem areas before focusing on boosting frequencies where needed. Try to make sure every instrument has its own natural space on the frequency spectrum.

It's going to take you a long time to feel confident using an EQ. At first you won't know where to start, you won't know what to listen for, and you won't know what sounds good. Just remember to use your ears, and trust your gut.

Learn more about how to record music at home on our Basics of Home Recording homepage.

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