What Is EQ? How To Use It When Mixing Music
In this article and video, learn what EQ stands for, what EQ does, and how to use EQ to get your mixes sounding really good.
If you’re becoming a DJ, you might be wondering what EQ means in music, or how to use an EQ. In this guide you’ll find everything from the basics about what EQ is and what it does, as well as more in-depth information about understanding EQ, different types of EQ and EQ techniques to help you make smoother transitions. Finally, we’ll also give you some tips to help you avoid common pitfalls as you advance your club DJ career.
What is EQ?
So, what does EQ stand for? In music, EQ simply means equalizer. Almost all DJ mixers and the best DJ controllers have some kind of equalizer (although there are some rare exceptions). We use EQ to make two tracks sound balanced when they're playing at the same time in a mix.
What Does EQing Do?
Understanding EQ will help you make better DJ transitions and allow you to manipulate the individual sounds within a mix. As a DJ, EQ allows you to get creative and put your own personal spin on how the tracks you're playing sound.
This means you need to think about the tracks you’re using in terms of their individual elements, and which EQ-band they fit into. The elements in your tracks might be a kick drum, an acoustic guitar, a bass guitar, vocals, hi-hats, a synth – anything that makes a sound.
Understanding EQ: Basic EQ parameters
The EQ Frequency Spectrum
Firstly, let’s go over some EQ basics for beginners. Most common DJ mixers have a three-band or four-band EQ. In most clubs and professional DJ studios, you’ll find a Pioneer DJM-900NXS2 mixer, which has a three-band EQ. This refers to the frequency range each knob controls. The knobs on your mixer are labelled hi (treble/high), mid (midrange) and low (bass). These signify the range on the frequency spectrum:
- High frequency sounds (5000-20000 Hz)
- Mid frequency sounds (200-5000 Hz)
- Low frequency sounds (20-200 Hz)
The low affects the bass and maybe some of the kick drums. The mid is usually where the vocals are, and the high is everything above that, including hi-hats.
The exact range controlled by each EQ knob can vary from mixer to mixer – you will find the frequency range in the user manual. Some types of DJ mixer even give you the possibility to adjust the frequency range – more on this later.
You’ll also encounter four-band EQ in club-standard mixers such as the Allen & Heath Xone:92 or 96 and the Pioneer V10. Four-band EQ commonly splits the midrange into two – hi mid and low mid. This gives you a little bit more flexibility and allows smoother, longer transitions – if that’s your style.
The EQ Gain is the volume of each EQ knob or band of frequencies. The volume is measured in decibels, and when the EQ knob is set to 12 o’clock (the centre), it’s at 0db, otherwise known as full frequency – the same as the track’s original level.
By turning the knob clockwise, or to the right, you can boost the volume by something like +6 to +10db, depending on the mixer, however usually we would never turn the knob all the way to the right, because it can distort the sound.
When you turn the knob counter-clockwise (to the left), you reduce the volume by around -26db (you will see the exact range of decibels written on the mixer). If you see -∞, this means the EQ knob will cut the frequency band completely (otherwise known as an isolator).
Above the three or four EQ knobs, you’ll find the gain (or trim) knob. This controls the volume of the channel across all frequencies and the range is usually between -∞ and +9/+10db. This is used to adjust volume when you are mixing tracks with different original volumes together.
Most modern productions should have a relatively similar volume, but if you are mixing vinyl and digital, old and new, or unmastered material or samples, you might need to adjust the gain to make sure the levels are similar, so your mix doesn’t suddenly get much louder or quieter.
Understanding EQ: Types of EQ
Equalizer or Isolator?
As explained above, a normal equalizer on a DJ mixer will allow you to reduce the bandwidth to roughly -26db. The Pioneer DJM-900NXS2 (and some other mixers) have the option to toggle the EQ curve between ‘isolator’ and ‘EQ’. When isolator is selected, the EQ knobs will give you a full kill on that frequency range, i.e. -∞db.
Play around with both options and see which you prefer. Some DJs like to mix by turning down all the EQs, bringing up the fader fully, and then gradually mixing the track in with the EQ. If that’s your style, perhaps you’ll prefer the isolator setting. For those who tend to use EQ less gradually, turning the knobs on or off quickly, the EQ setting could be better, because cutting a whole band of frequencies suddenly can be a bit jarring.
Some mixers such as the Rane MP2015 or the Pioneer V10 have a master isolator or equalizer. These function in a similar way to a channel EQ but affects the master output. This can be useful if you want to cut the bass of both tracks mid mix, or to tweak the master sound slightly to suit your style of music.
Some mixers have a parametric EQ that allows you to set the frequency range of an EQ knob yourself. For example, the A and B channels of the Allen & Heath Xone:96 have a parametric EQ on the midrange. This is a very advanced EQ technique, but if you come across a mixer with parametric EQs, give it a go and see if you can hear the difference!
If you use DJ software you can usually adjust the EQ parameters within the software settings. For example, in Traktor Pro you have a few pre-set EQ types to choose from, some of which emulate popular mixers.
Most DJ mixers have some kind of filter, with the most common types being HPF (high-pass filter) and LPF (low-pass filter). The most basic explanation is, a HPF filters out low frequencies and a LPF filters out high frequencies. Sound familiar? Filters aren’t the same as your standard EQ, but they do have a similar effect.
When to use EQ?
The most common reason to use EQ is to make better transitions. If you have two basslines playing at the same time, the mix will sound muddy. If you have two tracks with hi-hat rhythms that clash, it’s going to sound messy. Vocal-heavy tracks can also be difficult to mix. All these issues can be (at least partially) fixed with EQ! Find more tips on how to use EQ below.
Unmastered or poorly mastered tracks
Perhaps you’d like to test out one of your own unmastered productions in the club, or a friend sent you a demo that they mastered themselves. Even official releases are sometimes poorly mixed and mastered, and you might not notice until you hear them on a club system. If you can hear that the bass or the highs are way too dominant, you can avoid hurting the ears of your listeners by lowering the EQ a little.
Sometimes you might need to adjust the EQ to suit the acoustics of the space you’re playing in. If you find that the bass is reverberating too much, or the highs are bouncing off the walls too much, you can fix this with EQ, or even the Master EQ. If you’re playing in a professional club, their sound technician should have set up the sound system to suit the acoustics of the room. But of course, you might sometimes be playing on DIY-setups or off-locations where this isn’t the case, and it helps to tweak the EQ a bit yourself.
How To Mix With EQ
If you want to know more about advanced mixing techniques, here are a few tips on how to use an EQ that will help you improve your transitions.
As a rule, you should only ever have one bassline playing. If you have two tracks playing, one of your bass knobs should be turned up and the other should be turned down completely. In practice, if you’re mixing one track into another, and you want the track you’re mixing into to assume authority, flip to the new track’s bassline by turning it up and turning the first track’s bass all the way down.
To emphasise the bass, take out some of the higher frequency sounds. Do this by turning down the mid, so there are less distractions from your thumping bassline. Turning the mid down won't eradicate the vocals in a track but it will allow the bass to take centre-stage.
EQing vocals (the midrange)
The mid EQ knob controls the vocal range. If you want to accentuate a vocal in a track, turn the mid knob up slightly on the deck that track is loaded into.
To make room for the vocals when mixing an acapella track with an instrumental track, lower the mid on the instrumental tune and raise the mid on the vocal track until it sounds great.
The hi knob can be used to bring out and accentuate a nice-sounding hi-hat, or to add clarity and detail to your mix. You might need to turn down the highs if the mix is sounding too crisp or bright, or hurting your audience's ears.
How to set a mixer to produce good sound
The most important thing to remember when using a DJ mixer is not to go in the red! Most mixers have a decibel indicator next to each channel, and one for the master. The colours usually range from green, to orange, to red (although some mixers use other colours). Often there is also a warning light called CLIP or PK! (peak). If you see this light flashing, that means the volume is too high and the sound will be distorted. Not only does this sound bad, it's also bad for the sound system and the mixer, so you should avoid this at all costs!
If you’re in the red or clipping on one channel, simply turn down the gain a bit, until the red lights disappear. If you’re clipping consistently on the master, you can also turn down the master volume a bit. A good rule of thumb is to try to avoid turning the gain up past 12 o’clock – if you set your mixer like this, it will produce good sound!
Mistakes to avoid when using EQ
1. Don’t forget that the booth and room might sound different
It’s advisable to get out of the booth for a minute to check how the sound is on the floor, if you can (or arrive before your set and listen to the previous DJ). It also helps to bring a sound-savvy friend who can give feedback from the floor while you play.
Unfortunately, booth monitoring is not always perfect, which means what you hear might not be the same as what your audience hears. For example, sometimes the position of the subwoofer can cause the sound behind the booth to seem bass-heavy, and you might think you need to turn the bass down, but you should check the sound on the floor before reacting too quickly.
Some mixers (like the Allen & Heath Xone:96) have a booth EQ that lets you adjust the booth sound to your preference (for example, to turn down the bass if it’s bothering you.
2. Don’t boost the EQ too much
As a rule, you shouldn’t turn the EQ up past around 1 o’clock. Turning it up all the way risks distortion. If you want to accentuate a particular element, it’s better to turn down the other EQs slightly instead.
3. Don’t forget to beatmatch with the EQ at 12 o’clock
Once you’ve finished mixing out the previous track, remember to reset the EQs before starting beatmatching, otherwise you won’t hear much. Some mixers also have a post EQ button – if post EQ is off, you will always hear the track at original volume, regardless of the position of your EQ knobs.
Hopefully you now understand a bit more about what EQ means in music and how to use DJ EQ. The most important thing is to listen carefully and keep practicing, to make sure your mixes are smooth and sounding great. Once you’ve mastered the EQ basics for beginners, you’ll be one step closer to being ready for your first gig, or to learn how to live stream.