A fun question came in yesterday regarding upgrading a mastering equalizer. EQ's are always used in mastering, and while this question asked about specific models, I couldn't help myself but offer my opinion on EQ's in this capacity in general.
Special thanks to the readers who have emailed in with corrections and suggestions regarding ways to expand older articles. Although I failed to take note so I could thank you by name, we do appreciate your help. Now let's look at this email!
Hello! I read your article about the best equalizers and wondered if I should upgrade. I currently have the DBX 215s (have barely used it) but considered upgrading to the Rane ME15S. I plan to use it on buses for mastering together with the Drawmer 1973, 1978, and 1968 compressors. I think I prefer 15 bands over 30 and I need an all-around sound that suits different music genres. Do you think I will notice an improved sound quality and if so, in what aspects of the sound will it be noticeable? Thank you in advance for any tips.
Olav, I'm glad our article started the gears in your head to turning! Let me give you my opinion on the specifics you asked about, and then give you my thoughts about the bigger picture.
Don't let me take away from DBX too much. I have a couple of their compressors stereo-linked in my rack for when I watch movies. I always compress the audio since there's such a huge variance in their mixing style between action scenes down to characters whispering. They get the job done, but I always see them as getting a dirty job done like at a small bar venue where there's so much other noise going on that perfection doesn't matter.
Juxtapose that against a task like mastering carefully mixed audio, which I do think the Rane EQ will be more suited for. There's certainly a difference between cheaper EQ's for live audio and more finely tuned options for studio recording, mixing, and mastering. Yes, I do think you'd receive a noticeable difference by upgrading. You've also asked me to describe the audio signature of that upgrade.
The quality gains you would experience would be less of "adding quality" and more like "lifting a veil." What you'll be doing is swapping out a lesser component in your mastering signal path and replacing it with one that focuses as much on equalizing as it does doing that quietly and musically. The DBX will have a bit of a higher noise floor than the Rane, but the Rane will add a bit more coloration to the signal. While that's usually pleasing and something people seek after, others want a more transparent sound. So I'd see it as a trade-off in that regard; a lower noise floor for a "pleasing" coloration, with the quotations depending on your taste.
I agree with you entirely that I'd rather have a 15-band EQ over a 30-band EQ for mastering purposes. The reason is that, even with EQ's that let you set the resolution to lower stepped levels (like zooming in so you can make finer tweaks), you still need to create smooth transitions between each band. Naturally, 15 bands are fewer and wider bands that make this easier.
I say all of this because you shouldn't be cutting or boosting with surgical precision during the mastering stage. All of that work should be completed by the mixing engineer. During mastering you should be creating broad sweeping "musical" changes, bringing various tracks into sonic alignment with each other. I understand that sometimes we don't get sent the most stellar tracks, but even then you'll have to set expectations with the client about mastering versus fixing the mistakes of the mix engineer.
With all of that said, my main point is that you may want to consider not using a graphic equalizer at all. When I think of mastering, I think of parametric equalizers.
Ideally, the mixes you get into the studio should be very close to the final versions that make it to the record. You might want to squeeze out some extra decibels of volume, but generally your goal is to make very broad equalization changes so that each mix sounds like it was performed by the same mixer, recorded in the same studio, with instruments played by the same people, and vocals all recorded in the same location on the same day. Of course you can't change everything at that point, but you can recognize when some tracks are warmer than others, with some featuring too much high-end, etc.
To bring all of the tracks into alignment in that fashion without affecting the sonic signatures of each individual aspect, you need to make broad sweeping changes to the tracks with very wide Q's. Parametric equalizers are perfect for this. You get 3 or 4 bands total and maybe a low roll-off and a high shelf. You'll choose the center frequency of the Q curve, the width of the band, and how much to boost or cut, and that's it. There's no tinkering with 3 bands on either side of the main band you want to adjust like you would with a graphic equalizer in order to make it sound musical versus sounding abrupt.
Just like you can do this kind of work with a graphical EQ, you can do precision work with a parametric EQ (in fact, that's all I use when mixing). But if you get into this level of detail oriented work when mastering with a 3 or 4 band parametric EQ, you'll likely have to do multiple passes through, which can add on a lot of time since you'll have to record back in real time. So I suppose it all depends on the kind of tracks you receive for mastering. Are they really good and need the final touch, or are you fixing the mistakes and missed opportunities of an amateur mixer? If they're good, I suggest you toy around with the idea upgrading to a parametric EQ instead of a graphic EQ.
I hope this helps,