Empirical Labs BIG FrEQ by Diogo C
Introduction: As makers of the legendary Distressor hardware compressor, the Empirical Labs name is almost synonymous with dynamics processors, and although the company’s talents for equalization are somewhat overshadowed they shouldn’t be overlooked. As shown on their Lil FrEQ hardware, the gang led by designer-extraordinaire Dave Derr also has a say on how to deal with frequencies, a claim which is now bolder and louder with the introduction of the Big FrEQ equalizer plug-in. According to Empirical Labs, the Big FrEQ is “partially extrapolated” from the Lil FrEQ, but greatly expands the equalizer section and adds variable saturation through the “Finisher” section. At its core, Big FrEQ features six fully-sweepable parametric bands with variable range (-15/+15 or -30/+30) and each band brings not only the usual bandwidth (or Q) control but also adds a “Slope” control that sharpens the edges in order to achieve “flat top” curves, which are particularly useful when boosting without unwanted resonance. There’s also a focus button on each band that re-centers the frequency knob for easier fine-tuning and a copy/paste option so we can copy/paste settings in between bands. After the EQ there’s a variable saturation section called “Finisher”, which can be set from subtle analog saturation to extreme distortion, with optional oversampling from 2x to 8x. Lastly, there are two interface sizes (check out the attachments), a preset system with copy/paste from clipboard feature for easy preset-sharing, a handful of basic presets and a “help” button that concisely summarizes Big FrEQ’s operation.
Important to note that I’m evaluating a “pre-release” version of this plug-in, so I’ll get back to this review so it can be updated once new features or any changes are implemented.
Sound quality: If used without saturation, Big FrEQ is clean when cutting and edgy when boosting - and I mean that as a compliment, because sometimes “edgy” is what we want. In this regard, cutting with this EQ plays more of a secondary role as boosting with it is so attractive. Then you dial-in the saturation and it gets even “edgier”, but far from harsh or unpleasant. The Width and Slope parameters can achieve great things together, the shelving bands and HP/LP filters are quite smooth sounding, and the Finisher saturation wraps it all up beautifully. I feel like there's an underlying ethos going on here, as to me this EQ feels like exactly the Arousor, in the sense that when I reach for it, it is for making things stand out, loud and proud. They’re perfect counterparts to each other, the “Empirical Labs mixing bread and butter” if you may, as there’s a certain sonic signature shared by them. Character-wise I’d say that the Big FrEQ is more on the “mojo” side than on the super surgical digital side, at least that’s how I’m using it, as a broad stroke instead of needle-thin poking. It’s kind of reminiscent of the SSL when boosting, although the cuts offer more precision than the usual console EQ. Can you replicate all this with other plug-ins? I’d yes you could do that, and although the saturation seems quite unique the curves can be somewhat obtained with other parametric EQs, but is that enough not to try Big FrEQ? I don’t think so, and would thoroughly recommend everyone to grab the demo. On a final note about the sonics, it would be nice to de-cramp the high-frequency response as some wrapping is present on the regular bands when they approach the upper end of the spectrum - the high shelf is not affected by this issue, so go for that one when boosting if things are sounding harsh with the regular bands.
Ease of use: Effortless to use for most tasks, it’s not a super-advance EQ with tons of settings and menu-diving so there’s not much to be said here other than working with Big FrEQ is quite fast, but I’d like to highlight the “Focus” button, which is a neat solution and superb for finding problematic spots. However, there’s some room for improvement. First would be on the interface sizes, which works well on my 1080p screen but I can see people asking for a fully scalable interface to cater 4k or other special resolutions. I have mixed feelings about the big numbers on the lower part of the interface, and I’m not quite sure if it's useful or wasted screen space. It’s great for entering values because of the large click area, but we can do that elsewhere, so perhaps adding a “hide” option for that section could help, or better, add something that impacts the sound - more on that in a moment when we get to the ”features” score. In terms of CPU hit it is quite economic, each mono instance with Finisher enabled and no oversampling taking roughly 4% on the i7 2.2GHz on my 2015 MacBook Pro. Bumping the oversampling to 2x takes it to 6%, at 4x it goes to 10% so it’s not exactly linear. No extra latency added even when engaging the Finisher and oversampling, which is never a bad thing. Lastly, as fellow slutz have pointed out in our discussion thread, the frequency plot is not the most accurate ever as shown by our Plugin Doctor experts, so take it as more of an approximation - use your ears, you know! To draw a bit more from our fruitful thread, the graph is perhaps something we can do away with, and I’d gladly welcome a knob-only version of this plug-in. Not high on my priorities - there’s plenty to be done as we’ll see in the next section.
Features: I really enjoy this feature set and I think it’s quite robust in terms of curve-shaping, but damn, I do miss a dynamic option on this one. Feels a bit underwhelming to have a Dave Derr product without a proper dynamic element, so that would be my number one pick for a future update - preferably occupying that lower section screen real estate that I’ve mentioned earlier. I also think the range of the lowpass filter could be extended as it starts at 20kHz, which for mastering is not exactly great, so pushing it further and at least enough to match the Nyquist would be nice. The range on the low and high shelves could also be set free, they’re good sounding as they are but it’s something we all would like to be able to adjust. Some quality of life improvements could also be done here, like the aforementioned hide lower bar option, a third interface size and why not a graph-less mode for those bold enough to mix with nothing but their ears. Speaking of graphs, there's plenty of space for improvements over there as well, such as adding a “grab” feature or a real-time frequency analyzer that many of today’s EQ plug-ins have, but at this point I’m already asking for a lot. Regardless of these requests, I think the core feature set is spot-on, the “Width+Slope+Finisher” combo makes it a very interesting equalizer with a lot of depth to be explored. If that’s enough to entice new users is a different story altogether, as there’s no shortage of awesome EQ plug-ins out there for all possible tastes and pockets.
Bang for buck: Big FrEQ is reasonably priced at $149, $99 during the introductory period, which is in-line with most of the top contenders in the software EQ game. At this point in time many of us have crowded plug-in folders, so ultimately it boils down to whether or not this plug-in adds a new angle to the game and that is a very personal choice. If you’re not stacked with EQ options then that decision should be considerably easier.
Recommended for: anyone looking for a great sounding workhorse EQ with analog saturation that is light on system resources and straightforward to use.
- Excellent sounding EQ section and saturation
- Versatile enough to take on most roles, from tracking to mastering
- Fast and mostly easy to use
- CPU friendly (oversampling notwithstanding)
- Reasonably priced
- A bit short on features when compared to other flagship EQs, with lots of room for improvement i.e. please add a dynamic option!
Click below to check out both GUI sizes.