Subsequent Mastering

Friday, 30 May 2014

Free VST Review #1 : Two Mastering/Bus Friendly EQs from Variety of Sound and Lkjb

In this post I will taking a look and a listen at two free VST equalizers which I deem suitable for mastering/mix bus duties. This will be part of a series of reviews for small plug-in designers making neat free VST plugins. There is a lot out there in the free VST world and I hope I can pick a few really special bits out for you and help improve your sound at no added cost.

I will be testing the Lkjb Luftikus Analogue Modeled EQ and the Variety of Sound Baxter EQ in this episode.

First Impressions

So I loaded the Luftikus up on a channel, no problems, not glitches. The UI is really nicely done and is a great improvement from the beta versions seen on forums last year. It's pretty obvious what it's inspiration stems from if you know the equalizer designs of Cliff Maag, it's a Nightpro/Maag EQ3/4-esque design with the same octave fixed bands as the Maag EQs. The unit itself has some "modes" not found in the Maag EQs or their plug-in counterparts such as "analog" and  "mastering".

Next I reached for Variety of Sound's BaxterEQ. People familiar with Dangerous Music's BAXEQ will be aware that this takes it's "Baxandall Tone Control" style (NB: worth a google if you're interested in further reading) and runs with it. Whereas the Dangerous Bax provides you with a neat single rackmount design with L/R on one strip, the BaxterEQ splits it into two virtual rack units and provides a Mid/Side matrix for those looking to get deeper into the stereo image of their source material. It also provides high and low pass filters for BOTH channels unlike the Dangerous Bax. This is particularly useful in mastering when the S channel is providing some useless out of phase bass or the middle image is too forward.

Field Test

 I loaded up a great, vibey yet murky and a little pokey in the high end, indie rock mix I received this month to have a look at how these things work in practice. I loaded up the Luftikus and checked the signal path in/bypassed: with all modes off it appears completely transparent, with "analog" mode engaged the signal also appears consistent. It's not stated clearly what "analog" is actually doing, but in my experience these Maag designs do have a sonic imprint: a smooth snakey tonal adjustments across the freq spectrum, and it's possible this is a factor in this mode, but it's very subtle if it is! Also provided is the "mastering" mode which makes the EQ work in steps, which some people might think is useless, but us mastering guys think in blocks of gain! Speaking of gain, the further "keep gain" mode is optional here. The Maag designs produce and overall gain shift beyond a certain point, which is counteracted in the Plugin Alliance version with a gain knob (also available here), but Lkjb have gone one step further with a kind of "make down" gain when this analogue modeled phenomenon becomes apparent.

Let's do some stuff: I felt the mix was a bit bunged up in the lower mids and lacking in the actual fundamental bass stuff, so I went in at 160 and took 1.7 dBs out and 2dBs in at 40. This cleared up room fast and clean, and uncovered some gunk a little further up, 1dB cut t 640 seemed apparent. A quick A-B showed me that the mix had been instantly improved in a wide sense and it was now time to take a look at the upper mid/high end balance. The 2.5 cut was applied, but instantly I felt the Q shape was too wide and had no control over this. I had in mind a cut in the upper mids and a boost with the AIR band (more on that later), but the width of the EQ let me down a bit here. The feature Maag's designs are famous for is the AIR band, a super high shelf with only gain. I put in 2dBs at 10kHz, which provided a really smooth brightening to the track, bringing out the ambience and wide elements of the overheads without adding back in any of the bad stuff I took out previously.

At this point I hit a bit of a snag. I punched in the "mastering button" to see if it was doing anything other than providing steps and it rounded my settings up/down to the nearest dB, essentially trashing my settings! Something to be looked into on updated versions perhaps? Annoyingly this messed up my gain structure, which I had to go back and re address, could be a bit of a bummer to have this happen when the chain has compressors either side of the plug.

I soldiered on and took some time to sit and A/B my settings. It's safe the say the combination of wide octave laid bands and super clean EQ modelling provided an incredibly smooth and un-distorted sound over all. For interest I pushed the AIR band up a few more dBs and took it out. Wow, that was some difference, and I dare anyone to tell me the effect "sounded EQ'd". Shout out to Lkjb for nailing that element of the Maag design.

Time to move on so I took the Luftikus off and loaded up the BaxterEQ. Taking what I learned from listening previously I had a go at cleaning up the same program material. The first thing I did (because I could this time round) is had a listen to the S channel to see if I could clear anything up here. As I had expected there was some bleed in the low end in the room, which is a perfect storm for murky low mids. I popped the M/S matrix on and took the low cut on the S, and although this did cut some stuff, I got stuck at 54Hz. I continued on my low mid cleaning mission by looking at the shelf cut on the S channel: 2 dBs at 74Hz took out the gunk I wasn't fond of, and auditioning back in stereo the imaging opened up quite a lot. Now I had cleared stuff up I felt I needed to focus the bass lower down, so I took the 74Hz knob, this time on the M channel and boosted it 1dB, and although this did the desired effect, it would have been nice to place it lower (an overlap with the filters would be useful!) to avoid adding to the low mids I am trying to clean up.

Moving on I addressed the top end: again I wanted to take some of the nasty forward nature of the mix and get some of the good top end stuff appearing clearer. I took the M/S approach again here, popping a 3dB lift on the S at the highest frequency available: 18kHz, and carving half a dB away on the M at 4.8kHz. This M/S push and pull stuff generally sounds more transparent than carving away with notches and dynamic EQs in my opinion, but it all depends on the width and shape of the EQ. The results were good, although I felt if I went much further with the boosts the EQ would begin to interact with areas I wasn't keen on touching.

At this point it's worth mentioning that the the Baxter has it's own bypass button, which I was using within this test, and this doesn't cut the plugin off, it simply un-engages the EQ, leaving the analogue modeled "hardware sound" of the EQ engaged. This might not to everyone's taste, having some harmonic excitement inline whenever you use anything on the plug-in, but it's safe to say it is very subtle.

Final Thoughts

Both of these free EQs are well worth trying, considering the price (or lack of) I really can't see how anyone working in the mix with busses or looking to carve their mix bus can afford to not check these out. Both faithfully represent analogue devices and add features only available in digital.

The Luftikus is great for adding top end to stuff where other EQs can't quite do it right, and is good for large swooping changes in the mid range. It is fixed in a mono channel (representing the EQ4 hardware) which makes it only dual stereo in practice, which can be not so useful when adding low end where there are problems in the S channel, it also misses a trick of adding varying amounts of AIR band to both the M and S, which would be so useful in mastering especially.

The BaxterEQ is a great representation of the classic Baxandall circuit with some neat features for buss and mastering work. It's analogue modeled sound when no EQ is engaged might upset a few people, but it's generally never been a problem in my experience. The added M/S matrix makes this thing very useful compared to many analogue modelling EQs out there. The freq points might be a little limited for using it on it's own, but there is no reason why this EQ alongside a clean and flexible digital EQ and a more vibey coloured analogue (or modeled) EQ couldn't EQ a troublesome mix.