In a previous, very geeky article, we had a look at the controls of an EQ, as well as the most common filter types and shapes.
Now we can get into some tips on getting the most out of your EQ plugins. Most plugin equalizers provide a variety of features that are time-saving for both finding problem frequencies and navigating the often cluttered screen of your EQ. This article will describe many common EQs and the shortcuts that make them so valuable and easy to use.
Here’s a list of EQ shortcuts various plugins offer.
Soloing a Band
I’m sure you heard of a technique meant to help you find or hone in on issues when EQing. It’s often said the best way to find issues is to boost a band by a large amount (10dB+) with a narrow bandwidth, then sweep around to find the frequency that jumps out. That works, but it also destroys your ears (and maybe your speakers), and it can sound jarring. If you’re mixing on headphones, it’s even bigger of an issue, since it’ll fatigue your ears even faster than usual. And, let’s be honest, nobody likes resetting their ears with pink noise, even though it can be effective when you’ve got a very tight deadline and you’ve been mixing for 10 hours straight.
A much better way to find offending frequencies is to solo and sweep frequency band, which only lets you hear the content of that frequency range. Simply solo a band, sweep around and it’s easy to locate the offending frequency. It’s also easy to find exactly what frequencies an instrument takes up inside a full mix. Now you can really dial in that kick without affecting the low end of the snare in your masters!
Not all EQs allow you to solo bands, but there are a few that do. After using this technique for a while, you’ll realize how important it is.
Here are some EQs with solo functions
Hold shift+ctrl and sweep a frequency knob to solo that band. The band will solo with the Q that is currently set. In the image above, you can see that the midrange band is solid and the outside frequencies are greyed out and muted. Shift+Click on a gain knob to instantly invert the boost or cut.
Hold the Option (alt) key and click anywhere on the EQ window to solo a band. You can adjust the Q of the band with your mouse wheel. You can also Option+Click on a particular EQ point to solo that band with its Q setting.
When you hover your mouse over an EQ point, the parameters for that band pop up. Click on the headphone icon to solo that frequency band
Adjust the frequency and gain while in solo. Band-pass filters solo only the frequencies that are being removed by the filter.
To solo a band, click the solo button at the top of the plugin and choose “band solo.” Hold shift while dragging the freq knob to sweep through the frequency spectrum.
Not an equalizer, but this free spectrum analyzer provides a solo function where you simply hold command while dragging in the spectrum display to solo frequency bands.
This is a great tool to use if your favorite EQ doesn’t provide a solo function.
Finding Critical Frequencies
Some EQ plugins help you locate trouble frequencies by analyzing either the sound you are working with or by automatically comparing one sound to another sound that you choose. This is an easy way to keep two instruments that live in the same frequency range from competing with each other for the same frequencies. For clarity, keep in mind that frequency points in some EQ plugins are referred to as “nodes.”
iZotope’s Neutron features the Learn function in all of its modules except for Sculptor.
For the EQ module, Learn moves the active nodes to areas it determines as most likely suffering from rumble, sibilance, or other unwanted resonances. Bear in mind that the EQ module will not create new bands when clicking Learn.
Once the EQ points have been assigned by the algorithm, you can select any node, hold shift to keep the frequency unchanged and tweak the gain to hear whether the sound is improved by boosting or cutting that frequency.
FabFilter Pro-Q3 does a similar thing in a slightly different way. The feature is called Spectrum Grab, which allows you to grab an obvious peak in the frequency spectrum and adjust it to taste.
To do this, make sure the analyzer is active. Then, as you hover above the spectrum for a few short seconds, the plugin will enter the Spectrum Grab mode. Drag any of the highlighted nodes to fix those pesky resonant peaks.
The highest peaks display a label above them, informing you what the center frequency of the soon-to-be-created band is. This feature can help sharpen your listening skills by showing you exactly what frequencies to listen for.
Artificial Intelligence and machine learning are slowly becoming an integral part of our audio tools. iZotope seems to have been doing it longer than any of the other big plugin makers. In recent years, they’ve started using machine learning to create their Repair, Mastering, Track and Mix assistants. One terrific use of machine learning is to help locate and clean up resonances.
Besides iZotope, other companies make processors that can assist in fixing frequency problems.
smart:EQ 2 generates a static EQ curve, whereas Gullfoss modifies the input signal dynamically. smart:EQ 2 seems to work a bit better when used on individual tracks, whereas Gullfoss is more effective processing busses, including the mix buss.
HoRNet’s ThirtyOne is a gem of a plugin. This beast is a 31-band graphic EQ that has an Auto EQ feature. It’s a great tool to have in your arsenal since you could put it on your mix bus, right before the limiter, and it will gently smooth the frequency content of your mix.
One thing to be on the lookout for when using these tools on your mix bus is that, in certain cases, they see the transients of your track as resonances. If this happens, the plugins will weaken the punch of your mix.
All three plugins are great, but if I were to choose one, I’d probably go with Gullfoss. Its dynamic curve, in addition to the fantastic controls it features, stole my heart. At least for now, that is.
Gullfoss uses auditory perception modeling to analyze and adjust various frequencies of different elements of a sound or a mix that compete for our attention.
Almost all modern EQ plugins have a spectrum analyzer, so standalone spectrum analyzers are not really a big deal anymore. Despite being ubiquitous, most people don’t really know how to make the most of these analyzers. The purpose of a spectrum analyzer is to graphically display the energy of a sound or mix across the entire frequency range. This allows us to use our eyes, along with our ears, to locate frequencies that may be too loud or too soft. I often find that I need to slow down the speed, or averaging time, of the analyzer.
One situation where the spectrum analyzer may be used is when applying a high pass filter to a signal. Play the track at the point where the lowest note or chord is played and look at the analyzer. You can safely cut everything under the lowest fundamental frequency the analyzer displays. Bear in mind that some of the low-level, very low frequencies may be the rumble and noise you want to remove.
Another use for the analyzer is when one sound competes with, or masks, another sound. This typically occurs with sounds like the kick drum and the bass. Send both tracks to a bus. Instantiate your analyzer and you’ll see exactly where the two tracks are competing with each other. Look at the analyzer with each sound soloed and then with both sounds playing together. From there on you’ll be able to make correct EQ decisions to make room for both tracks.
A third use is towards the end of your mixing process when you’re checking out the song’s tonal balance. Set the analyzer speed to slow so you get a general overview of the mix’s tonal balance. The key here is to look for any small frequency ranges that are either too loud or too soft. You may want to analyze some commercial songs in the same genre as yours to see how it looks on an analyzer to become accustomed to looking at that type of display. Every genre has a typical overall frequency response curve.
EQ Matching Plugins
Many modern EQ plugins, like iZotope’s Ozone EQ and Fabfilter’s Pro-Q provide a Match function. Generally, EQ matching allows you to analyze a reference sound or song and copy (part of) the overall EQ curve and apply it to your sound or mix. Think of it like this: you have a singer who had to punch in one line of a song using a different mic on a different day. EQ matching can make this line sound more like the rest of the vocal. Some people are very much against this practice, calling it cheating.
Personally, I sometimes find myself using it when I can’t quite put my finger on why a certain guitar tone is as great as it could be. I open up iZotope’s Ozone 9, instantiate the EQ Match module, and away I go.
Mastering engineers may use EQ matching when they have a specific reference track and wish to match a collection of songs to that track. In the last few years, a few different EQ matching plugins have come to market, each of them offering a different solution.
As an added bonus, iZotope’s Ozone 9 allows you to limit how much of the frequency spectrum you copy, as well as how much of it you affect by dragging the bars at the top and bottom of the frequency spectrum.
ADPTR AUDIO’s MetricAB and Mastering the Mix’s Reference allow you to open up multiple songs and audition them in parallel.
Typical Applications for EQ Matching
- A great use for EQ matching is to fix the drum room microphone tracks. Let’s say the engineer didn’t use a matched pair of mics, or the microphone placement was less than ideal and the cymbals are too bright on one side, pulling the stereo image to either side. You can use EQ matching to make the two tracks sound more alike, saving them from being muted or converted to mono.
- Another case is when you record acoustic instruments over several recording sessions. One recording may sound better than the other and both recordings are for the same song. You can use EQ matching to copy the EQ curve of the better sounding recording and applying it to the other one.
Pitch Tracking Processors
Imagine this: you’re working your magic on a bass track where the player wasn’t consistent and certain notes consistently seem louder than the rest of the performance. During the editing and mixing phase, you have a few tools to remedy this situation. You can manually adjust the clip gain or volume of every one of those notes. You can even try a multiband compression or dynamic EQ on the bass. Perhaps a better solution than all these would be to use a pitch tracking plugin.
Pitch tracking equalizers continually analyze the frequency content of an audio track and adapt the EQ frequencies in order to maintain a more consistent timbre or tone for that particular performance. These plugins excel at evening out a bass track like the one mentioned above or a vocal performance by a singer who doesn’t stay in one position relative to the mic.
SoundRadix’s SurferEQ was the first plugin I heard of that offered pitch tracking. A few years later, iZotope’s Nectar 3 came along with a similar feature. Note that this feature is absent from Neutron 3, so make sure you buy the right tool. Melda Productions sells MAutoEqualizer, another fully-featured pitch-tracking EQ.
Nectar is intended to be a complete vocal processing chain, but one of its more useful features is the dynamic frequency mode. This enables the EQ to automatically update the frequency of the selected EQ band to track the pitch of the signal. Nectar’s dynamic frequency mode also works well to cut low-frequency rumble from a vocal without affecting its overall tone.
Is using these intelligent processing tools cheating? No, but…
Relying too much on these processors, especially when first learning to mix, could hinder your ears from developing the ability to distinguish frequencies. Consequently, I suggest you use an ear training app, such as Match the Mix, SoundGym or Train Your Ears. I find SoundGym’s solution to be more comprehensive than Train Your Ears’ as it teaches you how to detect tempos, swing values, how to dissect and rebuild beats, panning and much more.
Ear training exercises will fine-tune your hearing to the point where you will know types of frequency processing will help each sound, without you having to shoot in the dark.
You’ll start to recognize an air conditioning unit’s whine at around 8kHz.
You’ll know where the snare drum’s resonance lives.
You’ll be able to discern where the kick and bass are masking each other.
At the end of the day, what matters most is how the music sounds—not the tools we used. The listener really doesn’t care what you’ve done to make the song sound great as long as it sounds great. Learn to use the tools you have and, most of all, learn to use and trust your ears!
Do your best. Have fun. Be creative.