Welcome to Day 16 of 31 Days to Better Recordings.

Here’s a question I get a lot from people:

Should I be using EQ and/or compression on the signal before it gets recorded?

This is usually followed by an “Is that wrong?” type of question.

It’s NOT Wrong!

There are no rules when it comes to recording, except for maybe “Make it sound good.”

Otherwise, you should always be experimenting and trying new things, unless the technique has the potential to physically harm an innocent bystander. πŸ˜‰

If you’re not sure what I mean by using EQ or compression “on the way in,” I’m referring to using a physical outboard EQ or compressor, and actually running the signal from the preamp through the outboard gear before recording it.This can be done with individual components (preamp, EQ, compressor) or it can be done with a channel strip (a preamp with EQ and/or compression built in).

Okay, here are a few tips to think about when using EQ or compression on the way in.

1. Be careful. It’s permanent.

When you use EQ and compression on your incoming signal, you’re adding an extra level of complexity. In other words, you’re giving yourself even more ways to mess things up. That’s part of the fun.

Keep in mind, though, that if you overdo it with EQ or compression, that’s something that can’t really be undone. You can try to compensate for it during mixing, but the damage is done. When you’re first experimenting with outboard EQ and compression, err on the conservative side.

Rather than compressing with a 10:1 ratio and creating 25 dB of gain reduction, try a 2:1 ratio with just a few dB of gain reduction.

Rather than boosting 60 Hz and 12 kHz by 7 dB each, try cutting 250-500 Hz by 1 or 2 dB.

As you become more confident, try more things, but take it easy at first, or you might regret it. There are few things worse than when the musician plays a perfect take, but you ruined it by compressing it too much. Not cool.

2. Don’t Use EQ/Compression for Effect

This ties in to the first point. I would encourage you to use EQ and compression to enhance the signal rather than alter it.

If you find yourself trying to drastically change the tone of the instrument you’re recording, perhaps try recording a different instrument. (For example, rather than using EQ and compression to make a MusicMan bass sound like a Fender jazz bass, just use a jazz bass.)

If you really want to do some over-the-top compression or EQ, do it after you’ve recorded a clean signal, either by using plug-ins or routing the recorded signal out of your DAW and back through your gear a second time. (See podcast on using hardware inserts in Pro Tools.)

3. Go for it.

While it’s lame to ruin a take by being too aggressive with outboard gear, don’t let it scare you stiff. Perhaps experiment with outboard gear on your less-important sessions.

That way you’ll be experienced and ready to go the next time you’re hired by a major recording artist to engineer their next hit. πŸ™‚

Either way, you should definitely go for it if you get the chance.

Day 16 Challenge

Leave a comment below and answer one of these questions:

1. Do you own any outboard EQ or compression? If so, how are you going to use it differently in the future? What are you going to try?

2. If you don’t own any outboard EQ or compression, is it something that’s on your wishlist? Why or why not?

  • Ben P

    Hi Joe can you advise on a good outboard compressor and EQ for someone on a budget? It’s definitely on my wishlist and I have no idea where to start!

    Cheers

    Ben

    • I REALLY love my Presonus Eureka. It’s a great-sounding preamp with awesome EQ and compression.

  • Edith Ballistics

    Excellent post. Above all else, keep it real going in (as the folks at Millennia say, “there is no ‘undo’ switch on your pre-amp”). I tend to use light compression especially on vocal tracks, plus subtle EQ if required. Effects are for later.

  • Matt

    I do use a compressor on the way in with many things. I use a ART Pro VLA.
    Mainly, I use it with vocals and bass guitar just to protect from any spikes in dynamics that I wasn’t expecting. I usually set it with a 3:1 ratio and it may grab 2 to 4 db’s on the loudest bits. Otherwise, it doesn’t engage the other bits.
    I also have used it on drums however, I find that when used on overheads, it makes the cymbals sustain longer than what you would normally hear in the room. I’m trying to learn how to get a good level set so that the compressor only hits on the very loudest drum hits and then, I want it to release very fast so that the cymbals don’t ring forever. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I don’t.
    As for EQ, I track with it only sparingly on drums. Usually as a cut not as gain.

  • I like to use a little compression going in. I found that it helps me control the vocals better in the mix. I also found that it gives the vocalist freedom to “just sing” and not worry about whether they were getting to loud, or too soft. I don’t own any outboard compression gear though. What I like to do is set up a “Record” track in pro-tools. On that track I throw my compression plug-in on there. I’ll record my vocal with the compression applied on that “Record” track compressing about -6db, pull it down to it’s place. Record the next vocal on that same track, pull it down to it’s place. So on and so forth until all vocals and all parts are recorded. Then I buss those vocals to an aux track and compress a little more. If you want eq going in, then you can place eq on that “Record” track as well, along with your compressor plug-in. If I do any eqing on the way in, it’s just to roll off the low end (HPF). I find that usually on vocals anything below 100k – 140k you don’t need. But doing this way works for me, and it saves me from having to go out and buy more hardware. If I wan’t different compressors and stuff like that, I just go and get another plug-in. The less hardware I have, the more mobile I can be and I like that feeling. Great post Joe as always.
    Clifton L. Boyd

    • You should know, though, that putting a compressor plug-in on the audio track doesn’t apply compression to the recorded signal. The audio is the direct audio that came into your interface. Any compression you’re hearing is simply the sound of that signal being compressed on its way out to the speakers. It’s not the same as hardware compression.

      • You know what you’re right! Duhhhhh!!! LOL…
        I use an Aux track with compression on it, and run everything through that track. Thanks for clearing that up for me man.
        P.S. Oh yea…I finally bought the Baby Bottle! I love that mic man, thanks for the suggestion! Peace.
        Clifton L. Boyd

      • You’re right!!! Sorry…had a brain fart! LOL…
        Let me correct myself. Put the compressor plug-in on an Aux track and buss my vocals through that aux. Thanks for clearing that up for me.

        Clifton L. Boyd

  • Arjun Ramesh

    Although, I have thought about saving up for an SSL channel strip as outboard gear, with all of the compression and EQ built in, I really did not find the need for it. I do not own any outboard EQ or compressor at the moment. All that I use is done in the box and I have had a pretty good run with it so far. I know that no plugin will ever be able to emulate the outboard gear that it is trying to copy down to an exact science, but I am not able to tell the difference between most of them at this time anyway. I think that they are pretty good. It is also much cheaper for me to stick to plugins, rather than spend $5000 on a Manley or a ton of money on an S6000.

  • Larry Couch

    I certainly have some outboard gear that I know I’ll be using in the future. Nothing fancy, but I have a Carl Martin compressor that just has a nice sound. Reading this article makes me think that re-amping may be in my future. I just worry about the “too many options” syndrome creeping in. I had the luxury of having my bass recorded in a big studio once and I couldn’t believe the number of outboard compressors and gear that guy had on there. Don’t know how he was doing it either – separate tracks, aux sends ??

  • Frank Adrian

    I’m using a dbx 376 channel strip, but I’ve been a bit leery to run the EQ on it and I don’t think I’ll ever use the de-esser. I’ve had situations where it worked brilliantly, but I’ve also had situations where I set the gain too high (it didn’t sound like it at the time) and the tone came out fuzzier rather than warm on repeated listenings. God only knows what I’d come up with if I switched the EQ from flat. I don’t compress much (just a tick to ride the gain a bit), so I’m happy with that component of the strip. De-essing is hard enough for me to do well with a plug-in. I don’t relish the thought of trying to do so with knobs.

    So, it’s still a new component and I still need to learn how to use it better before I use it for real. I’m also planning to keep a clean signal from now on to A-B with/switch things to if I mess up too much.

  • Everett Meloy

    I don’t have an external compressor or EQ and think that may be something for latter on. I think what you said about not being able to remove Comp, EQ, or outboard processing after it is in the DAW is good advice. If I had an external EQ I might try it on recording myself but would have to be real sure before working with it on someone else.

  • Wayne Johnson

    I don’t own any outboard compressors since I sold all my old analog gear. This is what I do and I’m sure it works in any DAW. In Pro Tools use as many Aux tracks as you like and put whatever you want on each aux. Just set each aux to the same mike input and route them to an audio track. This way you can have as many dry or processed tracks as you like. I use this on almost anything I record. I like to blend the dry with the compressed versions most of the time or pan them. Give it a try because if you just compress or EQ and don’t like the processed sound and it was a great take. You still have the great take dry and unprocessed. This is a real time saver. That’s my 2 cents worth. Try it you like it. Maybe Joe should do a video on this on vocals or anything you record. Great post Joe. Are you getting any sleep with the new little one? Congrats again. Wayne

    • Y’know. I’m getting a fair amount of sleep. My wife, on the other hand…. πŸ™‚

  • dand

    I still don’t understand the advantage of using eq and comp on the way in. Yeah, it can let you record hotter with more head room, but you mentioned in a previous post that that doesn’t really matter. So what’s the point of doing any processing during recording? Aren’t the results exactly the same as if you do the processing afterwards?

    • Good question.

      For one thing, you may like the sound of the hardware EQ or compressor better than the sound of your plug-ins. That’s one of the biggest reasons people use outboard equipment. Every EQ and compressor sounds different, whether it’s a plug-in or a hardware comp. So to answer your question, “Aren’t the results exactly the same as if you do the processing afterwards?” Answer: no. For example, the compressor on an LA610 sounds INCREDIBLE, arguably better than any plug-ins I own, so I like to use THAT compressor whenever I can.

      Also, if, after placing the mics and doing everything else properly, there will probably be some frequencies you want to cut (like I talk about in Understanding EQ). If that’s the case, it’s not a bad idea to go ahead and cut those with an analog EQ, then you don’t have to bother with a plug-in. ALSO, the outboard EQ might sound better than your plug-in.

      I’m not going to say that outboard is ALWAYS better than plug-ins, but they will certainly sound different.

      • mark b

        you can record clean, then route the singnal through the outboard gear later, like re-amping sortof, can’t you? given the right interface of course…

        • You CAN, but every time you convert a signal from analog to digital or digital to analog, the signal gets degraded. You may or may not hear it, but I like to capture as much as I can in the analog realm before it converts to digital.

          I’ve run tracks through outboard gear, though. Nothing wrong with that.

        • It also saves time doing it on the way in, giving you more time to be productive and finish the product!

          • How come? Isn’t even external EQ/Comp supposed to be set carefully before you record through them? I, as Dand does, don’t see any relevant reason why to record with eq/comp on the way in. And what Joe is pointing out is for me just pure alchemy. No offense at all, guys and have a good time.

            • I am, of course, talking about standart rock/metal music recording. Of course that using of external hardware matters if you make some experimental stuff. Just to clarify.

  • Great post, Joe! I’m after a channel strip for vocals myself, mainly just to fiddle with using compression and EQ on the way in and see if it works for me. I can see a touch of compression just to ‘tame the overs’ being very handy…and I always add some compression on the vocals in the mix, why not just stick it on the way in?

    Not so sure about EQing on the way in, so it will be something I have to experiment with. I regularly use the high pass filter on my Mic, but apart from that its something I’ve never tried or thought about really.