Seven years after the original Clariphonic Parallel Equalizer [Tape Op #88] was released, Gregory Scott, the owner and visionary behind the company Kush, has updated this unique analog EQ with new features that open the gates to a whole new realm of tonal-shaping territory. If you’re unfamiliar with Gregory’s YouTube videos (or his trade show demos), I recommend you check them out. One of his mantras is that you shouldn’t get hung up on numerical markings or technical jargon, and instead, you should use your ears. This refreshing attitude is clearly reflected in his products; just look at the control labeling of his hardware and software processors, or read his manuals.
Geoff Stanfield and I both had a chance to use the newly updated Clariphonic MS. Geoff is a longtime user of the original Clariphonic, and astute readers will recognize that his approach to integrating audio gear into his day-to-day has more to do with achieving an emotional impact rather than filling a definitive requirement. On the other hand, I’m the Gear Geek, so I prefer to understand the science behind product designs and their intended workflows, and I have no qualms about chasing measurable results with scopes and analyzers in hand. Long story short — despite our different perspectives, Geoff and I both fell in love with the Clariphonic MS. –AH
GS: The original Clariphonic has been one of my favorite EQs for quite some time now. I use the plug-in version frequently, and when I am visiting a studio that has a hardware unit, it is always utilized. It adds a lovely sparkle and polish to mixes, crack to a snare drum, air to a vocal, and so much more. As its name suggests, the EQ process is built on a parallel-processing signal flow. For each of its two channels, the incoming signal is split into three separate paths. One path is unprocessed. The second is through an EQ circuit that Kush calls the Focus Engine. And a third is through the Clarity Engine EQ. All three paths are then summed together to form the channel’s output. The original Clariphonic had a Focus Engine that allowed you to select a curve from two bells or two shelves — for boosting only. The Clariphonic MS loses the shelves and instead limits your options to two Focus bells — which you can now boost or cut. These bells, labeled Lift and Open, have the same shape as the original ones; they are extremely wide and they start to taper off around 14 kHz.
AH: I measured their frequency responses. Lift is centered around 6 kHz, while Open is around 8 kHz. Both are extremely wide, beginning their deflections as low as 100 Hz and 200 Hz respectively, and reaching past 100 kHz. Maximum boost is +11 dB — plus a broadband gain of almost +4 dB across the whole spectrum when Focus is maximized. In other words, overall volume is also added to the signal as you turn up the Focus knob. The deepest cut is −6.6 dB, with an additional −0.5 dB of attenuation in volume. I observed a (proportional) Q of approximately 0.2 at maximum boost. Given the shape of these curves, their phase responses are also predictably smooth.
GS: Lift is described by Gregory as “crack” — as in the crack of the midrange. It brings things forward, and it can clear mud without ruining the warmth. Use it sparingly, as it is a powerful tool; as noted in the manual, things can get aggressive very quickly. Open is described as the “snap” band. You can really open a sound up with this function, while still keeping things grounded in the lows and lower-mids.
AH: The Focus Engine offers what I’ll call timbral manipulation. By boosting or cutting wide swaths of the harmonics, partials, and inharmonics that characterize a sound, you can very easily change the intensity of a sound’s timbre. Because you’re moving so much bandwidth with the Focus Engine, it rarely sounds bad. But be aware that, because it adds overall gain when you’re boosting, you can be tricked into thinking everything in the effected track (or mix) is sounding “better” or clearer, when the reality is that you’re also raising the volume when you add boost.
GS: The Clarity Engine of the Clariphonic MS remains the same as the one in the original version. You can select from four shelf curves — Presence, Sheen, Shimmer, and Silk — all of which are boost only.
AH: These are gently sloping treble boosts, topping out at +17.2 dB, in addition to an overall volume increase of +4.4 dB. Maximum slope is only 4.5 dB per octave. Presence starts its climb at 100–200 Hz, with its +3 dB point at 425 Hz and its −3 dB (from peaking) point at 3 kHz (at maximum boost). Silk starts at 1.2–4 kHz, with its +3 dB point at 7 kHz and its −3 dB point at 50 kHz. Again, phase responses are all predictably smooth.
GS: Presence adds “bite” and has the ability to bring this forward in a mix without actually grabbing the volume knob. I did try this out on a vocal tracked with an SM57 and no EQ, as the manual recommends, and it was stunningly effective in making the vocal pop through, and it made the mic sound quite a bit more expensive than it actually is. Things can get a little nasty here if you are not careful, so use with restraint. I also tried this with acoustic guitars, snare drum, and hi-hats; and I was able to sculpt a space and bring these elements forward without turning them up. Yes, I know you can do this with a standard EQ to some degree, but this does it in a way that is always beautifully musical. Sheen is described as a good old-fashioned treble knob. If you want a little bit of a more “finished” sound, go here. The Shimmer and Silk bands start getting stratospheric.
I was mixing a tune for Seattle singer Tom Eddy, and I wanted to give the vocal a little something special — more polish. I typically use my Standard Audio Stretch [Tape Op #113] for adding that special something around a vocal, but since we had the Clariphonic MS sitting there patched as well, we A/B’d what the two were doing to the vocal. The Kush box won out. Using the Shimmer band, we brought out a touch more air around the voice, and it had a quality that Tom described as more elegant.” To be fair, these two boxes do different things (the Stretch is a dynamics processor based on a noise-reduction circuit), but in this situation, the Kush took the cake, and the client is always right. Right?
Also, I have a Crane Song IBIS EQ, which is very sweet up top and provides intangible loveliness to mixes, and the Clariphonic MS is in that league of “special” in terms of how it can alter the “feeling” of a track. I love adding a touch of “air” to mixes by boosting 19 kHz and up. It lifts the roof right off the mix in the best sort of way.
AH: Looking at my frequency response plots of the Clarity Engine, I can’t help but think it would be crazy to turn its boost knob by more than a quarter turn. But here’s where Gregory’s dislike of numerical markings comes in play. It’s actually quite easy — and immensely satisfying — to turn the knob all the way clockwise, because the result can sound so good, and there’s nothing on the faceplate suggesting to me that I would be doing something as irresponsible as pushing up the spectral balance by +17 dB at 30 kHz. The smile I had on my face when I first turned up the Clarity Engine was just like the one that adorned my face as a teenager when I powered up my hi-fi receiver for the first time, and cranked the bass and treble knobs.
The parallel architecture and internal gain structure of the Clariphonic MS allow you to boost both Focus and Clarity Engines without driving one or the other into overload, because cranking both knobs does not double the size of the peak, as it might on a serial EQ. Instead, the two bands interact in interesting ways. For example, boosting Lift and Silk together results in a smooth rise that plateaus from 3–14 kHz, and then rises again towards 100 kHz. Or, cutting the Lift band while boosting Silk will result in a broad, midrange scoop centered just above 2 kHz, followed by a smooth rise beyond 50 kHz. In other words, the two bands aren’t truly additive, and you can achieve some pretty interesting shapes with the two. Therefore, you definitely have to use your ears, because even if numerical markings were given, they wouldn’t make much sense. Thankfully, despite the atypical nature of the parallel interactions, it’s very easy to arrive at settings that enhance the sound of your source. For example, on a piano track that was sounding boxy and lifeless, all it took was a little tuck of the Lift band and a generous boost of Shimmer. The piano didn’t lose any weight in its lows and lower-mids, but it became clearer and more dynamic.
GS: Now, about the MS suffix in the name of this device. That refers to the onboard Mid-Side encoder/decoder. In M-S mode, the left channel of the Clariphonic MS processes the “middle” of the stereo field, while the right channel processes the “sides.” Why would you want to do this, you ask? Well, imagine that, for example, you are given a stereo stem mix of drums, and the panned cymbals sound too harsh, but the centered snare doesn’t have enough crack. Adding EQ conventionally to the stereo stem would present issues, because trying to remove cymbal harshness might weaken the snare. With M-S EQ, you can tone down the cymbals on the sides while minimizing the effect on the snare, and add life to the snare in the middle without overbaking the cymbals.
I found the M-S feature especially useful and inspiring for EQ’ng effects. For example, it is easy to give a stereo reverb or delay some extra air or shimmer on the sides, while creating some extra space for the featured elements in the center. In some cases, I even rode the controls by hand as the mix was being printed to add some additional motion to the effect, swelling or decreasing the amount of EQ in various sections of the song. Good times!
In addition to the EQ bands on the device, you can use the TRS inserts in the
back to patch other outboard processors through the M-S encoder/decoder of the Clariphonic MS. Epic!
AH: Speaking of motion, I love using my mix compressors in mid-side mode through an M-S matrix to add movement. For example, if I want a song to really bounce, I’ll set up a compressor on the mid channel to purposely pump with the beat. On the other hand, if I want a song to sound like its expanding outward with each hit of an instrument, I’ll set up a compressor on the side channel with a slow attack and fast release, side-chained to the instrument. Other times, adding motion to a mix won’t be my goal, but M-S compression will allow me to optimize the mid-channel compressor to react less to bass, and the side-channel compressor to pass more treble. Note that in any of these cases, the mid and side compressors can be two totally different (mono) compressors, without fear of losing L/R balance. These kinds of tricks are easy (and wicked fun) to implement using the M-S inserts on the Clariphonic MS. And mid-side compression is just one bag of tricks out of many. Try transient shapers, delays, distortion pedals, and even other styles of EQs — the possibilities are endless. Note that the inserts on the Clariphonic MS are pre-EQ. Therefore, whatever processing you insert, you can spectrally shape its output with the Focus and Clarity Engines.
I measured the performance of the Clariphonic MS with and without the M-S matrix enabled (with the Focus and Clarity Engines bypassed). From 10 Hz – 40 kHz, phase response is linear, and frequency response is within 0.1 dB of flat. At 80 kHz, it’s −0.5 dB down. SNR is 110 dB at 1 kHz and 99 dB at 20 kHz. Up to 40 kHz, THD is less than 0.002%, with channel balance never deviating by more than 0.1 dB, even with M-S enabled.
Now that I’ve laid out my measurements, let me say that these numbers only tell part of the story, because there’s something else going on with this EQ. There’s a certain mojo to its sound that I can’t explain with frequency plots or distortion figures. For example, I set up my Dangerous Music BAX EQ [Tape Op #79] and the Clariphonic MS to mimic each other, with the BAX HF shelf set for +5 dB boost at 2.1 kHz, and the Clariphonic MS Presence boost turned up 1/4. After volume-matching the two units, their frequency and phase–response plots were almost exactly on top of each other — within 0.05 dB and 2° from 10 Hz – 20 kHz. I ran various mixes as well as individual instrument tracks through them, and there was a noticeable difference in sound. The Clariphonic MS seemed to be adding an energy that’s elusively difficult to describe. Granted, the BAX has lower noise, this wasn’t a double-blind test, and I didn’t swap cables/inputs and redo the test — so take it for what it is. With that said, I think the two EQs are aimed at very different use cases, and I don’t think one could ever replace the other. Both of them are in my rack now, and I’m happy to use both on every mix that I do.
GS: This unit, like all Kush offerings, is built like a tank, and all its controls feel nice. Speaking of controls, the Clariphonic MS has detented pots, and a single switch that triggers a hard relay bypass of the whole unit. Both of these features were requests from owners of the original Clariphonic, and both make the control set more practical. Regarding the lack of kHz and dBs on the faceplate and in the manual — I am a gentleman that really does not like to read manuals, so I found Gregory’s qualitative vs. quantitative nomenclature very useful for knowing what each band equated to, in terms of expected behavior. It actually made “getting there” a little less trial and error.
The Kush Clariphonic MS is easy to use, but this is not to say it is anything but a powerful machine. Quite the contrary, in fact. This box may be too powerful, so use it gently to great effect. If you need to lift the fog off the murkiest of recordings, the power is all there, but otherwise, just a light dusting will take your mix to a new level of polish. Don’t be intimidated! Turn the knobs, use your ears, and let the Clariphonic MS make you look like an audio wizard.