What I mean by this is that you should start by cutting frequencies instead of adding them. For whatever reason, the general consensus (and my personal experience) is that plugin equalizers do a good job of cutting frequencies, but not so much of adding them.
Make some room.
I highly suggest that you start by cutting low end out of instruments whose key frequencies are not found on the super low end; this will make room for your bass and kick. Often, this will translate into a clearer high end once you get into mastering. A messy low end can affect compressors and limiters in odd ways, and I have found many mixes whose high end because a mess because of a mess at the low end that a limiter couldn’t handle.
Just take a listen at the difference that a low cut filter makes on drums and hi hats…
You can get some great sounds by breaking the rules, but the fact that you’re reading this in the first place tells me that you want some guidelines to start you off.
What is a good starting point for compressing vocals?
I would say that general wisdom tells us to compress for -1db to -5db most of the time. The ratios that I’ve seen for vocals usually fall between 2:1 to 6:1, depending on if you wanted to give a constant thickening of the vocals or if you wanted to simply tame the loud parts (which would call for a higher ratio.)
It’s essentially an invisible hand automatically raising and lowering the volume of a track. The idea is to lower the volume on the loud parts so that you can hear the quiet parts better.
Learn with whatever you have available.
You’ll find people in online forums fighting over whether one plugin is better than the other, or whether you can get as good of a sound out of plugins as you can with hardware, or any other sort of nonsense. Don’t listen to them. Whatever you have in your DAW is good enough to record. If you are just starting out, your lack of experience and knowledge will eliminate any possible advantages of using an expensive plugin or outboard gear.
Use your eyes and your ears.
The most important thing is what the track sounds like. Things like -db and all of that are simply a way for me to talk to you about some starting points. Can you record a platinum record with a vocal getting -20db of compression? Sure, it’s been done. Don’t take any of the tips that I give as steadfast rules—they are simply starting points.
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to eq.
First, decide what you want your instrument to sound like. Do you want it close and intimate? Then leave the low end frequencies high. Do you want to push it back in the mix? Then generously eq the frequencies below 200 hz.
Second, play around with the eq. Doing an eq sweep could pleasantly surprise you and accidentally lead into a really cool sound for an instrument. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Third, compare your work to a professional. If you’re trying to get your snare to sound like the snare on the RHCP “Californication,” then you need a .wav file of the track right in your project. Eq and tweak until your snare sounds like theirs.