Review: Empirical Labs EL-Q Lil FrEQ

Like its Empirical siblings, the Lil FrEQ is a unique and valuable audio tool of the modern production studio.
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Recognized manufacturer Empirical Labs, which shipped its first product (the Distressor) in 1995, has released a relatively small amount of gear to date; however, everything it has touched has turned to sonic gold.

Between the EL-8 Distressor, EL-7 Fatso and the EL-Q Lil FrEQ, the company has influenced the sound of recorded and live music over the last decade as much as any other. While the Lil FrEQ isn't exactly a new product, it has steadily grown in popularity since it was released in 2004.

Features

At 14 lbs, the Lil FrEQ is a fully parametric four-band mono equalizer that includes low and high shelves, a high-pass filter, and a dynamic section that can act as either a de-esser or a high-frequency "knee" limiter. Input and output are provided on both XLR connectors and 1/4-inch jacks and a second male XLR connector provides a transformer output yielding a "vintage" audio quality. The front panel's instrument input provides unbalanced, high-impedance input with 10 dB of initial gain and is designed for lower-level, higher-impedance signals.

The four parametric sections are adjustable +/-14 dB and operate below .0007 percent THD, making the Lil FrEQ possibly the lowest distortion analog parametric EQ ever manufactured. Each section can be independently bypassed. The low- and high-frequency shelves have fixed corner frequencies of 120 Hz and 4 kHz respectively, and are adjustable +/-10 dB. The high-pass filter has an 18 dB per octave slope with eight frequency options between 30 and 330 Hz. Sonically it exhibits a significant amount of coloration emulating the low-frequency warmth of classic vintage equalizers. The dynamics section features a deesser and a high-frequency "knee" limiter that can be placed pre or post EQ, allowing the user to determine if its performance is affected by the EQ. Four LEDs indicate the amount of Gain Reduction: -1.5 dB, -8 dB, -14 dB, and -24 dB.

In Use

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As I found to be the case when I reviewed the EL-8 Distressor (PAR, October 1998), the Lil FrEQ sounds amazingly good no matter what levels or settings it encounters. Setting the input knob to 7 and the output knob to 6 is balanced unity gain and a good safe setting if you don't want to screw around with adjusting the input and output. However, the Lil FrEQ's performance is ideal just below clipping, so I've found it best to adjust the input level until the "BAD! Clip" LED comes on during peaks, which means that the unit is within 1 dB of hard clipping and then back it down 1.5 (not dB, but 1.5 steps on the input knob). The transformer output provides an entirely different sonic texture and is a great option. I found that I prefer its color about 75 percent of the time.

The Lil FrEQ's cluttered front panel packs a massive amount of features into a 1U device, and it can be a bit overwhelming the first time you put it to use. After already having great results using it to record kick, snare, and electric guitar on several tracking sessions, I put it to work on Tanya Tucker's vocal chain while recording the lead vocals on her latest project.

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Though it wasn't necessary with Tanya's vocal, in several other instances I've utilized the de-esser and high-frequency limiter and found it to work wonderfully to calm overpowering sibilance. Unlike many other de-essers, the Lil FrEQ DS section uses a crossover method to control the high-frequency content. This yields a much smoother and even response than other methods. The high-frequency limiter works better if a vocal is hissy and harsh rather than sibilant. I've found it to work well as somewhat of an analog tape simulator on acoustic guitar by setting it so the HF limiter kicks in when the high frequencies build up and become brittle and edgy, assimilating and smoothing out the high end. I also had good results using the de-esser to reduce finger squeak noise on an acoustic guitar track.

Another great Lil FrEQ feature that I love is the Neve 1073 emulation mode. By setting the Q and frequency controls of each band to the Neve "N" or the donut "O" the equalizer accurately emulates the frequencies and curves of the Neve 1073. This is my default starting point for electric guitars as well as bass guitar, which I've found records amazingly well through the instrument input.

Like the other Empirical Labs gear, the Lil FrEQ is rock-solid and built like a tank. It is built into a steel cabinet with sealed components and no point-to-point wiring, making it as at home on the road as it is in the studio.

Summary

The Lil FrEQ is one of the only equalizers I've ever encountered that works equally well as a subtle frequency shaper or as an extreme sonic sculpting tool while remaining particularly musical in both instances. It is extremely quiet, and it sounds utterly fantastic.

Russ Long, a Nashville-based producer/engineer, owns The Carport recording studio. He is a regular contributor to Pro Audio Review. www.russlong.ws