Adding EQ, Filters And Effects
These three things can help you to make an average DJ mix sound good, and a good mix sound great. They let you shape and sculpt the sound your audience hears. They let you control the track that’s dominating your mix and decide when it is to take a back seat to something else. They let you tune the overall sound to suit your needs, and add exciting new colours to it.
Let’s take a closer look at them.
Otherwise called ‘equalisation’, EQ refers to the tone controls on your mixer that we first met in the ‘Mixer Basics’ chapter and then again in ‘Bassline Swap Beatmix’ in the previous chapter. Usually you’ll have three for each channel of the mixer that allow you to boost or cut the bass, midrange and treble parts of the sound of whatever you have running through that channel (it’s always better to cut than to add, though, compensating by raising the overall track volume using the gain control). They will turn from seven o’clock to five o’clock, and their flat setting will be at twelve o’clock where there’ll usually be a little click to let you know they’re set to neutral.
There are three reasons you’ll want to use eQ:
- To EQ the track. Different tracks sound different to each other, tonally as well as musically. Maybe your track sounds a bit dull (that’ll be lack of midrange), or is too boomy when the kick drum starts (too much bass), or sounds a bit bright when it’s all going on (meaning there’s too much treble). By putting your headphones on and listening to the next track, and comparing it to the currently playing one by switching between the two, you can work out any elements that may need to be adjusted.
- To EQ the transition. When you’re transitioning from one track to the next, eQ can be used to introduce and swap elements of both the incoming track and the outgoing one at points you choose. A classic use in beatmixing is the Bassline Swap Beatmix, which I taught you in the ‘Five Basic DJ Transitions’ chapter.
- To EQ the room. Whether you’re at home practising in your bedroom, or in a club with its own PA system, you may need to use the eQ to get the whole room sounding right. Ideally you want to avoid this, but it can be inevitable, because if there are no eQ controls after the signal has left your mixer (often the case with home monitor speakers, or PA systems where the amplifiers are out of your reach or only have volume controls), the last chance to change the eQ for the room is at your DJ mixer. So while we want to see eQ controls returning to twelve o’clock every time, maybe you’ll find the room sounds best with the bass tailed off a bit or the treble boosted as a rule – in which case your default eQ position on your mixer will be different.
Remember that the presence of people profoundly changes the audio characteristics of rooms, so as a venue fills up, you may find your eQing has to change, too. (People soak up bass, so you’ll often need to boost this frequency area.)
The point with EQ is that you have to trust your ears. There is no hallowed setting that you’re not allowed to change. If it sounds bad, it is, so use your EQ as your first line of assistance in sorting that out. Don’t be scared to EQ creatively, changing tracks so they sound far different to the way they were made if it works for you. The tracks are your tools, and you’re free to use them how you like in pursuit of creativity.
Filters belong with effects (‘FX’), but they’re so important, I’ve broken them away from the rest. In fact, so have manufacturers, and nowadays you often find a filter control for each channel of your mixer on the mixing section of your DJ controller, right underneath the EQ controls, away from many other effects that might be included with your gear. If you’re using DJ software, filter is always one of the options selectable among the other effects.
Think of a filter as a one knob EQ with added swoop. like EQ, one knob filter controls have a centre point where they’re turned off, and there is normally a little click to let you know. Turn the filter knob to the left, and you progressively introduce a low pass filter which only lets the low frequencies through. Turn it to the right, and you’re getting a high pass filter which only lets the high frequencies through.
What differentiates filters from the EQ controls, apart from there only being one knob generally, is that they have a musical resonance – the swoop quality I just mentioned. In short, they sound awesome, and are used an awful lot in recording studios to introduce and remove elements from tracks, particularly in breakdowns and builds. Because the filter is a sound so often used in dance music production, having it at your fingertips when mixing is a powerful thing as people enjoy it, accept it, and won’t automatically think it’s you doing it.
Use filters to introduce a track over a musical phrase or remove the outgoing track slowly. Try them in combination with the eQ controls (for instance, turning down the bass and treble on an incoming track and using the filter to introduce the midrange elements works well when there’s a saxophone riff on the incoming track), or to bring a looped vocal element from nothing to the front of the mix. It’s easily the most used effect, so experiment with it, especially when you see chances to complement the use of filters already present in the tracks you’re playing.
We’ve all seen the laptop DJ, hunched in the corner in some venue or other, throwing effect after effect over his mix, using them as crude tools to get from one track to another, and seemingly randomly triggering them because he’s bored between mixes. like someone trying out every ringtone on their new phone in public, it’s not good.
The first thing to remember with effects is that less is more. Anything you do in your DJ sets should complement the tracks you’re playing and delight your audience, adding something to the overall experience. Used for their own sake, effects sound naff, and even if they don’t, they’re not necessary.
That said, they can add a lot if used carefully.
If you’re DJing on a club mixer, you’ll find the effects down the right-hand side, and you can decide which channel they are assigned to with a selector knob. You can also apply them to the whole mix. If you’re using DJ software, you usually get two separate effects engines, again assignable to individual channels or the main mix.
They can be broadly divided into two groups:
- The sweep effects. These are effects that don’t naturally have a rhythmic element. Filter is one (see above); phaser, flanger and other chorus-style effects (where you hear a pleasing mix of variants of the incoming sounds) are others – think the plane taking off effect. White noise effects that actually add whooshing over the top of the existing music are another type. You can use them all like you’d use filters to add an extra something to melodies, making your track sound bigger.
- The rhythmic effects. Delay is the king here – the ‘echoing into the distance’ sound. echo is similar, although often it has a grainier feel to it as it’s based on old-fashioned tape echo effects units where the incoming sound was physically recorded on to tape in order to be reintroduced to the mix. How times have changed. Nowadays it’s easy to tie the timing of the echoing sounds into the beats or bars so they occur in time with the music, hence me calling these ‘rhythmic’ effects. They can sound great on vocals, especially a cappellas (vocal tracks with the rest of the music removed).
When you’re playing with your effects in your practising, try working out which group the effect you’re auditioning belongs to, bearing in mind it is possible to add a cyclical rhythmic element to the sweep effects on many DJ systems. Remember the golden rule: less is more. Also remember to be aware of whether you’re complementing what’s already in the tracks you’re adding effects to, or adding something completely new – and if you’re adding something completely new, be extra careful that it actually makes things sound better. If not, don’t do it.
You may be forgiven for worrying that while other DJs can make their sets sound great using all of these tools, as soon as you try to use them, they may end up sounding terrible. How do you know if your attempts at mixing actually sound any good?
In the final chapter of this step, I’ll show you exactly how.