EQ – Swapping Graphs for Numbers

I imagine most of you are the same as me, in that you have a couple of go to surgical EQ’s that you use for most tasks. You know these plugins so well that you can instantly grab an EQ handle pull it to the offending frequency and with a quick drag down and a spin of the mouse wheel, fix the problem. Speed is of the essence, so the more visual information the better, right?

FabFilter’s Pro-Q is a favourite amongst sound designers.

Up until twelve months ago I would have agreed with you. Until then I had pretty much always worked this way and it had never struck me to change. However, as part of a larger adjustment to my working methods up I began to experiment with a few EQs that were far simpler than I was used to, not only that, but they had no visual displays to work in so I would have to tune my cuts using knobs. Old school!

Paying Closer Attention

Initially, I didn’t mind the slower workflow as I was using a character EQ and was enjoying the tone I was getting from it. However, over time I noticed a few interesting changes started to occur.

Firstly, I sped-up. It’s hardly a surprise, but the more I used this type of EQ the more natural it became. The limited number of options meant that I would make a decision and generally stick with it, often just using a single band and a shelf to achieve results. When using a more detailed surgical EQ I would often run up a large number of cuts, tweaking them endlessly throughout the day and no doubt incurring all sorts of subtle phase issues while I was at it.

Secondly, and most importantly, I started to develop a much more acute sense of knowing instinctively which frequencies needed attention, without having to sweep the EQ or look at analysis. Sure, I had a pretty good idea before, but this skill has fine tuned itself quite dramatically over the past year. When using an EQ which is either stepped or has a numerical display of its current frequency, I make a much more distinct connection between that information and what I am hearing. When I used to work with graph-based EQ’s, sure I knew I was cutting ‘somewhere’ around 3kHz as the vague logarithmic graph in the background showed me, but it was of no real importance. Now, even before I pull-up an EQ, I have a pretty strong idea of what the offending frequencies are and how much of a cut is required. I am also less prone to ‘EQ fatigue’ (disclaimer: I may have made-up this term), where I would occasionally fire-up a plugin without a strong mental image of what I was aiming for. I’d then end up fiddling around with no sense of whether I was making any real improvement on the sound.

Another benefit of working with a simpler EQ is that this skill is transferable to situations where you’re having to use more restrictive setup, for instance live work or studio-based outboard.

Sonimus’ excellent SonEQ

The best analogy I can think of to illustrate this phenomena, and you’ll have to bear with me here, is in Star Wars where Luke is first using practicing with the light sabre. Obe Wan suggests he try it with the blast shield down, which whilst initially daunting and prohibitive, slowly gives way to a deeper sense of perception and awareness and Luke’s reaction time and accuracy improve dramatically. In limiting the visual information, Luke’s brain is able to amplify his other senses, providing him with faster, more instinctive responses to stimuli. This has been very similar to my experience with EQ, though I hope no-one is expecting me to topple an evil empire with it.

Note: This is the only Star Wars reference you’re ever likely to get out of me.

A Few of my Favourite (and free) Simple EQ’s

I’ve listed a few of my favourite basic EQs, which I use on a regular basis. They’re free, so if you wanted to give it a try I recommend downloading one or two of them and perhaps giving yourself the limitation of using them exclusively for a track or side-project.

SonEQ

An excellent Pultec-light style EQ. SonEQ It strikes a great balance between usability and features and has a great sound, along with some optional saturation. Combined with pleasing high-pass and low-pass filters, it makes for a great EQ for mixing. Requires registration.

PTEq-X

Ignite Amps PTEQ-xAnother Pultec style EQ. I’ve only recently been introduced to this one. Whilst somewhat more complex than SonEQ and daunting if you’re not used to the Pultec way of working, it’s worth the effort to learn as it sounds amazing. It also offers some tube modelling and saturation. I’ve been using it lately with my hardware synths and am very happy with the results.

Voxengo Overtone GEQ

Voxengo's Overtone GEQ

A little different from the others in that it’s a 7-band graphic equaliser. This EQ allows separate processing of L/R channels as well as M/S support. Whilst not suitable for many situations, I’ve been using it as a quick EQ when resampling or live-bouncing material. By assigning the 7 bands to a MIDI controller I have immediate control of tone-shaping. The high-frequency boost in Overtone is particularly pleasing and can give a hi-fi sheen with only a small boost.

Best of Both Worlds

Now, I’m definitely not saying you should throw all your swanky complex EQ’s in the bin. I still use graph based surgical EQ’s for a number of situations where I need what they offer. I would also hasten to add that most of the complex EQ’s available do provide the kind of frequency information that I mention above, provided you go easy with your mouse-happy use of the graph and instead look to use the knobs and sliders.

But if you’re looking for a change or would like to perhaps try and improve your hearing, give it a shot. Even if it slows you down a little, I think it’s absolutely worth paying closer attention to parameter values when using EQ as a means to train your ears.

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