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The Maag EQ4, from the designer of the venerable NTI EQs with their legendary Air Band, isn't really an equalizer at all. So if you're looking for a new parametric EQ, stop reading, because the EQ4... isn't.
You don't need a new EQ anyway, do you? Of course not. There's a ton of them out there, even for your 500-series rack, and plenty of them are good. Everyone reading this probably has five (or 15) EQ plug-ins on their computer; they're nearly ubiquitous and almost all sound the same. These are your basic tools - useful for the usual LF roll off, HF shelving, poking mids, carving 300 Hz... the usual. The EQ4 is unusual, and it's designed for people who need something different.
What's different? Well, there are the great and useful EQs that we rely on to craft sounds. Some have character, and some just do a good job moving the signal (and the phase relationships) around. Oftentimes that's exactly what you need. Most of the time, actually. Did I mention this was all my opinion? Ok good.
Then there's the magic coloring stuff. This is gear I really love - the Carl Zeiss lenses of audio that bring depth, magic, vibe, insert your favorite adjective here. Pultec, Neve, SSL, etc. - lots of phase shift, character, and capacity for doing certain damage to stuff.
The Maag EQ4 fits in between these two categories. As a fixed-band device, it's not a parametric tool. You don't get to choose the frequencies, but the provided choices are good. It looks like a 6-band unit, but really it's not. It's actually a combination of two separate tools: a 5-band "tone shaper", and the aforementioned Air Band. These work together well but are, in my mind, wholly different beasts and should therefore be discussed separately. The Air Band shelf (with 2.5, 5, 10, 20, 40 kHz settings) is essentially a really ingenious way to open the top end up on a signal without it getting harsh. I called the company owner wanting to understand the science behind it, but... I still don't. What I do know is that I can crank a ton of smooth and clear high end into things without the high end taking my head off. (Air Band, by the way, is a registered trademark of Maag Audio.)
When tracking - especially with ribbon mics - I found that I could add a lot of Air Band without things getting nasty at all. The best way I can describe it is that it seems to "open up" the range of the signal, allowing you to hear upper octaves that you couldn't access prior. Somehow, it doesn't make the sibilant "esses" hurt. Now, if you have harsh stuff in there already, you're going to hear it. The flip side of this is that if you start with the Air Band, you may find yourself using a lot less high-frequency EQ earlier in the chain, and you'll hear your top end open up a lot more easily.
Surprisingly, it turns out that a 40 kHz shelf is actually useful. The Air Band is a really wide boost-only shelf, and it works wonders for certain things. Have you ever been outside after a thunderstorm, and everything is clean, clear ,and vibrant? This is what using the Air Band feels like to me, sonically. Inventor Cliff Maag, Sr tells me that this began with him trying to figure out how to add high end without emphasizing harsh sibilance, and it took years for him to figure out a solution - first introduced in the now-classic NTI EQs and now refined here. He nailed it - it's really great on vocals.
The remaining five bands are what I call the "tone shaping" part. This EQ hardly induces any phase shift at all, which frankly I didn't know all that much about, but I can hear it now, and I can best describe it in print like this. Take a picture with your iPhone. Looks good. Now open your favorite photo app and hit it with that enhance feature you use to make your mom say, "You take such good pictures!!" This is essentially how I use this box. It's audio Photoshop - not radically changing the picture but enhancing from good to great: a little contrast here, bring out the highlights, deepen the blacks, warm up the tone, massage it, tweak it, improve it.
The first two bands - Sub and 40 Hz - allow some great shaping in the low end. Three additional bands allow shaping in very adjective-friendly tonal ranges: 160 Hz - low-end power; 650 Hz - low-mid muck; and 2.5 kHz - midrange focus. Air Band takes the top end, of course. What's really strange about the EQ4 is that if you turn off the Air Band and set all the bands to the same - but not necessarily zero - gain setting, the overall frequency response remains flat. (The Air Band is a separate beast that acts differently.) All the controls are stepped (thank you!) so it's easy to recall. One issue I have is that one click up or down is a lot, especially on a mix. Each band features a gain range of +15/-4.5 dB, and I could definitely use finer control - maybe even +/-3 dB in 0.25 dB steps. This is a quirk of the design, but as it stands, one click is a lot.
I see a few great uses for the EQ4. One is overall mix buss EQ that allows you to rely less on high-end gain (in the parametric realm) in order to have less phase shift where our ears are most sensitive to it, and therefore have a smoother high end. I find that it works better for me to start with Air Band active. The other bands I like to use about 90% of the way into a mix to try to clarify some tonal stuff. You have to be circumspect - this is not something you need to use a lot of.
For recording, I loved it for shaping the sound of a drum kit or piano. Cymbals speak without getting hazy. It can give guitars a nice fullness and bite, and the Sub band works wonders on a bass if the playing is clean. Again, the Air Band is fantastic for opening up the top end without things getting harsh, and you can kill subharmonic content on vocals and bring the bottom back with the 40 Hz band. I'll likely never track ribbon mics without the Air Band again.
I also have to wonder if the EQ4 might not be a really cool mastering tool. It's certainly not a surgical tool, but I could see using it to shape stuff that's not in need of triage, and if there were a version with a more focused range, I could see it being even more useful in this capacity.
Overall, the EQ4 can be an impressive new addition to any sonic arsenal. It works well in a variety of situations and does things that nothing else can do. I'm not sending my review units back. ($849 street; www.maagaudio.com)
-F. Reid Shippen, www.robotlemon.com