As many of you know, for a guy who’s blown so much dumb money on dumber high end gear, I’m one of the slowest dudes in the world to tell you to trade in the family farm for a mic preamp or converter upgrade. I am aware of the benefits of my toys, but most of the time I have a hard time recommending gigantic sacrifices for a hint of tonal color. Nothing sucks worse than using fancy preamps and converters and still coming out with frustration-inducing results. (The reasons for this are usually a gaping hole in a person’s engineering foundation….which I cover about as extensively as a person can stand in Killer Home Recording: Audio Engineering.)
As you may have (BARELY) guessed, it appears I may have found something with this analog EQ thing. In fact, this is the first time I’m going to flat out endorse a higher end product. The only other time I recommend expending this much cash is room acoustic treatments (bass traps specifically) and studio monitoring, in general. I’m flat out blown away by what analog EQ can do for me.
Back in 2009 I was loaned a Great River MEQ-1NV. That thing was a hell of a beast. I loved it. I can’t say I had one complaint. My wallet was the only one complaining. (That damn thing seems to have a mind of its own!) That was my first real experience with a high end equalizer. As you may read in Killer Home Recording, I was never able to replicate what the MEQ-1NV did using any of my plugins. There was something special about what this EQ did sonically. This peaked my interest. I didn’t expect to hear this kind of difference. (We’ll get to that in greater detail.)
Back in October, Chameleon Labs did a special where if you bought 2 of their 7602 MKII 1073 clones (Preamp / EQ) they’d throw in a $700 (give or take) stereo tube compressor for free. This seemed like a hell of a deal so I ordered it. Of course, I waited until February to get the damn 7602 (apparently, I’m not the only one who thought this was a great deal!) but now I’ve got two records under my belt with the them.
Lesson learned: I’m never tracking again without a kick butt EQ. I’m too spoiled by the 7602 EQ!
I had looked at analog equalizes a billion times since 2001 when I jumped into recording. I always asked the question that still gets me in trouble….”WHY?”. I already had plugins that seemed to be working. (Barely! We’ll talk about that here in a minute.) I’ve noticed that when I get a track to do exactly what I want going in, the damn thing sounds finished. I’ve noticed that the quality level of tracking has taken a BIG step up.
Get It Right On The Way In
In the past, I’d mic up X instrument, hit record, and most of the time I’d say, “This needs something.” Sometimes the problem was solved solely by mic placement, tone controls, different mics, different pre, etc. Sometimes it was clear I needed something more. So there in the middle of tracking, I’d toss on a EQ plugin and super quickly get something that I more or less thought was right. There definitely were times when I thought I had nailed the sound in this way, but a majority of the time I was convinced that I had come up short. I would attribute this flaw to the EQ setting, which I would improve on later on my own time. Then, of course, when mixing came around, I’d spend more time on the EQ and still end up unhappy. In most cases, the issue was something else. (An acoustical phenomenon in the room, out of tune this/that, etc).
The real crime was I would hit the record button without being happy and just assume I would fix it later. Then, I would find out that I can’t fix it later. DO NOT DO THIS!
By tracking with an analog EQ, I’ve gotten into the mindset that whatever I’m recording better sound exactly how I want it to sound. Sure, I’ll add ambiance or whatever later, but there is no reason why the dry mix shouldn’t be 98% there. If doing all the usual engineer stuff and then playing with the analog EQ doesn’t get us exactly there, I know I need to rethink the usual engineering stuff.
This “methodology” is not something you can put a price tag on. However, it’s a MAJOR benefit from using an analog EQ. You get your checks and balances real time. I guess a person could force themselves to do this with a good EQ plugin, but there are other reasons I’m huge into analog EQ these days. We’ll get into that here in a minute.
A Personal Victory
While more of a personal victory than anything, when I hit the “reset mixer” button in Cubase, the result isn’t all that different. Granted, I don’t have analog EQ for all my drum tracks (YET!) so they may need a little something here and there (usually bus compression more than anything). Other than that, it’s just panning, levels, and ambiance. A super quick mix sounds pretty damn finished these days and gives me time to max out creative possibilities.
Analog EQ vs Plugins
So what’s the big difference I’m so wound up about? I’ve written extensively how EQ does not change the core tone of a track. My example is you can never make a Strat sound like a Les Paul just by tossing an EQ on it. (The point is not to EVER think an EQ is going to make up for piss poor audio engineering.) While this particular analogy still holds up even with analog EQ, there is something extra that a good analog EQ does.
When I boost the top end with any plugin I’ve ever heard, it feels like it’s just adding fizz on top of the signal. It’s like there’s a clear distinction between the real tone and changed frequency response. However, when I boost the top end with a good analog EQ, I feel like we sent little microbes to get down deep into the signal and fundamentally reprogram it to BE something else. It doesn’t sound like I used EQ when I’ve used a good analog EQ. It just sounds “that way”. Of course, the effects aren’t limited to just adding top end. I’ve noticed this with all aspects of EQ.
You could compare this to my “chemical change” theory I like to talk about. Basically, if you put reverb on a guitar BEFORE sending it to a high gain amp you’ll be distorting the reverb. If you put the reverb on afterwards, you’ll hear a high gain amp with “clean” reverb on top of it. These are two dramatically different sounds. To me, a good analog EQ is much more like doing the changes before the amp. It becomes an inherent part of the sound and tone in a way that sounds very, very natural.
Actually Solves Problems
Because a good analog EQ has the ability to do “fundamental reprogramming” to the core signal, this can actually solve problems in ways that I’ve never been able to do in almost 10 years of using EQ plugins. While probably an extreme exaggeration, it feels like when I’m using plugins that I’m often trying to cover up a lie. The analog EQ, in comparison, doesn’t necessarily erase the flaw, but maybe it makes sure the parents never found out about a mailbox smashing adventure or a no-condom-adventure so you don’t have to lie in the first place.
The One High End Thing A Person NEEDS
Being that most us are on a limited budget, most people ask me where to put their cash. As a dude who has very nice tools, the one area (other than monitoring) that I’ve gotten the most benefit is analog EQ (other than mega studio monitoring! Yes, I just repeated myself!). I could live without analog compression. I really like my Distressor, but there are compressor plugins that could hold me over. I could live without my most expensive preamps. (I’d WAY rather have a True Systems Solo or a Chameleon preamp AND a killer EQ than have just a super high end preamp!) I don’t think I could ever go back to only EQ plugins ever again. They just don’t work the same way.
More Like Guitar Amp Tone Controls
While some equalizers come with dramatically more features (more frequency points, control over bandwidth, more options for shelving, etc) I’ve found something awesome about even a simple EQ like the Chameleon Labs 7602 MK2. I can’t do microsurgery and for tracks needing complex EQ treatment, I still have to resort to plugins for the “problem solving” surgical stuff.
What is cool about this EQ (and presumably others in the same style) is I don’t feel like I’m using brain power. I feel like I’m just twisting knobs looking for “it” while I play around. It’s very similar to toying around with a guitar amp. I don’t think about 234Hz. I just see what the thing can do. I’ve found this to make A TON of sense while tracking. I have trouble switching from “mix mode” to “tracking mode” in my brain. They are two different worlds. This creative use of EQ tends to be extremely intuitive during tracking. It’s also great for those of you who aren’t technically inclined. You don’t have to be! Just play around and have fun!
Not All Equalizers Are Created Equal
I’ve gotten my paws on several equalizers lately. In my experience, there is something mega that happens when you move up to a “really good” EQ. I’m not sure where to draw the line, however. So far, I’ve not heard any $200 hardware equalizers that had “it”. Usually they are short on features – which is another story we’ll get into later on – but generally they are lacking the magic to fundamentally change the source without anyone noticing.
I’ve mentioned the Great River MEQ-1NV, but that damn thing costs over $2,500+ for a preamp and an EQ. That’s hard for me to recommend even though I couldn’t imagine a person not loving the thing. The Chameleon Labs 7602 MK2 comes in at around $800 for a preamp and EQ is still DAMN GOOD. Keep an eye out for my review!
Analog EQ Features
If a person never heard a good analog EQ, they may assume that they would be better off with their usual plugins that offer tons of flexibility in terms of bandwidth, frequencies, etc. For example, the stock Cubase EQ found on every channel of Cubase has infinitely more options and flexibility than the 7602 MK2 I’ve mentioned here. However, the Cubase EQ simply CAN NOT do the same thing. They are almost different processors! (I said ALMOST, people! Don’t sensationalize this!)
There are certainly high end equalizers that have tons and tons of flexibility. In fact, I’ve set my mind on the Empirical Labs Lil Freq because of my extreme success with the 7602 MK2 to handle the more complicated EQ type of stuff. However, you’ll have to pry analog EQ out of my cold, dead hands even if I can’t solve EVERY problem with it.
-I consider analog EQ to be flat out required for my style of engineering.
-I do consider every plugin I’ve heard so far to be inferior to the two “good” analog equalizers I’ve gotten my hands on.
-Non-techy nerds would enjoy the more creative usage that analog EQ demands.
-This is not the usual bullshit, “You must blow $3k on a mic preamp to sound any good” advice. This is a real world, battle-hardened view from a dude who seldom recommends cash wasting of this magnitude.
-Again, don’t blow this out of proportion. Your penis is not going to enlarge and your bald head isn’t going to sprout. We certainly aren’t going to part any oddly colored seas. All the usual fundamental engineering requirements exist. If you don’t know what those are, you may want to hold off on any fancy gear and get yourself Killer Home Recording.
-You’ll have to pry analog EQ out of my cold, dead hands even if I can’t solve EVERY problem with it.