Debate: To Track or not to Track with EQ

Though the bottom line is always turning out the best possible product, the means to which to achieve this end have long been debated, particularly in regards to treating your signal to tape. Many engineers are fierce proponents of the idea that it’s only proper to send the cleanest, most malleable tracks to the mix, and thus are hesitant to record using external effects. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find any engineer who would suggest applying time-based effects such as reverb or delay prior to the mix and, likewise, the general consensus is that compression is best left to the second stage as well. Yet in the case of EQing while tracking, the issue becomes a bit more controversial.

Some engineers feel that it’s imperative to achieve the best tones as soon as possible, and therefore are much more likely to apply EQ right off the bat. When asked, they’ll oftentimes explain that it’s important to EQ to tape in order to gain a greater sonic perspective, to help show how each individual instrument is ultimately going to fit in the grand scheme of things, and to communicate the original intent of the engineer (and the band, for that matter) to whomever may be mixing the album.

But on the flip side there are those individuals who argue against EQing signals before the mix, claiming that the shortest possible signal path to tape is the best. Any time you apply a piece of external equipment to the path you run the risk of adding unwanted noise. And do you really want to chance never being able to pull that same perfect vocal take from the artist you are recording because you got froggy with that vintage Urei and ended up with a pop in the middle of the track?

Though EQ is a much more “reversible” treatment than others, certain pieces of equipment are definitely going to leave a thumbprint on your track, albeit to varying degrees. A good example is in EQing a vocal track using a Pultec, which is known for adding a very distinct sonic character, a frequency boost which will add a “growl” to your vocal track and will be very difficult, if not impossible, to reverse in the mixing stage.

But nowadays it’s much less of an either/or situation than it was in the past. With literally hundreds of tracks at our disposal, we have the option of splitting our source signals by using a multi on a patch bay, applying the proper cabling tricks, or using a re-amping device. With two identical signals to work with, we can affect one yet leave the other dry, which is a great way to experiment with EQ for the purpose of communicating your ideas to the mixing engineer without being married to the consequences.

And even if you don’t have a million great EQs at your disposal, you can always record your source signal sans EQ and then, at a later time, route the signal from the output of the recorder to your EQ and then back in on a new track; and as an added bonus, as the effected material will be tracked into your recorder, you can easily recall your settings. This very much improves your overall workflow.

It’s more of a session-specific issue these days — something that’s very much dependant on the mixing engineer with whom you work, and to what level you trust that individual to apply the proper EQ settings to the songs you’ve tracked. If you’re tracking for a mixing engineer whose work you admire, and in whose skills you have confidence, it may not be a bad idea to either process to tape minimally or at least have dry sources available for them to allow maximum flex room. But if you are engineering and mixing a project, I suppose it’s safe to say that you can trust both the tracking engineer and the mixing engineer (at least one would hope) and if there are time/budget constraints, or even if you are simply trying to expedite the process, perhaps you should start treating those tracks and prepare for the fastest mix possible.

The choice is yours. . . .