A common question that students ask is, “How do I use EQ? What’s the best way to EQ each instrument in my mix?” Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to this question. Unlike a compressor plug-in, most EQ plug-ins don’t have presets—if only it where this simple. Instead, EQ curves vary from mix to mix, and from track to track. Even the same instrument, recorded during the same session, but in a different song, will be treated differently. This is because no one instrument is ever heard in a vacuum, and every arrangement is unique. Consequently, each mix requires its own set of individual EQ curves to make it sparkle and shine.
That said, here’s the rub. The secret to efficient EQ processing is twofold: an ability to hear the frequencies that you want to change, and a working knowledge of the EQ controls with which to do the job. Both of these orders are easily accomplished by themselves, it’s putting them together that can be challenging.
In order to accurately hear your music you must have a good monitoring system, professional studio monitors, and, preferably, more than one set of speakers. (See my earlier blog on Setting Up Multiple Monitors for Better Mixing.) Your monitors must be positioned properly in your room and your room should be tuned to achieve the best possible listening environment. (I’ll discuss how to tune your room in a future blog.) The bottom line is this, if you can’t hear what you’re working on because all you own for monitoring is a pair of headphones and computer speakers, you can’t expect to become an EQ master.
Next, you’ll need to understand all of an EQ processor’s parameters. For example, the difference between Frequency and Q controls, and when to use a high-pass filter versus a low-shelf EQ. Such details are explained very nicely in the PDF document that comes with Pro Tools 7.4, and can also be downloaded directly from the Digidesign Web site, the DigiRack Plug-Ins Guide (version “v74”). (Some versions of the DigiRack Plug-Ins Guide without the “v74” appear to be missing the DigiRack EQ plug-in chapter.) Consequently, I won’t waste space trying to explain all of these parameters here, just read the manual.
Now, let’s jump to the chase, how to go about finding a particular set of frequencies in your signal that you can hear needs help (and you can hear this because you have properly set up monitors and a fine listening environment). My favorite technique is to insert a parametric EQ, and to use it like an EQ magnifying glass in order to find my troublesome frequencies. This is a technique that has been in use ever since the invention of parametric EQ, so I’m sure it has several other names, but I call it the “magnifying EQ trick.” Here’s a video I made on how the process works.