The 6 Most Common EQ Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)
The music production journey is filled with ups and downs. It starts out as a creative process where we blindly throw ideas into our DAW. Some are great, others not so much. However, it doesn’t matter—it’s new and it’s fun!
As time goes on, our feelings and focus begin to change as we notice there’s a gap between our own music and the “professional quality sound” that we hear from the artists we look up to.
Don’t panic. This is extremely common.
At Cosmic Academy, we speak to thousands of applicants every year and “professional quality sound” is one of the most common struggles amongst producers. So much so that we made this a top priority in our artist development program!
Quality comes down to having a strong understanding in the basic tools (volume, EQ, compression). An equalizer (also called EQ) is an integral tool that isolates certain frequencies and boosts them, lowers them, or leaves them unchanged. EQ can be used in the sound design, mixdown, and mastering stages.
Below are 6 common EQ mistakes producers make (and how to avoid them). These tips can be applied to any EQ plugin and in any DAW (Ableton, Logic Pro, FL Studio, Pro Tools, etc).
1. Where you put it
We must be mindful when processing our sounds–order matters! Imagine a synth sound that first runs through an EQ to cut out the low end frequency. Then the signal hits a distortion plugin, followed by a compressor. Although the low end was taken out of the signal at the beginning, that doesn’t mean it will remain “removed” throughout the entire processing chain. The distortion (which came afterwards) might have reintroduced those frequencies back into the signal.
Something to keep in mind: there’s nothing stopping us from having multiple EQ’s cleaning up our sound along various points in the chain.
2. Stuck in Solo
The point of mixing is to balance tracks and make them sound great together. It’s easy to lose context of how an individual sound will fit in the mix if we’re only listening to it in “solo” mode. These moves rarely hold up when all the other elements in the mix are brought back in. Use solo mode to clean up, and shape, sounds. Don’t get stuck and lose sight of the bigger picture when mixing.
3. Fixing on Group / Master
EQ can be used on a group or a master channel, but try not to use this stage to fix “individual” problems. Imagine a scenario where there’s a sound causing volume buildup at 300 Hz and we try to fix it by putting an EQ on the master channel. Is the problem solved? Maybe, but we might have also just caused several NEW problems. Every single sound in the mix is now being lowered in volume at 300 Hz (even though only one sound was causing the problem). The smarter move is to make sure we address EQ problems on an individual basis first.
4. Not Having a Purpose
Mixing isn’t “random” or “luck”. Our moves should have intentions behind them. They need a purpose. We hear something that doesn’t sound right, and we try to figure out how to solve it. Don’t get into a habit of making EQ moves because a “tutorial said so.” What are the odds that our mix, or sound, is the exact same as theirs? Slim! There’s no one way to EQ a sound (vocal, drum, bass, etc). Every mix is different. We need to use our ears and decide what needs to be done. THIS is what leads to quality sounding mixes.
5. Afraid to Push It
Don’t be afraid to push it! Sometimes we might need to boost more than we’re comfortable doing. It might not “look right”. Don’t forget – it doesn’t matter how it looks, but how it sounds. This comes in handy during sound design. There are no rules in this case. EQ can make a big difference shaping sounds.
6. Using EQ for Level / Volume
Is there an element that’s not loud enough in the mix? Before reaching for an EQ, see if a simple level (volume) adjustment can fix the problem. Relying on EQ to adjust volumes will lead to headaches down the road. Specifically, it can cause problems with gain staging and a lack of headroom.