Modern Approaches: Equalization

September 1, 2015

In the modern era of audio production, there is certainly no shortage of tools available to those who seek to sculpt sound. But even amongst the ever-growing array of digital signal processors, analog recreations and beefy hardware units that can manipulate audio into almost any shape and size, the most fundamental tool in a producer’s kit still remains equalization.

In its simplest form, an equalizer is a unit that gives users the ability to boost or cut a range of audio frequencies within a given sound source. From there, equalizers can take on a number of different forms: graphic EQs allow for gain adjustments at set frequencies, high and low-shelving EQs allow for a rise or drop in frequency response from a given point to the end of the audio spectrum, low-pass and high-pass filters cut off all content above or below a selected frequency, and parametric equalization (the most common and versatile form of EQ) allows users to independently adjust the center frequency, relative bandwidth (or “Q”), and gain.

The “proper” way to utilize equalization within one’s own audio productions is often something that is hard to define and constantly a subject of debate.

An essential tool since the earliest days of audio recording and radio broadcasts, equalizers have evolved alongside the rise of multi-track recording in the 1950s and 1960s to the more recent proliferation of DAWs, increasingly giving audio engineers more precise ways to focus in on ever-more specific frequency ranges, and allowing them to surgically remove portions of a given sound source (known as subtractive EQ) or boost finely selected portions of audio with increased gain (known as additive EQ).

Still, even with decades of use, the absolute “proper” way to utilize equalization within one’s own audio productions is often something that is hard to define and constantly a subject of debate, with specific techniques varying between artists. In that spirit, we have compiled thoughts from an array of producers who may or may not use equalization in the most “correct” fashion, but have instead developed unique methods to applying EQ to their work. From those who learned their craft piece-by-piece in their bedrooms to those who have sought out more professional training, a number of budding and established producers have kindly offered up some insight into their own personal philosophies and approaches to using equalization.

John Barera
(Boston - Supply Records, Dolly)

I try to approach music production in the most simple, non-intrusive way possible, and for me EQ is essential to sculpting sound. I use EQ on every element of a track and the first thing I ask myself is “Can the kick drum be felt properly?” I make sure that the very lowest frequencies in the track are cut on every instrument except the kick drum, and then EQ rest of the instruments so they each have their own specific place in the audio frequency spectrum. There will always be some overlap, but I don't want sounds to interfere with each other frequency-wise and this subtractive EQ approach has given a nicer clarity to my mixdowns.

Avalon Emerson
(Berlin - Spring Theory, Icee Hot)

I’ve been making a conscious effort to try and silo off my time between building and cutting. In the first hour or so when I lay down the main meat and idea of a song, I don’t want to muddy my thinking with how to carve out a snare in the mix when I’m not even sure I need it there in the first place. Then once I’m pleased with the arrangement, I take a break for a while and get to chopping and polishing.

Avalon Emerson - Pressure

I use EQ on most every sound in my tracks. Why not? I split out some of the more important elements, like kicks, into multiple tracks for separate EQing or compression. For instance, I’ll take a lead synth sound and separate it into a bass and a mid/high track as well – one moves air and the other dances around the upper harmonics. This is also nice because it allows you to use one of them as a sidechain source if necessary.

I mostly use (subtractive) attenuation for functional purposes like attenuating unnecessary lows in a hi-hat track. A while ago I realized that cutting things out in general usually results in a better end result and gain structure than boosting does. Though I also like to throw on a more musical passive EQ or harmonic exciters to make a few choice things sparkle.

(Berlin - Delft, Valence)

I use EQ religiously and almost universally. Every channel on every mix has some form of EQ, just on principle. Most of my EQ use involves cutting – even if it’s just the upper and lower edges of a sound, even if it’s the most perfect sounding instrument or take, there will always be something below or above your target sounds that can cloud other areas of the mix, so I cut wherever possible.

I rarely boost any signal unless I am really struggling to get something to behave differently in the mix than it did in tracking; anything more creative usually involves a more specifically-purposed filter.

Because I don’t look to EQs to add color or character, I only use digital units. I’ll choose different units when I want a specific curve or bandwidth: the UAD Cambridge and Sony Oxford plug-ins are nearly identical, and can pretty much serve any mix perfectly, while the Brainworx bx_digital V2 is my favorite plug-in for mid/side adjustment of a master bus. Other EQs like a Pultec style or Neve emulation are nice for a few cool tricks, but rarely offer the immediate functionality of a tight multi-band parametric unit.

(New York - Camp&Street, Boysnoize)

I use a lot of EQ, but not always for cleaning things up. My go to is the FabFilter Pro-Q, partly because of its transparent sound, but most of all because it has the ability to solo any band. Sometimes I’ll record myself using this function, in order to capture a very harsh filter-type effect. I think EQ can be easy to overuse, however – it can be irritating to hear so many producers separating everything to such an intense degree that it becomes sterile. I try to let my ears do the judging as much as possible, and to leave some dirt in there.

(New York City - Fool’s Gold, Grizzly)

With EQ, you can use it the way it’s meant to be used – to contain and cut out certain frequencies, things like that – or you can use it creatively, and that all just depends on the track and what is necessary. Generally speaking, I use EQ the way it’s meant to be used. I’ll do other creative things with my samples and process a lot of FX, and then I’ll use the EQ to reel it all in a little bit.

Brenmar feat. UNiiQU3 - Hula Hoop

I think to take advantage of the latest sound systems and the latest club systems, you have to know how to mix your songs. A good mix can make the difference between the crowd really going crazy or just going “Eh,” so I’m kind of obsessed with getting a really clean mix. A big part of that is cutting [unnecessary] low-end; I always take the low-end out of everything if it’s not supposed to have it. If it’s a synth or a high effect that occupies the mid-range and higher, it might not even sound like it has low frequencies, but throw an EQ on it and look at the graph, and chances are there are some low frequencies that don’t need to be there. If something is a higher sound, then you have to cut the lows because you then open up more room for the kick drum, and the kick drum – to me – in dance music and hip-hop is just about everything.

Likewise, if it’s a bassline or a kick, then you have to tame the highs too, otherwise they can be taking up extra headroom when it isn’t necessary. With all this, you just have to use your ears: if cutting too much of the kick suddenly affects your sound, swag or whatever you are going for, then you might need to bring a little bit more back in.

FaltyDL/Drew Lustman
(New York - Ninja Tune, Planet Mu)

My relationship with EQ changes all the time. I used to sculpt so much out of my tracks with EQs until a friend of mine asked me why I was doing that, so I stopped. Now, I try to make sure there aren’t many competing elements in tracks over certain frequencies. For instance, the kick drum [usually] shares a bit of the same frequencies as the bassline around 70 Hz, so you have to make room for that kick or else it will get muddy as fuck alongside the bassline. When I use samples though, I don’t want to get rid of too much of any frequency because then I will lose the atmosphere of the sample I chose; the room the sample was recorded in, the way it was mastered, all these elements make up the vibe of the track.

(Tokyo - Endless Flight, International Feel)

I try not to sculpt a track by EQ as much as possible. When I think I need EQ for some parts, in many cases the parts aren’t necessary themselves and so I then just exclude the part then. In the end, I rarely use EQ to change a sound extremely. I don’t usually use an EQ to add extra character to a sound, but sometimes I do, and in that case I use an EQ from my small Midas mixer or the Neve One plug-in from the UAD-2 package. In my opinion, almost all of software EQs are not cut out for boosting and changing frequencies extremely.

Ana Helder
(Buenos Aires - Cómeme)

When you have a lot of sounds that have the same tones in the low, mid and high frequency ranges at the same time, they can clash with each other, so EQ is very important to give every element their space in the master frequency range.

Also when recordings are too dirty or full of natural reverb, EQ can be useful to clean the sounds up. For most of my productions, I use Ableton EQ on almost every element, but if a composition is built only using plug-ins, the sound can already be pretty clear in general, so just maybe the kicks and bass would need a little touch of EQ to set their space.

(Gary - Planet Mu)

Equalization for me is a matter of feel. Yes, I use EQ, but where I use it depends on my hearing and whether or not I feel a certain sound needs it; it is definitely a trial and error process for me. In some cases, I may be trying to add or subtract [frequencies], but I never EQ for the same reason – the impact I am going for dictates that for me in any track.

Phil Moffa
(New York City - Butcha Sound Studios)

After levels and faders, EQ is the most important thing in terms of getting a mix to fit together nicely. I think clarity in a mix comes from removing as much as you can while still keeping the idea of what is there. That is also dependent on how complicated the mix is: if I am dealing with something that is only eight tracks, well then those eight instruments can be more full range. But when someone turns over something that is 56 tracks, I really have to cut frequencies out in order to allow for everything to be heard clearly.

Phil Moffa - Elevation

I always find that removing [frequencies] is one of the most important aspects of a mix, and I usually use a lot of filters on both ends of the spectrum. I think you should always be high-passing something that isn’t a kick drum or a bass, or something really low in the left-hand of a keyboard. You should be getting rid of the lows that sneak through via your sampler or turntable or what have you.

In recent times, I’ve become a fan of removing lots of low-mids from the equation. I think with something that appears to be a hi-hat, a brighter instrument, or just something higher up on the right-hand of the keyboard, there is still a lot of lower frequency content that can come through: noise from a turntable, noise from a cable, or just something inherent in a sample. Even if it may not be that apparent, there are a lot of sounds that carry a good deal of low frequencies with them, and that’s the zone where things can become muddy. Even if you remove a lot of low-mids from a synth or something whose fundamental [frequency] exists within that range, it’s [upper] harmonics will still give you an idea of what the notes are; so even if you carve a lot of the lower frequencies out of a chord or melody, they will still be present in the mix.

Matt Karmil
(Cologne - PNN, Endless Flight)

A broad part of my EQ spectrum comes from using different [types of] tapes and doing stuff with tape machines – I find that the tape does most of the work. When I do use EQ, I use it more for subtracting than adding: I’m not really boosting [frequencies] (except maybe on the master channel), so very often I’m cutting rather than boosting. I’m not obsessed with EQ, and I don’t have that many layers [in my tracks], so I don’t have to carve it up too much.

Natasha Kmeto
(Portland - Dropping Gems)

If I’m doing extreme sound design on something, that’s when I’ll start to bring in EQ. If it’s a sample I want to get the low-end out of or if it’s a synth that I want to get an extreme sound out of, I’ll get EQ involved, but for the most part, I save EQ for the end of the production process, when I’m doing the fine-tuning of mixing. At that point, I’m usually subtracting frequencies because I’ll have way too much low-end in certain sounds.

(Bristol - Livity Sound, Idle Hands)

I tend to hold off for as long as possible [before bringing EQ into the production process], as a large part of what I enjoy about making music comes from finding sounds that sit together without too much sculpting. I’ve worked with people before where a lot of the creative momentum has been lost playing about with EQ before the tune has even come together as a piece of music.

Once I’m happy with the direction of a tune and its arrangement, then I’ll start rolling of frequencies to try to free up a bit of space in the mix, and then go from there. I really like the Waves REQ series for this – it’s dead simple and it sounds pretty transparent to me (some EQ’s leave a horrible trace). I’ll eventually use EQ on every part [of a track], even if it’s just to cut off the low-end on a hat that otherwise sounds fine or scoop the muddiness out of a kick. I try not to do too much because I’m skeptical that changing the makeup of sounds in my home studio is always for the best! If something sounds tough, why fuck with it?

(Berlin - R&S)

We bring EQ into the process early on, in the actual building and creation of the sounds. If we’re synthesizing stuff, the EQ will be a part of making it all fit together. Usually the EQ process comes in pretty early, so that we can start fitting things together and allow us to just sculpt the sounds as well – some things sound better duller, so we’ll sculpt out a bit of the high-end, or we’ll use EQ to make things sound sharper. We use a lot of EQ in the sound synthesis stage. (Ian McDonnel/Eomac)

Because we use a lot of sounds [in our tracks], it requires a lot of EQ. With electronic music, it’s so much about the sound and the fit of the kick and the bass and all that sort of stuff, so I don’t think we could write a track without EQing throughout, we just wouldn’t feel inspired if we just waited to EQ at the end. (Dara Smith/Arad)

Palms Trax
(Berlin - Dekmantel, Lobster Theremin)

I used to be a lot more ruthless with EQing, but I think it led to an overall sound that I wasn’t too keen on; it’s quite nice to have a bit of a rich mid-range where things are overlapping from time to time. Having said that, I am quite meticulous when it comes to the low-end [of my tracks], and am not about this one-take business where the kick finally comes in and resembles a time-stretched growl from Return of the Jedi’s Sarlacc Pit. I always make sure to EQ reverbs on busses too, it makes them a lot more effective and keeps everything a bit brighter.

Anthony Parasole
(Brooklyn - Ostgut Ton, The Corner)

Equalization is a powerful tool to get your music to do two things: achieve highest sonics and also give your sound “character.” In my case, I like to EQ throughout the recording process using my board. I have an Allen & Heath GL, which has a pretty responsive 4 band, 2 sweep EQ with a 100 Hz high-pass filter [on each channel], so I EQ as close as possible throughout the recording process.

Anthony Parasole - Percutere

I also use a lot of filters, so as I’m selecting my synth sounds for leads, I usually don’t spend a lot of time selecting, because between EQing and filtering you can basically make it sound how you like. I have a Waldorf miniworks 4 pole filter and an Akai MFC42 filter, and I also use the FabFilter ProQ 2 plug-in to shape and cut a wave.

Ras G
(Los Angeles - Stones Throw, Leaving)

I use drum machine samples, so a lot of times, I pre-EQ the sounds coming into the sampler. But there are also times that I am just in the moment and sampling whatever un-EQ’d audio I have – field recordings and things like that – just to give it that raw sound or feeling. The only EQ I rely on is the EQ in my GarageBand, where I record all my beats and ideas into for a final mix.

John Roberts
(New York - Brunette Editions, Dial)

As I like to have lots of ideas playing simultaneously in my music, I find equalization to be essential in making all of the elements fit together frequency-wise, without overlapping. This always feels a bit like shaving off the blurred edges of puzzle pieces in order to get them to fit together into a clearly visible picture in the end.

I mostly use very rudimentary EQ plugins, but I use them on almost everything. I use 10-band EQs, 5-band EQs, low-pass/high-pass filters, and a really basic graphic EQ made by Apple that comes standard with OSX. I’ve never tried using any outboard equalizers as I like to work quickly and to be able to A/B any number of options, trying them on like clothes and throwing them aside if they don’t fit.

On a different note