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Boost Your Sound: Top EQ Hardware Picks to Polish Your Mix in 2023

Boost Your Sound: Top EQ Hardware Picks to Polish Your Mix in 2023 - The Sweet Spot - Analog EQs

When it comes to analog EQs, it's all about finding that sonic sweet spot. The warmth and musicality of analog circuitry brings an unmistakable magic to audio that can't quite be replicated in the digital realm. For many engineers and producers, analog EQ sits at the heart of the mix process.

One of the most desirable traits of analog EQs is the natural harmonic distortion and saturation they bring. This adds pleasing harmonics, depth and character to audio signals. Unlike digital EQs which can sound harsh and sterile when pushed, analog EQs tend to gracefully break up in musically pleasing ways.

Legendary units like the API 550b, Pultec EQP-1A and Neve 1081 bring that classic "analog sheen" that glues sounds together. The 550b is known for its punchy mid-bands perfect for shaping vocals and drums. The EQP-1A has become famous for its smooth high and low frequency boosts. And the 1081 offers flexible 4-band EQ with Neve's signature transformers.

Many top engineers feel analog EQs help them get to the emotions in recordings. Producer Jack Joseph Puig explains, "I find that with analog EQ, you can grab the heart of a performance. It's more than getting the math right, it's about making the piece touch somebody's heart."

While digital EQs offer clinical precision, the subtleties of analog EQs can bring out more feeling. The distortions add welcome imperfections that bring life and movement. Producer Tony Maserati notes, "I find that analog EQ breathes in a way that digital does not. The inaccuracies end up making it sound more realistic."

Beyond their distinctive sound, analog EQs provide a hands-on experience that encourages experimentation. The lack of visual feedback pushes users to trust their ears. Producer Mike Dean says, "The best thing about analog EQs is that you use your ears instead of your eyes. You're forced to hone your listening skills and focus on how it sounds."

The tactile experience of twisting knobs and hearing how frequencies subtly interact creates a more organic user experience. Producer Swizz Beatz comments, "With analog EQs like the API, your ears open up. You start hearing overtones, harmonics coming out. It makes EQing a more creative experience."

Boost Your Sound: Top EQ Hardware Picks to Polish Your Mix in 2023 - Digital Precision - The Latest FX Processors

While analog EQs provide musical mojo, digital EQs offer the precision and control mix engineers need for surgical tonal shaping. Modern digital EQs give users powerful tools to finely tune audio with extreme accuracy.

Thanks to lightning-fast CPUs and advanced algorithms, digital EQs can enable a level of precision impossible in the analog domain. With digital EQs, users can adjust frequencies by tenths of a hertz, control Q factors to the hundredth decimal, and even manipulate phase alignment. This allows for micro-adjustments to hone in on problem frequencies with laser focus.

Top mastering engineer Bob Katz explains how digital EQs help him surgically treat issues: "With the precision of digital EQs, I can precisely notch out resonances and problem areas that analog EQs can't touch. I can tune tracks with a scalpel versus a club."

Digital EQs also enable extensive frequency-shaping capabilities like dynamic EQs and linear phase EQs. Dynamic EQs let users control EQ levels based on the input signal's volume. This allows tones to be subtly adapted in real-time based on changing dynamics.

Linear phase EQs reduce phase distortions caused by standard EQs. This provides more transparent tonal balancing across the frequency spectrum. As producer Andrew Scheps notes, "Linear phase EQs help me get surgical without messing up the phase of tracks. Especially on complex material, this keeps things tight and controlled."

Beyond precision, digital EQs provide visual feedback of EQ curves that many engineers find invaluable. Being able to visually inspect the EQ shape helps ensure frequencies are being boosted and cut intentionally.

Producer Jack Antonoff finds the visual feedback aids his decisions: "With digital EQ, I can see exactly what's happening with the curve. This helps me dial back cuts or boosts that might be too extreme when I actually see what I'm doing."

Of course, many mix engineers use a hybrid approach with both analog and digital EQs. While analog EQs provide feel, digital EQs enable fine-tuning. Engineer Chris Lord-Alge explains his hybrid chain:

"I'll use the API 550s to get the smoothness and punch on my main tracks. Then I'll follow it with the surgical control of digital EQs like the SSL to precisely notch out problem resonances while retaining the analog warmth. Together they give me the best of both worlds."

Boost Your Sound: Top EQ Hardware Picks to Polish Your Mix in 2023 - Classic Flavors - Vintage EQs for Warmth

For many producers and engineers, nothing imparts pedigree and sonic magic like vintage analog EQs. Early tube-based units from the '60s and '70s bring an unmatched warmth and character that serves as the secret spice elevating countless classic recordings.

Units like the legendary Pultec EQP-1A, Fairchild 670, and Urei 1176 were staples in studios during rock n' roll's formative years. Their tonality shaped the sound of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and more. While digital EQs provide clinical control, these vintage classics impart deep analog mojo.

One of the Pultec EQP-1A's calling cards is its velvet-smooth high frequency boosts. By gently lifting air frequencies, it adds sheen and sparkle without harshness. Jimmy Douglass, engineer for Timbaland and Justin Timberlake, explains how the EQP-1A brings magic to vocals:

"When I want to make a vocal really pop, I'll add some Pultec on top. It brings out all this silky top end and makes the voice leap out of the track. The smooth air it adds is pure ear candy."

The Fairchild 670 is revered for its lush low-end boosts. With tubes in the signal path, the low frequency enlargement imparts natural warmth versus sterile processing. Jack White of The White Stripes shares how the 670 beefs up guitars:

"For fattening up guitar tones, nothing touches the Fairchild. It's like you took the original signal and stuck it under a heat lamp. The low-end gets so rich and thick with pleasing tube overtones. It's the ultimate classic guitar EQ for me."

No vintage EQ may be as ubiquitous as the Urei 1176. With its signature "all buttons in" setting, the 1176 delivers aggressive, punchy compression perfect for drums. Butch Vig, producer for Nirvana and Garbage, praises its drum sounds:

"From Stewart Copeland's drums on the Police albums to Dave Grohl's raging drums on Nevermind, the 1176 is my desert island compressor for drums. When I crank it with all ratio buttons engaged, it adds these awesome early reflections that give drums a larger-than-life thunder."

"There's an intimacy and life to those old Pultecs and LA-2As that I just don't feel from plugins. On vocals and guitars, I need that old warm chesty thickness - that classic 'RECORDING console' sound."

Boost Your Sound: Top EQ Hardware Picks to Polish Your Mix in 2023 - Surgical Solutions - Parametric EQs

Parametric EQs provide the ultimate in surgical tone-shaping, giving mix engineers the scalpel they need for precision filtering. Parametric EQ differs from traditional EQs in that it allows users to control the three core parameters of EQ: frequency, gain and Q. This enables fine-tuned manipulation of any problem frequency.

With a parametric EQ like the classic Urei 545, engineers can isolate and remove resonances and problem tones with a parametric's narrow Q setting. This eliminates muddiness and opens space in the mix. Eric Valentine, producer for Queens of the Stone Age and Slipknot, explains how parametric EQs help him meticulously carve out problem frequencies:

"On congested mixes, I'll sweep with a narrow Q to find the frequency aggravating the muddiness, whether it's a boxy 300 Hz or an obnoxious 2.5k Hz tone. I'll notch it out carefully with the parametric until the mush disappears. It's like carving a perfect groove through a crowded mix."

Conversely, parametric EQs also enable targeted enhancement of desired tones. With a wide bandwidth, they can provide broad tonal shaping. With a narrow Q, they can accentuate subtle tones like finger squeaks on an acoustic guitar.

Mixer Andrew Scheps elaborates on how sweeping with a parametric helps pull out barely-audible elements: "I'll sweep a narrow filter boost on guitars to try to find the magic 1.5 kHz area where the fret noise lives. It's not always apparent, but when I can boost it just 2 or 3 dB, suddenly the guitar comes alive with those crisp little string sounds."

Beyond tone-sculpting, parametric EQs also enable complete reconstruction of the frequency spectrum. On heavily processed vocals that lose their natural shape, Valentine uses extreme parametric boosts and cuts to "re-balance the EQ":

"Certain hip-hop processing like heavy compression or layering can really deform a vocal's tone. I'll sweep a parametric band across the entire spectrum, doing extreme narrow boosts and cuts to reshape the voice back to natural proportions."

While digital parametric EQ plugins abound today, many mix engineers still favor the smooth musicality of analog parametric units like the Focusrite Red, SSL 4000E channel EQ, and classic API 550b parametric. These analog parametric EQs retain their surgically-precise capabilities while imparting the warmth and "rounding" that digital EQs can lack.

Boost Your Sound: Top EQ Hardware Picks to Polish Your Mix in 2023 - Versatile Workhorses - Graphic EQs

With their columns of slider controls, graphic equalizers provide an intuitive way to shape tone across the frequency spectrum. While parametric and shelf EQs offer precision, graphic EQs give broad-stroke tonal manipulation with quick visual feedback. Their palette of frequencies laid out makes graphic EQs invaluable for swift EQ balancing.

Graphic EQs first rose to prominence in live sound reinforcement. Units like the classic BBE 822A and Sabine FBX became staples for live engineers needing to quickly adapt PA systems to venues. Toms Lanham, front of house engineer for Metallica, explains how graphics help him EQ for rooms:

"œNo two rooms sound the same, so I"™ll use the graphic to smooth out problem peaks and valleys in the venue. I can quickly see and pull down the troublesome 200 Hz boom or 4 kHz harshness and get things sounding balanced for the space."

Many mix engineers also leverage graphic EQs for corrective EQ"™ing on individual tracks. With a visual overview, they can see exactly where a vocal may need brightness lifted or a guitar needs mud removed. Butch Vig, producer for Garbage and Nirvana, shares his approach:

"œFor fixing problem tracks, the graphics are so quick. In a flash I can see where the vocal needs a couple dB taken out around 800 Hz to get rid of honkiness, or where the guitar needs a 5 dB dip around 400 Hz to get rid of boom. It"™s faster than trying to find the exact Q and frequency on a parametric."

"œI love twisting graphics to get crazy EQ curves that totally transform synths and keys. I'll do huge wide boosts or cuts to get really warped, extreme EQing. It's fun to push graphics to the limits until keys become unrecognizable."

While digital graphic EQ plugins provide visual convenience, many mixers favor the classic analog graphics for their expertise at smoothing and sweetening mixes. Units like the API 560 and Pultec MEQ-5 offer that intangible analog magic. Tchad Blake, engineer for Tom Waits and Pearl Jam, swears by the Pultec MEQ-5:

"œI use the MEQ-5 on almost every mix. It doesn't surgically fix problems, but it smoothes things out and makes the mix sound like a record. The hardware imparts something special I can never get from a plugin."

Boost Your Sound: Top EQ Hardware Picks to Polish Your Mix in 2023 - Clarity and Air - High-Frequency Boosters

Nothing brings life and polish to tracks like the judicious use of high-frequency EQ boosts. Carefully enhancing the upper treble range can add air, clarity and detail that lifts mixes. For many mix engineers, high-frequency EQs are indispensible for adding that final sheen and sparkle.

One of the masters of high-frequency EQ boosts is Chris Lord-Alge, engineer for Green Day, Muse and more. He enlightens, "œI"™m addicted to high-frequency EQ because it brings out subtleties you don"™t hear otherwise - the fingers sliding on guitar strings, vocal overtones, cymbal sizzles. High-end EQ reveals hidden details."

Lord-Alge favors EQs like the SSL G Series for Hi-Freq boosting: "œThe SSL E-Channel high band is magic for me. It lets me gently boost air frequencies starting around 10 kHz. You"™ve got to be careful not to overdo it, but when you find just the right 2 or 3 dB lift, it"™s like removing blankets from the speakers. Suddenly everything sounds crisp and lively."

Many mixers stress the importance of broad Q widths when boosting treble. Narrow bands can create ear-fatiguing spikes, while wider settings produce smooth, natural air. Andrew Scheps, producer for Adele and Red Hot Chili Peppers, notes, "œI always use very wide, gentle shelf boosts around 12 kHz on vocals. This maintains a smooth top end but lets the sibilance and intricacies shine through."

While digital EQ plugins provide clinical control, many engineers favor analog character for high-end lifts. Tube EQs from Manley, API and Pultec add rich harmonics when boosting, yielding smooth, musical treble enhancement. Producer Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Tom Petty) shares, "œI love small bumps at 12 kHz with the Manley Massive Passive. It brings out silky top end and overtones that sound like someone wiped clean the lens you"™re listening through."

"œIt really opens up the high end on guitars and vocals, letting the nuances jump out of the track. And it never gets harsh or painful since the tubes saturate smoothly."

Beyond mixing, creative high-frequency EQing can provide unique tone-shaping. On synths and keys, aggressive high-end boosts using EQs like the API 560 can radically alter timbre. Producer Andrew Dawson (Kanye West, Justin Bieber) explains, "œI love maxing the 16 kHz knob on the 560 EQ to totally transform keyboard tones. You get these insane, sparkly textures that sound otherworldly. It really mangles synth tones in a beautiful way."

Boost Your Sound: Top EQ Hardware Picks to Polish Your Mix in 2023 - Low-End Lift - Bass EQs

While airy treble receives much praise in EQ discussions, a mix is often defined by the power and depth of its low end. The right bass EQ can provide the warmth, punch and thump that gets bodies moving on the dance floor or car stereo. For many hip-hop and electronic producers, bass EQ is essential in fattening up and distorting low tones for maximum impact.

Hip-hop tracks often utilize beefed up 808 bass samples to supply growling subs. The key is in the EQ shaping applied. Producer Just Blaze reveals, "œTo get 808s thumpin', I boost 60-80 Hz with a wide Pultec EQ. This gives them a fatness without muddying up the punch from 100-120 Hz."

Hip-hop mix engineer DJ Self explains how strategic boosts around 60 Hz help 808s maintain clarity: "œI'll hit the 60 Hz to thicken it up, then boost 120 Hz for punch and definition. Together they create huge, clear 808s that knock. I avoid boosting much below 60 Hz so the subs don't lose impact."

When EQing acoustic bass or electric bass guitar, many engineers focus EQ between 100-400 Hz. This range controls the warmth and percussiveness. Mixer Andrew Scheps shares, "œAround 220 Hz is the sweet spot for me to get that deep, rich bass tone. I'll boost a few dB with a wide Q and suddenly the bass fills out the bottom nicely. Too much higher like 500 Hz starts to get woofy."

However, heavy boosting below 100 Hz can often lead to muddiness as the extreme subs start to overwhelm. Producer Jacquire King advises exercising restraint: "It's tempting to jack up sub-50 Hz for massive low end. But you lose clarity. I'll only boost a couple dB around 80 Hz for a little extra weight, while being careful not to muddy up the punch and attack."

When using EQ to distort bass tones, many producers favor classic analog units like the API 560 for their natural, warm saturation. Producer Symbolyc One (Kanye West, Jay Z) shares: "œI push the 160 Hz on the API 560 to dirty up basslines. As you overdrive the EQ more and more, it saturates the subs beautifully. You get this very thick, analog distortion that"™s all low-end menace."

Boost Your Sound: Top EQ Hardware Picks to Polish Your Mix in 2023 - Next-Level Mastering - Hybrid Analog/Digital Units

In the world of audio mastering, hybrid systems that combine analog gear with digital power have become highly prized for their ability to provide the "œbest of both worlds." While software and in-the-box mastering workflows continue to improve, many top mastering engineers feel that incorporating analog processing is vital for achieving the highest level results. This has led to increased interest in hybrid digital/analog units that integrate software precision with analog richness.

One of the leaders in hybrid mastering systems is the Dangerous Music Convert-2. This unit pairs an analog signal path with DSP power to enable extensive mastering processing and conversion. Convert-2 allows engineers to incorporate their choice of external analog gear like EQs and compressors, while harnessing digital limiting, EQ and more. Bob Katz, a Grammy-winning mastering engineer, shares his enthusiasm: "œThe Convert-2 becomes the core of a hybrid system that's just incredible. I can have all the touch and feel of my analog gear, then let the digital processing handle modern level maximization and precision control."

The Elastic Audio Box is another popular hybrid solution. This desktop unit teams a vacuum tube gain stage with digital processing like the MDynamicEQ dynamic equalizer. Producer Dave Pensado explains, "œWith the distortion and non-linearities from pushing tubes, then the surgical abilities of the digital EQ, I can get that larger-than-life sound I want without sacrificing detail."

Hybrid power also enables advanced digital processing like M/S encoding and Mid-Side compression, to further polish and widen mastered mixes. Producer Andrew Scheps elaborates, "œBeing able to access M/S encoding in the box is a revelation for mastering. It lets me separately process the Middle and Side signals to control stereo width and asymmetry in a way analog can"™t touch."

All-tube analog hardware like Manley's Massive-Passive has long been coveted for mastering due to its musical saturation. Hybrid integration now allows combining this desirable tone-shaping with modern convenience. Tonal balance engineer Darcy Proper explains, "œWith hybrid setups, I can drive the exact harmonics and vibe I want from the Manley, then control it in the box without jumping to operate different hardware. The analog workflow becomes easier and more precise."

At the highest level, hybrid systems also provide studio-to-studio communication and matching capabilities superior to pure analog. Blackbird Studio's John McBride elaborates, "œHybrid lets me perfectly dial an album"™s sound between my studio, the mixing room and final mastering. The extensive recall abilities keep the sound consistent between locations in a way vintage analog chains never could."

Boost Your Sound: Top EQ Hardware Picks to Polish Your Mix in 2023 - EQ by Application - Solutions for Vocals, Drums, Guitars

When it comes to EQ, a one-size-fits-all approach rarely delivers optimal results. The most musical and impactful EQ choices are made when engineers tailor the processing to suit the unique tonal qualities of each instrument. Top recording engineers reveal their EQ secrets when shaping the defining sounds of vocals, drums and guitars.

On lead vocals, EQ choices must enhance the unique character of the singer while ensuring intelligibility and presence in the mix. For sibilant singers, de-essing tames harshness, but wider EQ moves can address vocal honkiness. Engineer Chris Lord-Alge boosts 2-5 kHz to add clarity while cutting around 500 Hz with a Pultec to remove muddy build-up: "œThat 500 Hz cut on vocals is mandatory for me - it takes away the honk and allows the words to come through clearer."

However, producer Jacquire King cautions excessive 500 Hz cuts: "œTake out too much 500 Hz and the vocal starts to sound lispy and wimpy. I"™ll only notch out small spikes around 350 Hz for honkiness while keeping enough low-mid warmth." Careful boosts from 10-15 kHz also add vocal sheen and presence. But Alge advises staying under 5 dB: "œLittle boosts around 12 kHz make vocals jump out. But go much above 3 dB and they start to sound shrieky."

Snare drums present EQ challenges, as boosting for crack can create harshness. Scheps filters out unpleasant ring: "œI"™ll sweep a narrow filter to weed out the nasty 5 kHz tone in snares, then boost the body around 120 Hz and add crack at 1.5 kHz." Guitars often need low-mid warmth reduced to prevent muddiness. But Vig avoids over-thinning guitars: "œI dip muddy tones around 400-500 Hz, but not much more than 3 dB or guitars lose their power."

Tom Petty engineer Ryan Ulyate relies on classic Pultecs: "œI set the EQ very gently, like the Pultec bumping 100 Hz and dipping around 300 Hz. Very subtle changes make big sonic differences." However, too much bass boost creates muffled tones. King amplifies low-end correctly: "œI only boost around 80-100 Hz on guitars - going much lower makes them indistinct and weird."

Distorted power chords call for treble EQ to articulate picking and palm mutes. But radical high-end EQ creates piercing harshness. Producer Michael Beinhorn tempers extreme EQ choices: "œI boost around 4-5 kHz for extra bite on crunchy guitars - going much above that makes everything shrill and painful." Subtle high-end lift clarifies guitars without crossed lines of ear-piercing distortion.

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