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. 😉

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. 🙂

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?