Thursday, December 15, 2011

Zed's Digital Audio Top 10 of 2011

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This list is made up of those plug-ins and digital apps I used the most this year and/or made me the most excited. Most are available for both PC and Mac, and only a few are still stuck in 32-bit mode - hopefully that will change soon.

10) Izotope Ozone 5. Link This is the Mastering app of choice for most semi-pro engineer/producers and a great update to the ubiquitous Ozone 4 multi-processor - albeit slightly expensive for the "Pro" version without the introductory discount. The Pro version allows you to insert each module as a separate plug-in if you so desire, and has awesome audio visualisation options (plus a few extra features per module). Within this plug-in you get all the essential tools to repair a finished mix - a mastering limiter (Maximizer),  multi-band compression, multi-band exciter, multi-band width controls (Imager), mastering reverb, and an awesome EQ with handy frequency "solo" for ease of locating those crazy out of control frequencies. Oh, and you can go stereo or mid-side depending on your needs, and you also get all sorts of dithering and metering options.

9) SoundIron Emotional Piano 2Link It's amazing how often you need a piano in a mix, and because I don't have access to real one, I'm always struggling to find one that sits nicely in a song, especially as the ubiquitous grand pianos that seem to come with various packages don't always work with the track. This piano is meant to be more "soundtrack-ey", it's warm, has character, and seems to sit much better than any of the others. If I want a clean sound I use Modart's Pianoteq Link - a very nice modelled piano.

8) Avid Pro Tools 10Link Just so you know, although I'm a Logic Pro afficianado, I'm also a trained Pro Tools user and it's good to see Pro Tools coming along so well and, although they've had the studio-recording side totally nailed for so long (and are the industry-standard for recording in the studio), they are still catching up somewhat with everyone else in the compositional features stakes. Also - now you don't need to have a piece of Avid hardware to run it, it simplifies (and cheapens) your setup. Still a bit overpriced (especially as you have to pay quite a bit extra for much of the really cool stuff), but if you want to work with a variety of studios, you will probably need to use it at some point.

7) Arts Acoustic ReverbLink This algorithmic reverb is not only easy on the CPU, it sounds fantastic. I think our love-affair with the impulse reverb is fading, because as good as they initially sound, they are inherently linear - the sound doesn't change based on level going in, so they can end up being a bit sterile. I think of them as "precision reverbs". The Arts Acoustic can still sound clean, but you can get some pretty twisted sounds out of it if you need to, or some gorgeous Lexicon-like warmth. I use it a lot for dark and twisted drum reverbs, and for clean and open vocal reverb.

6) Logic Pro 9Link Notice it's not at number 1, because as much as it's my main tool in the studio, and it IS pretty damn awesome, (and ridiculously good value for money BTW - especially as you can now buy it on App Store for $200 USD) Apple have let it sit in the background for a while now, with very few updates, and some bugs that have been there for several years. I'm hoping that they release version 10 soon, without destroying what makes it so good - like they almost did with Final Cut Pro X. Runners up - Ableton Live Link - you'd have to have your head in the sand not to notice this DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) app increasingly dominating the market - although mostly in DJ, electronica and live performance realms, and Reaper Link - an inexpensive and increasingly fully-featured application that's really taking off.

5) SoundToys Devil-Loc DeluxeLink Actually the entire Sound Toys native bundle is also fantastic (and pretty well priced if you're a student and can get the Academic pricing), but I've found this particular compression-with-distortion plug-in an essential for big fat drum sounds. You can get it pumping in a really good way, and it sure adds instant excitement to the drum mix.

4) D16 Group ToraverbLink This plug-in reverb can get the biggest, widest, lushest chorused reverb sounds ever. It's very impressive, and once you hear it, you'll want it. I use it every time I need a huge sense of space and distance on something in my mix. Actually the D-16 Group do some fantastic plug-ins - I have the rest of the Silverline collection and also use the Decimort (which can emulate the colouration from various older samplers) and Devastator (a multi-band distortion unit) plug-ins a lot.

3) Slate Digital VCC (Virtual Console Collection)Link The idea with this plugin is that you put it on every channel strip and/or the busses to simulate one of four (now five!) analogue mixing consoles. It's very subtle per channel strip, but somehow adds up to making a mix sound great and just "gel". Runner-up to this is the very affordable Sonimus Satson Buss Link.

2) Celemony Melodyne Editor 2Link When it comes time to transparently fix poor intonation in vocals, without the obvious side-effects that you might want for some styles of music, then Melodyne is the one. It retains the nuances of phrasing and vibrato, and allows you to just fix the gross pitch errors if you like, or you can still go more extreme if you really want to. Also great for matching and creating backing vocal lines, repairing guitar tracks (got one string out of tune?) as it can now do polyphonic tracks, and my favourite; fixing poorly-played bass lines, because you can quantize to a time grid as well as fixing poor intonation on cheap basses. There are a bunch of products that Celemony put out, including the multi-track Melodyne Studio, but I like this one as it's a pretty full-featured plug-in that can also do Rewire. An absolute essential!

1) Anything by UADLink This was my big "Eureka" moment this year. I decided to buy the UAD-2 Solo Laptop card to get some more processing into my overstressed Mac Book Pro laptop. Here's what I found - the UAD plug-ins sound so much better than any other versions of the same plug-in, and sound so very close to the real hardware units that they're modelling. You don't need "golden ears" to tell the difference either. It might have something to do with the way the plug-ins are up-sampled for processing, or it might be the ridiculous huge amount of detailed modelling that they've done to recreate the vintage equipment so realistically. My favourites so far are the good old Pultec EQ - it really does just make things sound better - even without adding any EQ (although you probably will), the Ampex ATR-102 reel-to-reel, the Fatso Jr/Sr for, well, fatness, and the SPL Vitalizer for adding character to synths. My credit card is still hurting from going a wee bit crazy on these plug-ins this year, but I don't regret it.

Notable mentions: the free Michael Norris effects collection Link for some quite radical granular processing options - especially useful for sound design. Some of the cool Waves plugins Link; for example the Kramer MPX reel-to-reel tape recorder and the Vocal Rider Not cheap, but good. Xfer Records' LFOTool Link - adds tweakable sync'ed modulation to just about anything. Great for locking-in, enhancing or creating grooves in any track. Izotope's Stutter Edit Link - awesome for adding those extra crazy head-sounds to your mix and for creating some extra action when it gets too boring - and you can play it in from a MIDI keyboard. The Sonnox collection Link - every single plug-in is useful and just sound awesome. And they've dropped the prices so real people can now almost afford them. Cytomic's "The Glue" Link - a really excellent analogue-modelled master bus processor that you just set and forget.