The Sonic Differences Between Graphic & Parametric EQ

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An EQ in the studio is like an audio engineer’s right hand (or left hand if you’re left-handed, I guess…)

What I mean is, an EQ can make you “dexterous” with almost any audio source, dialing in a certain balance that makes everything behave well with each other and with other processors. Someone truly skilled with an EQ can make a static mix sound absolutely amazing before any type of fader automation or other post-processing. While compression, reverb, and dozens of other effects are needed to add some polish to the whole thing, the EQ is definitely the most necessary when it comes to frequency control.

One of the biggest debates in the world of EQs is around when you should use subtractive EQ and when to use additive EQ, but we’ve been there and done that. Today, I’d rather focus on the two most commonly available EQ formats: graphic and parametric.

We won’t dive into the hardware vs. software conversation too much because at their core – both types are accomplishing the same tasks. Instead, we’re going to focus on how graphic interfaces are drastically different than parametric ones, and more importantly, how they sound different as a result.

What Is A Graphic EQ?

A graphic EQ is essentially just a collection of frequency-specific filters – each with its own fixed bandwidth. They come in various sizes from as little as 3 bands (like the low/mid/high EQ on a guitar amp) up through 31-band versions (also called third-octave EQs because each band is 1/3 of an octave away from the next).

With a graphic EQ, an engineer can’t control the bandwidth (or Q) of the filter and they can’t control the center frequency of the filter either. Because of this, you’re limited to a very specific range to work with. Within each range, your options are only to boost or cut using the slider to raise or lower the gain.

As you work with a graphic EQ, it’s easy to find yourself working visually to set things the way you want them. With the more professional EQs that have 31 bands or more, what you’re dialing in is almost exactly the EQ curve you’re applying to your sound. While it’s a crude pattern compared to the smooth visual you get from some parametric EQs, it gets the job done.

Graphic EQs are particularly effective when it comes to cutting problem frequencies out of a track. You can roll off any unwanted low end simply by grabbing all of the sliders below a particular frequency and pulling the gain all the way down. The same goes for harsh upper mids or high end hissing – just find the one band that most closely aligns with the problem you hear and you’re done!

Parametric EQs

If graphic EQs are considered crude and industrial, then parametric EQs could be considered the artistic take on the same subject. That’s not to say either is bad – we often have use for quick, industrial solutions as much as the artistic ones. But as the trend for plugin developers has shown – parametric EQs are much more in demand in the studio than graphic EQs.

With a parametric EQ, you gain all of the flexibility you miss out on with a graphic EQ. Things like your center frequency, bandwidth & more get reintroduced to your processor. You pick up features like high-pass/ low-pass filters and shelves in addition to the traditional filters. For the most part, your bands can even overlap each other for some very creative EQ curves.

All of this is fun, but what is it really accomplishing?

For me, the benefit of a parametric EQ is it’s flexibility AND it’s musicality. Since you’re able to fine-tune your settings to get the right sound, the control adds to your overall audio imprint. Combine that with parametric EQs based on legendary consoles and other hardware EQs and you get non-linearity that help “warm up” and color your sound.

Sonic Decisions

Depending on how much you want to do with your EQ & how much impact you want it to have on your sound, you may choose one style over the other.

Graphic EQs are straightforward and reliable. By taking unnecessary features off of the table, you might make faster and more efficient mix decisions. There’s a reason you’ll see more graphic EQs at live shows than parametric ones – they’re straightforward and perform consistently.

Parametric EQs can add color and inspiration to your sound, and they provide control options you’d never even want to touch with a graphic EQ. For example, sweeping a filter with automation could never be done with a graphic EQ. You’d need to go band-by-band, raising one as you lower the other to create something even remotely similar.

Other dynamic processors like Transify are quickly following the parametric EQ’s lead when it comes to picking their target frequencies too. Rather than having something designed to shape a signal’s attack or clip its peaks at a fixed frequency, engineers are now able to set those kinds of options themselves for increased flexibility.

Applying EQ To Your Mix

At the end of the day, use whichever tool helps you get the job done. We’re talking about two very similar technologies with slightly different approaches to how they get things done. I know engineers that would never touch a graphic EQ and that’s fine. If you can get the result you want – that’s all the matters.

If you’re tired of taking a guess and check approach to setting your EQs, maybe its time you did some critical listening training. Identifying problem frequencies and knowing exactly where they live in each instrument is a huge shortcut that every engineer should know and use.

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