Compression or EQ first?
This question is common with novice sound engineers. There is a saying, “In music there are no rules – everything is by feel.” Maybe you’re using the right method but it still doesn’t sound right, and the audience doesn’t care how you did it – they’re just listening and judging by what they hear. From personal experience I can tell you how I decide which to use first, but I will also give you a third option, which I consider the best and most universal.
1. Compression before EQ: When mixing bass, kick, toms and vocals, I use compression first. This has worked well for me with many projects because compression is more effective on the low end. It’s weaker within the 1-3kHz range. Now, imagine that you are mixing bass, and applying EQ, and it sounds awesome, but it is dynamically played so then you add compression. That is the moment of truth. When you start compressing you lose the low end, and you’ll still be unhappy with how it sounds. So, when mixing low-end instruments you should engage compression first, to fix the dynamics of the performance, and then use EQ to enhance the sound of the instrument.
2. EQ before Compression: When I’m working with guitars, strings, percussions, organs and room mics, I tend to apply EQ first, and then compression, because at these higher frequencies, strong compression isn’t necessary. For example, strings playing in the midrange. I will clean and color them, then send to a compressor. Compressing after EQ won’t make a big change to the tone, and even if they are quiet or loud the color will almost be the same.
3. EQ – COMPRESSOR – EQ I call this method The Compressor Sandwich, because the compressor is in the middle. I prefer this method for everything because it is so universal and easy to control the signal in color and dynamics. Use the initial EQ to get rid of any rumble, mud, honk or harsh sound in the signal before you send it to the compressor, because we shouldn’t emphasize what we don’t want to hear later. What we don’t want to hear, the compressor doesn’t want to hear either. So the EQ before compression is cleaning EQ. Then use the compressor to tame down the signal, to give a accent, grit, to push to the front or to the back. If you’re starting with a clean signal you can hit hard on the compressor. When you’re pleased with the dynamic treatment, engage the second EQ. Feel free to color the tone boldly and with confidence because you have clean and stable signal. So this EQ is coloring EQ.
This last step will shape the final tone of your work. Now you can serve this beautiful sandwich to your audience. Bon Appetit!