How To Use Subtractive EQ To Quickly Improve Your Mixes

Click Here To Download Your Free Subtractive EQ Cheatsheet
Wondering how you can use subtractive EQ to improve your mixes?

Hey, this is Jason from Behind The Speakers, and in this video you’ll learn what subtractive EQ is and why I recommend using it. Then I’ll jump into my DAW and show you how to use subtractive EQ like a pro.

So first of all, what is subtractive EQ? Well Michelangelo the famous sculptor was once asked – what’s the secret to creating your beautiful pieces of artwork? How do you do it? And his answer was that as he saw it, the sculpture always existed right from the beginning in the block of marble. And his job was just to take away, to remove all the excess, all the pieces of marble that weren’t actually a part of that sculpture. And when he was done, this beautiful piece of artwork was left. But it always existed within the block of marble to begin with.

Subtractive EQ is the same exact thing. So what we’re really doing when we’re using subtractive EQ is asking ourselves what’s getting in the way? What can we take out? And what we’re left with is the beautiful sound, the perfect sound, right? Now additive EQ on the other hand, the question that we’re asking is what can we add more of or enhance or bring out? But subtractive EQ is the exact opposite. What can we take away? And so this is the big difference between subtractive EQ and additive EQ.

Now before we dive any deeper, I just want to mention that there’s a lot of stuff we’re going to be covering in this video, so if you want to make sure that you don’t forget any of it, I put together a free subtractive EQ cheatsheet that summarizes everything I’ll be covering in this video and also includes some additional tips and tricks. So if you want to download this, it’s completely free. Just click the link in the description below or up there in the video.

Now there are a lot of myths out there when it comes to this concept of subtractive EQ. And a lot of people think that cutting on an EQ sounds better than adding and that you should never add, and that’s not really true. But there are some benefits to subtractive EQ. And so I want to run through those real quickly and talk about why I think subtractive EQ is a better mindset and a better approach in many cases than additive EQ is.

The first benefit of subtractive EQ is that you end up with more headroom than you do if you’re adding on an EQ. Now whenever you add something on an EQ you’re making the signal louder. You’re boosting it, right? And so in the digital world, there’s a finite ceiling and we can’t boost beyond that point. So once we hit 0 dB full-scale, we’re clipping. And we can’t actually get any louder than that. So if we boost and boost and boost and boost, we’re making the signal louder and louder and louder and we get closer and closer to that limit, that 0 dB full-scale point.

But when we’re cutting on an EQ, we’re not making the signal louder. And so we end up with that same amount of headroom, or even more in many cases, than we started with. And just by cutting and focusing on subtractive EQ in the mixing process, it’s a great way to end up with more headroom so we don’t have to constantly worry that we’re going to hit that 0 dB full-scale ceiling and we’re going to have to pull ourselves back in some way and adjust the volume to compensate for that. So we end up with more headroom when we’re using subtractive EQ versus when we’re adding on an EQ.

The second benefit to using subtractive EQ is that there’s no increase in volume when you subtract on an EQ versus when you add. And this makes it a lot easier to figure out whether or not your decisions are actually good, whether they’re the right moves in the mixing process. So when you boost something on an EQ, in many cases again you’re making the signal louder. You’re turning it up. And our ears constantly feel like louder sounds better. That’s just how we’re designed. When things are louder we feel like they’re better.

So when you boost something on an EQ, you have to ask yourself did I really make this sound better or am I just responding to the fact that it’s a little bit louder? Whereas when you cut something on an EQ, because you’re not making it any louder – in many cases you might actually be making it quieter – if you feel like that sounds better to you when you make that cut, you can feel a hundred percent confident that you’ve made a good decision. Because you’re not going to be fooled by that increase in volume that you get when you’re adding things. So in practice I think subtracting and primarily cutting with an EQ makes it easier to make good EQ decisions, and it makes it less likely that you’re going to be swayed by that volume difference and end up adding a whole bunch of EQ that you don’t really need because you’re really just making things sound louder.

And the third benefit to using subtractive EQ – and I think this is the most important one – is that it helps you consider the mix as a whole versus focusing on individual tracks in your mix. So when you’re adding things, you’re usually focused on whatever the track is that you’re adding a boost on. So if you’re trying to, let’s say add some top end on the vocal, then you’re listening to the sound of the vocal right, when you do that boost. And you’re thinking about that track in a vacuum. But when you’re cutting things and you’re using subtractive EQ, oftentimes you’re asking yourself what’s getting in the way of another track? So if you can’t hear the vocal clearly you’re asking yourself what can I take out of the guitars, for example, to make the vocals sound clearer? And so suddenly you start to think of tracks not on their own in these little silos but actually as they relate to each other. And it helps you think of the mix as a single unit. And this mindset and approach is a much better way to think about mixing. And in my experience it can help improve the sound of your mixes because you’re not so focused on these individual tracks. you’re really thinking about this one block of sound and that’s inevitably going to result in better mixing decisions.

Now there are two ways that I use subtractive EQ in my mixing process. And the first is actually in the prep process. So before I even start mixing. And this is when I’m cleaning up the tracks and getting everything ready for the mix. And the technique that I use here is called sweep and destroy. It’s really subtractive EQ just in the prep process. And it’s such a massively important technique for me. It’s a core part of my prep process, and has made a significant improvement in the sound of my mixes. So I’m excited to share it with you because I think it can make a huge impact for you too. I’m not going to cover it in this video, but if you’re interested in learning how to apply this technique I link to a video in the description below or up there in the video and you can check that out right now.

The second way that I use subtractive EQ within the mixing process is to eliminate competition between tracks, and just make things fit together a little bit better. So next I want to jump into my DAW and show you exactly how to pull off this technique.

Okay so I have a song here by Dylan Owen called “There’s More To Life,” and I want to walk you through the process of applying subtractive EQ in this mix to add clarity and intelligibility to the vocal. So let’s take a listen to the verse first.

♪ There’s more to life than never leaving your room and being sad ♪

♪ There’s more to life than all the pieces of your past ♪

♪ There’s more to life than growing up with nobody to follow but ♪

♪ There’s more to life than only choosing what your father does ♪

So to my ears, it feels like the vocal doesn’t really cut through the mix. I’m missing words, it just doesn’t feel intelligible. It feels like it’s getting lost. Now when most people hear this sort of problem, their instant reaction is to go over to the vocal track in the mix and fix the problem there. So maybe they add some EQ or plug-ins or processing to the vocal track to try to make it cut through the mix. And this seems like the obvious solution, but it is the additive mindset right? What can we enhance or bring out on the vocal to make it cut through? But the subtractive mindset instead is what’s actually getting in the way of the vocal, and how can we clear out space or make room in this mix for the vocal so that it can be heard more clearly. So I want to walk you through how I apply that approach to this mix to clear some space out for the vocal so that we can hear it more clearly in the mix.

Now the first technique that I’m going to apply here is something called the mute button method. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to listen to the entire mix, all the tracks playing at once, and I’m going to go through my session and mute tracks one by one. And I’m going to mute a track – so let’s say I muted the kick drum for example – and while that track is muted I’m going to listen to the vocal and I’m going to ask myself, when I muted that kick drum did the vocal get clearer? Can I hear it more clearly? And if it did, then I know that there’s something in that kick drum that’s actually getting in the way of the vocal.

And so that’s a big clue that I might actually need to apply some subtractive EQ to that kick drum track to make more room for the vocal in the mix. So I’m going to go ahead and apply this mute button method technique. And in this case there aren’t a ton of tracks in this mix so we should be able to identify the problem track or tracks pretty quickly. But this is a great technique. It’s very useful, especially in larger sessions when there’s a whole bunch of stuff going on and you’re not really sure or it’s difficult to identify which track or tracks are competing with another in your mix.

♪ There’s more to life than never leaving your room and being sad ♪

♪ There’s more to life than all the pieces of your past ♪

♪ There’s more to life than growing up with nobody to follow but ♪

♪ There’s more to life than only choosing what your father does ♪

♪ There’s more to life than lonely rotten times ♪

♪ You could shock the world if you only stopped and tried ♪

♪ There’s more to life than blowing smoke and self infliction ♪

♪ There’s more to life than broken homes and televisions ♪

So when I muted this piano track here, suddenly I felt like the vocal became very clear. I could hear it a lot more clearly. And there were a couple of other tracks like these drum loops here, these drum breaks, where I muted them and I felt like the vocal got a little bit clearer. But this piano track, really when I muted it it felt like suddenly I could hear every word of the vocal clearly. So what that tells me is that this piano track is actually getting in the way of the vocal. There’s some energy, some frequency content in this piano track that’s is obscuring the clarity of the vocal track.

So what I’m going to do is I’m going to add an EQ plug-in to this piano track and I’m going to try to pull out some energy from this piano to make more room or space for the vocal to be heard in the mix. So when I’m doing this, it’s really important to listen to these tracks together, right? I’m not solo’ing the piano track and starting to add EQ to the piano, because really I’m not so much concerned with what the piano sounds like on its own, I’m trying to figure out how to improve the relationship between the piano and the vocal. And so if I listen to the piano on its own, there’s no way that I can really tell what my moves are doing, how those moves are impacting the vocal itself. So it’s really important that you listen to tracks in context and don’t use the solo button when you’re doing subtractive EQ, and just in general in the mixing process. It’s going to lead to much better decisions.

So what I’m going to do is I’m going to add a boost to this piano EQ, and I’m going to sweep this boost up the frequency spectrum and listen again to the vocal while I’m doing this. So I’m not really listening to the piano, I’m listening to the vocal. And I’m going to try to find an area where when I boost that specific area the vocal sounds like it gets more obscure. So suddenly it sounds like there’s more stuff in the way of the vocal. And so when I find that area, that’s where I know is the kind of sweet spot, the area that’s really getting in the way of the vocal. And by doing this, it’s a great way to identify which part of the frequency spectrum I may need to cut on the piano to make more room for the vocal. So this will make a little bit more sense when I start doing this, but I just wanted to give you some context before I get started. So let me do that now.

♪ There’s more to life than never leaving your room and being sad ♪

♪ There’s more to life than all the pieces of your past ♪

♪ There’s more to life than growing up with nobody to follow but ♪

♪ There’s more to life than only choosing what your father does ♪

♪ There’s more to life than lonely rotten times ♪

♪ You could shock the world if you only stopped and tried ♪

♪ There’s more to life than blowing smoke and self infliction ♪

♪ There’s more to life than broken homes and televisions ♪

So to my ears, right around 2-k I feel like when I boost that on the piano suddenly the vocal just feels like it disappears. I can’t hear the vocal very clearly anymore. So this is telling me that this specific area is probably the area that I need to pull out on the piano to make more room for the vocal. So now I’m going to reset this gain, and I’m going to dip this out – again while I’m listening to all these tracks together – and while I’m doing this I’m not listening to the piano. I’m actually listening to the vocal. And I’m going to dip out enough where I feel like suddenly the vocal sounds clearer.

♪ There’s more to life than never leaving your room and being sad ♪

♪ There’s more to life than all the pieces of your past ♪

♪ There’s more to life than growing up with nobody to follow but ♪

♪ There’s more to life than only choosing what your father does ♪

♪ There’s more to life than lonely rotten times ♪

♪ You could shock the world if you only stopped and tried ♪

♪ There’s more to life than blowing smoke and self infliction ♪

♪ There’s more to life – ♪

So I was just playing around with the frequency here to see if there was a better area. But to me, right around negative three I feel like it’s a good balance. I don’t feel like the piano totally gets gutted. So we still feel like we hear the presence and the clarity on the piano, but I’m noticing that the vocal sounds so much more clear so I can hear the words more clearly. So I’m going to go ahead and flip this cut in and out of bypass. And I want you again to listen not so much to the piano, but the sound of the vocal. And notice with this cut engaged, the vocal sounds a lot clearer.

♪ There’s more to life than never leaving your room and being sad ♪

♪ There’s more to life than all the pieces of your past ♪

♪ There’s more to life than growing up with nobody to follow but ♪

♪ There’s more to life than only choosing what your father does ♪

♪ There’s more to life than lonely rotten times ♪

♪ You could shock the world if you only stopped and tried ♪

♪ There’s more to life than blowing smoke and self infliction ♪

♪ There’s more to life than broken homes and televisions ♪

♪ Sitting silhouetted getting gone ♪

♪ There’s more to – ♪

So with that piano cut engaged, the vocal sounds clearer. And our ears are not so much pulled towards the piano, but we actually focus more on the vocal itself. And that’s the key to subtractive EQ. It’s starting to think about all of these tracks in your mix as relating to each other. And when you can start to think in that way and recognize that a cut on the piano for example can actually make the vocal sound better, that’s when – you know – your mixes are really going to take a serious leap forward. Because you’re not just thinking of each of these tracks in their own little vacuums, you recognize that all of these tracks have relationships to each other.

Now we covered a lot in this video. And to make sure you don’t forget anything, again I put together that free subtractive EQ cheatsheet. And I recommend you download this, because not only does it summarize everything we talked about here, but it also includes some additional tips and tricks that will help you use subtractive EQ like a pro. So if you’re ready to download this, it’s completely free. Again, just click the link in the description below or up there in the video right now.

Now before you go, leave a comment below this video and let me know – do you use subtractive EQ while mixing? I’d love to hear from you, so leave your answer in the comments section below.

Thanks so much for watching, and you can check out more mixing tips like these right here on my YouTube channel or at BehindTheSpeakers.com.