Clean Analog EQ: Disappointment In Recording Gear #3

Brandon Drury —  February 25, 2013 — 14 Comments

clean analog EQ

First off, this particular disappointment is a summary of the barely-scientific experiment I did on the $108 Ashly PQX-571 vs the $1,200 Empirical Labs Lil Freq  (Member’s Only! Not a member? Join! It’s free.)

I’ve made articles discussing hardware EQ. The Chameleon Labs 7602 (one given away in the Powerhouse Endurance #2 contest) had a very colored, very fun EQ. It was my first hardware EQ. It did something obvious and different. I liked it. I don’t think it skyrocketed my recordings, but it was a new flavor I was excited to discover. It was a new sound to me that I’m fairly confident I could pick out in a blind test. (Not positive on that, btw…..keep an eye on that one in the future). I assumed all analog EQ did that. It was something that excited me. Ah ha! This is what I was missing! Right?

No, it was just the distortion I liked, I guess. The actual filtering isn’t anything special I’ve so learned.

I’ve had my Empirical Labs Lil Freq for years. If you read around the web, the Gear Prostitutes talk this thing up like it’s the wheel, the internet, and the B2 bomber all in one. It is a “high quality”, clean EQ.  Alright.

So what is a low quality EQ? I can’t tell you for sure. I recently purchased a Ashly PQX-571 for the price of a hard drive on sale. (108 smackers) In my initial tests, I don’t hear anything remotely low quality. I don’t hear noise. I don’t hear any coloration and dullness. I can’t hear a difference with the unit on bypass or engaged. If you prettied up the Ashly (it doesn’t look as “tough” or “as expensive” to my eyes) and made it look like the Empirical Labs line and told me it was a new model EQ David Derr was working on, based on the sound I would entirely believe it.

I can’t tell a difference at all.

Anyhow, back to the Lil Freq. I’ve had a few vocals that I wasn’t happy with during mixing. I’ve ran these vocals through my hardware EQ and spent 45 minutes cussing just to end up with something no better than my plugins. I’ve concluded that if Brandon, the audio engineer, is firing on all cylinders it doesn’t matter which gadget I use. I always sound like me. If I’m having a bad day, the real knobs don’t seem to help. It’s my opinion that the extra cash ought to do some of the heavy lifting. I think this is the case with intentionally colored tools. They do a thing that you can count on. An EQ that is entirely clean is not going to do something automatically and it’s all on you to make it sound good.  That sounds like work!

I’m not overly impressed with analog EQ even if I realize it has potential for really cool distortion/coloration. I guess it would depend on the EQ and the purpose. It’s not hard to fathom specific EQs being highly useful for specific situations. However, this whole tools-are-crayons is a fine idea, but to acquire the necessary 64 crayons costs the price of an okay house in Missouri. This ignores the time it takes to learn those little idiosyncrasies that make a tool useful. (I was THIIIIIS close to selling my hardware La3a after 2 years of owning it until I figured out it’s one epic strength and that damn thing only has two knobs.) The “Crayons Theory” spills water when you factor in that you have a crayon factory right there in your DAW with compression, EQ, exciters, waveshapers, etc.  Rockers doing the engineering thing underestimate the true power of “sound design” in my opinion.

As for clean EQ, I can say for sure that this $108 EQ does everything I need and more. The only reason I even have it is because I liked to cut out mud before hitting any compressors on the way in. I’m tempted to go to no-outside-the-box method of tracking. I haven’t decided yet if hardware compression is a farce. I’m thinking it still has a use for a few more years.

Besides the expense, high-end analog EQ is just a pain in the ass in the workflow arena and a lot of cash to have tied up. When platinum records are being mixed with plugins, that tells me that I probably don’t need to be blowing the rent and Max’s college money on old equalizers with even older ass-pain workflow.

Certain equalizers do have a specific sound that goes beyond the distorting components. There are many filter designs. To randomly decide one is superior than another is a mistake in my view. However, that’s often what’s happened with various hardware equalizers.

>> Hardware Equalizer #1 uses filter design 16.
>> Hardware Equalizer #2 uses filter design 9.

This is not too unlike British people driving on the wrong side of the road.  (They’ll never get to California that way.)  In all seriousness, “Design 16″ (which I made up ) is just different.  This is just like the “vintage” mode on your DAW’s EQ which has the resonance.  Does that resonance make it “better”?  Nope.  Just different.

One method becomes classic and heralded on web forums.  (Tell a synth nerd that the Moog low pass filter is just a filter.  He’ll break an arm flailing around like an underweight homosexual.  No offense, underweight homosexuals.  You overweight homosexuals know what I’m talking about.  SMILEY) The other filter designs that don’t become hits on your tired local Classic Rock radio station are forgottent. The truth is the actual equalization (on any of these analog designs) can be done just fine in digital land for all practical purposes. Sometimes there are slight variations due to drift in the electronic components, but I’m not always convinced this is anything worth noting.

It’s my view that this analog vs digital EQ debate has a lot more about Rage Against The Mouse….sheed than it does actual sound.  It’s fun to twist knobs.  You think it sounds better.  It’s sounds about the same.


In short, I’ve learned that I’m no less effective with EQ plugins and I get the workflow benefits. I’d love to know if a certain X is absolutely essential for Y sound (maybe some airy vocal sound needs this one EQ that distorts a certain way). At the moment I haven’t found that or any other reason to think my recordings are going to sound better with clean hardware equalizers in line.

If I’m going to shell big bucks out for EQ, it had better do something that I can’t get elsewhere easily. The Lil Freq is a fine equalizer and a great all-around tool. The only problems is I think the Ashley PQX-571 is a great EQ, too. Granted, I’m biased. I WANT the $108 tool to beat the $1200 tool. (Both prices are what I paid used on Ebay.) You do too.


Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.

14 responses to Clean Analog EQ: Disappointment In Recording Gear #3

  1. Been using Ashley compressors for years with amazing results!

  2. Not sure if i get your point Brandon?

    Is this another article about being dissapointed about gear
    that does´nt do the job for you.. when you expect it to??

    Or is it an article about how much money you spend on something
    that did’nt suit your needs..??? or expectations???

    it’s not allways the most expensive gear that makes you happy..

  3. I think you do have some good points here. But I also think that a hybrid analog-digital mentality has good value when crafting sounds. I would agree that in theory one could duplicate any analog -generated sound with some digital process, but you talk about avoiding pain and work often enough that I would like to point out that analog gear has saved me huge amounts time by me knowing an analog hardware piece can “do exactly this or that job”. My time is worth saving with that kind of equipment.

    So there is room for both plugins and high end analog, and in the end I think you wound up being unnecessarily harsh in your article. Finally, why is it, do you suppose, that the most sought after plugins seem to be the ones that have done the best job of “modeling” real (and high-end) analog gear?

  4. Brutally truthful article! On very cheap eqs I hear artifacts that negatively impact the sound. It is usually a low mid or high mid ringing induced by using the eq. I’m talking brutally lowend eq’s like alto and behringer stuff. Eqs used generally in the live arena like some DBX and ashley dont have this. ITB distortions have come a long way to closing the gap on hardware.

  5. Aussie Tom from downunder February 26, 2013 at 7:13 am

    Hi Brando,
    Surely all EQ comes down to several basic (and easily measurable) engineering specifications
    - s/n ratio
    - dynamic range (which includes peak to peak voltage before clipping
    - accuracy and repeatability of frequency
    - slew rate aka frequency response
    - phase shift between input/output – related to filter type and steepness – Butterworth, Chebyshev, Elliptic or Bessel
    - input/output impedance and loading
    - latency (time delay)

    Now apart from a/d and d/a converters, digital does not have most of the above inherent problems that analog does, especially component variation or temperature dependency.

    There is always the interface ease-of-use, but digital settings can be stored/recalled and with much greater precision than analog.
    So this is all very similar to the argument ‘does vinyl sound better than CDs?
    For example, remember analog wow and flutter, degradation of vinyl, clicks ‘n pops? These parameters don’t feature in the digital world.

    In other words, good software drivers will always beat analog components every time. Stick with your DAW plug-ins.
    Esoteric allusions to “warmth, presence, definition, tightness” are vague adjectives favoured by vendors seeking to delineate their offering from others.
    Independent comparisons of the previously mentioned engineering specifications would lift the veil of FUD factors, imho.

  6. For that kind of welcomed distortion, I can vouch for some old Shure SR07 EQs. Those can be found for real cheap, and are quite handy and nice sounding for not being top-of-the-line whatsoever. Besides, “they’re Vintage”, and that’s some sort of client magnet nowadays as well. (the “oooh” factor). Love them on kick and bass, and have tried interesting things with them on vocals too…

  7. Aussie Tom from downunder February 26, 2013 at 7:18 am

    + add distortion/linearity specification

  8. I think Brandon missed a few points here, all E.Q’s especially the analog type, filters the audio spectrum through filter fader slider controls for each specific frequency, the more bands the better the audio control over even more narrow audio frequencies. And with parametric E.Q’s the frequency band is adjustable and sweepable, meaning you can make it into a very tight notch filter if you want to get rid of a troubled ringing frequency that is causing a audible feedback such as in a PA speaker system. That said, adjusting, boosting, and or decreasing any frequency range can cause time phase audio shifts to occur in that particular audio frequency, and add them all up after tweaking your vocal track to death, or bass track, and or whatever can cause the audio to sound like it is ringing or booming and out of phase distortions can occur. Which it causes all that audio coloration you hear with allot of E.Q. It can either be a good thing or it can result in terrible sounding audio. With digital E.Q and software this change to the audio is usually less of a problem, but you still have to be careful regardless if it is digital or analog E.Q that you are using to process your audio with. That is why allot of sound engineers prefer to decrease certain audio frequencies and not boost them with a E.Q. You can then have much better control over the over all audio track mixes and it avoids the boomey-ness, audio ringing and audio phase time shift distortions you can get with over boosting certain audio frequencies. E.Q must be used sparingly for good audio quality results, unless of course you are trying to mutilate your sound. All E.Q does is filter your audio whether boosting or decreasing your particular audio frequencies you need adjusted. Try recording your audio with better mics rather than using E.Q to make up for crappy audio gear. Also by boosting certain audio frequencies it can add even more harmonic audio distortion and hiss, and it can also boosts background noises, such as low frequency rumbling and vibrations from trucks ,cars, traffic and or planes, and helicopters etc.

  9. Very cool and interesting article and series. The only thing I disagree with is NOTHING can compete with analog summing, and the sound of analog tape. I always produce in the DAW, then mixdown through the console to tape. No sampling rate will ever match that, let alone the strain on the digital summing buss. ROCK ON BRANDON

  10. The only thing I disagree with is NOTHING can compete with analog summing, and the sound of analog tape.

    I’ve not heard a single shred of improvement with CLEAN analog summing on my recordings. I’ve done two formal tests. Ruprect and I are about to do 10 more to settle this once and for all….maybe. I think I want to get a hold of a really distorted summing unit (maybe a Manley) just to see how it compares to the clean console.

    However, I do think that distortion is the name of the game. It’s got to be the right kind of distortion at the right time, but distortion/waveshaping is the most powerful tool we have for sure, no question about it. Analog tape falls under that category in my mind.

  11. I dont have the Manelys and Sheik-Alibaba-GoldenShower units to compare to, so this type stuff is always interesting to me. I find the bottom of the barrel gear in my house, and more noise issues (weaker pre’s), or jacks of plastic that crackle can be common, and yet thats usually used and abused stuff.

    Interesting you mention DAW, because for me it always seems the DAW can match it so close I cant tell the difference sound wise.

  12. The distortion part is easy for me, I have many things to accomplish that. Your reply is awesome. What I was talking about is density, not distortion. On both of those fronts, though, yes, I have found some plugins that do react quite surprisingly nicely when pushed ( I don’t know if I can mention names here or not), but just as information is deleted in the sampling process, it is further deleted in the digital summing process. Analog tracking and summing deletes no information if done within the limits of the tracking equipment and summing buss used, and the density and headroom is much higher. The first time I re-summed a mix I’d done previously in a certain DAW claiming to “be superior to other DAW’s due to its 64-bit summing engine” on a vintage analog console (all faders at 0), I almost fell off my chair. The plethora of boxes and plugins attempting to “make your studio sound analog” makes me laugh, especially when I see the prices. Just buy a console and tape machine and be done. The distortion part comes from pushing pres, tubes, output transformers, and tape. That’s just where I and my circle sit. Thanks for the reply Brandon, I thoroughly enjoy all of your articles, tests, and sense of humor!! Now if this cold weather would just leave…

  13. Hi Brand!!

    High end or not, I think you taste the “it’s all about taste” thing. Gears have their own sound and sometimes it made THE difference. But that doesn’t mean you have to use them always on that particular way. Specially analog gears.
    I’ve used a top $$$$$ Bettermaker eq – 500 series cheaper will be soon available – and sounds groundbreaking to me! Check it out. But… kinda pricy.
    Best for you, man!!

  14. Anton Hosinsky March 3, 2013 at 3:39 am

    This series is a bloody godsend for all of us who do NOT have large amounts of cash to spend on gear. When I was younger I just had the Korg M1 and a low-end 4 track portastudio and instead of learning how to use the gear to its maximum potential I spent an obscene amount of time being unhappy because I could´t afford an analog synth, a sampler, effects and so on. The VST revolution has been a godsend to me and I´ve downloaded millions of free plugins, checked them all out and ended up with a couple of dozen I use all the time. I´m happy as a pie, i don´t fucking care if my plugins are not up to date or don´t have professional specs. They sound good enough to me and I know how to handle them. I´ve completely lost interest in technoporn, I don´t drool over new equipment any more and just focus on getting the MUSIC going, which is, after all, the reason why we get the gear in first place. Also I don´t have the luxury of having a space for myself that I can fill with stuff so for me it is just ideal to have everything in the laptop instead. This is not to say that my approach will necessarily be the right for others, it is just what´s right for me.

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