All Things Being EQ-ual, pt. 3

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in September 1998, contributed by then Media and Mastering Editor Lionel Dumond. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

Welcome to the long-awaited third (and final) installment of All Things Being EQ-ual, a series of articles on equalization that started back in April 1998. This final article, a titanic, tussling tête á tête of software EQ programs for the PC, was supposed to appear in the June issue. It didn’t. I won’t go into the reasons for the delay here; suffice to say that I do sincerely apologize to all the ProRec readers who waited so patiently for this article to be published. I hope it will have been worth the wait!

If you’re jumping on this train late and missed the first two installments, or would like to review, please follow the links to check out Part One and/or Part Two. Have fun, and don’t worry… we’ll still be here when you get back.

Back already? Okay… let’s move on then. We’ll be reviewing and comparing software EQ plug-ins from CakewalkPower TechnologiesSonic FoundryTC Works, and Waves. We’ll twist, torture, and pummel them until they beg for mercy, and then we’ll rate them for sound quality, ease of use, and abundance of cool features. Links are included to download demos, and I encourage you to do so. At the end of this article is a table which gives relative comparisons of features among the various programs. I didn’t include cost figures, but for good reason — because none of these EQ plug-ins are available separately, but only as part of a effects “bundle,” head-to-head cost comparisons aren’t really possible.

So pardner, strap on yer guns and join us at the ProRec Corral (or should that be chorale?) for the Great EQ Software Shootout. May the best EQ win.

Cakewalk FX Stereo Parametric EQ

Overview
Cakewalk’s brand new FX Stereo Parametric EQ is a DirectX plug-in that is not available separately, but only with the latest versions of Cakewalk’s various audio-enabled sequencing packages, including Pro Audio 7.

Cakewalk’s original CFX 2-band EQ was, to put it mildly, some demonic coder’s idea of a cruel joke. It was barely usable even within Cakewalk, and due to weird technical issues its use in other DirectX programs was like an queasy cab ride through Crash City…

However, the boys from Boston have really improved their game this season (could it be Pedro Martinez? Ooops… sorry, wrong boys from Boston) and come up with an EQ that really works. Technical issues that plagued Cakewalk’s earlier DirectX implementation seem to have been cleared up as well; as the Stereo Parametric EQ worked well in Sound Forge and Cool Edit Pro. I’d expect the same results in other programs as well.

Pros
I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from this plug-in, considering the aforementioned 2-band EQ From Hell. I was pleasantly surprised. This EQ really sounds quite good, and its reaction to user input was among the snappiest of the bunch. Its efficient use of CPU resources makes it perfect for using multiple instances in a multitrack application. Both high and low shelving filters, as well as a notch-type filter, is included. Though the steepness of the shelving filters is fixed, all three of the bands can be defined as high or low shelf and overlapped to create a steeper filter if so desired.

Cakewalk Parametric EQ

The interface, while far from perfect, is slick enough to enable quick and easy manipulation of each band’s parameters, which include center/cutoff frequency, gain, and bandwidth (Q). It operates much like the Waves Q10, using “handles” to manipulate a graphical representation of the active filters — dragging the handle horizontally adjusts frequency, dragging vertically adjusts gain, dragging horizontally while holding shift adjusts Q. There are methods by which any of these parameters may be “constrained,” so that one can be changed while holding the other two constant. However, unlike the Waves Q10, these controls actually work well, with very little lag or reticence. This plug-in also allows direct numerical typing input of all parameters, a feature Cakewalk has been known and lauded for in their software. Congratulations to them for staying lean and clean, and avoiding the “pretty pictures” VST-like interfaces that don’t allow such precise control.

Cons
If you’re looking for a full-featured powerhouse, keep looking. While this is an eminently useable piece of software, it lacks features that would qualify it for pro status. First of all, it’s only three bands — plenty for track inserts, but it’s not going to cut it for at-home mastering jobs. You can’t switch bands in and out separately, undo alterations, or restore and compare settings easily, all of which make incremental comparisons more difficult. And there are no input or output gain controls or metering, either.

I mentioned that the interface wasn’t perfect, didn’t I? The graph is really small and none of the frequency markings are labeled — hardly a deal-killer, but annoying nonetheless. (A small display is usually necessary for a plug-in to fit into the DirectX “shell” provided by the host application, but still, this one is particularly small.) And I wish the numerical displays were alterable in tiny increments via the keyboard, the way that many other parameters in other parts of Cakewalk are.


Sound Quality ……………..7.5
Ease of Use ……………….7.0
Abundance of Cool Features … 5.0
Overall …………………. 6.5

Download demo: http://www.cakewalk.com/download/index.html

Sonic Foundry Graphic EQ / Parametric EQ / Paragraphic EQ

Overview
Sonic Foundry has released not one, but three DirectX EQ implementations. These aren’t available separately or even as a group by themselves, but only as part of Sonic Foundry’s XFX-2 package (there’s also a DirectX Noise Gate, Graphic Dynamics Processor, and Multiband Dynamics Processor included as part of XFX-2).

If you’re a Sound Forge user already, the Paragraphic EQ will look familiar to you, as it’s an exact port of the off-line Paragraphic EQ built in to Sound Forge’s Process Menu. The Parametric EQ is also similar to Sound Forge’s built-in Parametric, but features a simplified (yet even more functional) interface. The Graphic EQ is pretty much what you’d expect (a row of sliders, no duh), but with a completely new and very cool twist thrown in.

Pros
First, let’s deal with the Parametric EQ. It features notching and shelving, and allows precise setting of center/cutoff frequency and bandwidth. Users can specify bandwidth in octaves. Hats off to Sonic Foundry for getting this one right, and other developers please take note — octaves are the only musically meaningful way to specify bandwidth! “Q” is an engineering term that should be banned outside of research labs. (For more information on this, see Part Two of this series.)

The Paragraphic EQ sports 4 notch-bands (all of which are overlappable), as well as a high and low shelf. This plug-in has a graphical representation of the active filter settings, although it’s a passive display, meaning it doesn’t allow direct manipulation of the graph in order to choose and alter parameters like the Cakewalk FX Stereo Parametric. Instead, this plug-in relies on sliders and direct numerical entry. Nevertheless, the controls are intuitive and quick.

Sonic Foundry Paragraphic EQ

The Graphic EQ features both one-octave 10-band and half-octave 20-band modes, as well as something completely new and different — an “envelope” mode. This envelope starts out as a flat line to which you can add handles, moving them about to shape the envelope and custom-build whatever type of filter suits your fancy. Even cooler is that these three modes are connected — the Envelope mode actually follows the settings of the other two graphic modes, so that you can “rough in” the filter you want using the familiar slider-type graphic modes, and then fine tune that filter by adjusting or adding handles. As far as I know, this hasn’t been done before, and it have to say, it is extremely clever.

Sonic Foundry Graphic EQ

All of the Sonic Foundry EQs have output level controls, which is good. And both the Parametric and Graphic EQ plug-ins have three user-selectable algorithms — Low, Medium, and High Accuracy — to accommodate users with less powerful (or more powerful, as the case may be) computers, or for those running multiple plug-ins.

In terms of sound quality, I have no complaints — all of these EQs will get the job done admirably. And I feel compelled to give a nod to the excellent documentation — in a world where sloppy, poorly-written, uninformative manuals (or worse, no manual) are almost par for the course, Sonic Foundry continues its tradition of providing some of the most thorough and well-written docs in the business.

Cons
The Parametric EQ is one-filter-at-a-time only — okay for fixing specific problems (applying a single narrow and deep notch) or very broad sound shaping (applying wide shelving filters and such), but that’s about it. Of course, if you’re running Sound Forge you do have the option of using Sonic Foundry’s Audio Plug-In Chainer to apply multiple instances of any plug-in — not as convenient as multiple bands in the same plug-in, but a possibility nonetheless.

Though the Graphic EQ’s Envelope mode did allow for building even the most complex filters via clickable handles, it still came up short or missing in a few crucial features that “woulda made it a contenda.” First, since there is no way to type in values by hand, extremely fine adjustments are simply not possible; the smallest adjustment is one screen pixel, which at high resolutions may be several tenths of a dB. The second nit is the inability for the envelope line to “cross” itself. What I mean is this: if you move handle A such that it overlaps a frequency point occupied by handle B, handle B disappears. Poof, it’s gone. Moving handle A back to the starting point won’t allow you to recover, either — handle B is still history, and your filter design has been destructively altered. You’d have to go back and recreate handle B manually. This basically means that you can’t make the bands overlap — an expected behavior of any Graphic EQ, but one that makes the Envelope feature less than what it could have been. At least a simple “undo” button that allows you to backtrack your last move would have added to the functionality of the Envelope mode considerably. (But, don’t get me wrong here — I still really dig it anyway.)


Sound Quality …………….. 7.5
Ease of Use ………………. 8.0
Abundance of Cool Features …. 6.5
Overall ………………….. 7.3

Download demo: http://www.sonicfoundry.com/Download/default.html

Power Technologies DSP/FX Parametric EQ (distributed by Event Electronics)

Overview
They say you can’t fight City Hall, and maybe they’re right. DirectX is proving to be a Microsoft-fueled juggernaut on the PC, and developers are feeling more and more pressure to support it. To that end, Power Technologies was surely hoping to supplement disappointing sales of their nevertheless well-reviewed hardware-based effects card for the PC (damn-fine sounding stuff, but pricey as hell) by creating these Direct X versions. The powers at Power claim that these plug-ins produce “bit-for-bit” identical output as their acclaimed hardware.

Power Technologies DSP-FX

The DSP/FX Parametric EQ is part of the DSP/FX Virtual Pack, which includes modules for reverb, delay, chorus, flanger, auto-panner, and tremolo as well as EQ. Unlike most plug-ins, all of these modules have stand-alone versions that don’t require any DirectX-compatible host application at all.

This EQ module consists of eight notch-bands and two shelving EQs (one high, one low).

Pros
Gosh, it sho’ is purty, ain’t it? The DSP/FX Parametric EQ interface was certainly the largest and easiest to read of the bunch; colorful without being cutesy (well, not too cutesy, anyway). The colors aren’t just for show here — they actually impart information, as each band is color-coded; the knobs change color to match which band is being affected. The controls are nice and big, even at high screen resolutions.

The large on-screen knobs control frequency, bandwidth, and output gain. The frequency and bandwidth controls are divided into “coarse” and “fine” controls, which is nice for those of less-than-nimble mousing skills trying to make small parameter tweaks. One thing I really loved was that the steps of the coarse frequency control correspond exactly to the steps of the chromatic scale! (Gee… developers who understands the needs of someone working on actual music!? Will miracles never cease?) The boost/cut of individual bands are controlled by onscreen sliders, much like a traditional graphic EQ, and whenever the slider is moved, the other corresponding parameters pop right up onto the screen as well.

The filter you build is represented by a graph, like with the other plug-ins discussed so far; however, you can’t manipulate the graph directly. It merely serves here as a passive display, showing the results of your slider and knob settings.

There is a “compare” feature which functions exactly the same as on a typical digital effects box — it compares the changes you’ve made to a preset to the original preset itself. Another great feature is the ability to run the plug-in with fewer bands if you don’t need all eight, thereby saving system resources, although I have to say that the DSP/FX’s resource use is remarkable low for a plug-in of its power and features.

The coolness factor of this slick little EQ is definitely enhanced by MIDI automation capability. Yes, you read that right… you can automate the parameters on this EQ in real-time through MIDI! Yes! PT deserves great big kudos for this one! DSP-Farm type effects plug ins on the Mac have allowed this for years. How come nobody else is doing this for DirectX? It makes perfect sense. I hope all plug-ins start implementing this feature as standard in the coming months.

Cons
A lot of DAW users I know crank down their color to 256 colors (8-bit) or less to improve PCI performance, or to attain higher resolutions on large monitors, or both. Alas, the DSP/FX EQ is designed to run in 16-bit “high-color” mode or better. It’s not that it won’t work with fewer colors — it certainly does, but it’s not real pretty, what with all that color dithering going on. Because of the programs extensive use of color-coding, I might have understood 256 colors. But 16-bit color? Piggy, piggy, piggy. There’s no excuse for this — the latest versions of both Cakewalk and Sound Forge (both very powerful programs) display perfectly with sixteen colors. I firmly believe that audio apps should not require goosing up your video card to 16-bit color to derive the full benefit — any serious recordist will gladly trade leaner performance for the gold brushed-metal background the DSP/FX has going here.

Another drawback of this program is also related to the display — it’s so big, it won’t run in the normally-sized DirectX shell provided by most host apps. Power Technologies gets around this by providing a button in the shell labeled “DSP/FX Up” that actually starts the program outside the host supplication, which it then tied to the shell via internal software. Because of this, you’ll have to save whatever settings you’re using as a preset, because the host app won’t remember them for you. El bummero.

This plug in also doesn’t accept any directly-typed numerical entry, and you can’t instantly switch bands in or out. There’s no drop-down list for presets either (you need to invoke them from a separate window brought up by the Preset button), but if your host app has a drop-down list, then you needn’t worry too much about this.


Sound Quality …………………. 7.0
Ease of Use …………………… 7.0
Abundance of Cool Features ……… 8.0
Overall ………………………. 7.3

Download demo: http://www.event1.com

Waves Q10 Paragraphic EQ

Overview
Available for the PC as part of Waves’ highly acclaimed Native Power Pack is the Q10 Parametric EQ. (The Native Power Pack also includes a full-featured compressor, limiter, stereo image enhancer, dithering/noise shaper, reverb, and a wave conversion utility.) If you install the retail version, you’ll get the fully functional 10-band Q10, but if you install the NPP Version 2.3 update (free for the downloading) you’ll also get a Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4, Q6, and Q8, with the numeral representing the number of bands available. Because all EQ bands are switchable in-and-out on the fly, even switched-out bands are always being “processed” by the CPU so that they’ll be instantly ready if you switch them back in again. This means that you can’t save resources with a Q10 by disabling bands. Recognizing this, the engineers at Waves created “mini” versions which consume far fewer CPU resources, in case that’s all you need. These mini-Qs are identical to the Q10 in every respect except in the number of available bands.

Waves Q-10 EQ

Waves is a longtime leader in the plug-in field since the early days of SDII and TDM on the Mac, and was among the first to jump onto the DirectX bandwagon. The Q10 is a port of their well-received Mac plug-in of the same name; if you’re familiar with that one, you should already know how to fly the Q10.

Pros
There are up to 10 fully-configurable, fully overlapping bands of EQ available here. Users may select notch, high-shelf, low-shelf, highpass, and lowpass filtering for any band. Frequency settings range from 16 Hz to 21 kHz+ with single Hz accuracy; bandwidth is alterable from extremely narrow to octaves-wide, and gain can be boosted or cut up to +/- 18 dB in 0.1 dB increments.

There are fields into which you can accurately type any parameter, and these fields can be altered up or down by use of the arrow and PageUp and PageDown keys as well as by mouse scrolling. The heart of the display consists of a filter graph with moveable handles by which one can alter both frequency and gain simultaneously, or alter any of the three parameters (frequency, bandwidth, or gain) by itself, while holding the other two constant. One can also select and manipulate multiple bands simultaneously by shift-clicking on different handles and mousing away.

The left and right sides are “strapped” by default, and that’s the mode you’ll use for most stereo files. However, you can also “unstrap” left and right and tweak each side independently of the other, while applying 10 different bands to each side. Yes, you read that right… decouple the channels and this 10 band EQ turns into a 20 band EQ!

These are all very cool features, but there are three others that place this plug-in squarely in “professional” territory. The first (which I’ve already mentioned) is the ability to switch bands in and out at any time. The second is a method by which a user can store two completely different sets of parameters (Setup A and Setup B) and toggle between them at will, a feature not found in any other EQ reviewed here. The third is the “Undo” button which allows a user to retrace the last edit made to any parameter. Clicking on the button repeatedly makes it toggle between Undo and Redo (though the button’s face does not change), allowing you to painstakingly compare the “before” and “after” results of any edit you make.

These features, taken as a whole, make the Q10 entirely suitable for creating and comparing the most subtle filter tunings by ear — a necessity for serious mastering work. Think of what happens when you’re being fitted for prescription glasses — as you look through the machine, the doctor is quickly switching lenses back and forth while constantly asking, “Which is better — that lens… or this lens?” over and over again. This comparative, iterative process allows that doctor to “zoom in” on the exact prescription you need. The process of applying EQ in mastering is a very similar process, and tools like the Q10 make that easier.

Oh… did I mention there are left and right level controls on both input and output? Selectable phase inversion for both channels? Full L/R output metering with clip indicators? Like Nintendo used to say, “now you’re playing with power!”

Cons
The reaction time of the Q10 may not be as snappy as you’d like. Although I was able to quicken this up somewhat by messing with the number and size of the preview buffers while using Sound Forge, most DirectX programs don’t allow this level of tweakage, so you’re stuck with the pokiness in that case. Considering the inherent power of this processor, a bit of extra overhead is probably to be expected.

You also may notice a certain degree of touchiness when manipulating the graph, especially in conjunction with the <crtl> and <alt> “restraining” keys. Though I have a lot of experience with the Q10, it still takes a bit of practice and patience, and I still have trouble making it behave sometimes. It stubbornly seems to want to do its own thing when I’d like it to do something else, especially if I’m moving quickly and not being really careful about which direction I’m mousing. I believe this has a lot to do with the resolution of the mouse control; it takes large movements to make small changes, which is a good thing, but takes getting used to.

Oh… one more con — the documentation. Allow me to be blunt… it’s pathetic, okay? First off, there is no printed documentation available. If I’m paying $450 for a program, I don’t think a little printed booklet is a lot to ask for! I realize I’m pissing up a rope on this one… more and more documentation is being published “on-line,” and I’m getting used to it. Reluctantly. Very reluctantly.

But prepare yourself for a trip into the truly weird — the Waves on-disk documentation is in HTML format, and is only accessible via a browser. What the hell??? Hold on… it gets goofier. Most of the HTML documentation is specifically written for the Mac versions of these plug-ins, with repeated references to “option-this-and-that” and numerous asides to features and controls that either don’t exist or are implemented differently in the PC versions. Aaaaaaargh! I’m sorry, but I find this inexcusable. And even though the Q10 has standard on-line Windows help, it tends to be a bit disorganized and not as complete as it could be. I’ve complained to Waves repeatedly about this over the past two years, and promises from them to clean up their docs have gone unfulfilled. But in all fairness, it’s important to keep this all in perspective — the bottom line is that the Waves Q10 sounds great, and it’s easy enough to use that you’ll most likely never need the manual anyway.

I feel compelled to point out that the Waves Native Power Pack (of which the Q10 is a part) requires the use of a <gasp!> dongle on the parallel port, which is Waves’ license-protection scheme. Now, I also hasten to add that I’ve used these effects on four separate machines I’ve built, and never, ever even had to think about that thing hanging off the back of my computer. I also realize, however, that the very mention of a dongle raises hackles with some folks on mere principle, and I can respect that. You should also keep in mind, however, that you will not be able to run this software on more than a single machine at the same time, as the dongle can only hang on one machine at a time. Okay? Now you know the truth. Are we cool on this? (Phew! I feel so much better now.)


Sound Quality ………………. 8.0
Ease of Use ………………… 6.0
Abundance of Cool Features …… 9.0
Overall ……………………. 7.6

Download demo: http://www.kswaves.com/asp/main_s.asp

TC Works TC Native EQ-P / TC Native EQ-G (distributed by TC Electronics)

TC Works is a relative newcomer to the DirectX business; but if they keep making stuff like this, they won’t stay a secret to PC users for very long. They could well have called this plug-in the “Big Yellow Bus,” because it’s gonna take competing DirectX developers to school, baby…

If you’re familiar with the moniker “TC,” then you already know what to expect — great sound. You should know enough to expect to shell out some bucks, too.

The TC Native EQ package comes with both a Parametric and a Graphic EQ. The Parametric EQ has eight bands, each with shelving and notching filters available, as well as three “extra” bands controllable with a virtual joystick. The Graphic is configurable for 7, 14, or 28 bands.

Pros
Where do I start? I could easily double the size of this already too-long (well, I prefer to think of it comprehensive, really) article. There’s a link at the end of this article where you can download a demo. Do it, do it, do it — you will not be disappointed.

Both of these EQs have almost any feature you could ask for in a professional EQ module of any type, be it software or hardware. Dual channel input and output gain control is right there, along with clear, easy-to-read metering with adjustable peak hold. There are numerous keyboard and mouse shortcuts that make parameter setting and control a breeze. Undo and redo are available via the “compare” button for every edit. And in case you forget what a control does, there are extensive right-click hints (a feature not well implemented in most plug ins) as well as a good online help section.

Be sure to check out the “SoftSat” feature. This is a great-sounding, built-in internal limiter that is supposed to emulate tube saturation if you crank the input levels. I tried it on some fairly hot program material with both the EQ-P and EQ-G, and even with the input levels cranked to +12dB, I could not make it clip. It really did sound like a nice tube EQ cranked to 11. Well done, TC!

On the Parametric EQ, bandwidth is specified in octaves (as it should be) and pop-up sliders are available to quickly dial in frequency and bandwidth. Direct numerical entry is also available, as well as a “slow adjust” mode that is just made for precise and exacting control setting. Each band is switchable in and out, and like most of the other plug-ins, the filter is represented by a graph. The graph is a rather small passive display only, and cannot be manipulated directly, but the controls are so smoooooth and quick on this baby that it won’t really matter.

TC Native Parametric EQ

The 360-degree “Virtual Joystick” is way cool — horizontal moves invoke a gentle “loudness filter” with bass and treble boost and cut, and vertical moves invoke an additional high shelf treble control.

The 10 bands (8 normal bands, plus the 3 joystick bands) are splittable, allowing separate 20-band control of both left and right channels.

The Graphic EQ features an innovative “touch screen” upon which you can actually draw the bands in. Any or all bands can be selected and grouped for simultaneous control, and grouped bands can be scaled and inverted as well as moved in tandem. Whew! Switching a band out completely removes it from the audio stream for maximum fidelity and most efficient use of CPU resources

TC Native Graphic EQ

Cons
Just a few small ones…

First, there is no built-in user preset saving system. There are a few factory presets (TC calls them “ROM” presets) that you can use as starting points, but any changes you want to save will have to be done using your host application’s preset-saving feature. This is not really a big deal, the only drawback being that presets sometimes can’t be shared between different host apps. If you have a cool preset that you want to use in both, say, Cakewalk and Sound Forge, you’ll have to create them in each.

Second, the boost and cut gain of the Graphic EQ is a not-too-generous +/-12dB. This is fine for most normal graphic EQ applications (for severe gain notching, you’d likely use a parametric anyway), but I’d have liked to see at least 18dB or more available.

The one other thing is that the interface is designed to run at 256 colors or better. Like the DSP/FX, you can use them at lower color, but the dithering can be ugly at low color. I have to confess… I’ve been running my DAW at 16 colors for a while now, to squeeze as much performance as possible from the PCI bus. (Don’t laugh — Cakewalk and Sound Forge both work great at only 16 colors!) But it seems that in the computer world, as resources get cheaper, faster, and more plentiful, developers will find a way to hog them up. If 256 colors or better is going to become de rigeur, I suppose I’d better get used to it.


Sound Quality ……………….. 9.0
Ease of Use …………………. 9.0
Abundance of Cool Features ……. 9.5
Overall …………………….. 9.2

Download demo: http://www.tcworks.de/download.htm

Conclusions


I’ll leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions. The ratings I’ve given each plug-in above is purely a subjective opinion based on my own professional and well-considered judgment; but as we often say in the review business, YMMV (“your mileage may vary”). As there are demos available for each of these plug-ins, the best way to evaluate them is to try them for yourself in your own application, on your own sounds, and see and hear what happens. It may help to print out this article and refer to it as you audition the demos, trying each feature I’ve mentioned herein. Remember to browse the online help provided for additional features and tips — there are many cool gizmos in each one I simply didn’t have space to mention.

Click to view feature table

In wrapping up this article (and this three-part series on EQ), I’ll leave you with a brief feature table that should help to sum up. Thanks to all the readers who wrote me with positive and helpful feedback on this series of articles. I’m glad that you enjoyed them, and I hope you refer to them often in the future. If you have any comments (good or bad), I’d love to hear from you, too!

Leave a Reply