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This EQ mistake could be ruining your mixes. Keep watching to learn what it is, and how to avoid it.

Hey, this is Jason from BehindTheSpeakers, and in just a minute you’re going to discover one of the biggest EQ mistakes.

But before we dive in, I also put together a free EQ cheatsheet packed with tips and tricks that will help you EQ like a pro. So if you’re ready to super charge your EQ skills, click the link in the description below or up there in the video to download this free cheatsheet right now.

Now most people think about EQ in what I call an additive mindset. So they’re going through the mix and maybe they hear that the lead vocal sounds a little bit too dull. It’s not cutting through, right? So immediately the first thing they do is they go over to that lead vocal track, they pull up an EQ, and they think “what can I add? What can I boost on this track to make it cut through?” So maybe they add some top end or some upper midrange, and then voila the problem is solved. Now this certainly isn’t a terrible approach, and there are a lot of people who craft pretty good sounding mixes with a primarily additive mindset. But there are a couple of problems with this approach that I want to point out to you.

The first is that by EQ’ing in this way, you end up thinking about each track in a vacuum. So when there’s a problem, you know, you can’t hear the vocal for example, suddenly you’re focused in on that vocal and you’re thinking “okay, what can I boost on that vocal to make it cut through?” So you’re not really considering the entire mix. You tend to kind of focus in on individual tracks in your mix, and tweak the individual tracks if you’re hearing a problem with this track. And we’ll cover in a second why this isn’t necessarily the best approach when it comes to using EQ.

Now the second problem with a primarily additive mindset, is it’s very easy to get fooled by an increase in volume. So you probably know that whenever something sounds louder, it typically sounds better to our ears. So we’re conditioned to think that if something sounds louder, it sounds better, even if it might actually sound worse when it’s turned up. So the problem with an additive EQ mentality is that whenever you add an EQ boost, you’re actually making the track louder. And so it’s kind of difficult to suss out when you’re boosting something on a track, whether you’re actually making the track sound better or whether you’re just turning it up or making it louder. And so what often happens is you end up with EQ boosts in your mixes that aren’t really making things sound better, they’re just making that sound louder, right? And you could’ve easily done the same thing by just turning up the faders, so this can lead to a lot of over processing and just you know, you can end up with a lot more EQ in your mixes than you really need.

And the third problem with the primarily additive mindset is that it can result in something that I call an arms race. So let’s say the vocal’s not cutting through your mix and then you go over to the vocal and boost some upper midrange on the vocal, and then five minutes later suddenly the snare isn’t cutting through and so you go to the snare and boost some 5k on the snare, and so suddenly there are all these different tracks that are competing, right? And so you end up adding more and more and more to everything in your mix to try to make it cut through and it just ends up with this total mess where you have EQ boosts everywhere and things are still just totally competing and they don’t sound great.

So instead of taking a primarily additive approach when it comes to EQ, I want to suggest that a better approach – and really the one that I recommend you use – is a subtractive mindset. So what does this mean? Well whenever you’re hearing, let’s say there’s a track in your mix that is not cutting through. Instead of going to that track and thinking “what can I add?” Instead ask yourself the question “what’s getting in the way,” right? What is prohibiting this track from being heard clearly?

So for example, if you’re going back to our first example, if we have a vocal, right, and maybe that vocal isn’t cutting through, instead of going over to that vocal and applying a boost, we can say, you know, okay what other tracks are in our mix that could potentially be competing for space with this vocal? Well maybe we have some electric guitars for example, that just have a lot of upper midrange energy, and they’re kind of fighting the vocal and we find that when we mute those guitars, suddenly we can hear the vocal clearly. So instead of EQ’ing the vocal, now we’re going to go over to the guitars and actually cut some upper midrange out of the guitars to make space and room for the vocal to be heard more clearly. So the key here is that instead of trying to fix problems by adding things on individual tracks, instead we’re asking ourselves a question – what can we take away to add clarity or intelligibility – and what other tracks are getting in the way if we’re not hearing something clearly.

Now there are a couple of benefits to this approach. The first is that whenever you apply a cut on an EQ, the track itself either stays the same in terms of volume, or it actually gets quieter. So you’re not fooled by something getting louder in level when you apply that cut, and so it’s a little bit easier to figure out whether an EQ move is actually making something sound better. Because if you apply a cut and the track or your mix sounds better, you can feel confident that you’ve made a good decision. Whereas if you apply a boost on an EQ and it sounds better to your ears, you have to figure out whether or not you’re just being fooled by the increase in volume or whether or not that boost is actually a good decision. So it just makes it easier to make the right EQ decisions.

But the second benefit to this subtractive mindset, and I think the most important benefit, is that it helps you consider the entire mix as a single unit. Instead of thinking about individual tracks in a vacuum, suddenly we’re thinking about the mix as a whole. So instead of going to the vocal when there’s a problem with the vocal, we’re thinking okay what’s getting in the way of the vocal? And again this forces us to think of the mix as a unit, and think of all these tracks in context. And so this is the mindset that ultimately is going to lead to better sounding mixes, because the whole idea is that none of these things exist in a vacuum. None of these tracks exist by themselves, they’re part of this whole mix. And so the decisions that we make on one track affect another, and everything kind of relates to everything else. And I promise you, if you can think in this mindset, and take a more subtractive approach to EQ’ing, your mixes are going to sound a whole lot better.

So next I want to jump into my DAW and show you how to approach this on a practical level when it comes to making EQ decisions in your mixes.

Okay so I have a song here by Dylan Owen called “There’s More To Life,” and I want to show you how this subtractive mindset influenced one of the decisions I made within this mix. So let’s take a listen to verse one 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 ♪

So one of the most challenging things about this mix was trying to figure out how to deal with this piano part here. So let me solo this and play it for you real quick so you can get a sense for what I’m talking about.

So that’s the part that plays the melody in the song, right? It’s kind of the main harmonic instrument going through the verse. But the challenge with this part is even though it was super important melodically, it competes with the vocal because the vocal and the piano both sit in a similar area of the frequency spectrum, so right in that kind of upper midrange of the frequency spectrum. And so it was difficult to try to figure out how do we make both of these parts work so that we don’t obscure the vocal?

And so there are really two ways that I could have approached this, right? I could have gone to the vocal and said, you know, okay let’s pull up an EQ and I’m just going to boost at 5k to make the vocal brighter and more aggressive so it cuts through. But again, going back to this whole idea of adding versus subtracting and the benefits of subtracting, that was not what I did. So instead, I went over to the piano part and said okay, what can I take out? How can I get rid of something from this piano so that I can get it out of the way of the vocal, so that the vocal cuts through and the piano takes the backseat?

So you can see there’s some EQ going on here, and the important thing to pay attention to is this upper midrange cut here. So it’s actually a shelf right around twenty-one-hundred, and it’s pretty aggressive – so negative eight dB. So I’m basically ducking out the upper midrange from this piano. And so by doing this instead of adding something to the vocal, I’m actually taking something away from the piano, and trying to get the piano out of the way of the vocals so that the vocal can remain front and center.

So I just want to play this for you in the mix, and first I’m going to bypass this cut, and I want you to listen to where the vocal sits in the mix. So don’t focus so much on the piano, listen to the vocal itself and try to pinpoint what happens when I kick this cut in. So I’m going to play the track and flip it in and out.

♪ 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 really the mindset here is instead of trying to fix a problem with the clarity of the vocal on the vocal track itself, instead I’m thinking okay, what’s getting in the way of the vocal? And so by going to this piano part and ducking out some of that upper midrange energy, I’m able to add more clarity and presence to the vocal without boosting a bunch of energy on that vocal.

Now if you’re looking to dive deeper, again I also put together that free EQ cheatsheet packed with tips and tricks that will take your EQ skills even further. So if you’re ready to learn how to EQ like a pro, click the link in the description below, or up there in the video to download this free cheatsheet right now.

Now before you go, leave a comment below this video and let me know – what’s your favorite EQ plug-in? I love to hear from you, I read every comment and reply to as many as I can, so leave your answer in the comments section below.

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