In this review, we’re looking at this versatile EQ with some interesting features and a very simple yet effective UI that is very easy to use and understand. It comes in two versions, and we’ll mention the differences towards the end of the review.
MAAT Labs’ SantaCruzEQ is one plugin you can use in several situations, with many different instruments, and will give you very good results. Whether you want to EQ vocals, guitars, or drums, you’ll get the job done perfectly fine. It’s got 12 different Architectures that we’ll analyze so you can understand their functionalities, but if you want a graphical representation of each one of them, head over to SantaCruzEQ’s product page.
It’s very easy to understand and use, it’s got what it needs and no less than that. You can also change the colors of the section’s identifier numbers which is a fun way of customizing it.
The addition of the 12 Architectures is an interesting and useful option that is not common in EQs, which makes this plugin stand above others in this area. The only lacking feature is that there’s no real-time feedback of the input vs. output audio to easily look at the changes being made in the frequency spectrum as you tweak the controls. Also, having factory default Presets would be very nice and useful to have at hand since many new users might need a starting point at EQing.
The sound achieved with this plugin was previously only available in very expensive analog gear, all inside this plugin. The transparency is very notable, and the phase shift applied as you boost or cut is almost ideal, which is a huge plus if you’ve ever experienced phase-related issues while mixing or mastering.
Value for the Price
Although SantaCruzEQ is extremely well designed, and the sound capabilities are top of the line, it’s expensive. Some users might not afford the SCEQ12 and could go with the SCEQ6 version instead, which is more affordable.
First Impressions and GUI
SCEQ’s got all of the basics controls for a standard EQ, so we’ll skip the how-to of these classic features and get to the specifics of this plugin. First of all, in the settings wheel, you’ll find a couple of options that are quite useful.
CPU Saving Mode is very much self-explanatory. Band Solo Lock allows you to toggle the “solo listening” of the selected band, meaning that you don’t have to hold down the headset button to use this function. This doesn’t allow you to solo multiple bands, though, only one of them at a time. The advantage of this feature is that you can now change the Q of the Soloed filtered, which is not available without this “Solo Lock” enabled.
If you want to change the 12 Architectures’ names to something more familiar, you have this option available under the corresponding section. You can also reset them to the default names if you lost track of which is which.
The other three tabs on the settings are Color, a color pallet to customize the plugin looks. A Hot Keys tab that explains keyboard and mouse shortcuts and how to use them, and License/Info, where you can open the user manual, activate or deactivate your license, and check the Credits and Copyrights.
You’ll find that there is no factory default presets for the Presets section. It’s a shame because the comprehension of the very useful 12 Architectures is a subject that would have been a bit easier for some users with the availability of predefined configurations that are known to be working properly. But the bright side is that you can save your own presets once you’ve found a good sound that fits your needs.
The bypass button for SCEQ is a little circle with a bridge over it, and it’s located below the settings wheel.
Main EQ Sections
At the bottom of the main interface, you’ll find all the details for each band, which is very useful because you don’t need to hover over each control point to check the boost or cut gain, the Q, or the specific frequency at which it’s located.
If you right or left click over any of the bands’ control squares, you’ll get a list of the available shapes to change the specific band into. You’ve got two types of low cut, two types of low-shelf, the bell shape, two kinds of high-shelf, and two high cuts.
Let’s say you placed band 2 at 3.5kHz, and band 3 at 1kHz. You’ll have inverted controls for those bands, and at this point, your best option will be to click on the Sort button, and it’ll reorganize the sections according to their frequency location.
Lastly, if you turn off one of the filters and right-click on it for this filter control section, you’ll return it to its default value. It works with all of the six filters, and it comes in very handy when you’ve tampered a lot with them.
Another useful feature is when you hover over one of the filter points on the graphical interface. On the sign corresponding to each control, you’ll find the traditional settings: frequency, gain, filter Q, the type of filter, and the solo function. The extra feature is the invert gain option. When sweeping through the frequency spectrum, it’s really useful to find a determined point that you want to attenuate.
Once you’ve found the frequency point you were looking for, instead of manually lowering the gain and maybe changing the frequency unintentionally, you can just click the downwards arrow button, and it’ll invert the gain. If you had a gain of 8.1dB, you’d now have -8.1dB at that frequency. It works the other way around, too. If you want to change the gain from negative to positive, click the upwards arrow button, and it’ll do the trick.
The oversample button has been quite a common feature in plugins in the last few years. Still, we’ll explain it quickly because it can be confusing if you don’t know how the analog signal is sampled and transformed into digital.
This function increases the sampling rate of the A-D converters before processing the signal, to reduce aliasing distortion and phase issues. Once it’s processed, it reduces the sampling rate back to the original one to avoid inserting extra distortion to the signal. When you capture the signal at low sampling frequencies, you’ll be limiting the maximum input frequency of the analog signal.
This is due to the Nyquist rule, which states that the minimum sampling frequency must be at least two times the maximum input frequency to avoid the Aliasing phenomenon. If you don’t know what aliasing is, we encourage you to google it. It’s a longer subject that requires deeper comprehension. If you want to test the aliasing distortion, take an mp3 song or audio file and convert it into a lower sample rate.
Typically, the SR of the audio files is either 44.1kHz or 48kHz. Try using 16kHz, and you’ll notice how the high-frequency elements above 8kHz of the audio lose clarity and even get cut. This is because Nyquist’s rule must be applied, and the high-frequency contents of this song were eliminated to work with that low sample rate.
Then, oversampling gives you a better horizontal resolution, considering horizontal the frequency domain and vertical the amplitude domain. The latter means that the frequency spectrum is sampled at higher rates, more times per second, and the result is a better definition of the small frequency variations of the audio track.
The manual states that in SCEQ, the oversampling function is automatically disabled at sampling rates above 48kHz, and it recommends that the user keep this function enabled. Remember that oversampling increases CPU usage, so you might need to turn this feature off if your computer is on the edge of the CPU overhead.
A very interesting addition to this plugin is a virtual keyboard that you can activate with the “keyboard” button, and it’ll display it underneath the horizontal-axis frequency label. The notes are matched with their corresponding frequency along the 10 octaves, which can come in very handy when you need to quickly identify a tone that you need to boost or cut.
The previous is a good example of a developer putting himself in the user’s shoes. If you’ve previously mixed songs, you’ve probably gone through the situation in which you can hear a sound, specifically a tone to which you need to lower the volume and have to go either to the internet and find an online piano or turn on your keyboard to search that tone. Well, you’ll have it easier with SCEQ since the tool is right there in the same plugin.
Another useful tool of this plugin is the horizontal zoom that will allow you to get a better resolution to work. You can zoom in and out using the sliders above the filters section. You’ll find the vertical zoom in many EQ plugins to the right of the graphical screen.
Moving on to the output section, this is where we’ll do the deeper analysis. First, you’ll find an “I-O” switch button next to a True Peak Meter. This function allows you to select the metering source by choosing the input or output.
Next is the Architectures section, where we’ll shortly explain how they differ from each other. Each configuration has its applications described in the manual but more on this website.
- 1-Classic Symmetrical
It consists of a series of symmetrical and constant Q in boosts and cuts.
- 2-Classic Asymmetrical
Also, based on a series topology, the boosts and cuts have different Q.
- 3-Proportional 1
Series topology, symmetrical Q on boosts and cuts, but the Q is wider (lower) at gains smaller than 6dB and narrower when greater than 6dB.
- 4-Proportional 2
Same as the last one, also series, but the difference is that the Q variations are greater.
- 5-Proportional 3
Very similar to the Proportional 1 Architecture, this one is also series, but the bells are much wider at gains lower than 3dB.
- 6-Constant Q Asymmetrical
The boosts are the same as a Classic Symmetrical, the Q is constant, but the cuts are extra wide between 0 and -3dB, and below that level, the cuts behave as the Proportional 3. This Architecture is also a series.
- 7-Constant Q Asymmetrical Reversed
The same as the last one, based on a series topology too, but the boosts and cuts characteristics are reversed this time. Constant Q on the cuts and variant Q on the boosts.
- 8-Constant Q Inversed
Series, asymmetrical, and the boosts behave as in the Constant Q Asymmetrical Reversed, and the cuts as the Constant Q Asymmetrical.
- 9-Constant Q Ideal
Series, ideal and constant Q. Behaves much like Architecture number 1.
- 10-Constant Q New
It’s a Series topology, symmetrical and proportional. The Q is independent of the gain.
- 11-Parallel Feedforward/Feedback
Parallel topology, with FF and FB loops, it’s the least noisy of the two parallel Architectures.
- 12-Parallel LC Asymmetrical
It’s a Parallel topology, based on a passive LC (Inductor-Capacitor) filter, with asymmetrical boosts and cuts. The boosts have a lower Q than the cuts.
When we mention the topologies, we refer to the electronic design of the hardware and how the filters work. You can have series and parallel circuits, changing how the components interact. That change of interaction leads to a big difference in sound.
It’s not the same thing to apply a filter, then use another one on top of the previous one, then apply two filters in parallel and mix their resulting frequency response. The latter is what series and parallel topology mean, and it changes the output sound accordingly. To do a quick test, load an audio file into your DAW, and apply any type of filtering. Then select Architecture N°1, and switch to N°12 to quickly hear the difference between series and parallel filtering.
The changes on the levels and resonant frequency (peak frequency) are the same, but since the series filtering is applying a filter on top of another one, and the parallel filtering processes the signals independently, the sound result is massively different. There’s no right or wrong because each has its field of application. It’s up to your situation and personal preference to choose either.
Next, you’ll see two buttons below the Architecture that serve the purpose of switching between the selections one by one. To the right of those buttons, you’ll find a question mark. If you hover over it for a second, it’ll show you the info corresponding to the current Architecture selection.
Below, we have the Autogain button, which in my experience, is one of the best options to have at hand when you’re mixing or mastering. The difference in loudness can often deceive your perception, and you think louder sounds better, but when you turn on the Autogain function, which matches the input and output gain, you realize you might be wrong.
This feature matches the input and output gain based on a momentary loudness level. That way, you’re not relying on manually increasing or decreasing the volume when you try to properly hear the difference between the sound before and after the EQ. The rounded arrow resets the base level of the autogain, and the numeric value displays the current level. You can change the level manually. The value below the previous ones is the master output gain.
To showcase the power of SantaCruzEQ, I’ll show you a little demo of a mix and the corrections to certain frequencies that can make a big difference. I want to clarify that the best way to EQ a drumkit is to take all the individual tracks for every microphone compress and EQ separately. This demonstration tests the SantaCruzEQ, and a quick correction of the full drum mix will be good.
Also, the cuts and boosts are a bit exaggerated to showcase the changes in the sound. In a real mix, they would be a lot more subtle. First off, the dry mix, only drums, and two guitars:
Notice how the high frequencies of the drums are a little absent, there’s a high whistling frequency that is heavy on the ears, and near the end, the toms are too loud and bass-heavy. The guitars sound good by themselves. At first glance, they wouldn’t need any corrections. But if you plan on including a vocal track, they might collide with it near the 1kHz band. Also, it would be good to add more presence to them and reinforce the low-mids to add a bit of punch. We’ll begin with the drums.
On the following audio track, you can hear them soloed:
First, we have to detect the whistling frequency, which is the most important since it can quickly cause fatigue to the listener. We’ll use the solo function of the SCEQ and sweep across the spectrum to find the unpleasant whistle using band number five. Once we’ve identified it, we can just click the downwards arrow button and invert the gain to attenuate it quickly. The whistle is now removed:
Now we can focus on the toms. They have a high predominance around 120Hz, so we’ll locate the resonant frequency of the bell around there, for which we’ll use band number four. We don’t need a high Q this time. Around two or three will work just fine. And we also don’t want to kill the drum kick completely, so we’ll be only cutting around 5dB. The following is the resulting audio track with decreased toms volume:
Next, we’ll take care of the high frequencies corresponding to the cymbals. This time we’ll use a high shelf in band three. We can increase 2dB starting at around 4kHz. The cymbals will sound too harsh if we add too much volume on the high frequencies. Finally, we add low and high-cut filters. The final EQed drum sounds like this:
If we follow the steps we took, you’ll notice that we started working with the filter band five at 8kHz, then we used band four at 120Hz, and lastly the band three at 4kHz. Thus, the order of the filter bands is all mixed up. We can fix it by clicking the Sort button, and it’ll get the bands into place. The final drums EQ is the following:
The guitars are a bit simpler to EQ, but the result would be very noticeable in a mix with a vocal track. In this demo, the change will be easy to hear, though. The dry mix for the guitars is:
First, we need to add a low cut filter at around 80Hz, and a high cut filter at 8kHz. Now we can focus on the mids section. We’ll decrease around 5dB at 1kHz, with a low Q of around one. This modification will allow us to include vocals without fighting with the frequency spectrum guitars to get the spotlight. The result is the following:
Now we’ll boost the low-mids to add a little punch to the low notes, especially in the second half of the demo, where we’ve got palm mutes and open low chords. We’ll boost 2.5dB at 270Hz, with a low Q of 0.7. Let’s hear the difference:
Lastly, we need to add presence to the guitars. The presence control in an amp is no more than a mid and high-frequency boost on the power amp section. We can replace that with a high-frequency boost on our EQ. We’ll boost around 3dB at 2kHz using a high shelf to achieve this. Since the frequencies above 8kHz are getting cut by the low pass filter, we set it up initially. We don’t need to worry about harsh high frequencies. The final EQed guitar track is the following:
This time we started with the mid frequencies, then the low-mids, and finally the high frequencies, so we’ll also use the Sort button and reorganize the filter bands. The EQ was applied to a guitar bus with the input of the individual guitar channels, panned left and right, building a stereo field. The envelope for the guitars equalizer is the following:
Finally, the full mix with guitars and drums sounds like:
Notice that I used the Parallel FF-FB Architecture in both the drums and guitars EQs because I prefer the parallel filtering topology over the series one. I encourage you to try all of them out and decide what you like the most and what fits better with your sound or style. I also didn’t use the autogain feature because I regulated the gain manually in the drum track and the guitar bus.
The next step to finish a song would be to add the vocals, add extra tracks, EQ accordingly, and then mix and master. But those topics are far beyond the reach of this review.
EQs are among the most important mixers and master engineer tools, and they share the honor of compressors. These plugins have the highest impact on the sound and can make a huge difference with just a few tweaks. SantaCruzEQ is not the exception. As we heard with the demos, a couple of fixes can drastically change the sound of a song. You can remove troublesome frequencies, add character, and balance a lot of different instruments inside the frequency spectrum to bring the sounds together.
SCEQ was a very transparent and useful tool in this regard. Not only it was effective at balancing and tweaking the different bands, but it also gives you a lot of different options when it comes to EQing according to your needs. If you want a more musical way of cutting or boosting, you have a specific Architecture for that. If you need to master it, you can also do that. It’s a very good overall plugin with many capabilities that are at the tip of your fingers.
At first, you might think that six bands are not enough, but they’re the perfect amount you need. EQs are made for final corrections, and on that topic, SantaCruzEQ excels. If you need to adjust so many parameters that six bands are not enough, the problem is probably before the EQ stage.
What makes this plugin stand out is the Architectures section. You can choose many different sound processing techniques, which will give you different results and be extremely useful for specific cases. If you want to know more about those cases, head over to MAAT Labs’ website and read the user manual.
SantaCruzEQ comes in two versions. SCEQ6 at $189 and SCEQ12 at $259. The difference between them is the number of Architectures they have, not the number of filter sections since they come with six. SCEQ6 comes with the first six types mentioned previously, and SCEQ12 is fully packed with all of them. With each purchased license, you can use two computers simultaneously.
If you want to try it out before purchasing, you can download the demo from their website and give it a try. You’ll be granted a 14 days trial. If you’re looking for other free plugins, they also have a couple of them that you might find interesting.
Final Thoughts and Verdict
Other than all of the features mentioned in this review, SantaCruzEQ is packed with a whole bunch more. Starting with a processing precision of 80 bits, which is just crazy accurate and reduces distortion and noise, is a huge factor; the Architectures are derived from analog gear that is very expensive, not to mention big and heavy.
Another important feature is that this EQ is not modeled after analog equalizers. It’s an emulation so that it won’t add unnecessary noise. It also supports up to a 384kHz sample rate, which can be used in video games production.
Regardless of your field of work, if it’s audio that you’re processing, you’re covered with SCEQ. If you want to know more about the specific uses and features, head over to https://www.maat.digital/santacruzeq/.
In my case, I work in audio engineering in the music business, and this plugin completely covers my necessities. In this review, I tested it in drums and guitars, but you can use it in synths, vocals, bass, violins, piano, and any instrument that can be recorded. And the fact that you can run several instances of it makes it even better. When you’re mixing, one instance is simply not enough, and having the option to toggle Low CPU Usage is a huge plus for this matter.
In my case, it finds its way into each instrument channel and instrument bus, and you can also use it to mix all the buses and master, demonstrating its versatility. I consider the latter, and the ease of usability the most important factors in a plugin, because if it’s versatile, you can use it anywhere you need. If it’s easy to implement, you won’t have to spend hours reading the manual to understand how to begin equalizing.
Speaking of the manual, if you want to know the behind-the-scenes of how SantaCruzEQ works, the types of filters used, such as the implementation of Butterworth and Chebyshev at IIR digital filters (Infinite Impulsive Response Filters). Also, the specifics of each parameter, the reach of the sampling frequencies, the full feature set, and application fields go ahead and read the manual. It will answer any questions you might have.
The final verdict for SCEQ is positive. Being so versatile, complete, and feature-packed, there’s just no way you can go wrong with it. And besides the visual features, the developers at MAAT Labs have gone far and beyond to deliver the best possible sound experience with under-the-hood specs that give impressively low noise and distortion and high fidelity results.
Even if it’s a bit pricey, it’s worth it because it delivers what is promised. So, we recommend you try SantaCruzEQ.
For more content, visit their product website at https://www.maat.digital/santacruzeq/.
Ignacio Ponce is a session musician, audio and electronics engineer, with a passion for rock, metal, electronics design, and video games. He specializes in instrumental thrash/groove metal songwriting.