Decisions – lots of them need to be made when mixing and mastering because each of which influences how your musical creation sounds in the end. Therefore, the question “Shall I apply a compressor first or an Equalizer?” is quite a vital one.
Digitalization in music production brought a lot of good things. For example the availability of resources – not time and money, unfortunately for most of us those two are still limited. But the number of different equalizers and compressor you can add to your channel strip increased significantly and there is no need to stick to a given order of processing tools for audio manipulation anymore.
No matter if you’re a fan of using your customized channel strip or not – you might have asked yourself the question: Is it better to apply an equalizer first and then a compressor? Or shall I reverse the order?
The short and probably very unsatisfying answer is: There are no hard rules. Still, there are technical things to consider before starting to work on your audio material. Mixing and mastering are at their core a management of energies. According to the vision you have for your mix, you need to manage what’s going to be perceptible.
PRO TIP: Keep the idea of being an energy manager always on your mind when taking each step of your workflow – from composition and arrangement to equalizing and compression – you will be able to avoid problems related to energy conflicts early.
The classic approach
There is a very good reason for the classic order of equalizer first, compressor second. When you have a signal with spectral flaws like strong resonances, you’re well advised to clean up first. That’s were linear audio processing respectively an equalizer comes into play. With an EQ you can create tonal balance by e.g. carving out the harsh parts of a vocal recording. If you don’t take care of problems like these and apply a compressor first, the signal energies you don’t want in your mix will influence your compression results excessively. So, whenever you work with audio material that contains disturbing signal energies, it’s wise to apply an EQ first and then a compressor.
Example: Often a female vocal recording contains harsh parts and low end rumbling.
To get a clear vocal, you would take out everything below 200 Hz to eliminate the rumbling. In addition, start tweaking the high end above 10 kHz to get rid of all the disturbing harsh and sibilant parts. Or you could apply the intelligent filter and the respective vocal profile of smart:EQ 2 to clean up the female vocal track – in seconds. After all the cleaning up, you can use a compressor to push the voice.
The reversed approach
Whenever you use already good quality sounds, e.g. from sample libraries or synthesizer tracks, cleaning up with an EQ won’t be necessary. Still, when you put these tracks together, chances are that the initial mix sounds chaotic due to the dynamic differences of the individual tracks. This mismatch, caused by constantly changing melodies and tonal colors makes the sound “wobbly”.
Initially beautiful sounds are masked and they don’t have the punch or presence you want them to have – merely cranking up the level won’t make it better. Applying a compressor can harmonize the dynamics of individuals tracks or busses. In terms of the mentioned energy management this means that you initially define a stable hierarchy of energies using a compressor and then use an EQ to accentuate certain tracks or busses.
So a compressor can be used first in order to balance the dynamics of individual tracks or busses and to make them sound tighter. Afterwards, when combining these tracks or busses, chances are that you’ll have to resolve “static” problems like masked energies with an EQ.
Example: Take a drum bus – with a compressor you can glue the energies of the drumset together into a smooth blend. In regards/in combination with other busses or tracks this might lead to overemphasized frequency regions. With the use of narrow filters of an EQ, you can carefully tweak the energies in the affected frequency ranges.
Keep it clean and stay focused
So, before deciding which to apply first – equalizer or compressor – you might want to ask yourself the question: What’s the quality of my input signal?
Before getting to the creative part of mixing, often there is some grunt work that needs to be done first. You’ll want to kick out or tone down everything that does not meet your idea of a certain sound – clarity is key. Depending on the quality of the audio material you are working with, that might take quite some time. Especially recorded tracks initially tend to be not as clean as we want them to be.
The intelligent features of smart:EQ 2 and smart:comp are designed to create balance and clarity – tonal and spectral. Since they work based on psychoacoustic models they don’t apply a certain coloration to your audio material. By using them on single tracks you can create a clean basis for further creative work, and applying them on your master bus fine-tunes your creation. Furthermore, by letting your smart assistants do the grunt work you can avoid loosing track of the things you should focus on, like proportions and musical goals. The technical abilities of smart:EQ 2 and smart:comp will take you faster to the point of getting truly creative when mixing and mastering. And since both plug-ins are a „regular“ equalizer respectively compressor you can do the creative part with them as well.