Mixing Tip: Subtractive EQ First, Additive EQ Second

Most mixing engineers, from intermediates to professionals, know how to use EQing to great effect. Even novice mixing engineers know there way around an EQ, as it's commonly understood that EQing is what helps you balance the frequencies within a given mix and that you should remove what is not needed on a given track and boost the frequencies that you want to emphasize. But I want to elaborate on a memorable experience (one of several, in fact) from when I truly began to internalize the power of subtractive EQing.

I remember early on in my mixing career I was mixing a hip-hop track and I was trying to get the vocal to cut in the mix while still maintaining power and dynamics. I boosted some mid and high frequencies, swept some frequencies out, compressed the vocal as best as I could, but I wasn’t satisfied and was having a lot of difficulty. And then I got heavy handed and scooped out a healthy dose of low frequencies, with a steep low cut filter somewhere between 250Hz – 400Hz. Suddenly the vocals were much more articulate, the top end opened up nicely and no longer needed such a large high frequency boost. Furthermore, the compressor had to do noticeably less work to reduce the range in dynamics as there was fewer low frequencies triggering the compressor and accentuating a kind of pumping effect on the attack and release. It was at this point that I truly began to internalize the power of subtractive EQing.

On the one hand I knew I needed to cut out frequencies, but I was too afraid to cut more lows out of the vocals above 100Hz-150Hz. I thought that because the vocals are such a central part of the song I should preserve the low frequencies in order to keep them sounding powerful and important. The truth is that those low frequencies were clashing with the kick and bass, and there was a lot intermittent boominess for two main reasons: the first is from the proximity effect, when a vocalist gets closer to the mic during recording, the low frequencies are enhanced, sometimes to great detriment; the second is from all of the consonants like "B" and "P" that give off bursts of air. These two factors are very common in vocal recordings and need to be addressed prior to compression and sweetening EQing.

All in all, when you begin by getting rid of frequencies that are not important (such as low frequency rumble, boominess, or mud) and frequencies that are clashing with other elements of the song, then you'll need to do far less boosting in other frequencies and less processing on all tracks in general. That’s the key: start by subtracting frequencies and boost later to add more emphasis and character if needed/desired. When you EQ in this way, your mix will “fall into place” so to speak. By cutting the low frequencies in the vocals (which are usually very dynamic, especially if recorded with a proximity effect), you allow the vocal to sit around the bass elements and the transients of the kick and snare have more room to breathe. It’s easier to get your mix to sound like one cohesive unit when using Subtractive EQ before any other processing as it helps fit your all of your song elements together like a puzzle.

Once I shifted my mixing philosophy to "Subtractive EQ first, Additive EQ second," I found it easier to clean up tracks and allow them to cut in the mix; I also needed less harsh compression settings to get a more consistent dynamic range, and the overall balance of my mixes were improved. Furthermore, all my effects like reverbs and delays were cutting through better, and my mixes were starting to sound more professional overall.

Now, I'm not going to claim that Subtractive EQing is all you need to achieve professional sounding mixes. There's an equally possible scenario where you cut too many frequencies out of most of your tracks and everything starts to sound thin and dull. So there is still lots to understand about where and how much of those frequencies you should cut. Furthermore, there is still so much more to mixing than what Subtractive EQ has to offer, it is simply a starting point to help get every element of the mix to have it's own space.

Here's a video I made on Subtractive EQ. I demonstrate how I use Subtractive EQ to remove unwanted sub frequencies as well as low to low-mid frequencies to reduce muddiness. I also describe why it's important to remove high frequencies from tracks that should be further back in the mix:

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