Neve & SSL EQ De-Mystified

It’s difficult for many people to accept (See my “How Digital Does Analog Better Than Analog” and my “The Ears Win Again” article) the fact that the “future is now” in relation to capturing and reproducing sound in the digital realm, especially when it comes to digital representations of loved analog pieces of gear such as Neve and SSL EQ’s and compressors.

The simple fact is though, that measuring techniques, mathematical algorithms, and computer processing power are so accurately able to measure what a Neve EQ or an SSL EQ does to an analog signal, that they can be precisely mimicked digitally, and so efficiently, that even the best ears in the industry can’t rise above “chance” when it comes to identifying the analog version of the EQ or the digital counterpart.

Something that might make this easier to understand, are a few graphs from the team at SONNOX who’s plug-ins have become a staple of mastering engineers the world over from their unique plug-in designs that take the technology one step further than any other plug-in designer. They don’t add their own fixed algorithm to their EQ plug-ins, the thing that arbitrarily gives EQ plug-ins a characteristic sound (just like the different circuits do in our favorite analog processors), but retains a fluid and changing response to the signal being applied to it, exactly as an analog processor would do.

But, of course with a reliability and precision of control that is unheard of in the analog realm!

So, this first graph is a representation of a classic SSL EQ curve. It has been completely reverse-engineered and it’s now easy to see what the Q of the SSL (as well as every other aspect of the processor) does to a signal:

SSL-EQ-Q

Smaller amounts of boost or cut have a relatively high “Q”, so these types of curves are precise EQ’s. Since the Q’s are as tight as they are, getting an overall “fill” requires changing the Q simultaneously with the cut or gain increases. Not understanding that critical point is what has given these types of EQ’s the reputation of being “harsh”, but these types of curves are exactly what was used in the 4000 series SSL consoles, and a large part of the reason these consoles became world renown for their “clean” or “clinical” sound.

Ask anyone who has an opinion on SSL’s vs. Neve’s, and there’s a good chance they’ll tell you that SSL’s are “super clean” consoles, that they are perfect for pop, metal, or some hip hop applications. The EQ curves are an extraordinarily large part of that opinion.

This next graph is a representation of a classic Neve EQ curve. As with the SSL EQ curve above, it has been completely reverse engineered, making it easy to see what the Q of the Neve EQ does to a signal:

Neve-EQ-Q

This style has a moderate amount of gain versus “Q” dependency. What this means is that the Q reduces with gain, making the EQ sound smoother, and also making it sound “louder” and more impressive when used at moderate settings. This is a “warm” EQ, which works well for non-surgical EQ tasks, and can often be more pleasing to the ear, while often causing us to feel that it’s “warmer” or “fatter” than the SSL EQ. This is exactly how the older and deeply-loved Neve EQ’s were made, and one of the main reasons that many feel they are very “musical” sounding EQ’s.

Third is a critical characteristic of equalization that more don’t think about. It’s called “Shelving Overshoot”, and refers to the HF Shelf “Q” control. The power of Shelving EQ’s are often underestimated. One of my favorite pieces of EQ trivia are the boxes that were made at Abbey Road for the Beatles. One had a single knob, and it was for gain, in 2db increments, up to 10db, at a frequency of 8K. These amazing tools have now been re-created by Bomb Factory in the “Abbey Road” pack, and the sound these plug-ins have is nothing short of spectacular. I’m very leery of using ANYTHING but a few select plug-ins on entire CD masters, but this is one of the rare exceptions. The Abbey Road box adds a very musical “air” and “space” to the sound, and is so musical and gentle, that I find myself reaching for it on more than rare occasions when mastering now. And, it’s based on this concept of “Shelving overshoot control”, seen here:

Neve-SSL-ShelfQ

With minimal “Q” control as seen in the YELLOW curve, there is no overshoot and the shelf performs a very “accurate” shelving function. As you might have guessed, this is exactly the curve that is used in classic SSL 4000 EQ’s that are famous for their “crystal clear” sound.

The PURPLE line shows the Q overshoot that matches the beloved Neve shelving EQ function. It creates a gain/loss of around 10% in the overshoot region, which works to suppress the midrange boost that occurs with the SSL variety, telling our ears that this sound is less “hard” than the YELLOW curve.

This curve, as you might have guessed, is exactly the curve that was chosen for Neve shelving EQ’s, giving them a “warmer” and “more musical” sound, just like the parametric parts of the EQ.

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All of these characteristics have been analyzed and re-analyzed, and as a result, more and more plug-ins are appearing that claim to have that “SSL” or that “Neve” sound, but after trying every last one of them, for my ears, none come remotely as close as the SONNOX OXF-R3 Plug-in, the very plug-in that we use more than any other whether when tracking, mixing, or even mastering. Actually, SONNOX EQ may one of the “best-kept” secrets of mastering engineers, and the moment you get your hands on one of these plug-ins, it’s easy to see why.

And, while most plug-ins try to “mimic” either a Neve or an SSL EQ, SONNOX goes several steps further and build BOTH algorithms seamlessly into the same EQ, not only allowing you an EQ so true to their analog counterparts that, as I said previously, the best ears in the business are unable to tell the difference between the plug-in and the real thing, you can now combine the best of both and create your own hybrids with the click of a button for EQ that has a unique personality crafted by your ears alone!

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