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Subtractive EQ Vs. Additive EQ – Advanced EQ Techniques

Subtractive EQ Vs. Additive EQ - Advanced EQ Techniques

In audio production, mixing, and mastering, both subtractive and additive EQ are essential for shaping the sound of a mix. These techniques enable sound engineers and music producers to fine-tune audio tracks, achieving the desired sonic quality.

Understanding when and how to use Subtractive EQ or Additive EQ is crucial for anyone involved in music production, audio mixing, final mastering, audio repair, etc. In my examples, I use FabFilter Pro-Q 3, which is well known for its precise control, intuitive interface, and excellent sound quality. It offers a spectrum analyzer, mid/side processing, and dynamic EQ features, making it ideal for surgical cuts and detailed frequency adjustments.

What is Subtractive EQ?

Fabfilter Pro-Q3 Subtractive

Subtractive EQ or corrective EQ is a process used in mixing and mastering to remove unwanted frequencies from an audio signal. This method is about reduction, focusing on minimizing or eliminating problematic frequencies that may cause muddiness or interference with other tracks.

The goal is to clean up the sound, allowing the desired frequencies to stand out more clearly without the clutter of unwanted noise. This technique can be vital in preventing frequency overlap, especially in dense mixes where multiple instruments compete for the same sonic space.

For example, when mixing vocals pay special attention to the low-mid range (150-350 Hz). If you need more warmth, try boosting slightly. If the mix sounds muddy, consider cutting a few dB instead.

What is Additive EQ?

Fabfilter Pro-Q3 Addictive Tonal EQ

Yes, the Additive EQ technique is also commonly referred to as Tonal EQ. Both terms describe the process of using equalization to enhance or boost specific frequencies in a sound to achieve a desired tonal quality.

This technique contrasts with subtractive EQ, where frequencies are cut or attenuated to remove unwanted elements from a sound. This method is used to emphasize characteristics of a sound that might need more impact or presence, such as brightness in a vocal or the punch of a bass drum.

Additive EQ is not just about making a track louder in certain areas, but rather about enhancing the overall texture and color of the sound. Boosting certain frequencies can enhance your track, but overdoing it can lead to a range of problems. Here’s a concise guide to help you find the right balance.

Begin with small boosts of 1-3 dB and listen critically after each adjustment. Incremental changes help you hear the effect of each boost and prevent over-processing. Regularly switch between your EQ’d track and the unprocessed track to ensure you’re enhancing rather than harming the sound.

How to Use Subtractive EQ When Mixing

Using subtractive EQ effectively requires a careful and measured approach. Here are some steps and tips to guide you:

  1. Identify Problem Frequencies: Begin by isolating the problematic frequencies. This can be done by using a narrow Q setting and sweeping across the frequency spectrum to find and then reduce or eliminate harsh or overlapping frequencies.
  2. Apply High-Pass and Low-Pass Filters: These filters are incredibly useful in subtractive EQ. A high-pass filter cuts off lower frequencies below a certain threshold, which can clean up unnecessary rumble or hum from tracks like vocals or guitars. Conversely, a low-pass filter removes high frequencies that might be adding unwanted hiss or sizzle to a track.
  3. Avoid Over-EQing: It’s easy to get carried away with subtractive EQ by cutting too much, which can leave a track sounding thin and lifeless. Always compare the processed signal with the bypassed signal to ensure that the track still sounds natural.
  4. Use Subtractive EQ Early in the Signal Chain: Implement subtractive EQ early in your mixing process, as it helps to clean the palette before applying other effects like compression or reverb.

Tips for Using Subtractive EQ

  • Be Conservative with Cuts: Subtle cuts are often more effective and preserve the natural character of the sound.
  • Focus on Small Adjustments: Sometimes, a small adjustment is all that’s needed to make a significant improvement in clarity.
  • Automate EQ Settings: Automating EQ settings can help address issues that only occur at certain parts of a track, like sibilance in vocals at particular moments.

How to Use Additive EQ When Mixing

Additive EQ can be creatively rewarding but requires a judicious touch. Here’s how to use it effectively:

  1. Enhance Key Elements: Boost frequencies that enhance the musicality or clarity of an instrument. For example, adding a slight boost around 5 kHz can increase the clarity and presence of vocals in a mix.
  2. Use Shelving Filters: Shelving filters are great for adding or reducing energy in broad frequency ranges, like adding warmth to a mix by boosting the lower frequencies or adding sparkle with a high shelf boost.
  3. Balance with Subtractive EQ: When boosting frequencies, be aware of how these changes affect the overall balance of the mix. Sometimes a boost in one track will require a cut in another to maintain balance.

Tips for Using Additive EQ

  • Boost Sparingly: Overuse of additive EQ can lead to a mix that sounds unnatural or harsh.
  • Prefer Broad Q Settings: When boosting frequencies, wider Q values tend to sound more natural and musical.
  • A/B Testing: Frequently toggle between the processed and bypassed signal to ensure that the additive EQ is actually improving the track.


Both subtractive and additive EQ require careful consideration of the overall tonal balance and how individual tracks interact within a mix. Utilizing these tools effectively demands a keen ear for detail and a deep understanding of the musical context.

Remember, the goal of EQ is to enhance the musical elements, not to create an artificial sound. By starting with small adjustments and listening critically, you can achieve a balanced and professional mix.

This balance of cutting and boosting is what ultimately defines the artistry and technical proficiency in professional audio production and professional mixing services.

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