Emulation is just that… it’s a game of pretend… a simulation. …. Software cannot replicate the circuitry and hardware of real hardware. However, they won’t be the best equalizers.
It can filter itself to appear as if it is producing subtle, pleasant artifacts from analog recording equipment. It’s ultimately still, relative, cold, and lifeless.
Is that software EQ? They are not. They are amazing. They lack the ability to be replicated accurately.
They lack the ability to produce harmonic distortion tubes and transistors. They can dissociate from mixing, which can be quite hands-on.
We get it. It’s not as glamorous as an effects processor or preamplifier, but outboard equalizers can be just as attractive. They are more about technological sophistication and effort than the instant results that a compressor can give off.
Let everyone think and feel that. You’ll be able to use your secret weapon as a recording and mixing engineer, mastering engineer, and mastering artist, which will get you more results and business than your competition.
It’s great to have an EQ in your car’s stereo system, as well as your home’s entertainment system. But it’s so much more enjoyable to use one in the studio. Let’s get to the point. We will briefly review the various options, highlight what you should look for, then we will go over our recommendations at different price points for each type.
Let’s discuss EQ’s generally, including the types that are available, why top studios prefer hardware options and what to consider before you make a purchase.
What are Studio Equalizers?
An equalizer is a type circuitry that controls the flow of an audio signal. We’re referring to music in live venues as well as recording studios.
This filter controls the volume of frequency ranges by either increasing or decreasing their amplitude.
What types of EQUALIZERS DO YOU HAVE?
There are two types of equalizers available today:
- Hardware Rackmount, desktop, and 500 series
- Software VST & A plugins for DAWs
There are two types of sub-types to the two main categories:
Although they have some differences in their use, both can be used to produce the desired effect. Parametric EQ with curve visualization
Parametric EQs have fewer frequencies (bands) that you can control. However, these bands can be moved up or down the frequency spectrum. You can adjust their bandwidth (or Q), to cover a wider range of frequencies, or make them thin to achieve laser-like precision.
The sinusoidal Q curve is similar to a bell curve, but without any rigid boundaries. The frequency and bandwidth are centered, then you boost or reduce. Graphic EQ with curve visualization
Graphic EQ’s offer more bands than parametric equalizers, with 15 to 31 channels. These bands are, however, static in both their spectrum and bandwidth. You can only choose to increase or reduce.
The consolation prize is the ability to make multiple changes simultaneously without needing to bounce the track twice. Although the Q for each band is usually 1/3rd of an Octave, options with less bands can raise the Q to 2/3 of an Octave.
You’re probably already familiar with how to use an equalizer. We’ll stop there and get on with our business.
Why are Outboard Analog EQ’s so desirable?
Clients are wowed by the visual impact of a lot of gear with knobs and switches all over it. This is vital for gaining and keeping studio business )….
Outboard EQ’s are superior to software versions due to the enjoyment of mixing with your hands and ears.
Talk will be made about vacuum tubes and transistors. There will be subjective terms such as “warmth”, “fullness”, and even color. All true. It all boils down to saturation. The signal is subject to a subtle but pleasing harmonic distortion by active electronics.
This causes harmonics to be higher than normal, creating a feeling of fullness. This warmth creates a full-sounding song that has all the tracks.
It is difficult to explain. You may have noticed that digital mixes sound crystal clear, almost to the point of being able to “see” through the stereo field.
Analog mixes, especially those that were recorded on tape first, don’t have the same transparency as analog mixes. This is because harmonic distortion fills in the gaps. You can listen to recordings from the 1970’s and earlier, or any record that was intentionally taped and mixed outboard.
You can stream a few samples from the John Mayer album Battle Studies here.
WHAT TO REMEMBER WHEN YOU MAKE A DECISION
It can be difficult to decide which EQ you want if you only have one. But you can help yourself by asking questions:
- What can I use it for?
- How is the work environment?
This means that you will use it most often for live performances, recording and mixing, or mastering. The second question is also acceptable.
Let’s begin with live performances. It’s not necessary to have a lot or many bands with tight Q’s. This type of precision will not work in a stadium, bar, or auditorium. Wide curves are needed to create a pleasing sound.
Recording in a garage, or in a room that has very little acoustic treatment is the same. Broad actions will vastly improve the sound, not narrow frequency ranges. These environments are ideal for mixing results.
I recommend a parametric Eq with 3 to 5 band for the applications above.
A graphic equalizer may be more useful if you are recording in an acoustic environment capable of producing a natural sounding signal. You’ll be able to make precise decisions about the frequencies you adjust when mixing clean results in a well-treated mix room.
I recommend the graphicEQ with 15 to 31 bands for these uses.
Although they can control the quality of mastering material, a mastering engineer will be working in a perfect mix room. They may need to adjust the frequency spectrum in order to bring the album together. Both equalizers will be useful for this type of work.
Helpful Equalization Articles
Many fine pieces of content have been published by us and others to help you get more out of your equalizer. These are some of our top tips for beginners. These are great to keep in your bookmarks and review while you wait for your new outboard EQ.
- Mixing With EQ: 23 Tips LedgerNote
- PreSonus Equalizer Terms and Tips
- EQ Guide For Newbies – Gearslutz
- EQ Cheat Sheet for Instruments – Sonicbids
These will provide you with the framework of reference that you need to help your brain and ears get used to the frequency spectrum.
Let’s now look at some specific recommendations using our quick equalizer reviews…
The Best Equalizers
We don’t just list the top of the best in our reviews, as those items are often not available. Nothing is worse than having your heart set on a piece or gear, only to wait 3 years for it on the used market and then being outbid by someone else while you were working or sleeping.
These are the most powerful parametric and graphic equalizers you will find. So that no one is left behind, we also include the best choices within each price range. With the right purchase, practice and patience you can maximize your quality returns at every step.
Note: Every image and text link takes you to Amazon.com, where you can read additional reviews and find technical details listings and make your purchase.
Let’s do it!
Project Studio Recommendations
We will start with the most affordable options, and avoid those that are too expensive. These are great for small mixing and mastering studios or home recording. We’ll then take a look at the big boys. I highly recommend that you do so to have a reference.
BEST PARAMETRIC EQUUALIZERS
These can be used to make large and subtle changes to your sound, but they also have the ability of making precise adjustments. This style may be preferred by musicians with less than stellar recording or mixing environments. These items will be useful throughout their lifetime.
GOLDEN AGE PROJECT Q73
The Golden Age Project EQ73‘s name derives from its mission to provide the same warmth, clarity and warmth as the Neve 1073 but at a substantially lower price.
This is a nice example of a basic three-band EQ. However, the outer bands can be used to filter low- and high-shelf frequencies. You can adjust the middle band to reach 100 Hz up to 10 kHz. This is sufficient when you add the shelves that can be used as roll-offs.
They are stepped so you can’t target frequencies that are not labeled. However, they were chosen to provide the best equalization options. The shelves can accommodate volume changes up to 15dB, while the bell curve in the middle band can adjust up 18dB. For full control, each band has a bypass switch.
This EQ’s sound can be described as punchy and warm, or as pleasant with smooth transitions. This EQ is one channel of mono goodness that can be used for synths, vocals, guitars, and other instruments. This Neve sound has been featured on many top albums throughout the years.
One thing to keep in mind is that this unit’s input and output are designed to be used with insert connectors. This means that the signal from your interface or preamp goes through the EQ and returns to the first piece through a TRS-cable.
You have two options: using it with any gear, a mixer with an insert jack, or using a TRS-TS split cable. You can either run it as normal or plug it into your patchbay. This isn’t a major issue, but it’s important to be aware of the possibility of being caught unaware and having to order a signal splitter or cable later.
CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON The same warmth and clarity of the Neve 1073…
- Favorite LedgerNote
WARM AUDIO EQP-WA
Another modern equalizer, the Warm AudioEQP-WA, is designed to reproduce a classic sound at a reasonable price. This fully discrete tube EQ provides the Pultec EQP-1A audio. Warm Audio claims that two tubes equal warmth.
For added warmth, you can bypass the whole EQ section and run the tubes through the tube. This mono beast is balanced XLR.
As you can see, you can boost and cut simultaneously to create a phase effect. It’s an option you may use, but it is still nice. The Q curve’s adjustable bandwidth is what I consider the true value of hardware EQs.
This is a 3-band EQ. If you pay attention, you will see it. Low frequency boost and cut can be combined, while high frequency boost is separated from cut. This is great for increasing presence and cutting other frequencies to make room for harmony or to eliminate less pleasant frequencies such as slight sibilance.
This option is unbeatable.
Analog warmth is what you want, so do it right…
DAKING EQ 500
I decided to mention at least one 500-series option for lunchbox users. The Daking EQ 500. They made the 4-band section of the Daking Mic Pre/EQ available for everyone.
Each band can have a 16-dB boost or cut range. The top and bottom bands have high and low shelves (fantastic), while the middle and middle bands are your Low/Mid or Mid/High bands. The crossover is useful for precise work. Each pot has an “Out”, which is the lowest available frequency. If you pay attention, you will see it. This is the bypass setting for each band.
This EQ has the coolest feature: the Q’s are proportional with the amount of boost or cut. The bandwidth of the boost will be wide if you start with a small boost at 1 or 2. As you increase the boost to 16 dB, the Q narrows. This makes the equalizer extremely useful for all applications.
Daking refers to the sound as “sweet”. It is a strange sound. I can feel the warmth from balanced outputs and no-noise transistors. It is transparent, but it does tend to be more color-oriented than I would like to describe. It is more towards the middle than either extreme. It’s extremely versatile and can be used on any signal, again.
CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON My Lunchbox Friends: The Best 500 Series EQ
BEST GRAPHIC EQUALIZERS
A graphic equalizer is a tool that allows you to adjust your tracks precisely and has enough clarity to be of use.
The trusted DBX 231s. DBX has been around for a long time and is known for making affordable gear that’s rugged enough to take on the road, but still performs well in the studio. Due to their performance and price ratio, compressors and EQs are found in a lot of studios. This gear is mid-level at entry-level prices.
This bad boy is a stereo equalizer. Both channels also have 31 bands. Each band can adjust the Q setting at 1/3 of an octave. It can also manage a maximum 12 dB boost/cut. If you need to be more precise in your adjustments, you can switch it to 6dB.
The output meter will tell you if your gain is too high or low for your gain staging. You can choose from XLR and TRS inputs or outputs. Convenient!
Some people have complained about the self-noise of these units, but this has not been my experience. If you want your gear to work at its best, it is important to use a power conditioner and properly ground your rack. People dropping the sliders and turning up the monitors to hear the noise. This is what I have heard most of my experience with.
With the correct gain settings, everything has a noise level that is well below any problem level. Because of the low price, I suspect that many complaints are from knowledgeable but not so well-informed amateur users.
This is your money-saver for anyone who plays gigs or mixes live events. If you do your job right, this will work in budget studios for mastering and mixing. The Rane is available for purchase if you are able to do so. If you are unable to, then you have found your winner.
CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON The “Beat it Up at a Gig” choice…
The Rane ME-60s, which is an update to the ME-60 model and is made up of two ME-30s units, is what helped make the company famous. Studio engineers found that the more affordable alternatives outperformed the big boys for many tasks. This was largely due to preference. This is a big deal when highly trained ears are excited about a piece.
The EQ can be used to support stereo channels (or two mono channels). It takes up 2 rack units. This EQ has a 1/3rd octave average Q, making it a great piece for mastering and precision mixing, especially when there is an imbalance in the panned tracks. You can rest assured that your signal will be protected from outside and inside noises with balanced XLR or TRS jacks.
Contrary to its predecessor, the ME-60s has a constant-Q bandwidth design. Each band can give you 12 dB boost or cutting. You can also drop it down to 6 dB to do more decisive work. You can also use low or high cut filters to reach very high and low.
You can add your own color to the signal, or use the bypass. There are also input gain controls to allow you to customize your drive. An overload LED indicator is also included to let you know if the signal has been driven too hard.
This option is right in the middle of the curve, before you get lower returns on higher spending. This is a great option for conscientious buyers who want to get the most for their money. You don’t have to spend more in order to get incrementally greater gains. Then you can look at the options below.
A fraction of the cost of many big boys…
Recommendations for Professional Studio Artists
Let’s take a look at all the options available. Quality is the most important factor. Labels and clients don’t care so much about the cost of their services, but rather about the results. It’s up you to turn the heat.
This may be your situation. We have listed some options, separated by task. Then we will list honorable mentions that you might consider. These are worth looking at but not too long.
BEST EQ’S – RECORDING AND MIXING
These tools can be used by any engineer, but we prefer these to perform wide-ranging recording and mixing tasks.
The A Design Hammer 2 EQ is perhaps the most user-friendly EQ on the market. Dual mono channels allow you to use two tracks simultaneously or one stereo track. To bypass or engage the EQ, high cut (8 kHz) and low cut (84 Hz) switches are located on the left side of each channel.
The Hammer 2 is similar to the Warm Audio EQ, but has three bands and two tubes that can be used to throw in second order harmonics. This gives you a rich, warm sound, even when in bypass mode.
You’ve probably used equalizers before. However, once the chords and notes change, your carefully designed settings cease to make sense. Broad Q’s are a great option. Broadly set bandwidths can be used to create a natural sounding music.
This is what they call “self-adjusting” or floating EQ’s. Previously, this feature was only available in expensive and high-end plugins. This makes the EQ a simple-to-use model, making it almost impossible to improve your mixes. This EQ works on mono tracks, stereo tracks and even the mix bus.
There are many frequency options, including a cut or boost of up to 12 dB, as well as tubes and a virtually non-existent noise floor. The floating Q’s and wide range of cut filters make this an attractive equalizer for mixing and recording in clean environments. You can commit your mix to tape or computer, and then route through your patchbay for quick and confident changes.
An EQ that is self-adjusting, warm, and musical for the studio…
- Favorite LedgerNote
The API 5500 EQ is one of the most sought-after in the game. The 550 EQ console module was first used in the studio mixing boards. With its opamp gain stages and proportional (but not variable) Q’s it broke new ground. It also had almost twice as much headroom than any other EQ up to today.
API made the studio standard in dual-mono available as an option because consoles were losing their importance.
API says this bad boy can be used for mastering, mixing, and tracking. It can handle anything. According to my research, many engineers prefer to have a few of these as their bus EQ’s.
Each channel has four bands. They are separated into Lo, Lo-Mid and Hi-Mid. You can increase the boost or cut range by 0.5 dB, or 0.25 dB for very high resolution mixing.
This level of precision can be adjusted from 40 Hz to 20 kHz. One thing I would like to see on this machine is an independent low-and-high cut or shelving. However, you can do that at any time so it’s not too important. This would be a bonus feature to an already flawless machine, rather than having to sacrifice a few bands in order to make it happen.
CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON This Productivity Machine will Enhance Your Quality.
BEST EQ FOR MASTERING
The obvious choice in pricing is the only one that I think is reasonable. While there are many other flavors that are equally good, it is not fair to say which one is better.
At that point, you’re only talking about preference. This beast is at the intersection of value and cost.
MANLEY LABS MASSIVE PASSIVE
What should I say and in what order? The Manley Labs Massive Active is exactly as it sounds, a passive stereo equalizer that has 4 channels and high- and low pass filters. What does passive mean? It simply means that the electronic components within it don’t need electricity to power them. They just impart the sound qualities to the signal that runs through them.
This means that the inductors and capacitors of this beast work transparently without adding any coloration. This is exactly what you will need for the mastering stage. This also means that you are extracting energy from the signal to give these characteristics to it.
It is possible to boost any frequency but cut all others. Remember, we said at the beginning of this article that cutting is always better than boosting! ).
This means that you will need an amplifier with a much higher level of power than you have ever heard. Massive Passive’s amp features six tubes that allow for harmonics, stereo depth and a sense of “pleasantness”. This can all be achieved by running it in bypass mode.
The interesting thing about each band is that it works in a serial fashion, rather than parallel like other EQs. Each band has the ability to cross over, so you can boost the same frequency twice. Instead of having both boosts applied at once, each boost will be applied individually. Although it’s not very different, it is worth mentioning.
You can switch between boost or cut modes for each band, as well as your standard bell-shaped Q and turning it into a shelf. If you don’t need to do a full cut, you can make a roll-off using the shelf switch or bandwidth knob.
There are 44 frequency options available at an average 1/4th of an octave bandwidth, which can be adjusted. It is a mastering equalizer so it almost has no noise (invisible with proper gain stage) and large headroom to give you your first push in the loudness wars.
This is the place to go if you are looking for a way to master your EQ.
CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON The King of Mastering, Passive and Not
HONORABLE MENTIONS TO BEST EQUALIZER
While there are many more options, we decided to focus on our top picks. These are just a few of the many options available.
Each number is listed above. If you’d like to find out more, each can be mapped to our list of links.
- Chandler Limited’s Germanium Tone Control
- Black Lion Audio’s AM/CHA1
- Drawmer’s 1961 Vacuum Tube EQ
- Empirical Labs’ Lil Freq
- The Portico 533
- The GML8200
These are all great options at different price points. You’ll be able to understand the differences and use them in all possible ways once you have read this far.
These are the best equalizers available
You can reap the benefits of performing some or all of these actions. Your equalization outboard is as beneficial as applying compression.
One of the most versatile studio equalizers is available for everything. From cleaning up the signal before it goes digital, to adding analog warmth to the recording phase, to mixing up each track during the mix phase, and even equalizing master output, buses, and mastering.