The process of mixing a track often starts with an EQ, Compressor, or both. And here is one of the most debated questions in audio mixing: should I EQ before or after compression?
There are no golden rules here. The best approach is EQ for correction first, Compressor for level reduction second, and an Analog EQ style plugin for color third. If your audio material is excellent, you can start with compression, then chain the EQ to enhance the frequency spectrum.
But why we’re debating this anyway?
Let’s dive into the rabbit hole for the next five minutes and understand why there’s so much arguing around which plugin comes first.
NOTE: I will assume that you already know what an EQ and Compressor are and their roles in audio mixing. But if you still struggle to understand their use, I will also touch on that in this post.
The Root Of The Debate
It all started with analog consoles. You see, the channel strip of an analog console was traditionally ordered this way: Mic-pre > EQ > Compressor. So there was not too much choice there.
Digital audio plugins allow us to order them in any way we want on the channel strip. And here lies the root of the dispute, some saying EQ-ing should be done before compression while others argue otherwise.
It is easy to see how quickly this question turned into a chicken and egg quarrel. I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been part of this debate too when I first switched from analog consoles to in-the-box mixing.
But as my skills improved, I realized there’s no point arguing as both ways have their own caveats in the mixing workflow. It all depends on the use case.
To understand what I mean, let’s look at some of the pros and cons of placing EQ before or after compression.
Placing EQ Before Compression
The main reason for placing EQ before compression is to correct some issues in your audio material.
For instance, your microphone might introduce some boomy proximity effects you want to reduce, or the sharp “S” sounds in your words might need to be fixed.
But using EQ before compression is not always used to correct frequencies. For instance, you may want to enhance your drum kick before compression to add character and vibe to your track.
NOTE: You can use the same parametric EQ to cut unwanted frequencies and boost others to add color to the sound.
Remember that you’ll most likely need to adjust the Compressor’s threshold when boosting the EQ. Why do we need to do that?
Every change in the EQ before compression will trigger the Compressor to react to signal levels differently.
For instance, if you boost the bottom-end of your kick in the EQ, it will push the Compressor to work harder. This is not always a good thing, and you will most likely have to adjust the Compressor’s threshold several times to achieve the sound you want.
Though removing unwanted frequencies can be a drastic process, boosting frequencies in the EQ should be done with sense.
Driving a bit of extra signal from the EQ into the Compressor can really work wonders. When compressed with an analog-style compressor [e.g., UAD EQP-1A, Waves Puigtec, or API550], boosting frequencies in small amounts can add sheen to your mix. Here is a list of the best analog EQ plugins for your reference.
This can add more presence to your track and sound more like those “expensive” commercial tracks you enjoy listening to.
Placing EQ After Compression
In this case, we don’t need to worry about compression when adjusting the EQ. But there is a BIG caveat here.
If there are unwanted frequencies in your track, they will be fed in the Compressor, resulting in a mixed outcome in most cases.
For instance, if your vocal track has too much bottom-end, it will make the Compressor focus on the wrong frequencies resulting in a muddy outcome.
While placing the EQ after Compressor might not always work in your favor, this order is widely seen as the default configuration for a bus/auxiliary track.
And this makes perfect sense. The purpose of a bus is to combine [sum] multiple audio signals [tracks] together and not to clean unwanted frequencies. When the signal reaches a bus, the signal is assumed to be cleaned and polished in the best way possible on its own track.
Should I EQ Before Or After Compression?
There is no one fit’s them all answer in audio mixing for this. It all depends on how clean your original track is and what sound you are after.
My personal preference is to place an EQ before and after Compressor on most of my tracks. My mixing philosophy is to correct, compress, and add color to audio signal – in this order.
In fact, I even set my default track channel strip on all DAWs I use to contain an EQ for correction first, a Compressor for level reduction second, and an Analog EQ style plugin for color and saturation third.
This approach never failed me, and I can always A/B the results, enable or disable any plugin in the signal path.
Regardless of the approach you choose, remember, the most important thing here is your ears. If it sounds good, it is most likely good.
There are no rights and wrongs in audio mixing. Each track is different, and sometimes the craziest approach brings the best results [or at least unique].
Go ahead and experiment to find out what works best for your audio track.
What Is The Role Of EQ And Compression In Audio Mixing?
If you are new to mixing audio and wonder why we need an EQ and Compressor in music, I’ll make it simple for you.
You see, audio mixing is in many ways like cooking. You must pick up the best ingredients, prepare and cook them in a specific order to get the right taste.
The EQ is primarily used to remove, boost or isolate specific sound frequencies. For example, when you prepare a salad, you will most likely remove some unwanted parts or add more of the others. In audio, EQ does precisely that.
Like cooking, learning how and when to use the EQ requires quite a bit of practice. Listen to similar music you like mixing and try to use the EQ to achieve the same results. There are no shortcuts here, and your ear is your best friend – no joking.
The Compressor is a different kind of beast. In simple words, compression helps reduce the difference between the softest and loudest parts of the sound [dynamic range]. But why do we need audio compression anyway?
Think of having a phone conversation with your peers. Sometimes they speak louder and other times softer. Moreover, that can be in the same sentence. You’re not going to manually adjust the volume every time, and that’s because your phone is already using a built-in compressor.
In audio mixing, there are many types of EQs and Compressors. Some are used because they provide a transparent sound, while others add analog-specific color [distortion].
While you can spot the change in sound when you tweak an EQ quite quickly, the Compressor impacts the sound in a more settled way.
Get a drum, guitar, or vocal track and play with the attack, release, and threshold. Listen carefully when you adjust the controls and follow your ear – it will tell you when something is not quite right.
The EQ and Compressor are arguably the bread and butter of any mixing engineer. If you want to make your tracks sound fantastic, here is where the journey begins.
Should you EQ before or after compression? I hope you got the pros and cons for each case. There are no golden rules on mixing, and it all depends on how good your audio material is.
I follow a simple philosophy when chaining my EQ and Compressor: correct, compress and color the sound. This approach works in most cases.
However, I’m always eager to experiment with new techniques. After all, audio mixing is a creative process.