An equalizer – or EQ, for short – is a vital tool for music artists, creators, and producers who manipulate audio. If you’re new to the audio world, getting your head around equalization can be challenging. Consider this article a fine introduction to the question “What is EQ in music?”. We’ll define it, show you what the process is good for, and give you some tips on how to use it in the mixing and mastering process.
What is the meaning of EQ?
In this article, we’ll refer to equalization and EQ interchangeably. EQ is a condensed way of saying “equalization” or “equalizer”. If you’ve ever messed around with the tone controls of a car stereo in an attempt to make a song sound more bassy or more bright, you’ve essentially used an equalizer.
In simple terms, EQ is akin to the volume knob for a specific range of frequencies instead of the whole audio track.
Say something sounds a little too dark or muffled, like this:
You can work some EQ magic in BandLab Studio to boost the treble and bring the sound back to life. Here’s the transformation when you apply the EQ3-M effect module, along with Graphic EQ to the track:
What does EQ do?
Now that we’ve answered the question “what is EQ in music”, it’s time to talk about what it actually does. EQs are go-to tools for music producers, capable of handling everything from broad tonal adjustments to finely-tuned frequency shaping.
Here’s a fun fact: the EQ was initially created over a century ago to address issues with phone lines. Over extensive physical distances, the signal on a phone line would degrade in different frequency bands, leading to an unnatural and garbled sound.
Once the EQ did its thing, the frequency response at the end of the line mirrored precisely how it started. They became equal, hence earning the name “equalizer.”
These days, we use EQ in music for myriad purposes. Too much low-frequency rumble muddling up a vocal track? EQ steps in to tidy things up. Guitars and vocals competing in the same frequency range, creating a sonic jumble? EQ gracefully nudges one aside. An irritating ring in the snare drum? EQ skillfully notches it out.
How to use EQ in mixing music
We use EQs at many points during a mix, but we often start equalizing in the earliest stages. Say you’re at the beginning of your mix and you’ve already adjusted the volume and the panning of instruments – your next consideration would likely be how to equalize audio effectively.
Start by questioning which instruments might be overlapping or overshadowing each other. Can you distinctly hear the kick drum, or is it getting drowned out by the bass? If the bass is overpowering the kick, your go-to move with EQ would be to carve out the frequency range in the bass that’s muffling the kick.
Let’s demonstrate this concept in the following example:
Here’s a loop where we can’t quite discern the kick drum because the bass is in the way. Let’s tweak things with BandLab’s EZ EQ! Slide that midband sweep to 161 Hz and give it a major dip.
Boom! Now, the kick is front and center, but that bass is still holding its ground. This is an example of how we might use EQ toward the beginning of the mix.
The basic controls of EQ
Typically, EQs come equipped with controls that empower you to tweak the following key parameters:
- Frequency: Pick the exact frequency you want to modify.
- Amplitude: Decide whether to boost or reduce the intensity of that chosen frequency.
- Q: Determine how many additional frequencies are affected by your selection. A narrow Q hones in on the chosen frequency with pinpoint accuracy, like a laser. Meanwhile, a wide Q encompasses a broader range of frequencies, casting a wider net.
Additive vs. subtractive EQ
You have the option to either boost specific frequency bands or reduce their gain. Increasing the gain is known as additive EQ, as you’re incorporating more of the frequencies you want to emphasize into the overall balance. On the flip side, when you trim frequency bands, it’s called subtractive EQ because you’re subtracting undesirable frequency content.
Consider this when deciding between additive and subtractive EQ:
- Additive EQ helps a sound to stand out and feel more distinct.
- Subtractive EQ generally helps a sound sit better in the mix, or eliminate more bothersome aspects.
Timbres and frequencies
EQ can be applied broadly for general adjustments or with meticulous precision. In broader strokes, EQ is employed to modify the timbre of a sound. As you delve deeper into EQ settings, you start influencing individual frequencies within the sound, rather than altering the overall makeup of the sound itself.
This brings us to the discussion of timbre versus frequency. Timbre (pronounced TAM-bruh) encapsulates the distinct tonal quality of a sound – the characteristic that sets a saxophone apart from a clarinet, for instance. Frequency is more scientifically grounded, representing the rate at which a sound wave oscillates through space.
Think of it this way: a saxophone’s sound is made up of many many individual frequencies. Yet, we have to get really creative with EQ settings before we cease to identify the saxophone as a saxophone – and that’s because of its innate timbre.
For adjusting timbre in BandLab, top EQ choices include the EQ3-M, the Graphic EQ, and the EZ EQ. These tools are workhorses, adept at shaping the tonal balance and carrying out subtractive cleaning work.
The EZ EQ will also work in a more exact, frequency-specific manner. Or, you can get creative with the Multi Filter.
The Multi Filter will grab onto specific areas of the sound and boost or cut frequencies to a very specific degree. This is one to use if you hear a pronounced and announcing ring in your snare drum, or an aggravating nasal quality in a vocal.
What can EQ get me in my mixes?
When exploring what is EQ in music, you’ll find that it opens up a range of possibilities that allow for:
- Addressing tonal problems within a single instrument.
- Resolving instances where one instrument masks or dominates over another.
- Bringing sounds into closer proximity to enhance their presence.
- Pushing sounds farther away from us for a desired spatial effect.
- Removing low-frequency bumps or high-frequency hiss from a sound.
- Eliminating hiss from a recording.
- Clearing out low-frequency rumble from a recording.
- Rectifying annoying resonances that persist over time.
Overview of an EQ’s frequencies
Our ears are capable of hearing frequencies from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. That’s a huge spectrum! To simplify things in music production, we often categorize frequencies into distinct ranges, making them easier to recognize and manage.
Here’s a handy guide to frequency ranges:
- Sub-bass (20 Hz – 40 Hz)
- Bass (40 Hz – 200 Hz)
- Low-mids (200 Hz – 500 Hz)
- Midrange (500 Hz – 2,000 Hz)
- Upper-mids (2,000 Hz – 4,000 Hz)
- Presence (4,000 Hz – 6,000 Hz)
- Brilliance (6,000 Hz – 10,000 Hz)
- Air (10,000 Hz – 20,000 Hz)
Each of these ranges plays a distinct role in shaping a track’s overall sound. Knowing how to balance them is essential for achieving a crisp and well-defined mix. The best way to master this is through hands-on experience, so dive into the mixing and mastering process and start experimenting!
BandLab shines in its simplicity when it comes to automating your effects. Easily altering any parameter over time allows you to craft an evolving, dynamic effect, adding loads of drama and movement to your composition.
Automation with EQs is a breeze. You can leverage them to craft filter sweeps – an enticing effect that injects ear-pleasing nuances and movement into the mix.
Just hit the A key on your keyboard, and voila, your automation lanes are at your fingertips. Navigate a dropdown menu in the tracks to effortlessly access and select any parameter for automation.
Drawing in your automation is easy! Click nodes with your mouse until it looks something like this:
Automating the Multi Filter can get you a cool sound. Here’s an example:
You hear that peaking resonance moving across the frequency range? That’s an EQ being automated over time.
Common mistakes in equalizing audio
While equalizing audio can be a powerful way to shape your mix, it’s easy to make mistakes that can actually hurt your song. Here are two common pitfalls when you use EQ in mixing:
It’s tempting to keep boosting and cutting different frequencies to carve yourself the perfect sound, but too much EQ can lead to a harsh or unnatural result. Use EQ sparingly and only when necessary.
When you’re equalizing a track or channel, it’s important to listen in the context of the entire mix. Soloing a track can make it sound great on its own, but it might not fit well in the mix. When you EQ in solo, you’re not hearing how the instrument or voice sounds in the context of the mix. This can lead to over-EQ’ing, as well as a track that sounds out of balance. Instead, always EQ in the context of the mix.
So, what is EQ in music? It’s the secret to nailing a flawless mix. Get a grip on the basics, and you’ll have the power to shape a more refined and balanced sound. A final word of advice: Don’t stress! Trust your ears and be flexible about making adjustments for the optimal sound on each track.
About the author
Nick Messitte is a New York-based writer, mastering engineer, mixing engineer, post engineer, composer, producer, musician, and weapons-grade plutonium smuggler.