Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Which should come first, EQ or compression?

Feel free to state your opinion for both questions in the comments section, but this article will deal mainly with the second. (Although, you never know…)

Esse, one of my Production Club members, emailed me a question over the weekend. (Side-note: Esse lives in Italy. I’ve also got Production Club members from England, New Zealand, Brazil…crazy, right?!)

Anyway, Esse’s question was about EQ and compression. What order should you use them? Is there one way you should do things? What are some reasons you would try it one way over the other?

First off, “grazie mille” to Esse for the great question. As I was emailing him back, I thought this would make a great blog post, so here’s my email to Esse (with a few edits):

Here’s the basic idea behind how I mix. While a compressor technically decreases the volume of the audio, in reality, our ears hear it as also INCREASING the quieter frequencies. If you have a guitar that has some soft rumble down around 60 Hz, compressing the guitar will make that 60 Hz rumble LOUDER. Once the signal has been compressed and made louder, it can become hard to EQ it out.

In that scenario, I would use an EQ before the compressor to get rid of that rumble. That way the rumble is gone BEFORE it has a chance to be turned up by the compressor.

Compressors are kind of like glue. You should only send things to the compressor that you WANT to be glued together. Otherwise, it’s really hard to “unglue” something once it’s glued together.

On the other hand, compression DOES still turn things down…it essentially turns loud things down and soft things up. So, if you’re trying to do an EQ BOOST, you probably want to do it AFTER the compressor. Let’s say you want to do a high-frequency boost on a vocal track, to make it sound more “airy.” If you boost 10k before the compressor, the compressor will essentially turn that boost back down. So, if you want to boost something, it’s a good idea to boost it AFTER the compressor. That way your boost won’t get turned down by a compressor.

It’s not uncommon to have one EQ before the compressor (for cuts), then another EQ after the compressor (for boosts).

I don’t do this very much because I rarely boost anything. I like to use EQ to cut certain frequencies, so I usually EQ before the compressor.

Keep in mind that my first answer to any question like this is to use your ears. There are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes it might sound better to boost before compression and cut after. I’m simply sharing with you how I approach EQ and compression. It’s worked fairly well for me, but different engineers will have completely different approaches to EQ and compression.

The important thing is that you understand how EQ and compression affect the sound. Experiment with different settings. Listen to the changes in the audio. Any time you invest into messing around with EQ and compressor settings is time well spent.

Over time, you’ll find that you’re doing less and less guess-work when it comes to EQ and compression. You’ll know what sound you’re wanting to create, and you’ll know how to use EQ and/or compression to get there.

Agree? Disagree? I’d like to hear about it. Do me a favor, and leave a comment below.

[Photo by jonny.hunter]