Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to suggest that pretty much every channel in every mix should have an EQ inserted into it almost as a matter of course, as the balancing of frequencies between the sonic constituents of any track - both disparate and related - is an absolutely fundamental part of the mixing process.
Happily, then, the software market is awash with amazing EQ plugins, priced everywhere from free to hundreds of pounds. And while hardware EQ units are functionally restricted by the laws of physicality and cost considerations, their software successors know no such technological limits.
A case in point is the game-changing rise of dynamic and automatic EQ plugins in recent years, applying cuts and boosts in response to the volume level of the target frequency band, and taking us all one step closer to the controversial dream of AI-driven mixing, respectively.
• The best VST plugins 2020: the finest synth effects and instruments
• The 25 best VST/AU plugin synths in the world right now
• The best drum machine VST plugins 2020: beatmaking software for your DAW
No matter what kind of music you make, taking the time to find an EQ plugin that suits your particular requirements and workflow is something that simply has to do be done, so to get you ahead of the (response) curve, here we’ve rounded up what we reckon are eight of the finest examples available today.
It’s perhaps worth noting that we’ve consciously avoided including any of the vintage classics that often appear in similar lists, electing instead to focus on more progressive, state-of-the-art designs.
The two hardware emulations that have made the cut are both comparatively modern, and, we would argue, sit perfectly comfortably amongst such unarguably next-gen company - but none of this is meant to imply that all those well-established Pultecs, Manleys and SSLs aren’t still as desirable as ever.
The best VST EQ plugins 2020
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | £134
Having become an industry standard over the last decade or so, FabFilter’s comprehensive but approachable equaliser reached new heights with the release of v3 in 2019.
Pro-Q 3 added to what was already an admirably flexible and superb sounding EQ with a handful of welcome new features, the headlines being Dynamic mode and mid-side options on every one of its 24 bands, and the ability to view the spectrum analysers for all running instances of the plugin in each, making it easy to identify masking issues.
If we could only have one EQ in our locker, it would probably be this one.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | £179
Fast becoming as ubiquitous as Pro-Q 3, oeksound‘s “dynamic resonance suppressor” uses spectral processing to detect harshness and general frequential unpleasantry in the source signal, then counteracts it by automatically notching it out in real time.
Version 2 introduced Soft mode, making adjustment tolerances and ranges less extreme for easier workflow; full frequency range coverage from 20Hz to 20kHz; much more in the way of EQ band parameters; and envelope controls for fine tuning the global response.
Unique in its approach to dynamic EQ, and miraculous in its ability to improve instruments, busses and mixes, soothe2 is a must-try.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $199
A fastidiously coded emulation of Kush’s fabulous boutique rackmount hardware, Clariphonic DSP MkII is entirely dedicated to enhancing high frequencies.
Each of its two channels (configurable as Dual Mono, Stereo or Mid-Side) houses two boost-only EQ modules: Focus and Clarity. Focus can operate as a wide bell or shelving EQ cornering at 800Hz or 3kHz, while Clarity delivers a shelving boost cornering at 4, 8, 18 or 34kHz.
The switch-driven selection system is a bit bloody-minded in its mirroring off the original hardware, but the beautiful top-end transformation this quirky plugin brings to the mixing and mastering table has to be heard to be believed.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX/RTAS | $199
While dynamic EQs automatically adjust their filter gains in response to incoming signal amplitude, SurferEQ 2 tracks the pitch of a monophonic input signal and shifts the frequencies of its filters up and down to maintain consistent cut or boost of specific notes as the melody progresses.
It’s very clever stuff, and the addition of MIDI triggering and sidechain input (enabling one source to ‘surf’ the EQ applied to another) in v2 addressed our only major issues with the original release, while the Spectral Gate function brought a dynamics-based angle into play.
Niche, certainly, but no other EQ can do the things that SurferEQ 2 can do.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | $79
This supremely classy plugin from French developer Eiosis sounds as good as any EQ - hardware or software - we’ve ever heard, and is blessed with a range of specialist controls that give it a personality all its own.
The seven main bands are incredibly versatile, with independent processing of left/right or mid/side channels, and Bell, Steep Bell and Shelf options. However, the Fire/Water Character slider and extra Earth/Air bands are the pièces de résistance, the first influencing the overall response, and Earth and Air being wonderfully effective ultra-high and -low shelves.
Posh, powerful and surprisingly affordable.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | £150
Another highly individual ‘automatic EQ’, Gullfoss (named after a waterfall in Iceland) is completely bewildering on first sight, with its weird ‘Recover’, ‘Tame’ and ‘Bias’ controls.
Once you’ve got your head around the dominant/dominated-balancing concept at its core, though, it actually turns out to be quite intuitive and quickly becomes a go-to problem solver.
Updating its frequency response curve 300 times a second, and intelligently applying a proprietary “computational auditory perception model” that ‘knows’ which sounds should be suppressed or emphasised, the transparency with which it smoothes out and improves everything from single instruments to full mixes is astonishing.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX | £175
One of the jewels in the crown of Utah-based studio hardware manufacturer Mäag Audio, the lunchbox-format EQ4 occupies a seat at the, er, top table of equalisation systems - and Universal Audio’s emulation puts it in the virtual hands of UAD-2 and Apollo systems owners for a fraction of the price of the real thing.
Five fixed-frequency bands (10Hz, 40Hz, 160Hz, 650Hz and 2.5kHz) offer up to +15/-4.5dB of cut or boost apiece, while the legendary Air band dials in up to 20dB of boost at 2.5, 5, 10, 20 or 40 kHz.
Ridiculously easy to use and positively transcendental in its high-frequency lifting, Mäag EQ4 is a modern classic.
Mac/PC | VST/AU/AAX/RTAS | £175
It could be said that we’ve saved the best til last, as DMG’s peerlessly flexible plugin was described in our review as “definitely revolutionary” and “utterly essential”.
A modular construction playground, EQuilibrium genuinely enables the construction of your dream equaliser, be it a vintage-style ‘musical’ model, a high-precision contemporary example, a CPU-intensive mastering setup, or a hybrid of all three.
Up to 32 bands can be created, each delivering up to 36dB of cut or boost; mid-side and surround routings are supported; and the FIR DSP processing mode lets you dive deep, adjusting phase response, window size and more. Truly extraordinary.