EQ Before or After Compression-Which One Should You Put First?

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One of the most common questions I get from my students is, “Which comes first, compression or EQ?”  To understand where to put your compression and EQs, you need to understand the bigger picture. You need to understand the “signal chain”.

     The signal chain starts at the microphones and ends at the speakers. We can trace our signal and everything it goes through on the way including pre amps, noise gates, compressors, EQs, and effects (reverbs, echoes, etc)

      I spent more than a decade working in big studios before I ever even touched a computer. On the big mixers, things are wired in a certain order for good reasons. First of all, most big professional boards don’t have compressors on each channel , which means if you are going to compress (and I almost always do) you’re going to have to plug your out board compressor into the insert on the channel. The insert on these boards come before the EQ. If you are going to use compression and use the EQ on the channel, you have little choice but to compress before EQing.

10 things you’ll need to know when ordering your devices in the signal chain.

1)      Think of possibilities from both sides;

     Equalizers do just what you would expect; they equalize frequencies. If your vocal sound is muffled, it’s because your low end and high end are out of balance. To add treble to the track would literally equalize the frequencies giving you a nice balance of high and low end. I try to always think of possibilities from both sides. You can add treble, or remove bass.  I try them both and pick the one I like most. If you are constantly asking yourself “What is too soft in the mix?” try asking yourself “What is too loud?”

2)      Removing noise with your EQ;

     EQs can be used to filter out noise too.  EQs can be used as “high pass” or “low pass” filters. Most people get confused by these names at first. The “high pass” filter filters out low end (or bass), and the “low Pass” filter filters out hi end (or treble). These EQs are named after the analog circuit that makes this happen. The “high pass” filter circuit actually allows the highs to pass, and likewise with the low pass filters.  What are these used for? They are mostly used for filtering out noise. If you record a vocal and you can hear the Bass bleeding through the headphone, or even trucks going by, a high pass filter can fix this. You can filter out all of the lows below the vocal getting rid of the noise without affecting the vocal sound. Likewise, if you have a Bass guitar and above a certain pitch there is nothing but hiss, you can filter that out using a low pass filter.

      Also consider that while the noise on one track may not be audible, (tape hiss for example) if you  multiply it by 10 or even 24 tracks it’s a problem. For this reason I use filters often to be safe. If your recording software came with an EQ it’s likely that it has both high and Low pass filters on it.

3)      Removing noise with gates:

     A noise gate is very simple. When the volume goes above a certain level the gate opens, sound is heard. When it drops below a certain level the gate closes, muting the sound. One of the most common uses of a noise gate is cutting out the noise in between a vocal. When the person sings the gate opens and you hear them, but once they stop singing the level drops and the gate closes, turning off the sound. This cuts out the unwanted noise in between the singing.

4)      Use compression for better balance:

     Compressors squish the dynamic range. This prevents a voice from getting too loud and sticking out or getting too soft and lost. Put simply, it turns up the low volumes, and turns down the high volumes making the volume more consistent. I compress all my tracks and often-times more than once. Compressors can be used for other things too. Such as adding sustain, punch, intensity etc.

5)      Understanding “level dependent” devices;

     Gates and compressors are not Effects  they are dynamic controllers.  Noise gates and compressors are what we call “level dependent” devices. Simply put, this means that if you change the volume going into one of these devices you’ll change the way it works. Increasing the level going into a compressor will give you more compression. Decreasing the input will cause you to have less or even no compression at all.  Increasing the input to the noise gate will cause the gate to work differently, or even stop working. Decreasing the input could cause the whole track to be muted. For this reason you’ll want to be very careful of any changes you make to the level going into these devices.

6)      Gate out unwanted noise before you compress;

       If you were to compress a vocal before gating it the compressor could turn up the headphone bleed in between the vocal making it difficult or even impossible to gate out.  For this reason I always gate prior to compression.

7)      Filter out noise prior to compressing:

      It’s also usually easiest to filter out any low end or high end noise prior to compression rather than having the compressor turn the noise up first.

8)      Compress before EQing;

     EQs actually change the level. Adding or removing bass or treble from the vocal will actually make it louder or softer. This is why EQs are most commonly put after compression.  If you put your compression after the EQ, changing the EQ will affect the compression. If your EQ is after the compressor, then changing the EQ will have no effect on the compression.

9)      Listen to the EQ of the sound while adjusting your compression:

      Another reason to put EQ after compression is that the compressor actually changes, and can even fix, EQing problems. Remember compressors turn up the soft parts and down the loud parts?  If you record a six string acoustic guitar and then compress it, the compressor can turn up the quieter strings and turn down the louder strings making a nicer balance. The same goes for EQ.  Good compression can turn up the low volume frequencies and turn down the louder ones making for a nicer EQ balance. Either way the compression IS going to change the EQ. So if you EQ after the compressor you’ll know what needs to be fixed.

10)   There is no “right and wrong way”;

      To limit your possibilities would limit your quality. However, you should know how things are typically done so that if you make any changes you’ll know what to listen for.  For example if you do put your EQ before a compressor, make sure you are aware that every time you change that EQ you change your compression.  Some people gate while recording, but I have never been that brave. If the gate cuts off a vocal you will have to re sing it. So I always gate while mixing.

    The most common way I order my processors is Filters—Gate—Compression—EQ—Effects.

5 More Creative Ways to Use Compressors in Your Mix

For the longest time, I never appreciated what compressors are able to do or how they can be useful in mixing music. For that reason, I never liked to over-compress because it tended to squash my mix. I would get a boost in volume, but it would destroy the dynamics that were present in my compositions. That was what I hated about compressors, and that’s why I didn’t use them very often – especially when I was in the early stages of my mix.

Back in 2012, I started watching Pensado’s Place, which as many of you know is the premiere resource for both new and seasoned audio engineers. The show is hosted by Dave Pensado, who is one of the most renowned mixing engineers in the field. But before I go on a tangent, I need to make my point.

The show was instrumental (pun intended) in helping me to understand the purpose and power of compressors, which I had always shied away from in my mixes. I still don’t like to over-compress, but there are certain areas that I have found compressors to be useful in mixing music.

1. MANAGING YOUR BOTTOM END

Keeping your bass at bay is an essential part of any mix because low frequencies can cause distortion. Too much bottom end also tends to muddy up your mix, which is why it’s important to keep lower frequencies under control.

Over the years, I have found that compressors can be very useful in managing your bottom end and any other part of the frequency spectrum that gets too loud. This is the purpose of setting your threshold, which is designed to reduce any frequencies that start to move beyond it.

There are many other techniques out there, but this is one that I have used on many of my mixes. I will lower the threshold to a certain level, but not too much. Then, I will boost the gain slightly, but the specific amount will depend on the mix.

What I have found with this technique is that it will give my bass a presence without it being too overwhelming. Many pop mixes like to have that low-end pumping, and I like to have a solid bassline myself. However, it isn’t meant to upstage the other instruments in the mix. Your bassline is your foundation on which your entire song is built, but it shouldn’t take away the importance of your melody and even your rhythm section.

The attack and release settings will vary with the type of instrument I’m mixing, as well as with the way it’s being played. A hard bassline or kick drum will tend to have a higher attack and a faster release, while a more melodic bassline will require the opposite approach.

What I’ve learned about compressors is that timing is critical if you want to use them effectively, but you shouldn’t be afraid to experiment.

2. SMOOTHING OUT YOUR OVERALL MIX

Using multiband compression (which is creating multiple instances of the same compressor) can be useful in giving your mix more room to breathe. As you add more instruments, things can get cluttered, and using a compressor on completed projects can help you to smooth things out before you start working on your final mix. The same technique can also be used in the mastering phase of the project.

You may have to use different types of compression for each frequency in your mix, and multiband compression is useful in that regard. Some instruments may need a different type of compression than others, and using the aux sends in your DAW can help you do that.

3. REDUCING TRANSIENT FREQUENCIES

As you go through the process of mixing music, you may have one note that comes out a bit too loud. These transient frequencies will pop up from time to time, and they probably occur more often than we dare to admit.

You can try to do some subtle EQ’ing, but it might take away too much, which can destroy your mix. This is how compressors can be useful. They can help you get rid of any unwanted frequencies or sounds that can bleed into the mix. This is especially the case if you have sounds that are coming through the mic, which can happen when your recording drums. In fact, using compressors in a certain way can help you eliminate these unwanted sounds, which can mess up your mix.

4. KEEPING YOUR MIX TOGETHER

As you might have guessed, compressors can act as a type of glue to keep your mix together, and they can give you more headroom as you add more tracks. You can add them to individual tracks, or you can route each one to many others by using aux sends in your DAW.

Compressors can be used on your master channel, but I would be careful. If you’ve read my post entitled “10 Mixing Mistakes Audio Engineers Make,” you know that adding too much to your master can destroy your mix. I always prefer to fix problems within the mix before I do anything to the master channel, and I usually can. Be sure to experiment to see what works best for you.

5. BRINGING UP QUIET SOUNDS WITHOUT DESTROYING DYNAMICS

As you’re making music, you will sometimes come across an instrument that plays a little too quietly to fit with the rest of the arrangement. I’ve come across this problem with an acoustic guitar or a concert grand piano, especially if they are being sampled through a VST synth.

If you’ve come across this situation, you probably know where I’m about to go with this. If the raw sound is too quiet, then you have to find a way to boost it, and compressors are a great way to do that. Compressors are also useful in bringing down sounds that are too loud, and you can do it without squashing the dynamics – that is, if you do it the right way.

Compressors are notorious for killing dynamics, which is why I never liked to use them very much. That’s the beauty of parallel compression. I can put each one on an aux send, and I can route them to different tracks as I need them. This technique will give you more control over how much compression you want on each track, and it will keep you from squashing your mix.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Compressors are one of the most commonly used processors in mixing music, but using them in the wrong way can make a great song sound bad. That’s why it’s important to use them correctly, because the right amount of compression in the right places can enhance your mix and make a great song sound even better.

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