MINI-REVIEW: PLUGIN ALLIANCE’S MAAG AUDIO EQ4
Every DAW comes with a bunch of its own plug-ins including a range of different EQs such as 31-band, parametric and notch filters. They all help to tweak the sound of your recorded tracks and make them sit properly in the mix. Some recording musicians and sound engineers who are just starting out might wonder just why would you pay good money for a specialist EQ plug-in like the Maag Audio EQ4, when your DAW software seems to have all the bases covered?
For a start, quality is a big issue. Forgetting the features and capabilities of any plug-in for the moment, just the underlying quality of the computer code and algorithms used to create the plug-in have a serious impact on its sound. The sheer amount of number-crunching going on in the background to perfectly render that reverb, that delay or–as in this case–that specialist EQ is like a secret formula that can give you superior results.
But there are also real-world applications that modern plug-ins try to emulate. In particular there have been mixing console channel strips with such a distinctive and sought-after sound that plug-in companies try to copy or mimic them. A good example are the SSL consoles of old that had (and still do have) a famous “sound” that everyone wants and you can now buy the SSL “channels” as stand-alone plug-ins. While most of today’s DAW EQ plug-ins can pin-point every frequency with multiple bands, variable Q settings and wide dynamic range, the vintage consoles’ EQs that only had very selective frequency bands deliver a warmth, clarity and precision that modern EQs struggle to provide. It comes from decades of design and development. It’s why many expensive studios use vintage mixing consoles.
A little more quick history–many of those large studio consoles are custom-built to the owner’s needs. For instance, an engineer might want a half-dozen channels with extra compression built in for handling loud drums. With this in mind the physical frame and basic electronics of many mixers are designed to accommodate “500 Series” hardware devices. The 500 Series is like a standard–a set size and connection configuration so that any 500 Series device can be slotted into any custom-built mixing console.
Okay, so the original Maag Audio EQ4 was a 500 series EQ designed and built by a guy called Cliff Maag and it quickly gained a solid reputation for giving operators a distinctive sound that included an “Air” frequency adjustment at the top end and a very low sub-frequency adjustment doing some cool stuff to the bottom where, actually, many engineers didn’t think it was worth going. Just how these work we’ll look at with the plug-in version.
Plugin Alliance’s virtual Maag Audio EQ4 is a faithful reproduction of the 500 Series device with only one extra trick thrown in–the joys of software lets you do that–which is an overall Level Trim adjustment. The EQ4 has six bands of EQ with the aforementioned sub-frequency control set at 10Hz, then you get 40 Hz, 160Hz, and 650Hz which all are semi-parametric bell-shaped controls, then a 2.5kHz setting that’s a shelf-type control, and finally the Air setting that lets you choose between 2.5kHz, 5kHz, 10kHz, 20kHz and 40kHz. To be honest I’m guessing here, but because the Sub and Air settings aren’t strictly centre-frequency parametric adjustments the Maag Audio EQ4 is considered to have only four bands of true EQ and thus the “EQ4” name. Never mind–however it’s important to know that it isn’t just Cliff Maag’s careful choice of frequency bands that gives the EQ4 its special audio flavour. His electronics design and the components Maag used ensured that each frequency adjustment interacted correctly with the others–they don’t create issues of phase-shifting or “combing” of the sound that can make matters worse, rather than better. When you start applying EQ to any DAW track you’re possibly opening a can of worms, if you try to be too clever as different plug-ins fight each other to do their thing. This can occur within a single plug-in, too–such as a multi-band EQ and even cheap hardware EQ devices. Cliff Maag’s design of the EQ4 is critical to the sound it creates and Plugin Alliance has managed to emulate that precise interaction between the frequency bands.
The sub-frequency control is for bringing out low, low subs that won’t be really heard in any mix, but Maag knew the importance of these masked frequencies and how they still affect the overall sound. The 160Hz control is a shade above where many High Pass Filters (HPF) are set and it can add some extra beef to kick drums or put in that deep, vocal bass you often hear in voice-over recordings. Interestingly, 160Hz is also where a lot of natural instruments like acoustic guitars and upright basses can get a bit woofy and dull, and a bit of prudent cutting back at 160Hz can clear up a lot of mixes. The 650Hz range is all about adding some body to a track without necessarily boosting its volume. Alternatively, if you find yourself being asked to bury a vocal in the mix (some do… go figure), lowering this 650Hz band will do it perfectly. The 2.5kHz band is the cutting-edge frequency. Things like guitars, vocals, keyboards… hell, just about anything can be brought to the front of any mix with some gentle boosting of 2.5kHz. In reverse, it’ll smooth away any in-your-face factor from a loud guitar or aggressive snare.
Finally, there’s the magical Air control and Cliff Maag’s design here is close to magical. The Air setting adds a subtle presence to these higher frequencies that is exactly like asking the vocalist (or instrumentalist) to stand further back from the microphone giving the sound source “air”. Rather than distance, the effect is one of depth, almost three-dimensional, and at the same time it enhances definition to transients like vocal pronunciation or the pluck of guitar strings. Anyone listening to the mix will be hard-put to figure out how you’ve achieved this–unless they know about the Maag Audio EQ4 (and there are a few imitations around, of course).
For mine, the price of Plugin Alliance’s Maag Audio EQ4 is worth the Air setting alone, but overall the EQ gives you great results. You can use it on anything, by the way.
If you want to hear the Maag Audio EQ4 in action have a listen to Madonna’s Ray of Light album and in particular the track Frozen. You don’t have to be a Madonna fan to appreciate the audio perfection in the music, which incidentally won a Grammy for engineer on the album David Reitzas, who used the Maag Audio EQ4 a lot–and when you know what you’re listening for that Air control is right there making a difference. Plugin Alliance even provide a video demo of the Maag Audio EQ4 using a cover version of Frozen.
The Maag Audio EQ4 plug-in is an EQ that can make a real difference to your mixes. Like any EQ (and many plug-ins for that matter) you need to be careful just how much you use it and not overdo things. It can add some great timbre and tonal quality to a track almost instantly, when fiddling around for ages with any DAW’s standard EQs still won’t even come close. At $229.00 it’s for serious players–you can get a significant discount with “bundles”–so maybe it’s a question of how serious are you? Download the demo from www.plugin-alliance.com and find out for yourself.