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.