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A guide to mixing music - Part 23

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A Matter of Perspective

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In this week's installment, we'll continue our focus on EQing during mixdown, with some additional tips and advice.

Look at the bigger picture

At the risk of sounding pushy, I'll repeat myself once again: EQ in mono and in context! If you don't remember why, refer to "Part 14" and "Part 15" of this series.

Always keep in mind that it's better to address the EQ issue with a subtractive approach, which means it's better to attenuate frequencies than to boost them. For example, instead of thinking "this lacks some lows, so I'll boost them," you should think more along the lines of, "The overall balance doesn't favor the lows, so I'll reduce the rest of the frequency spectrum to get a better overall cohesion." Never forget that less is more. In the long run, that approach is more constructive, because it preserves, and even increases, your available headroom, besides creating more space for the rest of the instruments. Once you've attenuated as you see fit, nothing stops you from boosting a couple of things here and there, in order to highlight a desired effect. In short, it will be easier to reach your goals attenuating rather than amplifying things.

By the way, in order for the EQing to be as natural and musical as possible, you should use a narrow bandwidth (high Q factor) when you decrease the level and, inversely, you should work with a broad bandwidth (low Q factor) when you increase the level.

As part of the the "less is more" approach, I encourage you to use as few frequency bands as possible when EQing . I know that might sound odd after reading the previous articles, but the fact is that the less frequency bands you use, the more transparent the results. If you ask me, five bands on a track is the absolute maximum. If you need more, you might be better off fixing the problem at the source by re-recording the track.

Another trick that is worth its weight in gold is the use of reference songs! As I already told you, I always have one ─ or even two ─ reference songs at hand whose spirit is similar to what I want to achieve. This allows me to stay on track and not get lost that easily. When EQing, this allows me to compare what I'm doing with the EQ on this or that instrument to the sound I'm aiming for. Furthermore, going back and forth to reference songs also allows you to avoid the auditory habituation I told you about in the previous article. It's a great way to put things in perspective.

To finish, here's a technique very seldom used when people start out, but one that can make things a lot easier. To explain it, I'll resort to one of my favorite French TV series: Kaamelott. In the "Unagi III" episode, King Arthur tries his best to teach Perceval and Caradoc a combat technique that consists of not facing your opponent directly, but rather at a 30º angle, in order to better sense the moment in which he or she will attack. Yeah, I know it's a bit far-fetched, but bear with me...

What does this have to do with music, you ask? Well, it's somewhat similar when you are mixing. When you are working on any given instrument, rather than focusing all your attention on that particular instrument, it might be useful to focus on the rest of the song, in order to appropriately judge the processing applied. To take a more practical example, when you EQ the low end of a guitar, listen to the effect it has on the bass guitar and kick drum. You should get to that aha moment when you realize that the low-cut you apply to the guitar allows you to unveil the bass frequencies of the bass/kick couple, which means you've got it right. By no means do I imply that this technique is necessary and sufficient, but looking at the bigger picture will certainly put the bonding between instruments in the center of your attention. And the beauty of it is that it isn't limited to EQing alone! As you will see, I will keep coming to this technique in the upcoming articles of this mixing music series.

Next week, I'll give you a non-exhaustive list of plug-ins that ought to be up to the arduous task of EQing during mixdown.

← Previous article in this series:
Trust Your Ears
Next article in this series:
EQing Tools of the Trade →
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