What is EQ in Music? All You Need to Know

EQ is, arguably, one of the most misunderstood pieces of technology in the audio world. It’s present in everything from home cinemas to car stereos.

Yet, few know how to use EQ to its true potential. Even in professional audio, some engineers just like to fiddle with the knobs until they make something work!

The truth is: EQ is a powerful tool that can take any piece of audio to the next level. The trick is understanding how to use it to your advantage.

How to EQ

What does EQ Stand for in Music?

EQ stands for equalizier. It’s a form of audio processing that deals with the perceived loudness of specific frequency bands.

When you put something through an EQ, you’re basically strengthening or attenuating the electronic signal to make adjustments.

It’s not the same as simply turning the volume knob up or down. Doing that affects the volume of the entire audio signal, whereas EQ adjusts specific frequencies.

Still confused?

EQ plugins and hardware can get pretty complex, but using them is a straightforward process. Human hearing typically spans 20 Hz to 20 kHz. However, our sensitivity to frequencies within that span varies dramatically. For example, most sounds between 2 and 5 kHz tend to be a lot more prominent.

To make matters worse, certain environmental factors can impact the intensity of frequencies, too. Have you ever heard of a band in a large venue hall? Chances are, the bass tones of the music were a lot more robust than the rest.

The best equalizer settings work to resolve all of that mess. It helps you fine-tune the frequency response of your project and make adjustments to the entire spectrum.

EQ doesn’t make up for crappy playing or inferior recording. But, it can do a lot to add some finesse and make the audio sound that much better to the human ear.

Common EQ Filter Types

There are many kinds of EQ filters out there. Back in the day, this technology was only possible with dedicated equipment. You had to pass the audio signal through to make adjustments. That gear still exists today, but EQ is a lot more accessible now than it ever has been!

Here are some of the most common types of EQs and filters available.

1. Graphical EQ

Graphical EQs are the most simple. You’ve probably come across one before. Whether it’s digital or physical, these EQs separate the audio into different bands.

The bands are nothing more than set frequency ranges. You might see the bands separated by frequency. Or, the EQ might distinguish them as categories like Mid, Low Mid, Bass, etc.

Whatever the case may be, each band is controllable through a knob or fader to make adjustments.

2. Parametric EQ

Parametric EQs are a lot more robust than graphical ones. You still get the separate bands to tweak to perfection. However, you also get to decide where those bands are!

On a parametric EQ, you can choose the specific bandwidth, the center frequency ratio, and more. On parametric plugins, that information is represented with graphics to make the effects of your work easier to visualize.

3. Low-Pass and High-Pass Filters

These two filters are types of shelf filters. Without getting too far into the technical weeds, shelf filters help boost or attenuate frequencies past a chosen threshold.

For example, you can decrease the intensity of the bass end by lowering everything below 200 Hz. Instead of controlling individual bands, you can use one of these shelf filters.

With a low-pass filter, you’re eliminating everything above the threshold. With a high-pass filter, the frequencies below the threshold change. The wording can get a little confusing here. Just remember that the word “pass” reflects what you’re allowing to pass through unaffected.

4. Notch Filter

Finally, there’s the notch filter EQ. Also known as a “Stop Band Filter,” this form of EQ is particular.

Instead of affecting a specific band or everything past a certain threshold, you’re cutting out a particular frequency range.

Usually, engineers use this to cut out unwanted noise or to create a notch for another audio layer to fit in. More on that later.

Why Would I Use EQ as a Listener?

There are many instances in which you would want to use EQ.

As a listener, you may need to compensate for the listening environment.

For example, home cinema systems have the best equalizer settings to help you tune the audio to the room. Your living room’s acoustics could impact how sound travels, ultimately changing what you hear.

The same goes for equipment. Some headphones and speakers are heavily colored, eliminating all of the subtle nuances of the original recording. In that case, EQ will help you get as flat of a sound as possible.

When to Adjust EQ

Audio is very subjective, and we all experience it a little differently.

The best time to adjust the EQ is whenever you can enhance the listening experience or bridge a deficit.

As we mentioned earlier, EQ is an excellent tool for overcoming the challenges of your room or equipment. But, those changes will only matter if you can hear a difference!

When you’re setting up your equipment, listen to well-known tracks carefully and move around the room to experience the audio from multiple positions. If possible, use a real-time analyzer to scrutinize the frequency spectrum and see what needs to change.

With that information, you can adjust the EQ accordingly and make things sound just the way you like!

The Best Equalizer Settings

Most consumer-level equalizers come with some built-in presets. We always recommend trying them out.

Again, audio is a lot more complex than turning on a couple of settings. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for EQ. But, many settings get pretty close.

Surround sound systems and televisions sometimes have settings geared towards specific media. For example, you might see one that’s tuned to video games and another for action movies. Hear how they sound.

You can sometimes make adjustments using those presets as a baseline. They can take a lot of the hard work out of adjusting the EQ, so feel free to experiment until you find one that’s right for your needs.

EQ in Mixing

As a mixing engineer, EQ is an invaluable tool that serves many purposes. Professional EQs are a lot more complicated than the ones you see on consumer-level devices. That’s because they can do a lot more than change the frequency response.

Improving Clarity

One way engineers use EQ is to improve the muddy mix. Like we said earlier, EQ should never make up for a bad home recording session. However, it can help bring the gap a little and overcome challenges.

EQ can carve out frequencies, making the music sound more pleasant to the ear. It can also make certain bands sound more defined and present, ensuring that nothing gets lost in the mix.

You can also use EQ to fix mistakes or cut out dense frequency holes to make sure new tracks fit nicely on top of your existing work!

There are a lot of possibilities with EQ. A seasoned engineer will familiarize themselves with how it works and how small changes impact the sound. Once you get to the point of identifying the influence EQ has on your work, you can start using it in your favor!

Adjusting Timbre

Timbre is the specific tone of an instrument or voice. Multiple instruments can play the same note at the same frequency. But, they sound different because of their unique timbres.

EQ can do a lot to bring out the distinct tone of an instrument. Skilled engineers will use it to let overtones and harmonic partials come through.

Think of it as sculpting the sound. An EQ is precise enough to adjust specific sine waves to change the way an instrument sounds completely. If you’re creative enough, EQ can easily become a tool for synthesis and tuning.

Increasing Depth of a Mix

In mixing, EQ is commonly used for improving depth. Sometimes, multiple audio tracks can sound almost stagnant in the mix. It’s as if everything was recorded from a single microphone on the same physical plane.

In reality, that’s not how audio works. It’s a lot more complex as sound waves hit your ear at different times due to the source’s placement.

The best equalizer settings can simulate some of those physical differences. Alongside reverb and delay, EQ is the go-to for heightened depth and realism.

The processing can make sounds more defined through spectral contours and phasing, allowing specific instruments to stand out in an otherwise flat-sounding mix.

What Musicians Need to Know About EQ

EQ has a lot of potential in the right hands. However, it also has the power to ruin a piece of work!

Far too many novice engineers use EQ the wrong way. It’s easy to misuse the technology. EQ is so versatile that the possibilities are endless.

So, how to use EQ so that it works in your favor? Here are some essential pro tips to keep in mind.

Less is More

Don’t be that person who makes a track unrecognizable with EQ!

Newer engineers have a terrible habit of overdoing EQ. It starts innocent enough with a few slight fixes. But before you know it, your music starts to sound fake and contrived!

Be very gentle with EQ and know where to stop. Don’t go overboard and start cutting out all unnecessary frequency bands. You still need things like room tone and presence to make your tracks sound real.

EQ can go south pretty fast. The best course of action is to use as little EQ as necessary to make your music pop. Whether that’s with additive or subtractive EQ, work lightly.

EQ Won’t Make Up for Shoddy Recording

We’ve said this a couple of times already, but it bears repeating:

EQ will not make up for lousy recording techniques!

It’s easy to think, “Oh, we’ll just fix it in the mix,” when you’re on a time crunch. But that mentality is going to cost you a lot more time and effort later on. EQ can alleviate minor issues here and there. However, it’s not going to make your tracks sound like you recorded them in a multi-million-dollar studio!

You should always work to ensure that you’re capturing the best sound possible. EQ is about polish. If you start using it to make up for crappy recordings, you’ll overdo it.

Use EQ to Create Space

The best equalizer settings will work wonders to create space in your mix.

That means to carve holes into the frequency so that every instrument has its own space to occupy. Some tracks are going to overlap some. There’s no getting around that. But, creating space in the mix ensures that nothing is stepping on something else.

Many newer engineers focus so much on creating a bombastic sound that feels full and present. But in many cases, they end up making a muddy mess. Using EQ to carve some space keeps things clear and present.

Never Work in Solo

The “SOLO” button on your mixer lets you quickly audition a signal by itself. It’s a simple enough function that you’ve probably used a million times. The solo mode is perfect for fine-tuning a specific track and listening to it without any distractions.

You might be tempted to EQ the track on its own. We strongly advise against it!

Using EQ in solo is a common mistake that can quickly ruin your mix. EQ is about polishing the frequency response against the entire track.

So, how are you going to know how much you should filter something if you can’t hear it against the rest of the music?

If you’re having a hard time hearing the effects of your EQ, you can bump the channel up a bit. But, you should never eliminate the rest of the mix. You need it as a reference.

Summary

Learning how to use EQ properly can set you apart from the pack. This technology has the potential to bring your work to a brand-new level!

Don’t fall into one of the many EQ pitfalls. Experiment with it and use a light hand when mixing. Mastering EQ is not as easy as many people think. But with our tips in mind, you can fake it until you make it and use EQ to polish your tracks to perfection!

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