What would an engineer do without a proper equalizer? It is a really hard question to answer in the age of HiFi systems and affordable access to great sound.
Imagine if you could not roll out the undesirable rumble of a muddy vocal, or if you were not able to tame the mid-range on a bright guitar signal. As engineers, we rely heavily on our ability to alter and affect the sounds we record and one of the biggest ways we can achieve this is through the use of an EQ.
In today’s world of audio, DAWs have provided every engineer with simple ways to correct frequency issues. Most systems include at least one or two different types of EQ to help make the required changes to your mixes and masters, and those systems often allow for third-party EQ plugins to be loaded as well. While these types of equalization offer quick and accessible ways to tune your mix, it is worth considering the days gone by, when analog processors were the only way to achieve the desired result. Many engineers utilize these still when they are seeking the coloration and particular sound they are after for their mixes and masters. Whether it be a subtle shift or a major cut that you are after, the EQs below are among the best in the business and suited for this kind of work.
In every product category, there are always a few pieces of gear that stand out and make a name for themselves. Pultec has been known to have a few of those types of units, and among them is the EQP-1a. Designed in the early 1950s by Eugene Shenk, the Pultec was created for one of the company’s longtime friends who commissioned the company to build a mastering equalizer for a new studio he was putting together at MGM. This EQ, outside of the sounds you can get out of it, was revolutionary for the use of an amplification stage at the end of the circuit. Many equalizers of the time had a tendency to output roughly 20dB down from the level of the input signal. Since the EQP-1a, many equalizers have used this type of design to keep signal at its intended level.
The EQP-1a is a two-band program equalizer that uses broad curves and shelving to achieve its frequency changes. The control panel is rather simplistic, featuring a boost, attenuate, and frequency selection knob for each of the two bands. It also allows the user to select how broad of a curve they would be affecting via the bandwidth knob and what frequency the high shelf attenuation is set at via the attenuation select knob. As with many designs from the 1950s and 1960s, the EQP-1a features tubes in its circuitry which helps give the EQ the analog warmth that it has become known for. These tubes are used in the output stage of the EQ so even when used with a flat response, there is color and warmth that is gained just by running your audio through the unit.
Possibly the most revered feature of this equalizer is the ability to simultaneously boost and cut frequencies with only two bands. This allows for better control over the broader curves created through the Pultec and creates complex and musical changes to work with. The EQP-1a is typically used as a stereo bus EQ or in a mastering chain, even though it is not considered to be a surgical EQ. For a vintage, tube coloration and musical response, the EQP-1a can be the ticket to shaping your mixes and masters into professional results.
A great parametric EQ to check out is the Maag Audio EQ4M. This stereo equalizer features six bands to help tailor your sound, and also features Maag’s Air Band. This EQ lends itself to mastering quite well with the inclusion of detented (stepped) knobs. With fixed positions on every control, recalling your settings becomes simple, and allows for exact settings on each channel. Outside of the six-bands, each channel has a stepped input attenuation control to help fine-tune how much signal is coming into the unit. The attenuation can provide up to 10dB of padding on each channel.
When it comes to sound, the EQ4M aims to be a very clean equalizer. It is capable of creating complex frequency curves via its six bands and can have a significant effect on sub frequencies as well as high frequencies via the Air Band. The Air Band, in particular, is a high-frequency shelf band that can be set at 2.5kHz, 5kHz, 10kHz, 15kHz, 20kHz, and 40kHz. The ability to add a shelf at such high frequencies is an interesting addition, but yields great results when presence is required no matter how subtle or extreme you might need it to be.
Additionally, the EQ4M continues to build on Maag’s line of EQ’s by adding more headroom to the design, which gains more control while maintaining the transparency that this unit has become known for. The addition of the 15kHz setting in the Air Band section also allows for more precise shaping of your high-end content. When transparency, recall-ability, and larger amounts of control are required, the EQ4M should be on your list of gear to consider.
Manley has always prided itself on its use of tubes in their circuits, and nothing has changed with their famous EQ. Featuring a passive frequency shaping section and tube-driven amplification, this EQ has been described as a Pultec with more control. The Massive Passive equalizer comes in two variants geared at both mixing and mastering. They feature the same circuitry, but if mastering is your goal, the Massive Passive Mastering Version adds stepped controls to the equation for the ability to get exact duplicates of settings for both channels as well as the simplified recall-ability that comes from these types of knobs.
The sound of the Massive Passive is a bit more colored due to the tube stage at the end of the circuit. Manley strived to give a similar response to a Pultec EQ, but decided to add four bands and high and low pass filters to allow for more precise control over the curves you are creating. Because of these aspirations, Manley created an EQ that borrowed a little bit from a lot of great EQ designs. Another fantastic thing to note about the Massive Passive is how the tubes interact with large boosts in the upper-middle and high-frequency sections. Because of the high roll-off of the tube coloration, these frequencies can be boosted quite eagerly without the worry of adding additional sibilance or harshness. Similarly, the sound of this unit allows for a much beefier low end than many similar designs without as much of a worry about muddiness.
Because of the versatility provided in this unit, the Massive Passive is truly a great choice for any EQ job. Whether you need extreme settings in a mix, or a subtle shade of color and correction in a master, Manley has you covered with the Massive Passive.
When it comes to console-style EQs, there are a few big names that come to mind. Automated Processes Incorporated, or API, established themselves as a front-runner in console design in the early 1970’s and the legacy has continued since. Before their consoles helped make their name, the founder Saul Walker designed an equalizer known as the API 550. This EQ became very popular for its innovative design which included proportional Q and reciprocal cutting and boosting. Proportional Q meant that the bandwidth of your EQ cut or boost would narrow as the gain was increased. Because of this, the 550 was able to make very subtle and musical shifts based on both frequency and gain settings. As for the reciprocal cutting and boosting, the curves of both responses were identical just in reverse. This allowed engineers to “undo” any previous changes they made to a mix or master. Both a three and four band version were made under the names 550a and 550b respectively.
The API 5500 is a stereo version of the 550b EQ that has some newer features built in as well. The controls give you access to a four band EQ section, high and low shelving buttons, and a range control. Although this EQ was later used in recording consoles, it has been updated to include balanced inputs, as well as the ability to make smaller adjustments easy with the range control. The range values are 1, 0.5, and 0.25 and affect how each of the control knobs responds, meaning if the range is set at 0.5 and you make a 2dB adjustment, it only yields a 1 dB change in that frequency. In mastering applications, the range knob becomes a fantastic tool to have in your arsenal, making small adjustments that much easier to achieve. The 5500 also boasts a high amount of headroom for optimal transparency even when being used in a chain. If you are hunting for the sound of a vintage console, the 5500 can take you there. On the flip-side, if your goal is a straightforward EQ with clean headroom and the ability to be subtle, the 5500 can take you there too. No matter your goal, this EQ is well worth looking into.
Another big name in the world of equalization is George Massenburg. Credited as the creator of the parametric EQ, George Massenburg’s designs have been a staple and standard in many studios since the creation of George Massenburg Labs in 1982. The GML 8200 has set itself apart in the world of parametric EQs for a couple of reasons. One is the use of an all-discrete circuit that offers the ultimate transparency as well as general dependability from the units. The 8200 prides itself on its accuracy across the frequency spectrum for any audio work you may want to throw at it.
This EQ offers five bands with up to 15dB of boost and cut on each band, allowing for larger boosts and cuts than many hardware EQs are capable of. This functionality, along with the highly adjustable Q control allows for much more surgical equalization than a more typical parametric EQ would allow for. To allow for all of these features, the 8200 features dual-concentric knobs for control over frequencies and the Q factor.
In terms of sound, the 8200 offers extreme flexibility. There are not any tubes to add any coloration, but through carefully engineered and overlapping frequency bands, users can create complex EQ curves that can take your mixes and masters from slightly corrected to noticeably colored. If you want a flexible equalizer with lots of bands and precise tone shaping options, the GML 8200 could be the answer to all of your issues.
Upon first glance at this EQ, I believed this would be a fully digital unit. The touchscreen and limited amount of knobs made it hard to believe that this was a fully analog equalizer, but it is just that. Boasting a completely analog signal path, Bettermaker decided to add digital convenience to the way this EQ is controlled. This Mastering EQ provides four bands of parametric equalization, complete with 399 presets, a real-time analyzer, and USB connectivity to a Mac or PC for complete digital recall.
The aim of this EQ focuses on Mastering applications. It features high and low shelf filters with adjustable resonance controls, low and high bands with a bell/shelf curve, and air bands at 23kHZ and 28kHz. Each band’s Q factor can be set between 0.2 and 7 to make the most surgical cuts and boosts if the need arises, and also allows 15dB of cut or boost. The EQ parameters are set via a five inch touchscreen and can also be controlled via a DAW with a dedicated control plugin. This kind of flexibility makes use of this unit easy to control, even if it is housed inside the rack that is furthest away from your desk. On top of being easy to control, it allows for more configuration via its dual-mono setup and mid/side options for more complex EQ tasks. Because of the array of flexible options, the sound of this EQ can range from colored to transparent, making this an excellent choice for both mixing and mastering. The Bettermaker Mastering EQ provides engineers with the analog sound they want, with all the modern conveniences of DAW integration and recall-ability.
Rupert Neve has become legendary for many unique and innovative designs. Whether it is the classic 1073 mic preamp, the 33609 compressor, or one of his amazing consoles, everybody in audio engineering can thank him for something. His consoles have made their name in the world of top tier studios, and this is due to not only the preamps, but the EQ’s he helped design.
The Portico 5033 is a five band equalizer that looks to further the reputation. It is a single channel design, that gives you fine-tuned control and the classic console sound we have come to expect from Neve equipment. The unit features a trim control capable of +/- 12dB of adjustment for the incoming signal, an adjustable low shelf, low, middle, and high parametric bands, and a high shelf. The parametric bands allow for control of the bandwidth you are affecting with a Q control knob on each section. In combination with the high and low shelves, this gives you tons of options when shaping your high and low-frequency information. Each band has 12dB of boost and cut available to them. In combination with a narrow Q setting, this EQ could be used for smaller and more precise cuts needed in some mixing and mastering scenarios.
The sound of the EQ comes from the use of transformers on the input and output, contributing to its classic console sounds. This coloration is present with the equalizer section bypassed as well. The bypass allows the trim control to be used to drive the input, but sidesteps the EQ allowing for the tone of the transformers to come through into your mix. Console EQs are a great way to have flexibility and color, and the 5033 is no different. If you are looking for this classic sound and coloration, but don’t want to buy an entire Neve console, the 5033 may just fit the bill.
SSL is another company that has excelled at creating legendary consoles. With the introduction of the SSL 4000E in 1979, SSL had become a huge name in the recording industry. Many pieces of gear have been inspired by this series of consoles including their famous bus compressor, but one piece of their history can be traced back to the console EQs on the E and G series consoles. Now a part of their X-Rack system, SSL has built a stereo equalizer that can be switched to have the bell curves of the E or G consoles.
The EQ features four bands with variable Q controls on the high mid and low mid bands, allowing for precise adjustments to be made. The high and low bands can be switched between shelf and bell curves depending on what you are looking to accomplish in your mix or master. The sounds of this EQ are consistent with the classic SSL console sound, giving you the edge and punch of many famous recordings throughout the 1980s and beyond. And with the X-Rack system powering this EQ, your settings can be saved and recalled making this a good choice for mastering engineers looking to add some console coloration. For classic tone shaping from one of the leaders in console-style equalization, the SSL X-Rack Stereo EQ is worth your consideration.
No list of EQs would be complete without one great graphic option. The dbx 1231 is a 31 band, dual-channel graphic equalizer that features a low cut switch, range controls, and many I/O options to get in and out of other gear in your chain. This unit was designed both for live and studio use and is quite simple in its design. Each one of the sliders controls the frequency band that is marked and can be set to make up to 6dB or 15dB cuts and boosts. The range control determines whether the faders create 6dB or 15dB changes, which allows for greater accuracy in a mixing and mastering environment. Unlike many of the parametric EQs that have been discussed here, the Q factor cannot be changed. With so many bands, this graphic EQ looks to control the marked frequency without taking away from neighboring bands. Because of this, the 1231 can be used for more precise surgical cuts with little configuration on the engineer’s end. The low cut switch engages a high pass filter at 40hZ to help filter out any unneeded low-end information on your tracks. The unit also features a ground lift option on the back of the unit to help eliminate any hum or buzz you may experience in your chain. When precise equalizing is a must, and simplicity is preferred, the dbx 1231 can provide you with the tools that make graphic equalizers so great for mixing and mastering.
Baxandall equalizers are much more common than you may believe. They have found their way into home stereos and other consumer tone controls since their introduction in the 1950s. Designed by Peter Baxandall, the Baxandall tone control circuit featured a treble and bass control that used large, broad curves to enhance the quality of audio being passed through it. The Q settings are large, lending this style of equalization to change without significant altering of the original sound qualities.
The Dangerous Music BAX EQ builds on this classic circuit by offering a high and low-frequency shelving EQ that has become known for its natural, musical response. The controls are simple, featuring high and low pass controls, a frequency selection knob for both the high and low shelves, and gain knobs high and low information. The EQ offers a 5dB boost or cut on each shelf and uses carefully engineered curves to enhance your mixes and masters. Stepped knobs allow for easy recall and channel matching, making this a great choice for mastering engineers as well. Rather than giving you control over your Q factor, the BAX EQ is built to have broad curves. The surgical adjustments that some equalizers can offer will not be found here, but larger adjustments can be made with ease and confidence. Dangerous made sure to introduce a minimal amount of phase shifting when making changes on the BAX EQ, meaning the original qualities of your mix will stay intact when making a correction. Even without the fine-tuning available on many equalizers in its price range, the sounds from this EQ stand up to them and offer clarity and depth to your mixes and masters.
Conclusion: As with all types of gear, there are often enough options to make your head spin. All of the EQs on this list will get you closer to the sound you are after, but make sure to think about what you need your gear to accomplish. No matter what goal you are after, this list has plenty of options for coloration, versatility, surgical cuts, and more.
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