Most Common Equalization Errors

Gaining good skills with equalizing is, of course, impossible without hours of practicing. But everybody is always impatient not willing to endlessly tweaking the knobs. That's why the newcomers go for an 'easy way to do it' and that 'easy way' often plays a bad trick upon them in the end.
In the Internet, you may find thousands of advises like "Equalize the vocals like this" or "Equalize the guitar like that", etc. Some of those advices are very specific saying 'cut off the frequencies around 1 kHz' or 'emphasize the frequencies in 400 Hz diapason'. But all those advices are too general and could only harm your work because you'll just turn the knobs blindly.

Let's start from just the opposite. We suggest you to learn the most common errors made while equalization, to start building your work on the right grounds and to further continue gaining the priceless experience.


The eight most common errors:

1. Emphasizing High Frequencies On All Tracks

This is a common error of a beginner producer. We listen to our favorite songs which sound bright to us. Of course, the first solution that comes to our mind is to increase high frequencies on all of the tracks or (what's worse) on the master bus. But such a decision makes the mix only to sound sharp and ear-tiring.

In fact, you have to increase high frequencies in only 1 or 2 selected tracks for the mix to sound brighter, not increasing the highs of the whole mix.

First, you need to level up the volumes of your mix and of the reference track. To do it, we'd suggest using special loudness meters measuring RMS and LUFS. Having done so, you'll be able to more precisely assess the level of high frequencies, because unjustified increase of the overall volume of the mix will make you wrongly perceive the high frequencies as sounding louder.

Then start working on the vocals, if you have them in the mix. Emphasize the frequencies around 16 kHz, it will make the vocals sound brighter. If, apart from the vocals, you have a soloing instrument, try increasing this same range on this track too and check frequencies around 10 kHz on overheads and crashes.


2. Cutting low frequencies for no reason

Sometimes there is an unnecessary rumble hidden in the low frequency range. You can solve this problem using a high-pass filter with a cutoff frequency of about 100 Hz. Inexperienced sound engineers often use this analogy and cut the frequencies below 100 Hz in all other tracks. And it's a mistake, because in this range there can also be useful frequencies important for the processed timbres.

First, you need to understand in what context you are using the specific tracks. If, for example, you have a trumpet which has a lot of low frequencies, then in a dense mix that has vocals, percussion and bass, the trumpet may conflict with other important instruments responsible for the low frequency range. However, if you record a wind quartet where the trumpet is the lowest instrument, by cutting those low frequencies, you can easily deprive the mix leaving it without so important bass.

Secondly, do not cut off the bass with a too sharp filter, otherwise you risk adding unnecessary distortion and receiving unnatural sound. Adding a boost with a bell filter just below the cutoff frequency can slightly smoothen the situation.


3. EQ-ing in Solo

This is probably the most popular mistake. You can find lots of information about it in virtually any book or article on sound engineering. If you are reading this article, then, most likely, you have already heard this advice.

But, if we all know this basic rule for a long time, why it's so hard to follow it?

The fact is that we subconsciously try to optimize the work. We think - why should we be simultaneously chopping a cucumber and tomato, if we can chop them one after another and only then mix them in a salad? But the problem is that what we're doing is we're preparing a tasty dish, not mechanically chopping vegetables.

Equalization could be of two types - the artistic and technical. If you want to edit the timbre of the sound itself, then equalize it while soloing the track. If you need to mix vocals with synthesizers, then play both tracks in solo. The best solution here is to group those tracks and then work on EQ-ing of that group.


4. Ignoring Dynamic EQs

This item may seem to be for the attention of advanced users, but everything is much simpler. You just need to understand if the problem you are trying to solve is a permanent one for the entire song, or it appears only in certain parts of the track?

Here is an example of a wiser use of a dynamic equalizer: let's say, in the vocals you have a resonance in the range from 2 to 3 kHz. If you try to use a static equalizer in that range, you will kill the "brilliance" of the vocals.

Instead, use a dynamic EQ adjusting it to work only in the loud fragments where you hear the resonance.
5. Using EQ as a Troubleshooter Tool

Sometimes it happens that the sound you process doesn't meet your requirement at all. And then you start the "surgery": you use dozens of filters to cut out all the resonances and change the sound character. Eventually, you change the sound leaving nothing of the original signal, but the end result is unlikely to be satisfactory.

In most cases, if you see that the sound has lots of problems, it's worth replacing it with a different one. If, for example, you want the hi-hat to more distinctively cut through the mix, do not immediately start tweaking the EQ, try to change the pitch of the sound itself.

If you work on frequency conflicts, first check if the problem can be solved by better panning or changing the signal levels, and only then proceed with EQ-ing.


6. Using Only One EQ on a Track

Here we'll talk about compression a little bit. The compressor narrows the dynamic range of the signal which makes quiet parts sound louder and vice versa.

Now let's assume that when mixing we have equalized the sound that seemed to us too dark and unclear and added a few dB in the high mids. In the classical chain of effects, the equalizer goes before the compressor. But the compressor was tuned before the changes in the equalizer, that is, all the settings may no longer be applicable, because the very incoming signal has changed.

To avoid this error, use one EQ before the compressor and another one after it. The first one will be responsible for cutting out all unwanted resonances and frequencies, while the second one will be used to artistically build the sound timbre


7. Working With No Breaks

This paragraph may serve as a general recommendation for any working process, but, in the case of EQ-ing, it's even more important.

Our ears very easy get used to a bad sound. After hours of work, no matter how hard you try, you won't be able to objectively assess the sound of the mix or the track you process. The more often you give rest to your ears, the easier it will be for you to make the right decisions.

It doesn't mean you need to make breaks every 5 minutes, because you may easily lose the working mood. Just try to find the right balance between working and resting. We'd suggest to start with this schedule: make 10-minute breaks after every 50 minutes of work


8. Not Using Reference Tracks

Reference tracks are your excellent assistants throughout the entire musical production, from drafting the original idea to final mastering. Using them during the equalization is the part of the process.

For example, you might like your piano sounds, but the whole mix sounds muddy. If you listen to a reference track of a similar musical style with a similar set of instruments, you may notice that the piano there sounds great within the context of the entire mix, but it has much less high or low frequencies compared to your mix. Using this principle, you can one-by-one reassess your approach to any sound.

Reference tracks can be of a great assistance if you're pressed by time and don't have the opportunity to put your work on hold. In such situations listening to a commercial mix may bring your perception back to the norm. But, still we suggest you to afford making at least a couple of minutes breaks.


As usual, we advise you not to mechanically follow these recommendations, try each of them on your material. Anyway, we are sure these tips can be your starting point in such a difficult task like music mixing.
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