Wednesday, July 11, 2012

EQ or compression?

I am a regular listener of some audio podcasts, amongst which Ask Joe (Gilder). Joe is a nice guy and tries to answer as many questions as possible, in the nicest possible way.

Which is cool.

However, sometimes, I think being a bit more direct is warranted. I know it's bad for business, but it's good for shaking people up. One of the questions was: should I be using compression or EQ on my mixes?

My answer would have been: if you're asking, you should be using neither.

Asking if you should be using EQ or compression is like asking if you should cook broccoli in water or in oil. If you're asking yourself the question, it means that you need to first read up on those effects, i.e. do your homework. It's not like we're in 1990. In 2012, you type in either of those words in whatever search engine you like, and Bing! you've got tons of answers. You see, I haven't been doing this for long. I have been reading a lot, spent hours online in forums, and my conclusion is this: if you don't know what a plugin does, don't use it. Recording / mixing / mastering is not some black art. It's an art form that you can get good at with a well trained pair of ears and some understanding of acoustics and audio. Don't know what EQ does? Read about it. Get one (yes, that's 1) plugin, most likely the one supplied with your DAW, and learn how to use it, inside out. Don't apply some recipe (boost by 1dB at 400Hz) because some dude said so. Try it, listen, and make your own conclusions. Then read up some more and try to understand how things work. Not learn how things work. Understand. Huge difference. Learning, monkeys do very well: presented with banana, smile to get it, peal it, eat it. Understanding is knowing the underlying principles and inner working of things so that you can apply those principles to different situations. If you learn to boost by 1dB at 400Hz, the day you get a recorded track which for one reason or another would already have a peak at around 400Hz, you'd end up killing your mix.

So what are those effects, you might ask? Well, you can Bing them but I'll try my own explanation. EQ (equalizer) is an effect which allows you to add or subtract energy from your sound wave at certain frequencies in the audible spectrum; you have very basic equalizers in most audio devices and software (iTunes, MediaMonkey, etc.) with usually 5 to 7 bands of frequencies arbitrarily bundled together. EQ is probably the first plugin you need to understand because with EQ you can carve out the bad stuff (there are also other effects which allow you to do that) so that what's important stands out. Note I said carve out and not add up. When you record tracks in your home studio, like I do, the quality isn't that great for lots of reasons we'll go into some other time. The first thing you can do, of course, is to understand how to properly record your instruments: the best EQ is good mic placement and a great performance. That's why there are recording engineers. Once you have your tracks, take stuff out until the track starts to sound "thin"; you'll know it when you hear it: the track loses its "character"; go back and add up a little of what you have just taken out. If you do that for all your tracks, you'll see that all of a sudden, stuff starts to pop out from the tracks: you're on your way to a nice song. So that's EQ.
Compression? Compression limits the energy at a certain level (measured in dB) with some parameters that tell the plugin how to do it. That's it. What I hate about compression is that a lot of people seem to use it without understanding how it really works because everyone else does it and because it's cool and because it "puts the tracks together". OK. So now that I've learned that, I'm going to slap a compressor plugin on all my tracks, all the time. NOT :-) So I'm not using compression at all because I haven't figured out how it works. It's on one of my ToDo lists (remind me to tell you why I have multiple :-)).

Now Joe, being the good pro that he is, kind of changed the question into: if I should only use one, which one would it be? Joe agrees with me (haha): EQ.

Understand EQ :-)

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