By Barry Rivman
Musician’s Friend Senior Staff Writer
In the jargon of producers and recording engineers, equalizers fall into two general categories: "surgical" and "character." The surgical EQ is used correctively, e.g. when you wish to focus on a problem frequency without affecting the neighboring frequencies. Much like a surgeon, you want to go into a narrow band with a very precise cutting tool–an appropriate simile since we primarily "cut" or reduce problem frequencies. Examples would be taming harsh frequencies on cymbals; sibilance or plosives in vocals; fizz or wool on distorted guitars; or overly woofy bass.
The author discovered the fast track to achieving higher EQ using the acclaimed A Designs HM2EQ Hammer EQ.
An example of boosting with parametric EQ would be to bring out an attack transient for greater definition, or balance the frequency spectrum of an instrument. For example, you may want add bottom to guitars without adding mud to the bass. Surgical EQs are primarily parametric or graphic in design. Invented by George Massenburg with a little help from Dan Flickinger, parametrics gives you separate controls to select a frequency center, adjust the bandwidth or octave surrounding it, and either increase or decrease its level (gain).
Character EQs tend to have simpler controls, usually selectable frequency and gain for overall tonal shaping. A character EQ is used for track sweetening; i.e. bringing out the "air" in vocals, enhancing the magic in an instrument or vocal, or shaping the overall sonic signature of a mix. Usually tube designs, character EQs are known for the rich, euphonic envelope they impart. To sum it up, a surgical EQ is one you don't want to hear in action, a character EQ is one you do.
What's my EQ?
Okay, I love toys as much as the next guy … unless the next guy is F.A.O. Schwartz. However, in the current economic state, I'm not so quick to let the big mouse eat; before I click the "Buy" button, I want to know that I'm getting the absolute most bang for the buck and record-quality sound for years to come. Lately I've been looking for a world-class, hardware character EQ. Why character? I have plug-ins capable of performing surgical tasks, so why spend more money to not hear EQ?
The equalizers I had in mind are all used in world-class studios and dwell in the rarified, spendy highlands, so I decided to take my Musician's Friend employee discount for a spin. Of the brands available to me through Musician's Friend, the top contenders included Manley Labs, D.W. Fearn, Tube Tech, Drawmer, Summit Audio, Langevin, Neve, and A Designs Audio—all of which make stellar units, and when I win the lottery, I'll buy them all. Without walking you through all the disappointments, my $2,500 budget eliminated all but the Drawmer 1960 and the A Designs HM2EQ "Hammer"—neither of which I'd heard in action. And while I thank the spirits daily for my employee discount, the downside is that there are no returns—I had to get it right the first time.
As luck would have it, I was asked to write supporting copy for videos featuring renowned producer-engineer Ronan Chris Murphy (King Crimson, Terry Bozzio, Steve Morse) and Grammy-winning mixer-engineer Dylan Dresdow (Black-Eyed Peas, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey). Both were talking about how much they loved the Hammer for tracking and mixing. In fact, Dylan was saying that it had become his favorite EQ for mixing. As I said, I hadn't heard the Hammer, but praise from highly respected producer-engineers goes a long way. Also, A Designs Audio isn't a tough sell for me, since I have a Pacifica preamp, REDDI tube DI, and an ATTY-2'D passive monitor controller, all of which, I couldn't be happier with. So, I let the big mouse eat and bought the Hammer.
A genius EQ
They say that genius is found in simplicity. To me, A Designs has a genius EQ in the Hammer. A well-made unit with an attractive modern retro look, its controls are simplicity itself; high- and low-cut filters handle the utilitarian chores, cleverly leaving full operation of its three bands, each with variable gain control ±12dB and a series of selectable frequencies—with sensible overlap between low, mid, and high to keep things musical. But the real genius of the Hammer lies in its unique ability to add the rich, 2nd order harmonics of its tubes, without noise and artifacts.
Once in my rack, I ran a standard DAW snare sample through the Hammer and randomly boosted and cut various frequency bands. To my surprise, the sound was always musically useful (in the right context). Breathing new life into the snare sample, I could easily dial in more depth (ambience), snap, or body, to bring out the unique character of the snare—and character is what we're going for. I also tried selecting various frequencies in each band and boosted the full 12dB. No matter what I did, I couldn't make the Hammer sound bad. It's very easy to boost way more than you need to make the magic happen, so watch your gain.
The next thing I did was put it across my 2-bus on a mix I had done featuring a fairly well known female vocalist. It had a lot of midrange going on and wanted to clean it up a bit and add some air. Basically spit balling, I boosted 2-3dB at 50Hz to push the bass and kick, cut 2dB at 500Hz to remove the keyboard's wool, and boosted 3-4dB at 10k for air. I hit the "In" switches as the mix was playing and had what could only be described as an out-of-body WHOA! experience.
To reiterate, WHOA!! I couldn't believe the improvement in the overall sound of the mix—not only did I get the timbral effect I was going for, but the mix took on size and depth as well. Based on what I heard, A Designs could comfortably label the EQ In/Out switches Demo/Record. The best analogy I can think of is that you bought a car with flat tires and didn't know what tires were supposed to look like, so you've been riding around on flat tires thinking that this is how it's supposed to be. Then someone comes along and puts air them — To my ears, the Hammer's improvements in overall sound quality, whether used on a mix, voice, or instrument, were always in the 100%-or-more range. And anyone I demoed the unit for had the same "whoa" reaction.
All equalizers are not created equal
The aforementioned "out-of-body, whoa experience" led me to another realization: There is a level of equipment that absolutely makes the difference between making a demo and making a record—that's why certain units become "studio standards." The HM2EQ Hammer is one such piece of kit.
If your desire is to bring your home studio up to professional levels, the Hammer EQ is a giant step forward. And while it’s not cheap, once you hear what it can do, and considering that the nearest competition costs two and three times more, the Hammer is truly a bargain. It also proves that A Designs is living up to its mission: handcrafted, boutique-quality audio without the sticker shock. For my studio, I've found A Designs Audio to be the most cost-effective road to professional-quality sound.