Audio software plug-ins (effects and filters) come in two forms. On one hand, you have a wide range of products that emulate vintage analog hardware, often showcasing a skeuomorphic interface design. If you know how the original hardware version worked and sounded, then that will inform your expectations for the software equivalent. The other approach is to eschew the sonic and visual approach of analog emulation and build a plug-in with a modern look and sound. Increasingly this second group of plug-ins employ intelligent profiles and “assistants” to analyze your track and provide you with automatic settings that form a good starting point.
Austria has a long and proud musical history and heritage of developing leading audio products. There are many high-end Austrian audio manufacturers. One of those companies is Sonible, which develops both hardware and software products. The Sonible software falls into that second camp of plug-ins, with clean sonic qualities and a modern interface design. Of key interest is the “smart:” category, including smart:comp 2, smart:limit, smart:EQ 3, smart:reverb, and smart:EQ live. The first four of these are also available as the smart:bundle.
Taking a spin with Sonible’s spectro-dynamic compressor
I tested out smart:comp 2, which is billed as a spectro-dynamic compressor. It’s compatible with Windows and macOS and installs AU, VST, VST3, and AAX (Avid) versions. Licensing uses an iLok or is registered to your computer (up to two computers at a time). Let’s start with why these are “smart.” In a similar fashion to iZotope’s Ozone and others, smart:comp 2 can automatically analyze your track and assign compressor settings based on different profiles. The settings may be perfect out of the gate or form a starting point for additional adjustments. Of course, you can also just start by making manual adjustments.
Spectro-dynamic is a bit of a marketing term, but in essence, smart:comp 2 works like a highly sophisticated multiband compressor. The compression ranges are based on the sonic spectrum of the track. Instead of the four basic bands of most multiband compressors, smart:comp 2 carves up the signal into 2,000 slices to which compression is dynamically applied. As a compressor, this plug-in is equally useful on individual tracks or on the full mix as a mastering plug-in.
In addition, I would characterize the interface design as “discoverable.” When you first open the plug-in, you see a clean user interface with simple adjustments for level and ratio. However, you can click certain disclosure triangles to open other parts of the interface, such as control of attack and release timing, as well as side-chain filtering. There are three unique sound shaping controls at the bottom. Style controls the character of the compressor between “clean” (transparent) and “dirty” (warm and punchy). The Spectral Compression control dials in the amount of spectral (multiband) compression being applied. At zero, smart:comp 2 will act as an ordinary broadband compressor. The Color control lets you emphasis “darker” or “brighter” ranges within the spectral compression.
Simple, yet powerful functions
Start by selecting a profile (or leave on “Universal”). Play a louder section of your mix and let smart:comp 2 “learn” the track. Once learning is done and a profile established, you may be done. Or you may want to make further adjustments to taste. For example, the plug-in features automatic input riding along with automatic output (make-up gain). I found that for my mixes, input riding worked well, but I preferred a fixed output gain, which can be set manually.
There’s a “limit” function, which is always set to 0dBFS. When enabled, the limit option becomes a soft clipper. All peaks exceeding 0dBFS will be tamed to avoid hard clipping. It’s like a smooth limiter set to 0dBFS after the compression stage. However, if your intended use is broadcast production, rather than music mixes, you may still need to add a separate limiter plug-in (such as Sonible’s smart:limit) in the mastering chain after smart:comp 2. Especially if your target is lower, such as true peaks at -3dB or -6dB.
smart:comp2 did a wonderful job as a master bus compressor on my music mixes. I tested it against other built-in and third-party compressors within Logic Pro and DaVinci Resolve Fairlight. First, smart:comp 2 is very clean when you press it hard. There’s always a pleasing sound. However, the biggest characteristic is that the mixes sound more open with better clarity.
smart:comp 2 for mixing video projects
I’m a video editor and most of my mixes are more basic than multitrack music mixes with large track counts. Just a few dialogue, music, and sound effects tracks and that’s it. So the next test was applying smart:comp 2 on Premiere Pro’s mix bus. When I originally mixed this particular project, I used Adobe’s built-in tube-modeled compression on the dialogue tracks and then Adobe’s multiband compressor and limiter of the mix buss. For this test, I stripped all of those out and only added smart:comp 2 to the mix output buss.
I noticed the same openness as in the music mixes, but input riding was even more evident. My sequence started with a 15 second musical lead-in. Then the music ducks under the dialogue as the presenter appears. I had mixed this level change manually for a good-sounding balance. When I applied smart:comp 2, I noticed that the opening music was louder than with the plug-in bypassed. Yet, this automatic loudness level change felt right and the transition to the ducked music was properly handled by smart:comp 2. Although the unprocessed mix initially sounded fine to me, I would have to say that using smart:comp 2 made it a better-sounding mix overall. It was also better than when I used the built-in options.
How you use plug-ins is a matter of taste and talent. Some pros may look at automatic functions as some sort of cheat. I think that’s wrong. Software analysis can give you a good starting point in less time, allowing more time for creativity. You aren’t getting bogged down twirling knobs. That’s a good thing. I realize vintage plug-ins often look cool, but if you don’t know the result you’ll get, they can be a waste of time and money. This is where plug-ins like the smart: series from Sonible will enhance to your daily mixing workflow, regardless of whether you are a seasoned recording engineer or a video editor.
©2022 Oliver Peters