Should you place EQ before or after compression?
Two of the most important processes that a producer needs to get to grips with are EQ and compression. Whilst other elements of your mix will undoubtedly have an impact on the sound, I believe that compression and EQ can make or break a mix. Did you know that the order in which you place the EQ and compressor will change your sound? Whilst some people are not aware that this is the case, others have very strong opinions on whether you should place EQ before or after compression when you mix a song.
EQ before or after compression? The case for placing EQ before compression:
There is certainly a case for getting an audio signal’s frequency response sounding good before you compress it. Often, a track might not sound the way you want it to tonally prior to equalisation. Certain frequencies might need to be altered to enhance, or even ‘fix’, an instrument’s sound. As such, it can be really beneficial to ‘fix’ or ‘clean up’ your tracks before addressing their dynamic range. So placing EQ before compression gives you the opportunity to make an audio signal sound as good as it can in terms of its frequency response before compression is applied.
Its also important to consider the way in which sending certain types of sounds to a compressor may cause the compressor to behave erratically or sound unnatural. An example of this would be pops on vocal tracks caused by plosives. These could cause the compressor to suddenly compress the signal very heavily. So in a case like this, it makes sense to place the EQ before the compressor. This allows you to eliminate these plosives or deal with any other aspects of a signal’s frequency response which may potentially cause problems before they reach the compressor.
EQ before or after compression? The case for placing EQ after compression:
There are of course, a good number of reasons to do the opposite, and to add compression before EQ. Often, if all of the tracks in a mix are very dynamic, it’s hard to make subjective EQ decisions. That’s because instruments may be varying in level, making it hard to judge exactly what would benefit from more clarity or less muddiness through equalisation. In this instance, it makes sense to apply compression before EQ to really tame the song’s dynamic range. Having a more stable and controlled dynamic range makes it much easier to make informed equalisation decisions in your mix.
Another reason to place compression before EQ is the fact that compression affects the tone of your audio signal. That means that when you place the compressor first, then place an EQ afterwards, you have full control of a signal’s tone at the EQ stage. If you place EQ before the compressor however, that perfect tone that you achieved whilst equalising may change due to the inherent tone of your compressor.
EQ before or after compression? My approach:
As you can see, there really is no right or wrong way to approach this. Placing EQ before compression has clear benefits, and placing compression before EQ does too. Personally, I would say that I place the compressor before the EQ about 75% of the time. That’s because I like to know that the tone of a signal isn’t going to change once I’ve equalised it. This is something which could potentially occur if I placed the EQ before the compressor. I also find that I return to equalisers quite a lot during a mix to tweak them. I don’t however tweak the compressors too much once they’re set, if at all. The problem with tweaking an EQ which is placed before a compressor is that any changes made to the EQ will affect the level of the signal going in to the compressor.
This is of course by no means a hard and fast rule that I always stick too. As stated above, placing EQ before compression can be really useful, especially if sounds need to be ‘fixed‘ using EQ. If an audio signal has a lot of low end that I know I will need to remove later for instance, or just doesn’t sound too good to start with, then I will definitely place the EQ first and attend to those issues before applying compression. I think its important not to have a set way of doing things here. I try to make the decision on a track by track basis.
So what’s your approach? Do you place EQ before compression? Do you place compression before EQ? Or do you make the decision on a track by track basis? I’d love to hear your comments below.
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