People often ask me about my opinions on what the best audio plugins are, and there are no doubts that investing in quality EQs and compressors is one of the most important things you can do for both sound design or mixing. You can do pretty amazing things just with EQ and compression, but of course you need to understand your tools to make the best of them. In this post I propose some exercises and tips, as well as covering the main tools I have gathered through the last years and my thoughts on the best EQ plugins.
Types of Equalizers
There are many types of EQs and I believe some are more important than others. It took me a while to understand how to fully use them all and how to select the right one for specific situations. This subject is actually so vast and complex, I could make a series of multiple posts and I wouldn’t get through it. I’ll try to avoid being too technical and will explain them in simple terms so anyone can understand.
The way I approach EQs are based on different actions:
- Corrective. Sometimes a sound will have part of it that will feel aggressive and annoying. I will do corrective by spotting where where it looks like it’s an issue and then cut. Corrective cuts are usually not too narrow (Ex. Q of 3)
- Surgical. A resonance in a sound makes your ears hurt and that will need a very narrow cut. (Q of 6-8+).
- Tonal adjustments. An EQ can be used to make tonal changes such as deciding if you want your track more beefy or more light by either boosting lows or highs.
- Coloring. Some EQs aren’t transparent and will have a musical touch to the changes it makes. This will add some personality.
- Valley cuts. The opposite of surgical, where the Q will be make the curve really wide. It makes very subtle changes, somewhat tonal, a bit colored and sometimes a bit corrective. Try it at different points on a sound and see it change without being able to really know what’s happening.
TIP: The human ear will hear a noticeable difference if you cut 3-4dB minimum. If you cut 6dB, it will be quite obvious.
The main types of EQ plugin categories are:
- Graphic/Fixed Frequencies. Influenced by older models and the first EQ, the frequencies you’d have access to are fixed and won’t be changed. In many of those models, the frequencies are based per octaves but certain companies will have their own way of deciding which ones are used.
- Parametric. One EQ that is very popular is the Q2 by Fabfilter which allows you to drop a point anywhere and then be able to shape how narrow you want to cut or boost.
- Shelving/Band. This is a part of the spectrum that will be affected. For example, on DJ mixers, the 3-4 EQ buttons are basically shelves of frequencies that are altered.
- Dynamic. This one is advanced. You can “order” a point of your EQ to react depending of certain conditions. For example, if you have a recording of a drum, you can order the highs to lower down by 3-4dB if the cymbals hit too loud. Very practical!
TIP: If you love the sound of analog, you might want to dig in Universal Audio’s suite that does emulation of classic pieces of gear. The fidelity of replication is absolutely mind boggling!
Now let’s make some associations regarding which EQ does what:
- Surgical and valley cuts are mostly done with parametric EQs. This type of EQ will allow you to precisely identify the rogue frequencies and then cut or boost, in the way you want.
- Corrective EQ can also be done with parametric but with graphical ones too. Sometimes a correction needs precision but sometimes, it can just be a way to realign the curve of the sound which a graphical EQ can do easily.
- Tonal adjustments. This is done with shelving and band EQ.
- Coloring. This is basically fixed frequencies, but if you look for analog emulation or EQs that provide a type of saturation, then you’ll also get some coloring and personality.
My favorite EQ plugins
Here are my thoughts on the best EQ plugins that are precious tools to have in your arsenal. I’ve also included low budget EQs alternatives that are similar.
This plugin seems to have found it’s way in many producer’s tool kit mostly because it can pretty much do it all. From complex curves, mastering touch-ups to shelving tones and copying the frequency of a sound to apply it to another… the ways you can use this beast are so numerous that you’ll have to watch a bunch of tutorials to get all the hidden things it can do.
Budget Alternative: TDR Nova GE by Tokyo Dawn
Not so known by the masses but this EQ is an absolute wonder to have on hand. I use it in every single mixes I do and the results are always amazing. A bit of a learning curve to understand as the GUI is a bit weird but even if you’re not sure of what you’re doing, it shapes the sound in a way that makes it pop out and warms it too.
Budget Alternative: RetroQ by PSP
I don’t think there’s any plugin that can do what this can do in terms of results. Not as versatile as the ProQ2 but where this one stands out is for how buttery it cuts in the sound, smoothing things out. When I have people studying mixing with me, I would always require them to buy this one as the very first EQ to have and use.
Budget Alternative: Voxengo Prime EQ
This emulation of the famous Manley Massive-Passive EQ is a bomb EQ. I love to place it on a bus of all my melodic content and then smoothly shape it into something that magically turns organic and warm. It requires a bit of exploration but when you get your hands around it, you’ll always want to use it. I find it quite powerful for sound design as a way to warm up the lows.
I’m not a big fan of Waves as well as their aggressive tactics for selling but this plugin is a really useful one to have. As described above, with a dynamic EQ, you can tame some frequencies that are randomly happening. The problem with a static EQ is, you’ll be cutting permanently a frequency so if what you’re trying to cut isn’t always there, you might cut something that doesn’t need adjustment. This is why you can have more control with a dynamic EQ. This one is also really easy to use if you’re familiar with the concept and the fact that you can use it in MS makes it really versatile. Not as easy and fancy looking as Fabfilter’s but it does more, in other ways. Wait for the price to fall but you might get it fro either 29$ to 49$ if you’re patient enough.
In the next post, I will go more in detail with my favorite plugins and will also explain certain ways, in details, for how to get the most of them.