Subtractive EQ Will Make Your Mixes Better

| Mixing, Plugins, Tips

The more you mix, the more you come to realize that EQ is your power tool for delivering great mixes. But like any tool out there (like a chainsaw for example) there is an optimal way to use it. Using a tool properly can wield great results, and the opposite is just as true. Today I make the case for using EQ “properly.”

To Boost Or Not To Boost, That Is The Question

If you’ve dabbled in audio for any length of time you likely are at least loosely aware of what an EQ is and how it works. EQs give you the ability to increase or decrease the volume of a specific frequency. This is great for sculpting your tracks and allowing them to sit well together in a complex mix.

But if you’re like me when I first got into mixing, you tend to boost a frequency more often than you cut. Be honest, you do. We all do this (at least at first) because it’s easier. We listen to a kick drum track that seems to be lacking in bottom end, so we grab our EQ and boost something around 80hz. Bam. Instant improvement, right? Not so fast.

If this is the way you work across the board, then after mixing an entire song with a few dozen tracks, you will have a sonic mess. If all you primarily do is boost frequencies, then in essence you’ve simply added more noise to your mix. You’ve turned up the volume of more and more frequencies. Not good.

Think Backwards With EQ

Rather than boosting frequencies you want to hear more of, why not work backwards and remove frequencies that are cluttering up your mix? This is the essence of subtractive EQ. Listen to your tracks to identify “problem” frequencies, ones that perhaps take away from the best frequencies of that track. In the previous example of our kick drum, instead of boosting some low end, we could just as easily cut out some mid range to low mid range frequencies, getting rid of mud and “opening up” our low end that is already there in the kick drum track.

Think of how many of us mix. We tend to want more bottom end as well as plenty of top end clarity in our mixes. So what do we do? We boost some low end and some high frequencies either on a track by track basis or on the master fader. In essence though, we could achieve the same sonic result by simply scooping out some mids. Only this way we take away noise instead of increasing it.

Subtractive EQ Takes More Patience

I admit that I always heard that many top pros prefer to cut with EQ rather than boost if they can. But I never actually followed the advice. Why? Because it takes way more patience and focus to look for what to cut rather than to boost what you want more of. Subtractive EQ is philosophy of mixing really. One in which you look at tracks not to simply improve them by adding, but to remove their weaknesses.

Is there then no reason to ever boost with EQ? No, I’m not saying that. If you do boost, the name of the game is subtlety. Make subtle boosts and remember that our ears get used to changes in audio quickly so we tend to over do things as our ears no longer “hear” our previous boost.

If you’ve never experimented with subtractive EQ, today is your day. Give it a shot on your next mix. Take more time to think and experiment by pulling out frequencies rather than boosting and moving on. I bet your mixes will improve big time.

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22 Responses to “Subtractive EQ Will Make Your Mixes Better”

  1. Simon

    Great post Graham!
    You’ve written about this before and I think this is super helpful!!

    However i think I’ve come to a point were I cut too much. On your re:think mixing video you talk some about boosting maximum 3dB at a time… Would you say that it could be good idea to do that when cutting as well?
    I’m starting to think that eq isnt a tool to shape a snare sound (for example) but for makin your recorded snare fit in the mix. The tone and character is basically all in the recording phase. Do you agree or is this a bad way to look at it?

    Reply
  2. Graham

    Simon – If you cut (or boost) too much things can sound un-natural. But how much is too much? No real rule. I certainly cut a lot more than 3db when necessary, but working in 3db chunks is a great rule of thumb.

    I agree that most of what EQ should be used for is to make your sounds fit together in the mix, not turn them into something they aren’t. Unless it’s for effect of course.

    Reply
  3. Sad Panda

    <3 subtractive EQ. I'm almost always pulling out stuff, and very rarely bumping stuff up. Usually it's to clear out a bunch of mud in the 200-400Hz range on individual tracks.

    Reply
  4. Andrew Bauserman

    Well said Graham. I hear the mantras: “cut more than boost”; for problems: “cut narrow, boost wide”; for shaping: “use wide Q or shelves”; and if a lot of EQ is needed, “try a different mic or mic placement”. You take the mantras one-by-one and give them 9 paragraphs on your blog, or a few minutes on your podcast, and articulate the reasoning *behind* them. Pellucid.

    FYI: A lesser issue in recording (compared to boosting the noise floor) is gain structure. Bringing in sources moderately “hot” (lower noise floor) and boosting a bunch of EQs, I find myself fighting harder not to overdrive the main and aux buses in a live or straight-ahead situation. Particularly by the third song when the guitarists and bassist turn up their amps to compensate for ear fatigue.

    If you are laying down straight-ahead (full-band at once) tracks, or recording and mixing a live show, it’s just another reason to apply subtractive EQ.

    Reply
  5. Tonya

    I’m fairly inexperienced when it comes to mixing and have been practicing using concepts covered in the Jumpstart series. I wonder about the order – is it recommended to EQ prior to using a Compressor or the reverse?

    Reply
    • Graham

      Tonya – You can do either order. It will change the sound slightly so experiment with each. I tend to EQ first, then compress, but others do the opposite.

      Reply
  6. Eric Jean

    Tonya, I find it works best to put an eq before the compressor when I’m cutting frequencies, and to put another one after the compressor when I’m boosting frequencies. So I will often end up with this chain: eq-comp-eq. Often I’m cutting using a low pass filter, and sometimes cutting low mids to clear out the mud in the mix. Low frequency information contains alot of energy which can cause your compressor to get overwhelmed, and not be triggered by frequency content that you’re more interested in compressing. After compressing, sometimes I boost the highs with a shelf especially for vocals and pianos or acoustic guitars; usually 10 kHz, but sometimes starting as low as 7khz. Hope this helps.

    Reply
  7. Chris

    A great topic as always, Graham. Maybe, if you have the interest, follow up with a video… comparing boosted versus cut versions of same song.

    Reply
  8. John

    Hi Graham,

    I think this is a great post. I’ve been dabbling in home recording over the past 5-7 years and found it always easier to reach for that gain knob. But, I only recently started cutting frequencies to bring out the shine in a mix. I also really learned a lot about the value of hi-pass filters on your website.

    Thanks for all the great advice!

    Regards,

    John

    Reply
  9. wheel

    is there a substantive difference between cutting frequencies, and say, raising the part you want emphasized by 3 db, and then lowering the fader for entire instrument by -3db?

    Reply
  10. N/A

    man,

    About the only thing you mention that had any worth was subtractive EQ is better than a boost. However, a boost is ok as well, depending on the circustance.

    Therefore,shut up with your 3dB BS formula. Mixing is not a recipe. You’re not there at someone else’s studio. Unless you are there listening, telling some to just cut in “blocks of 3″ is outright retarded. It also shows your not a pro.

    For ex: a mix might need as much as a 10dB CUT, or more if someone screwed up, or had /has poor monitoring at the time the mix was recorded, etc… Whatever the reason.

    However, you cannot tell someone how much to cut or add for that matter.
    YOUR EARS is the best piece of gear you’ll ever own. You have to do what’s CORRECT for your own mixes, not use some pathetic online recpie book…

    that other person talking about how they shelf at 10K blah blah, that’s a joke too, as that’s YOUR STUDIO and YOUR MIX. Stop giving people crap advice.

    Reply
    • Graham

      First of all, thanks for commenting, whoever you are.

      If you read the article and all the comments you would have seen this “No real rule. I certainly cut a lot more than 3db when necessary, but working in 3db chunks is a great rule of thumb.”

      Everything I teach here is a rule of thumb. It’s a starting point. It’s what is working for a lot of people (myself included) a lot of the time. None of this is a formula. Have you read any of my other posts??

      You are welcome to post here as long as you play nice and are respectful of everyone. You don’t have to agree with me, that’s not what matters. I’m here to help and if you don’t like it, there are plenty of other audio sites to troll.

      Reply
    • mitch

      You are an imbecile, whoeve wrote this comment. keep up the good work graham!

      Reply
    • Daniel

      Wow. Give the guy a break, he’s giving advice. More than you can say for yourself. If you hate his advice and opinions on mixing go ahead and create your own website and give information. Then in essence you too might be as successful and knowledgeable as Graham. Keep fighting the good fight Graham.

      Reply
  11. Andrew Gaul

    Whatever you choose as an increment, I think it’s useful to have one. If nothing else, it forces a decision and moves things along. And nothing says you can’t leave the knob in between your prescribed increment levels when you’re done, it’s just a nice starting point to start making comparisons.

    (Personally, I use 1.5dB for mixing, 0.5dB for mastering).

    Reply
  12. tango

    Mate if you’ve got nothing constructive to say then go somewhere else… There are some excellent tips and advice on this site, thanks Graham for taking the time to put them on here.

    Reply
  13. Wicked Dagger

    I agree with Graham, but i wanna ask you or anyone here..is there any software Equalizer plugin that can deal with boosting frequencies and then later you punch a magic button that does a subtractive EQ on the same channel??? …i think it’ll be usefull

    Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1.  There Is No Magic To Mixing » The Recording Revolution
  2.  Touching on Subtractive EQ | Studio Chaotic
  3.  Why You Should Not Use an EQ Cheat Sheet when Mixing

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