Equalizers have always been one of the main tools that are used in mixing and mastering. Their role is to control the harmonic spectrum of our sound. An Equalizer employs various types of filters to attenuate, boost or remove a range of frequencies. The common DAW Equalizer is a parametric equalizer that would have a few filters that can be applied and controlled independently of each other. Thus we can use these filters to control multiple frequency bands at the same time. In this article, we will take a look at 7 steps that will help us to bypass a lot of confusion and get good results. These techniques are not absolute in their applications. Feel free to experiment with these tips to get different results.
It is important to EQ out all the low rumble of certain instruments with a high pass filter. In the picture above we can see an Equalizer with a high pass filter engaged, filtering out all the frequencies below 140Hz on a mid-frequency dominant percussion hit. This will help our sound sit better in the overall mix because the unwanted low frequencies will not clash with our bass or kick. Making our low end as tight as possible helps us to achieve better results on mediocre speakers that struggle to produce bass frequencies cleanly. Background vocals, claps, guitar melodies can muddy up our lows and low mids if we don't roll off their low end. Moderation is key here we do not want to overdo this bass roll-off. Check where the fundamental frequency of your instrument lie. If we filter out our fundamentals then the character of our sound will change. If this is not desired then only filter up to the point where you can hear the signal audibly changing from there onwards.
Step 2: Find troublesome frequencies and remove them
A sound will usually not have nice sounding frequencies all across the frequency spectrum. There will be certain frequencies that create harshness or muddiness in our tone. If we look at the images above, the Equalizer at the top is highlighting unpleasant frequencies in our signal. In the EQ on the bottom, we are attenuating these frequencies in a controlled manner to make them quieter in the mix. To detect problematic frequencies you will need to use a bell curve with a high Q value so that we can pinpoint them and control them without affecting other frequencies. You can always lessen the Q value to broaden it once we have identified them. We need to keep ourselves in check because it is very easy to overdo the number of cuts. This might lead to a thin-sounding tone, lacking in character.
As a general rule of thumb, cuts work better than boosts in an Equalizer for many reasons. Boosting can harm our headroom if we don't have much to spare initially. In that case, we would have to turn the volume of our signal down. Boosting can also add distortions and artifacts while reducing the resolution when pushed. Provided we have enough headroom, it is wise to boost with a lower Q value so that the frequencies are boosted along with their neighboring frequencies, giving us a more natural-sounding result. Cutting with a broad Q does not work as well. A wide-cut can attenuate a lot of frequencies in our mix that are required for the character of the sound. It can also make our instrument much quieter in the mix. As a result, narrow EQ cuts work much better as it preserves the tonal characteristics of our signal.
Step 4: Don't let high-frequency harshness get too overwhelming
Certain instruments do not require top-end presence in our mix. Sub-bass for example does not require an abundance of high frequencies. A lot of noise can creep into our mixes if we do not control the top end of every instrument. Clearing out the highs will make space for our cymbals, hi-hats, and crashes. No listener never appreciates ear-piercing sounds in a song. Using a low-pass filter in every situation is also not a feasible solution because a scenario might arise where the maintenance of the tonal characteristic of a signal would mean that we cannot use a low-pass, as the same time the sound might be conflicting with perhaps a hi-hat; in that case, we would need a high shelf to attenuate the high-end of our sound, while not completely eliminating it.
As we can see in the image above, we are using a high shelf to attenuate the high mids and highs of the signal. We are not using a low pass because then the frequencies from 3KHz to 5KHz might be removed. This is the area in the spectrum where a very important tonal characteristic is lying, that is why we wanted to preserve it.
Different types of Equalizers have different characteristics. Our stock EQ plugin sounds absolutely different from a plugin emulation of an EQ. Instead of using different types of curves on a single EQ, you can do the narrow cuts with your stock Equalizer and your wide boosts with plugin emulation. This technique can add a lot of subtle details to our sound.
In the images above, we are using the first Equalizer to do all the correctional work, while the second EQ is just gently boosting the top end overall so the signal is more present in the mix.
Step 6: EQing on the Bus
Equalizers can add a similar sound profile to a group of instruments that are being sent to a bus. This technique helps us to maintain the tonal characteristics of each layer/instrument along with adding a similar overall frequency spectrum so that they sound related to each other and work better in the mix. EQing your FX bus is also important so that you can control any low-end issues or frequency masking issues with your dry sounds. Automations work great on Bus EQs because it adds a layer of extra tone sculpting abilities. For example, we can have a higher presence for our vocals in the chorus and then we can roll back the presence in the other sections of the song.
As you can see in the image above there is an EQ placed on the drum bus that is being used to boost and attenuate certain frequencies, so everything in the group sounds better in relation to the other instruments. The change in the EQ is very mild (less gain and low Q value) because we do not want to drastically change the sound of our drums. Think of this EQ as a Fine-tuning EQ which will help us to set the right values.
Step 7: EQing your FX
A reverb placed on a return track can make your instruments/drums sound muddy. Adding an EQ on the return after your Reverb can help us attenuate the problematic frequencies, thus making space for our dry sounds. Similarly, you can use your EQ as an insert FX after distortion in your tack to control any nasty frequencies being added. You can also experiment with adding your EQ before the FX to shape the sound going in. This can be useful to sculpt a signal going into perhaps an autotune effect so that only the required frequencies are tuned. This will greatly increase the accuracy of your Autotune plugin.
In the images above, you can see that we have added an EQ after our reverb. This gives us an extra level of control and sculpting opportunities for our sound.
Delays keep our production from sounding boring. Delays create an echoing effect according to a set delay time and feedback control. The delay time determines the space between the repetitions of our signal in the echo and the feedback controls how long these repetitions last. In this article, we will look at a few tips with delays to create detail and liveliness in your track.
1. Sidechaining the Delay
Delays like reverbs can easily create overlap among two melodic phrases in a performance. If this overlap is not intentional then it might create dissonance or ruin the clarity of the phrase. A simple compressor side-chained to our main lead inserted after the delay can resolve this problem. In this case, the delay will duck under the main lead when notes are being played and the delay level will swell up when there is a silence in the playing. We can sculpt the swell of our delay using the release of the compressor.
In the image above, we are using the sidechain compressor to make the main bell melody clearer and then adding a slow-release so the delay has almost a fade-in effect.
There might be a situation where we are trying to use a delay to add some subtle detail to our sound. These details can get easily lost in a busy mix. Using a compressor on our delay helps us to add more presence to the delay tail by lowering the threshold and adjusting the ratio as required. Always remember to use your ears and not overdo the fine-tuning. Another situation that comes to mind is when we have a delay with high feedback but the decay ends a few beats before the next section begins. You can use a compressor here to slightly increase the amplitude of your delay tail so that we can hear it sustain to the next section in the mix.
In the image above we are compressing the delay tail of some glitchy blips and bloops to make it more present in the mix, especially in the busier sections.
3. Filtering the Delay
This tip will hold for most delays and reverbs. When we feed the full harmonic spectrum of our sound into the delay input, a lot of problematic frequencies that were previously quite in the mix might get boosted. If we are applying a delay on our drum loop to create an interesting groove, then you should use a highpass filter pre-delay so that all the lows are prevented from going into our delay. This will keep our track clean and not throw off the groove because of the kick being affected by the delay. Similarly, we might want to tone sculpt our delay tail so that it stands out from the original sound in the mix. In that case, an EQ inserted post delay can help us achieve our goal. You can also use the internal pre/post EQ in your delay plugin, provided it has that feature.
In the image above we are sending a drum loop to delay inserted in a return track. As you can see we are using a highpass filter pre-delay to remove all the low and mid information being affected by the delay. Then we are also using a modulated bandpass filter provided in our delay to further shape our sound. This setup is being used to create subtle ghost notes to enhance the groove of our drum loop.
4. Using Multiple Delays
Delays can be timed according to a note duration or a frequency. Most mixes employ a few delays with different delay timings. This is done because a 1/4 note delay might sound good on our synths but it might create some unclear sounding overlaps on our vocals because of the way the phrases have been composed. Perhaps a 1/8 note delay would sound much better on the vocal. In this situation, we will require two separate delays, one with a 1/4 note setting and the other with 1/8 settings. Another perspective can be using two delay timings on the same sound to create interesting patterns. We can have one delay timed at 1/4 note while the other at 1/6 which is a triplet note duration to create an interesting polyrhythmic groove (shown in the image below).
5. Creating Stereo Width with Delays
Delays can be used to create a stereo effect. If we are using multiple delays, we can pan these delays in various ways to add width to our sound. The simpler technique is to use a traditional delay plugin and have the left delay and the right delay set to trigger at different note durations. Another variation of this technique is to use the same delay timing in both left and right but offset them from each other by different values (both variations are represented in the image below).
Another technique for creating a stereo width effect with our delays is to use two similar-sounding delays and pan them left and right. You can achieve this by using two return tracks, hard-panned left, and right or an audio effect rack with a delay in each chain. Then we can pan one chain hard left and the other hard right.
One more simple technique for creating stereo width with our delay is simply using a ping pong delay. In a ping pong delay, the first repetition will occur in the left channel and the next repetition on the right.
6. Adding Delay Throws
Delays are often used to fill up empty spaces in a mix. One common technique for filling up space is a delay throw. We do this effect by inserting a delay in a return track and then automating the level of our delay send to emphasize the last note or word in performance perhaps in a pre-chorus leading up to the chorus. This will create a smooth delay swell and the word on which we raised the send level will ring out in the mix, reinforcing the meaning and filling up some empty space at the same time. You can use automation curves to really sculpt the volume envelope of your throw.
7. Using a Reverb on the Delay
Sometimes the repeats created by our delay can sound dry or lack a sense of space. Using a reverb in conjunction with our delay can be very useful here. The reverb adds ambiance to our delay repetitions and puts them in the same spatial environment as our original sound provided we are using the same reverb for both. You can directly insert a reverb plugin after your delay or you can also send the signal from the delay return to a reverb return by enabling the delay return to send control (you will have to enable it first by right-clicking in Ableton).