Sonible smart:EQ 3 by Sound-Guy
smart:EQ 3 from sonible
Austrian company sonible have created some excellent audio plug-ins that are “different” from most. When I first tried out their smart:EQ 2 two years ago I expected another spectral matching plug-in similar to several I already had. I found it a significantly different and very effective approach compared to other such EQs. And now they have upped the ante on EQs with smart:EQ 3.
What is It?
smart:EQ 3 (SEQ3) is a “smart EQ”! But smart in many ways. It has both an “intelligent” self-learning EQ balancing system using its smart:filter mode to “create a natural sounding tonal balance” and a set of very flexible parametric filters that include bell shaped (with Q from 0.0 to 20), high and low shelf, low and high pass, and a “tilt” filter. The newly designed smart:filter generates high resolution curves and the standard EQ section now has up to 24 bands (SEQ2 had seven). As before the correction of these “standard” EQ bands is “added” to the smart:filter curve to adjust the overall EQ to taste. And as before there is also a spectrum plot available, of either input or output, or both.
There are profiles for a number of sound types like kick drum, bass, keys, high vocals, and so forth, as well as a “Universal” profile for full mixes or other groups of instruments. After “learning” a sound, the strength of the correction can be varied using a weighting curve from none (not too useful!) to “100” (full strength), and in the opposite direction to “-100” which inverts the correction curve. This may seem unnecessary, but can be useful to strongly separate two tracks by using the same profile in both tracks, and flipping the strength polarity of one.
But there are a couple big additions that include something previously available only in their smart:EQ Live product and something not available elsewhere in quite the same way. The “Live” feature is called Dynamic Adaption which enables SEQ3 to automatically adapt its computed smart:filter to the incoming audio over the entire length of a track. This is something I have “faked” with smart:EQ 2 using automation to recalculate the smart:filter on the fly, re-triggering it every 10 seconds or so. A bit clumsy, but it worked quite well. The new Dynamic Adaption goes further, enabling you to continuously adjust the amount of dynamic adaption from none to “100”, which creates a significant, and very fast response to the incoming signal. It does increase CPU load significantly (by about 10X) when it’s used, but can be very useful on a few instances of SEQ3.
That alone might be worth the price of admission, but there is more, actually a lot more in the form of interactive curve adjustments between up to six tracks or buses. This is the Group mode where multiple instances of smart:EQ 3 can be loaded into several tracks or buses and set to communicate and share data between all of them. When a group is created, SEQ3 combines the spectral information from all signals in the group in order to automatically detect and correct for masking effects. The strength of this Group interaction can be continuously adjusted over a wide range and all member tracks need not have the same priority – there are three hierarchical “layers” with the top Level 1 being the “lead” level – it has the highest priority and will stay the focus of attention as smart:EQ interactions take place. This would usually be used for lead vocals or lead instruments that should never be masked by other signals. Level 2 is for “support” instruments and will blend them well in the mix, taking a lead when there are no spectral clashes with tracks in the Level 1 group. This would typically be used for accompanying instruments and drums. Level 3 is for “background” sounds such as synth washes and backing vocals, sounds that are often almost subliminal within a mix.
Group screen with six members, four in Level 1 and two in Level 2. Group Impact is set to 127 (can be varied from 0 to 150). The bypass all control bypasses all smart:EQ 3 modules in this group.
This Group mode works without needing a side-chain arrangement, with SEQ3 taking care of the background communications. And it works with all the other tools such as parametric EQ, Dynamic Adaptation, and real-time spectrum analysis – in fact you can view color coded plots of up to the full six SEQ3’s in a group, input, output or both, which can get quite busy but demonstrates how dynamic the various corrections.
Spectral display of all six Groups showing both input and output – busy but fascinating to see! Note a “standard” parametric low cut filter has been applied to this Lead Vox channel.
Does It Work?
All this looks wonderful, but how well does it work and how does it sound? The basic smart:filter mode has been improved, and a comparison with smart:EQ 2 finds it yields higher resolution than smart:EQ 2. The Standard profile has been changed and renamed Universal, and it appears each of the previous profiles (Kick, Drums, Bass, etc.) have also been updated. A quick check through a dozen different profiles and instrument tracks found differences varied from slight to significant with SEQ3 usually my favorite, and a few times I liked SEQ2 slightly more, but a slight tweak with the SEQ3 standard filters usually resulted in SEQ3 sounding as good or better. Of course EQ balance is a matter of taste as well as the effect of spectral content being EQ’d. But sonible seem to have improved most of the profiles to my ears. By the way, SEQ3 comes with 16 “factory” profiles and you can “roll your own” and save them in the plug-in or save them to an external folder if you want to share them with other users. As I indicated, these profiles are all updated from the SEQ2 versions, using a new process, and sonible are working on more profiles which will be released to SEQ3 users over the next couple months.
The new Dynamic Adaptation mode works very well. I tried a number of old projects, some that had considerable clashing between instruments like kick and bass (THE classic masking problem) as well as clashes further up the spectrum. Even without engaging the new Group mode, with SEQ3 profiles on appropriate tracks or buses, I found that one can very quickly obtain more clarity and better separation just using the smart:filters. And bringing up the level of Dynamic Adaptation can add some “motion” to a mix since it responds very rapidly to variations over in amplitude and frequency. This can help make a mix sound louder without really making it technically louder since the human hearing system perceives “clearer” as louder even when a LUFS meter says it is not.
In the case of strongly masked sounds, the new Group mode can really help separate elements, and very quickly. I’ve mixed for a long time, and can listen and view a spectral plot to manually EQ tracks to gain separation (usually to carve out an offending frequency range), but SEQ3 can do what might take me five minutes to the better part of an hour (if there are multiple masking elements) in seconds. To be honest, I can still spend a few minutes adjusting some areas with the parametric EQ to add a little welly or smooth out some high end, but the results with SEQ3 are truly effective and fast.
Of course there is a preset system to save all your settings to recall instantly. And as with any well mannered plug-in, all the settings will be saved in any DAW project for future recall. There is a State system that enables saving up to eight variations of profiles and standard EQ adjustments which can be switched during use and are saved with your project. There is Mid-Sides processing (even M-S conversion, both encoding and decoding), and a Settings window to select filter parameters (linear or minimum phase, constant-Q, etc.), and global preferences.
smart:EQ 3 is available as Audio Unit, AAX, VST2 and VST3 – for 64 bit OS only. Windows 10 and Mac OS X 10.12 or later are officially supported. Requires iLok or online PACE system connection (free) for activation, but runs without a connection after that. Supported sample rates are 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz. In my test system (PC Audio Labs Rok Box PC with 4-Core Intel i7-4770K, 3.5 GHz, and 16 GB RAM) a single instance used from 0.15% to about 1.4% CPU resource depending on the settings used – the big “hitter” being the Dynamic Adaptation function – off (set to 0) yields the low CPU hit. Latency is zero samples if linear phase filters are not used (chosen in the settings panel) and 2048 samples with linear phase on. Linear phase does not increase CPU use.
Another unique and very powerful “smart” plug-in from sonible that delivers excellent sound, and unique interactive adjustment of tonality in a mix. I found “tuning” in a mix using both the controls of individual instances of smart:EQ 3 and the Group controls enabled me to quickly vary the mix elements in multiple “dimensions” – a lot of fun and an effective way to hear different mix arrangements. Definitely a tool to try out – just be sure your PayPal account is ready!
Unique Learning mode that automatically “tunes” EQ parameters to best match a sound source.
Easy and quick adjustability of the interactions of multiple tracks or buses to reduce frequency masking effects using the unique Group mode.
Excellent sound quality with the very effective Profiles for control of the tone of tracks or buses.
Mid-Sides processing and conversion (encode and decode).
Dynamic adaptation mode to better correct for spectral deficiencies such as disturbing resonances.
Free 30 day trial and very reasonable cost, even after the introduction sale at 30% off ends.
Nothing to complain about!