As you begin to get a hang of common mixing practices, you begin to wonder whether little things like, the order of effects in a mixing chain, can make a huge difference on a track.
Two of the most common effects are constantly butting heads with one another, and the age-old question remains, “EQ or compression first?”
It depends on the engineer’s taste and unique perspective…
But let’s dive into a couple of guidelines that will make it easier to determine when to use compression before equalization and vice versa.
EQ and Compression – What’s the difference?
Before settling the timeless debate, it’s important to have a firm grasp on what EQs and Compressors do.
Thinking about what they do mechanically can help guide your mixing thought process to lead you to your desired result.
Both effects are used to balance out audio frequencies but in completely different ways.
Equalizers (EQ)– EQs are used to reduce or boost certain frequencies from an audio signal. Inadvertently, this can lead to a change in amplitude, but EQs are centered more around tonality within a mix.
Compressors– Compressors deal exclusively with amplitude and average out the sound level of a signal. They do not alter frequencies/tonality in any way, only emphasize or soften their impact. We have covered the fundamentals of compression here, and have a whole series of articles on the topic. Just google “musicproductionnerds compression”.
Now that we have something of an understanding of the fundamentals regarding this most important and pressing topic (for some), let’s look at some rough principles on where experts place the effects in the mixing chain.
When Order Matters
In the same way a producer’s choice of sounds is subjective, order as a steadfast rule depends entirely on preference. However, if you’re looking for a specific sound, there are a couple of known order situations that will get you closer to your goal. Here are a couple of instances where the order will make a big impact.
If you’re looking to produce a warm signal, it’s best to have the EQ first and compression second. This is because the EQ will filter and the compression brings frequencies closer together, creating a fuller, richer sounding track.
Warmth is commonly desired among lead and vocal tracks.
Nowadays, Pop music is extremely crisp and clear to the listener. To achieve this type of sound, place the EQ after the compressor. The EQ will clear out any excess sound amplified by the compressor, leaving you with bright, clear signals.
Sometimes, engineers place an EQ on a track before and after a compressor with one focused on the low end, and the other on the high. If you’re planning to stack multiple compressors and EQs it’s important to have a separation between two of the same effect to maximize their impact.
Use this method sparingly, as it is very easy to go overboard and end up with a nasty, over processed signal, and not to mention, less CPU power!
Imperfect Dry Audio
If you have a dry audio signal that has picked up some imperfections (i.e humming, background noise, etc.) ideally, you’re in a position where you can re-record the audio. However, if this is not feasible, it’s imperative that you EQ these imperfections out before compressing.
Think about it, if one compresses first, the harsh frequencies will be amplified, making the following EQ less effective in the chain. Anything that is not up to your standard must be cleaned up before considering compressing. Think of a compressor as the glue or final polish to an already smooth track.
If you’re applying an EQ to make room for space in the mix, make sure you place your EQ first in the chain. Having the compressor first will make the reduction less effective and defeat some of the processes. Subtractive EQing comes into play especially when making space for the low-frequency kick, which rests in an area that is easily muddled.
When you create effect chains of any kind, it’s important to consider the order. Whenever you begin the chain, think of your end result and how you’re looking to shape it.
Ultimately, if you’re looking to shape the overall frequency or tone of a track, EQs should come last. If you’re looking to boost or soften the amplitude of an audio signal, Compression should be your caboose.
When Order Doesn’t Matter
Order can matter as much or as little as you’d like it to you.
However, if you’re the kind of person who likes to have a little more structure to steer you in the right direction, here are some situations where you don’t have to worry about order as much.
Emphasizing not Restructuring
When deciding whether or not order matters, the main criteria should be what your big-picture purpose is.
If you are adding EQ/Compression to solve some sort of structural/tonal problem, then the order will matter. However, if you’re using these tools to accentuate a perfectly fine signal, the order will not be as significant if at all.
If you’re using parallel compression, the order will not matter since your end goal is to boost the overall sound rather than change anything structurally. Since your wet signal is running parallel to the dry track, your EQ or compressor could come first- In either scenario, the emphasis is on running a wet signal in relation to a track, rather than what the EQ/Compressor is doing specifically to the wet track.
All in all, the choice is yours. Compression and EQs can be used in a multitude of orders, but it’s mostly about how you use them, rather than where.
When in doubt, use your ears! It’s easy to get caught up in the technicality of the music world, but your ears don’t lie. Take certain principles into consideration, but ultimately trust your instincts. The more you create and build up tracks, the more attuned you’ll be to structuring your sound properly. When all else fails, try and try again. Be sure to test out some of these handy tips of your next mix!