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Choosing the Right EQ
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iZotope have launched their Music Production Suite Pro membership, which means people will have more affordable access to tools like Neutron, Ozone, and Nectar. So we thought a primer was in order: Neutron Pro, Ozone Pro, and Nectar Pro each have an equalizer. Could there really be that much of a difference between them?
The answer, of course, is yes, hence the existence of this article. Read on to find out what distinguishes these EQs from each other, and when to select the appropriate one when you’re using Music Production Suite Pro.
Hang on, aren’t all digital EQs roughly the same?
Some people on the internet will tell you that. They’ll say, “for the most part, digital EQs sound and function the same way.”
This is somewhere between a half-truth and an obfuscation: it’s a bit like saying a car will get you from point A to point B, without making allowances for the quality of the ride. There are many caveats to keep in mind here.
Consider the different types of digital EQs. Minimum-phase EQs behave differently from linear-phase EQs. Furthermore, not all linear-phase EQs are created the same—and some are regarded more favorably than others, particularly in how they handle tradeoffs inherent in the process (to describe these tradeoffs in detail would require more space than we have here).
Leaving linear-phase aside, we get into other issues: are the bands of this hypothetical digital EQ operating in series, or are they in parallel? Are they meant to model something particular in the hardware world, like a passive equalizer, or the more colorful components of a hardware EQ?
All of this makes one-to-one comparisons a lot harder to achieve.
A better statement would be, “with some work, you can sometimes make two different digital equalizers behave similarly.” But doing so usually requires a lot of work—certainly more work than just picking one EQ and going with it.
So what are the differences, and why do they matter?
A big part of why we might choose one EQ over another comes down to how the developer tuned the equalizer in the first place—how they scaled each parameter towards an intended use-case and sound.
Broadly speaking, iZotope made Nectar for vocals, Neutron for channel and mix-bus duties, and Ozone for the master bus. A good deal of how each plug operates derives from their intended use.
This applies to the scaling of parameters, the look of GUI, which settings are active by default, and the extra features each plug-in provides.
Consider that Nectar Pro’s dynamic mode can follow frequencies, rather than amplitude; this is a function unique to Nectar.
Neutron Pro’s dynamic mode offers an optional per-band sidechain input; Nectar’s does not.
Ozone can be switched into linear-phase mode, with different controls over the phase response on a per-band basis; it’s the only EQ sporting this feature out of the three.
Oh, and Ozone actually gives you three equalizers—the normal one, a dedicated dynamic EQ, and a Vintage EQ meant to mimic all the behavior of pultec-type EQs.
If that went by quick, don’t worry, I’ll dive in more deeply into each EQ. Now.
This article references a previous version of Neutron. Learn about Neutron 4 and its powerful features including Assistant View, Target Library, Unmask, and more by clicking here.
Neutron is a channel-strip plug-in meant for instruments or submix duties; you can slap it on a guitar, a snare drum, and a drum buss. While you can certainly apply Neutron’s equalizer to vocals, many of its features are more geared toward instruments. Consider the UI, for instance:
Neutron offers a drag-and-drop EQ: you can click the spectrum to create an EQ band, then drag them around to suit your needs. Look at the frequency range which grabs the most attention: most of the analyzer—the horizontal field upon which you’ll click your bands—is devoted to the 100 Hz to 6 kHz range.
Low-midrange and vital midrange information are emphasized. Super-extended tops and low-ranging subs can be addressed, for sure, but your eye isn’t drawn there by default.
I’d argue this is intentional: low-midrange and midrange information is vital to communicating elements within a mix, so iZotope has naturally drawn your eyes there in this GUI. You probably want to keep your instruments from sounding bloated (200 Hz), muddy (300 Hz), honky (500 Hz), pinched (1 kHz), harsh (2-3 kHz), or grating (4 to 5 kHz).
Moving on: if you select one of the default parametric bells, you’ll find it’s set to a proportional-Q filter by default, meaning the shape of its bell grows more narrow the more you cut or boost.
This allows you to pinpoint problematic issues with more specificity, without aggravating other nearby frequencies. Such an approach might not always work for a nuanced vocal, but for a resonant drum it saves you time.
Neutron's EQ provides a dynamic mode, which essentially turns the module into a cross between a compressor and an equalizer. The more signal exceeds a threshold, the more the equalizer cuts or boosts. In Neutron, you can assign the dynamic EQ to an internal or external sidechain filter.
Now you can compress the bass every time the kick hits, as long as you assign the sidechain input to your kick drum. A Masking Meter can be switched on to provide valuable visual feedback, helping you figure out exactly which frequencies need attenuating.
Lastly, Neutron’s EQ offers subtle saturation. You can read about it in depth here, but the TLDR is this: Neutron’s Soft Saturation mode excites the input signal, generating subtle harmonic coloration. This is more in-line with analog boards. You can use Soft Saturation for a gentle hand in making your digital alterations feel more like the consoles of yesteryear.
To sum up, all of these features are great for instruments and submixes: you’ll want to devote time to the midrange of instruments, so the GUI is perfectly suited; you’ll want a musical, yet surgical EQ to help tamp down resonances, so the prop-q default works well here; sidechaining instruments to each other allows for clarity (and is something you’d usually not do for vocals); and the saturation can help bring your tracks more roundness in a subtle way.
Looking at the GUI right off the bat, Nectar Pro gives us the least amount of space below 100 Hz, and devotes most of the frequency analyzer to a range of 100 Hz to 10 kHz.
This makes a ton of sense for vocals. Unless you’re working on a basso profundo, you won’t have much to do below 100 Hz besides the occasional hi-pass or low shelf.
Conversely, you’ll find a fair amount to do for vocals between 6 kHz and 10 kHz—de-essing and presence emphasis comes to mind. So the extra wiggle room here is warranted.
Nectar doesn’t default to a proportional-Q equalizer, but a regular parametric bell. This default works better for vocals: the nuances of the human voice dictate that we take extra special caution—that our Q factors do exactly as we want them to do. A prop-q, musical though it may be, can be inexact in this regard.
Note the frequency-specific dynamic EQ. Instead of following amplitude, it can follow the frequency signature of a given sound, and move up or down the frequency pane accordingly. Why would we need this? It can be useful on high-pass filters addressing the lead vocal, automatically moving with the singer’s lowest frequency, and cutting out what we need below on a moment-to-moment basis.
You won’t have a sidechain input on the dynamic EQ, but it’s arguable that you’d ever need one. You also don’t have soft saturation, but then again, Nectar provides a comprehensive Saturation module to handle this to a more adjustable degree.
And now we come to Ozone Pro, a product renowned for its ability to tweak your master buss. Examining the GUI, two things become apparent: Ozone gives you a good deal of room below 100 Hz, and boosting/cutting in excess of 6 dB is impossible without manually inputting the numbers.
Both of these decisions make sense for an EQ meant to live on your master bus. Any mastering engineer operating on mixes other than their own can tell you that a frequent area of concern is the low end; you see all sorts of issues here, from a bloated bottom to an anemic bass unbalanced against the kick, to anything in between.
You can adjust this window in the preferences, so you can focus on areas of the mix if you so choose. This is customary for EQs meant to be used in the mastering process, and you won’t find the option to tweak the window in the other two EQs.
When it comes to stereo-bus work, we caution against adding or subtracting more than a couple decibels at a time. Sure, you sometimes have to juice the mix with more EQ, but hardly ever do you operate in excess of 6 dB. So it makes sense that you’d be restricted here.
If you want to go higher than 6 dB, Ozone makes you consider this decision by forcing you to click into the EQ band and type in the value that you’d want.
Moving on, we notice the EQ gives the ability to operate in Analog or Digital modes. Analog is your minimum phase EQ, whereas Digital gives you the ability to select among “degrees” of linear phase.
In fact, select Digital, and many of the bands will give you the ability to select on a slider between 0% (linear phase) and 100% (minimum phase).
This is another boon for master-bus purposes, as some engineers don’t like the sound of linear phase on the low ends (audible pre-ringing of the filter can be an issue). So, you can choose linear phase on the midrange and treble frequencies, and leave the low-end in a more analog-style minimum phase response.
Ozone also gives you the ability to equalize in mid/side mode, which can be quite handy. Mid/side EQ is covered extensively here and here.
Finally, let us consider that Ozone gives you more than one EQ: you have the option to use the drag and drop EQ, but you also get the Vintage EQ, which gives you the ability to instantiate Pultec-like curves (boosting and cutting the same frequency, for example), as well as a Dynamic EQ.
Unlike Neutron and Nectar, the dynamic EQ comprises its own module. You can argue this is to preserve the mastering mindset—the separation of dynamic EQ into its own module reinforces the perspective and care you ought to maintain when handling the master as a whole.
Now we come back to our intended use cases: Nectar is for vocals, Neutron is for the mix, and Ozone is for mastering. I hope, after this article, that you now know why this is the case.