The next generation of software processors is upon us, and with it brings untold power, new production techniques and possibly even new genres of music. Alex Holmes dons his X-ray specs, warms up his hoverboard and checks out the best of the new breed…
When you’re starting out in the world of music production, it’s important to understand the basics. Most DAWs these days come with stacks of instruments and effects that cover all the major bases, and it’s possible to create highly professional tracks and mixes using just the native plug-ins. However, there comes a point when you’ve learned your parametric EQs, your compressor ratios and your reverb pre-delays, you’ve spent hours reading the manuals, and have a decent grasp on how everything works. Now is the time to look at different ways to do things; to search out some more advanced software that does things differently, or just more efficiently. It’s time to go hi-tech!
In this feature we’ll be looking at a range of plug-ins by forward-thinking developers that take the techniques we know and love and turn them on their heads in new and useful ways. Some of these plug-ins seem like genuine witchcraft, offering up incredible power, whereas others are just innovative developers coming up with new and original ways to do things better and more easily. You might find that you get only minuscule improvements by using certain tools, which might make their high price tags seem a bit steep. However, when you’re clawing to get those last few percent in the quality of your mix, then every little bit counts, and those small wins all add up to a bigger, more rounded and more effective mix.
Of course, it’s easy to get caught up in being sold snake oil, and there’s no guarantee that certain different techniques will yield better results. In the end, it’s all down to how, where and when you use them. Although engineers have been crafting pro mixes for years without these plug-ins, it’s worth exploring these ideas now as they may become the ubiquitous tools of the future.
Where To Begin
So you understand dynamics, EQ and stereo spread and you know what you want to achieve, but you’re not sure of the best way to do it. There are now so many different software developers and hundreds of different options open that it can be hard to work out exactly what it is you need to improve your mixes and workflow. Rather than go on a mad spending spree and fill up your plug-ins folder with the latest toys, it’s important to take stock of how you work. As an example, if you write pounding house music with close, analogue-style sounds alongside upfront drum beats, you’re probably not going to get much use out of a cutting-edge new reverb plug-in that features advanced engines and complex modulations.
B2 from 2CAudio is a modular dual-engine, non-linear spatial processor with built-in harmonic distortion and flexible dynamics (try saying that fast!). Great for deep, expansive sounds but maybe not an essential purchase if you’re writing up-front house.
You’re better off focusing on warm EQs, saturation and dynamics processors that are aimed at creating a loud and punchy sound. However, if you’re writing deeper house or minimal techno, then something like 2CAudio’s complex B2 reverb would be ideal. Also, if you see something that looks like it could be useful, be sure to thoroughly explore your plug-ins folder to check that you don’t already have an item that will do something similar. We were recently convinced that we needed to fork out on a new dynamic EQ plug-in to help tame certain parts of the spectrum, but discovered we could get the same results by using a narrow band on a multiband compressor. Is it as elegant a solution? No, not really, but it allowed us to explore the results and gain a better understanding of what we wanted to achieve. It also meant the wallet could stay closed for a few months longer!
After scouring the internet and reading the forums, it’s immensely satisfying to discover a plug-in that simplifies or refines a task that you’ve been struggling with for years, such as Xfer’s LFO tool or CableGuys’ VolumeShaper for quick, easy and precise sidechain duties. Alternatively, you might discover a new piece of software that achieves something you didn’t even know was possible, such as removing reverb using Zynaptic’s Unveil – although, as suggested earlier, you need to decide if this is actually something that will realistically fit your workflow and improve your mixes or merely an interesting alternative option.
Let’s start by taking a look at some of the new kids on the block that have been eliciting cries of excitement and shouts of disbelief here in the MT office. The newly released RX3 from iZotope is a forensic audio repair tool that’s capable of some incredible feats. There are more than ten modules that focus on different tasks, plus a large spectrogram view in which small portions of audio can be highlighted with drawing tools and removed with incredible precision. This makes it possible to take out pops, clicks and even pitched noises with ease, plus you can reduce background noise and even rescue a recording that has been digitally clipped.
Due to features such as the Dialogue Denoiser, RX3 has been heavily marketed towards the post-production crowd, but there are many creative possibilities open to musicians. Although we wouldn’t condone illegally sampling someone else’s record, RX3 could be used for cleaning up old samples that were previously unusable or bringing your own old recordings up to scratch. You can also do scientifically precise EQ cuts using the drawing tools (just don’t forget to use your ears, too!) or isolate a unique portion of a recording and turn it into special effects. How about taking a piano recording, isolating just the clunk from the keys, then turning that into a rhythmic percussion part? iZotope saw that many sound designers were using RX to create weird new instruments in this way, and decided to put the technology to use in its Iris sampler/synth.
Moving on, we have Pi – arguably the poster boy for inventive design. The Sound Radix development team saw a common problem with many tracks where multiple instruments are playing at once and certain frequencies overlap to cause phase issues. There are several plug-ins available that help to combat phase problems, such as Waves’ InPhase and Sound Radix’s own Auto Align, but these are focused on lining-up multi-mic recordings. Cue the boffins at Sound Radix developing a new idea: what if the phase alignment of each track could be analysed and compared in real time as the track is playing, then each one could be dynamically rotated to minimise frequency cancellations? With Pi, you place an instance at the end of the signal chain on each of the tracks you want to try to improve, then let the plug-in do the rest.
Pi isn’t Sound Radix’s only innovative tool. Its first plug-in, Surfer EQ, allows you to track the pitch of an instrument and lock the movement to the band on an EQ, which is great for notching or boosting resonances as they move up and down the scale.
Although some may argue that phase-cancellation is a natural side effect of combining sounds (and in some cases adds a certain charm to older-sounding records), the ability to increase the punch of a crisp, modern track is an enticing one. Where the real-time nature of Pi really shines is when you get situations like a certain bass note being lost as it clashes with the kick drum, or a snare dips in volume because it’s out-of-phase with the resonance from the toms. We found that Pi works wonders on some instruments but does nothing for others, so you won’t necessarily want to use it on everything. Our favourite use for it is to get massive, powerful-sounding kick drums when layering different kick sounds for dance music.
Lifting The Veil
Although it has been around for only a couple of years, German company Zynaptic has made a sizable splash in the plug-in world with its remarkable plug-ins Pitchmap, Unveil and Unfilter. Built on state-of-the-art artificial intelligence and signal-processing techniques, Unfilter is a real-time plug-in that removes filtering effects such as comb filtering, resonance or excessive EQ, bringing the overall response back to a balanced level. This is definitely one to cry ‘witchcraft’ at, as you’ll see by watching the incredible demo video on YouTube. A filtered-down and completely muffled track is brought back to a bright and full mix simply by turning a dial.
The plug-in uses a clever deconvolution algorithm to identify the original signal and the filtering process that has been applied, then generates an opposite process to reverse the effect. This could be used to improve old recordings, tracks that have been recorded from the radio, or even vocals recorded through a dull-sounding microphone. There’s also the Unveil plug-in, which uses a similar technology to isolate a signal from its reverb tail. Again, this is an immensely powerful plug-in that can process audio in real time, although it’s also fairly CPU-hungry.
As you have the reverb as a separate signal, you could experiment with building instruments or effects purely from the haunting sounds of a reverb tail. We’re also looking forward to Zynaptic’s next release, Unchirp, which looks set to be the first plug-in capable of successfully removing the chirping and warbling that occurs from low bit-rate lossy audio encoding.
Like many pivotal events in world history, we can remember the exact moment that we first saw Melodyne bend audio physics in an online example video. At the time, the ability to manipulate pitch and time with such fluidity was totally mind-bending, but it wasn’t long before Celemony did it again with its unfathomable DNA technology. Direct Note Access makes it possible to identify and edit individual notes within polyphonic audio material, meaning you can now tidy up and tune minor mistakes in a guitar performance or string quartet.
Aside from using Melodyne in its more traditional capacity to fine-tune vocals and instruments, tweak vibrato and help line up double-tracked vocals, there are also plenty of more creative uses for the technology. In single-track mode, you could take a solo instrument line and either create a new harmony part or go more avant-garde and craft a thickening layer with the pitch set an octave up but the formant set an octave down, which could then be blended back in with the original as a special effect. Alternatively, you could take a drum or percussion section and pull out the hits to last a whole bar, giving them a stretched, granular quality.
With DNA, available in Melodyne Editor, you could take a strummed guitar chord from an old recording and pitch the notes to fit the chords of a new track, or re-purpose a piano part from your loop library to play a different progression. In theory, the age-old problem of having a great loop or riff that doesn’t fit the key of your track is a thing of the past. For the most part this works well, although you’ll end up with artifacts if the material is too complex for Melodyne to pull apart. Most DAWs now have the ability to manipulate the pitch and time of monophonic audio, be it Pro Tools’ Elastic algorithm, Cubase’s VariAudio or Logic’s Flex features, but none offers quite the finesse that you get with Melodyne.
Pump Up The Volume
Given the apparent need for seemingly louder and more compressed music, it’s no surprise that many developers put a focus on transparent compression and limiting. Many brickwall mastering limiters claim to offer the clearest and most natural-sounding results, often through intelligently analysing the input and adjusting the attack and release times accordingly. An example is the Maximizer in Ozone 5 and Ozone 5 Advanced, which features iZotope’s IRC (Intelligent Release Control) system.
Now in version 3, IRC III runs several different loudness algorithms in parallel, then intelligently chooses between them in real time to produce the least number of perceivable artifacts. The result is a super-loud master without crushed transients or pumping effects. Another interesting approach comes from FG-X by Slate Digital, for which Steven Slate and expert algorithm engineer Fabrice Gabriel developed a dynamic and intelligent transient saturation system, as it’s often the transient detail that gets damaged the most by over-limiting on the master. FG-X analyses incoming transients and selects an optimum saturation curve to achieve the best results, with an additional control called Dynamic Perception offering the ability to dial back in some perceived dynamic range.
Our favourite among the new dynamics plug-ins, however, is the Dynamic Spectrum Mapper V2 from Pro Audio DSP, which takes a frequency snapshot of your track to use for large-scale multiband compression. Once the threshold curve is captured, any signal that passes over it will be attenuated, but as you’re using the shape of the actual track the results are much more natural.
Potentially more interesting is the possibility to use this on individual parts such as vocals or on a drum buss, where the curve could come from another pro-sounding recording. In this way, your instrument or part will be massaged into the shape of the original in a much more dynamic way than if you simply used an EQ-matching plug-in. You can also use quite extreme ratios and thresholds while retaining a natural sound, although you have to be careful using a very low threshold on an entire mix as the quieter sections will leap up in volume.
The Final Frontier
Dynamics isn’t all about loudness and squashing signals, though: it’s also about space, and there have been some very simple but clever plug-ins that can help to carve out more space in your mixes. The recently released Track Spacer 2 from Wavesfactory improves on the task of sidechaining by giving it a little more accuracy. It takes the frequency shape of a sidechain input and uses a 32-band EQ to dynamically reduce the same frequencies from the channel where it’s inserted.
A simple use would be to duck a bass part whenever a kick drum occurs, but where traditional sidechaining techniques would duck the entire signal,Track Spacer will remove just the frequencies of the kick. This allows you to be much more precise and retain a more natural-sounding bass, where the higher frequencies aren’t also removed. You could, of course, go very deep with this and apply it on multiple tracks in which different elements are dynamically reducing the relevant frequencies on corresponding tracks.
Ultimately, the goal is to smooth-out those areas where frequencies are stacking up, but without affecting the neighbouring parts of the spectrum. What we love about a plug-in like Track Spacer is that it’s not complex, futuristic or CPU-intensive, but just a really good idea that’s elegantly realised and incredibly easy to use. Maybe this is also what more of our plug-ins of the future will be like.
FG- X from Slate Digital features an innovative algorithm that analyses the incoming transients and picks from a range of different saturation curves to achieve the most transparent results.
Music of the Future
Now that we have these and many more incredible tools, what does it actually mean for our music and our mixes? The fact that we can clean up problems and manipulate recordings in amazingly transparent ways only really gives us the same results as if we’d recorded or performed the material well in the first place. We now have studio-grade processing in the home studio, but you still need a good ear (and ideally a good room) to get equally pro-sounding results. We can, however, capture and extract portions of an audio signal that we previously couldn’t, which has led to some unique opportunities for sound design.
The main result is that we have more powerful ways to get cleaner and more scientifically spacious mixes. Of course, this isn’t good for all genres as we still enjoy the vibey sound of old recordings, where character comes from the grit, natural phasing, overlapping frequencies and other non-linearities. Electronic music in particular though, will continue to explore and benefit from these techniques, pushing the boundaries of sonic perfection and breaking the rules in creative new ways.
One area in which we expect to see some interesting developments over the next ten years or so is in artificial intelligence. There are already services on offer (such as www.mixgeni.us) that allow you to upload the stems of your mix, then receive back a track mixed by a computer. This wouldn’t take into account the required emotion needed to convey a good track, but it’s feasible that AI can scientifically balance your material and give you a good starting point. We wouldn’t like to give up all control, however, and it’s more likely that we’ll see individual processors that can still be tweaked but that will analyse your material and make adjustments and decisions that will aid in the mixing process.
Ultimately, any tool or additional functionality that enables you to achieve an effective mix more quickly – thus giving you more time to work on the melody, groove, harmony and arrangement of the music itself – has to be a good thing. But be warned: it’s also essential that we don’t lose sight of the end goal and end up choosing precision over emotion, otherwise the music of the future may end up being sterile and unlistenable…