One of the core skills any new DJ needs to master is correctly EQing when mixing. Having a solid understanding of how to utilise EQ will take your mixing to the next level.
Beatmatching is essential to make sure your tracks are in sync but they can still sound horrible without proper DJ EQing. Likewise relying on the channel faders or crossfader as your sole form of mixing limits your creative options. Even the cheapest DJ controller should have some way to adjust EQ levels. If that function is not present I’d recommend avoiding that controller.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about DJ EQing and how to effectively incorporate that knowledge into your DJ sets.
Before we dive into DJ EQing it’s best to cover the basic principles behind how sound works. Sound theory is a huge topic. You don’t need a degree in sound engineering to DJ but it is still important to at least understand sound from a top level.
All sound is produced by waves that continuously vibrate through the air in a regular pattern. These waves are picked up by our ears and they vibrate at different frequencies. Some are low and some are high. For example, bass and kick drums vibrate at lower frequencies. Vocals tend to be in the middle or higher frequencies. Melodies and percussion elements tend to also be in the middle frequencies. Hi-hats and strings tend to occupy higher frequencies.
You can learn more about how frequencies and sound work in the video below.
Our ears prioritize higher frequencies and they are perceived as louder. They will also hear lower frequencies like kick drums as softer. It’s because of this reason that these lower frequencies are emphasized more in recorded music. As a result, it strikes a balance with the higher frequencies in loudness.
When two frequencies are playing at the same time through one channel it results in the loudness going up. For example, if two heavy kick drums are playing the loudness level may reach a level where audio clipping and distortion occurs. This is where EQing will come into play.
What is DJ EQing?
When it comes to DJ equipment the lows, mids, and highs discussed above can be manipulated directly on your gear. They will usually be handled by knobs that sit above the channel faders and filters if applicable.
Each individual channel will have its own set of knobs. Each frequency will also have its own knob. For example, a 4 channel mixer will have a set of 3 (some offer 4) EQ knobs for a total of 12 knobs. This is exactly the layout you’ll find on any pro-level gear like the Pioneer DJM 900NSX2 which is the best DJ mixer available today.
The default neutral position will be at 12 o’clock. Turning the knob counter-clockwise will reduce the volume of that frequency. Likewise turning it clockwise will increase the volume of that frequency.
As a DJ you’ll use these EQ knobs to adjust the balance of the frequencies of the tracks you’re playing. Using these knobs you can introduce the new track and adjust the frequency of the old track to make room in the soundscape for the new elements. We’ll cover techniques in the next section but as a general rule, you want the volume to always be at 100%. For example, if channel 1’s mid-EQ is set at 70% volume you can have channel 2’s mid EQ set at 30%.
Understanding how to balance frequencies is a key part of learning to DJ.
When you get your equipment it’s a good idea to play a song and then adjust the knobs to get familiar with the effect it has on the song. Some tracks will have bass lines that can spill into the mids or there may be vocals that cover both mid and high frequencies. Understanding how the track sounds with adjustments to the EQ will give you a deeper knowledge base to work with when mixing. This can also be done live in the mix when you are cueing up your next song. Listen to the incoming track in your headphones when preparing the mix and have a quick play with the EQ to see how things change.
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Using Low-Frequency EQ When Mixing
Now we can dive into how you can use these EQ knobs to enhance your mixes.
The low-frequency EQ will usually handle the kick drum and bassline. Basslines occupy a large part of a tracks soundscape. As a result, this is the most sensitive EQ. Minor adjustments over the neutral position can push a track into the red and result in clipping and distortion.
A common DJ technique is the bass swap. This is as simple as it sounds. You turn the bass down on Channel 1 and turn the bass up on Channel 2. This classic technique is best used in line with a core phrase from the track. For example, at the end of a 32 beat phrase, you quickly switch basslines. Timing is critical for this type of mix. You do not want to drop a bassline in the middle of a phrase. We’re conditioned to hear music in well-structured patterns. Any major change that is outside of the natural phrase length will be noticeable and make for an awkward sounding mix.
The bass swap technique is an effective use of EQ to transition from one song to another.
Be mindful of the type of bass lines as well. A full booming bassline getting cut and replaced with a weaker sounding bassline can kill the energy in your mix. In this scenario, a more gradual fade out of channel 1’s bass line may be needed. Progressively lower the level of the Low EQ while raising the Low EQ of Channel 2. This is a perfect example of how DJ EQing can enhance your mixes. If you only use channel faders you would experience that energy loss. By gradually fading out Channel 1’s bassline you are slowly conditioning the listener to accept that the energy level is changing.
Using Mid Frequency EQ When Mixing
The mid frequency EQ often contains a large part of the songs melodic and vocal elements. The mid-EQ can also have an assortment of percussion elements.
With the broad variety of sounds within this range, it can often be fine to have both channels running at nearly full levels. This is especially noticeable in electronic dance music. The outro mid elements tend to be designed with space in the soundscape for new elements from an incoming track. This doesn’t mean that you should always leave the EQ’s on both at full. Fine adjustments may still be needed.
You may find a certain melodic element is too dominant in Channel 1 and is overpowering the new elements you are introducing in Channel 2. In this case, you can bring Channel 1’s midsection down a bit to give the new track a chance to establish a foothold in the listener’s mind.
Understanding your music also plays a key role here. Since Mid EQ’s hold a large part of a songs flavour you need to be careful to avoid clashing melodies. Outright killing the mid-EQ is not as effective as a bass flip. The mid-EQ has too many elements for it to sound natural. Sometimes frequencies from the bassline spill into the mid-EQ as well. As a result turning down the mid-EQ can dramatically the sound of the bassline resulting in an unnatural sounding mix.
Also be aware that a good part of the vocals sit in the mid-EQ but not all. Cutting the mid-EQ will not remove the vocal elements from the song. It usually results in a strange muffled version of the vocal with only the lows and highs. It’s best to stick to fine adjustments in the mid and focus more on compatible track selection and timing of introductions.
Using High-Frequency EQ When Mixing
The high-frequency EQ will be dominated by hi-hats, snares as well as the higher frequency melodies and vocals.
Since our ears are more sensitive to higher frequencies you need to be careful with this EQ. An instant kill on this EQ will be very noticeable. It’s often best to either gradually fade out or time it with the introduction of the second channel’s higher frequencies. This change will make for a more natural transition of energy levels.
Effective EQing will maintain the energy level of your DJ sets.
You can often drop in the high end of an incoming track without too many issues. Since it’s usually filled with hi-hats it ends up sounding like a new element of the existing track. Using this technique conditions the listener to the new sounds. This allows you to begin incorporating the rest of the song while removing or fading out the original track.
Likewise, it’s sometimes best to maintain the high frequencies from track one. You can achieve this by looping a key section. Once again it’s all about the energy. If your new track doesn’t have much going on in the high frequencies it will be very noticeable when your first track ends. Finding a key spot like the start of a break or chorus to kill the high will feel more natural to the listener. Understanding the structure of a song will allow you to know when a large change in high frequencies begins. You can then kill the previous highs at that specific moment.
Putting It All Together
Now you are ready to put all this knowledge to good use. There is a reason one of the classic images of a DJ is them tweaking the EQ. Striking the balance between two songs frequency levels can result in smooth and satisfying mixes.
Having the skills to manipulate EQ’s correctly can make mixing multiple channels easier as well. For example, you can kill the lows on Channel 1 and introduce the lows from Channel 2 with a quick bass swap. You can then layer the highs from Channel 3 potentially reducing the highs from Channel 2. This dynamic ability to manipulate the music is what sets DJ’s apart.
Having these skills will also open up the door to more long-form mixes. You can have longer more gradual mixes due to the precise control over all three frequency levels. You cannot achieve this by only using a crossfader or channel faders.
Some Final Tips
There are a few more tips I’d like to add. The most important tip is to trust your ears. Like all rules, the 100% rule is not set in stone. You are a listener like everyone else. If things are sounding great go with it irrespective of where EQ levels are at. You may come across a track which has soft lows that need a bit of a boost. It’s fine to nudge it up if it sounds okay as long as you stay away from the red.
Make a habit of testing how things sound in your DJ headphones when lining up your next track. If you are at home listen to your mix through your home studio monitors or active DJ speakers to see how it sounds in a live environment. A quick check to see how the song sounds without the highs or lows can give you instant insight. It can also highlight any potential issues that may come up like muffled vocals or basslines that spill into the mid frequencies.
Get to know tracks by adjusting EQ levels to see how they sound when frequencies get cut.
I’d also recommend you never sharply cut an EQ to say 50%. Any of the frequencies will sound strange if they are cut in this way. It’s better to either go gradual or do an instant kill.
Also, do not cut the same frequencies on both channels at the same time. For the mix to sound natural you need elements in all frequency ranges playing. Having both High-frequency EQ’s set to 0% will result in a strange sounding mix.
It’s also important to avoid EQ creep. If you have pushed an EQ level beyond neutral aim to bring it gradually back down to neutral or close to neutral throughout the course of the song. If you leave it high you may find you’ll need the next track to be higher and then higher for the next one. This will lead you to the red and result in distortion and clipping.
The most important part of mastering DJ EQing is practice. Every song is different and every transition is a new challenge for a DJ. Having good skills in EQing can not only enhance your mixes but also save you from bad mixes. It’s another tool a DJ has up his sleeve to craft the perfect mix.
Get familiar and comfortable adjusting EQ’s as a part of your DJ arsenal and you’ll enjoy the benefits of smoother and better sounding mixes.