Equalization is concurrently one of the simplest yet hardest to grasp concepts in music production. You can read article after article about the best way to EQ your music, but at the end of the day, anybody worth their salt agrees that there’s no magic bullet when it comes to EQ. So what gives?
To really understand how to EQ, we need to understand what our goal is for using EQ in the first place. In order to do this, I suggest imagining a 3-dimensional X-Y-Z axis where X represents the audible (and inaudible) frequency spectrum, Y represents volume, and Z represents balance (Left/Right). When producing a track, the goal is to create it in such a way that each element occupies its own space on the XYZ axis without being cluttered. In other words, we want each element of the song to be audible without muddling the sound of another element. Once you have the XYZ image in your head, you can begin to understand how you might emphasize certain elements of a track, be it through panning, dynamic settings, or EQ.
While there is no one way to EQ an instrument, the chart below gives you a general idea of where specific instruments fall on the X axis. However, just because a piano begins sounding somewhere at 30Hz with harmonics ranging past 10kHz, you might only choose to emphasize a small portion of that frequency range in your track. This will depend on how many other elements are concurrently playing with the piano that you EQ. If there’s a lot going on, you might only want a narrow range, but if the piano is isolated, you may leave more of the natural frequency for a full and wide sound.
Ultimately, the best way to know your EQing correctly is by using your ears. Play your song back on good studio speakers, your car stereo, smaller speakers, and any other listening medium you can find. Make note of where certain elements sound sharp or piercing, muddled or dull. As you begin to recognize where this is happening in your track, you’ll be able to go back and make more informed decisions on how best to EQ.
While we did acknowledge the lack of a “magic bullet”, here are some rules of thumb before we send you on your way.
Cut below 150hz: Almost without fail, it serves as a good rule of thumb to cut everything except for your kick drum beneath 150hz. This will help you avoid clutter on the low end, and really emphasize your kick. After the drop off at 150hz, you can begin to work in your bass.
Boost Fat, Cut Skinny: When you boost frequency ranges, you want a fatter smooth curve to your boost, whereas when you cut, it’s better to cut narrow frequency ranges.
Add / Subtract: Odds are, if your boosting frequency in a certain area for one instrument, you’ll need to adjust accordingly by subtracting in other areas. Again, we’re trying to occupy the entire sound spectrum, but we don’t want it cluttered.
And as always, happy recording!