Is It Better to Add or Subtract EQ When Mixing Music?

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Many home studio producers and studio recording engineers who know how to mix music have learned to equalise their music over time, will know that EQ is a crucial tool for creating a balanced mix that represents the music best and is pleasing to the ear. And the listener will want to listen to time and again. So getting the balance right and knowing when to subtract or add equalization is vital. And EQ is often overused.

Equalization or EQ is basically the volume of frequency ranges within a piece of music. Starting with sub bass and bass as the low frequency ranges, lo-mid hi-mid and presence range are next up and then come the high frequencies, some of which we cannot hear. Human ears are particularly sensitive to the mid and hi-mid or presence range as this is where speech lies in the frequencies.

If music is harsh or tiring on the ears then this means the mid range has been accentuated too much.

Another common error is too much bass which leads to ‘woolly’ or muddy mixes. So it is a delicate balance to strike to get all the elements of a track, song or piece of music heard as you intend when you are mastering how to mix music.

A common strategy is to do additive equalization (EQ) to bring out come frequencies or sounds within an instrument or track. This effectively means you are turning up the volume of a part of the instruments sound or overall within the piece of music. You can see the effects of this on some stereo hi-fi systems with EQ settings or even in computer software such as Winamp and Windows Media Player. So if adding EQ in music is essentially increasing the volume of a frequency range, it is important to be aware that this will affect the balance of the harmonics or overtones of the sound. And apparently with many plug in software EQ devices, this can also result in distortion or phasing issues (where the frequencies can start to cancel each other out or negatively affect each other in other weird and wonderful ways).

And subtractive EQ in music – where you basically are taking out some frequencies or turning them down – can also cause phasing issues. But I tend to try to go for subtractive instead of additive where possible as I feel is less harsh or tiring for the ears and can leave room for other instruments or frequencies to breathe. For example, if a vocal track is not cutting through the guitar in a singer songwriter song, I will first try carving out some of the mid frequencies from the guitar rather than adding more mid range frequencies to the vocal track.

So, before you reach to turn up frequencies to get them to be more present in the mix or more prominent, perhaps try taking away some frequencies from the parts that are overshadowing or in conflict with those frequencies. Of course EQ can be used more creatively and obviously as an effect if you are making creative music. Dancefloor DJs often make use of EQ filters for effect. Just be aware you are affecting the whole mix and could be tiring your listeners’ ears by using unnecessary or drastic EQ in music, meaning they won’t be keen to listen to the music too much.

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