EQ and Compressor: Which comes first?

Posted on Posted in Blog, Tutorials

I would love to say I know the right answer when it comes to applying any types of audio processing  plug-ins.  BUT sadly the more I work with audio, and different types of audio like voice or guitar or basses or beats, I feel like I know less.  In fact I can’t help but make comparisons to poker but when I started playing poker (no limit hold em) I knew the basic rules and it seemed easy.  I would just play it and things went OK and I moved on.  The more I started thinking about the math and the odds or focusing on position betting or micro-analyzing every situation, the less I felt I actually knew (and the more difficult it became).  This is all true when it comes to processing audio.  The more I think I’m learning, the further I feel I have to go.

So one thing that comes up most often in my blog feedback or podcast notes is how and when to use EQ, Compression or both.  Do not be misled, this post will not give you the answers.  I don’t have them.  What I do have are a few articles I have come across lately that MIGHT help you decide and an opinion on where we may want to go. (below)

MY personal strategy has been to apply EQ before Compression.  When I started producing imaging I didn’t even really think about it.  On my vocal chain I would use a Gate, an EQ and a Compressor.  After that, not much extra thought was put in.  In fact, I used to put the gate on last but after reading and learning from people who are better than me I realized perhaps Gates should go first.  So now I do.  I put the EQ on first for the stronger effect it gives.  We want our vocals to “print” and punch through all the other crap in the listeners lives.  SO we make it phat and pronounced.

That is a screen grab of a hard CHR filter I use.  I don’t use a gate anymore on my voice (I have one built into my hardware) but you see the order on the left, I use for outside voices.  After the gate, comes the EQ which I have tweaked way up to hit the hell out of the high frequencies and roll off the low.  The level is reduced but I still get the occasional peak as you see.  SO use this image as a warning.  You should pay attention to peaking and basically don’t go into the red.  Sometimes its not all that noticeable if you do but generally its not good practice to make the red lights come on 😉  After the EQ is the COMP.  I put a simple L2 for this example and you can see I put the threshold way down at -18.  The lower you drop that, the more “phat” it will sound.  BUT again be careful.

Where I think we will go in Radio and where the rest of the world has already gone:

For real life VO you don’t want even close to this much compression.  -4 maybe…  -6.  As time moves on media moves away from that “pukey radio sound.”  TV has been avoiding it for years and as new media flourishes that “pukey radio sound” will just make people think of the olden days and it will continue to be a dated sound people will avoid if they want to be contemporary.  I liken it to reverb for me.  NOTHING makes something sound dated more (to me) than reverb.  On voice, drums, piano, anything.  And soon it will be true with compression and, by extension, the way EQ is used along side compression.

To be more concise and make my opinion in no way unclear:  If you continue to work with Voice-over in radio and give it that SUPER PHAT compressed sound with so much BASS or BOOM or SO MUCH compression as illustrated above, you will be left behind.  Yes, some stations still want that sound (why I still record that option) but eventually more and more will request a “non-radio” sound in the processing.  I have a couple big stations recently who are going this way and more will follow.  Which is why, perhaps, we should start to look to music production and I mean the clean good kind of music production.  I am learning generally that if you put the EQ first and then compress the EQ will sound more exaggerated.  Reverse the order and you may have a cleaner sound or at least a sound that feels less EQ’d and perhaps less “radio.”  BUT of course that’s not what we are always going for.  Here are a few articles I have stumbled upon recently that go into this topic:

Chucky Zwicky at Softube

Cliff Goldmacher from Pro Sound Web

The first is shorter, the second…well, longer.  There are many more great articles out there most of which I lost the links to.  I think as we progress we will do so with the way we make our stuff sound and I think a good starting place would be with the way we EQ and Compress.

Would love to get your feedback on the issue!!


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