Audio Plug-ins for Editors – Part 4

What about free?

Working with plug-ins is fun, but it gets complex when you want to be consistent across multiple hosts. The built-in effects can be quite good and if you only ever work in Media Composer, Resolve, Premiere Pro, or Final Cut Pro and are happy with what’s included, then nothing more is needed. But if you work in multiple applications, then what you like in one will be missing in the other. For example, the Logic compressor is available in FCP, but not Logic’s vintage EQ. If I use native effects in FCP, I have to use different effects to achieve the same results in Premiere Pro.

That problem can be solved by purchasing a plug-in bundle that is consistent across multiple hosts. If you install audio effects that support AU, VST, VST3, and AAX, then you are covered for Macs and PCs, and nearly all DAW and NLE brands. However, such bundles and/or individual plug-ins are typically authorized for a single machine at a time, via an activation code, a licensing portal, or a USB license key, like an iLok. If you operate a multi-seat shop, then it’s complicated juggling plug-in licensing across several machines. Hence, you have to purchase a plug-in set for each workstation, which can be costly. So free options become quite attractive. Install them on all the machines and never deal with the “missing plug-in” error message again.

I follow the Pro Tools Expert website. They frequently highlight free audio plug-ins. Some offers are only available for a limited time and others indefinitely. Some of the free options are gimmicky or don’t have a ton of use for most video editors. iZotope’s Vinyl is a prime example. But every now and then you’ll find some gems.

TBProAudio

I’ve run across two companies with free products that I find to be quite useful. The first is TBProAudio. They offer a range of audio plug-ins, including a couple of free products. The first is the sTilt v2, which is a linear phase equalizer, also known as a spectral-tilt or tilt-shift equalizer. Think of the frequency spread as a playground teeter-totter. The audio spectrum is on a “slope” that pivots on a center frequency. As you move the dial to the right, audio frequencies above the center frequency are boosted and audio below is cut or reduced. The result is a brighter sound. Move the dial to the left and upper frequencies are cut, while lower frequencies are boosted for a warmer sound. Adjust the center frequency value to move the “fulcrum” of the tilt-shift processing.

Another one of their free plug-ins is the mvMeter 2. This classic, analog-style meter array features several metering models, including, VU, RMS, EBUR128, and PPM. I started in radio, so working with VU meters is second nature to me. Since finding this plug-in I’ve used it on nearly every mix. I find that my mixes are now more standard with more consistent levels than simply judging by the built-in full scale dB meters.

Tokyo Dawn Records/Labs 

As I searched for more useful plug-ins, I also ran across Tokyo Dawn Labs, a software offshoot of Tokyo Dawn Records in Germany. They offer a number of plug-ins, including four free products. Each of the free products includes a paid GE (“gentlemen’s edition”) version with additional features. The free products are not severely limited “lite” versions, but in fact, include 80-90% of the functionality of the GE products. These include two equalizers and two compressors, which are amazingly good – free or not.

TDR VOS Slick EQ is a mixing/mastering equalizer with several emulation models – American, British, German, and Soviet. Each model mimics certain gear or console characteristics. The American model is the most transparent. Slick EQ’s general operation is like most classic, three-band EQs with hi/low pass filtering and shelving controls.

TDR Kotelnikov is a dynamics processor, i.e a compressor/limiter.  It has a very smooth and transparent sound with processing that’s affected by a stereo density control. Its transparency makes this tool ideal to apply to the final stereo output or master mix bus of any mix.

TDR Nova is a bit harder to describe. TDR calls it a parallel dynamic equalizer. It looks and acts a bit like a four-band parametric equalizer, however it also includes compression. So you can use it simply as an EQ, or you can combine that with compression to create a multi-band compressor.

TDR Molotok is another dynamics processor. I haven’t tested this one, but it definitely has the most old-school UI of the bunch. TDR states it doesn’t emulate any specific vintage device, but has what they describe as eleven flavor nuances. For me personally, Kotelnikov fits the bill for video project mastering, But If I were a music producer, then Molotok would hold some appeal.

An interesting aspect to these plug-ins is that default processing is stereo, but it can also be put into a sum or difference mode. Effectively this enables mid or side signal processing. For example, if you want to only process the middle portion of the stereo signal, set the filter to the sum mode. In addition, the filter can be switched from Precise to ECO (economy) in case you are working with an underpowered computer.

In wrapping up this series of posts, I want to point out that not all application hosts treat audio plug-ins equally. Typically DAWs generally do the best job of  working seamlessly with third-party audio products. That’s less the case with NLEs.

If you use a Mac, you can install both AU and one of several VST versions of a plug-in. PCs only use VST varieties. However, in some cases, the AU version may have slightly different UI properties that the VST flavor. If you use Avid products, make sure to verify that a plug-in offers AAX and/or AudioSuite versions.

Finally, if you are a Final Cut Pro editor, tread lightly with plug-ins. FCP has increasingly become touchy with third-party audio plug-ins (under Big Sur), including many that play well with Logic Pro. And, of course, not all third-party plug-ins are yet fully compatible with the new Apple Silicon-based Macs. So make sure you test a trial version before you commit to a purchase.

Click to read Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3.

©2021 Oliver Peters

Audio Plug-ins for Editors – Part 2

In the previous post I presented an overview of common plug-ins. Two types used in nearly every project are equalization and compression to tame volume levels and sculpt the sound. Let’s take a closer look into how each operates.

Equalizers (EQs)

All equalizer plug-ins work with several common controls. Some EQ models have more features, but the general concepts are the same. An equalizer will boost (raise) or cut (lower) the volume of a specific frequency within the sound spectrum of the track. Some EQs feature only a single control point, while others include more – three, four, or even unlimited.

As you boost or cut volume, the audio frequencies around the control frequency are also progressively raised or lowered in what is presented as a bell-shaped curve on a frequency graph. The width of this bell is called the Q value. As you widen the curve – the Q value – more of the surrounding frequencies are also affected. A smaller Q – a tighter curve – results in a more surgical adjustment. An extremely tight Q value is often referred to as a notch, because you are only affecting that frequency and very little else. Notch settings and separate notch filters are often used to remove or reduce specific annoying background sounds in the audio.

Most multi-point EQs are designed so that the lowest and highest frequency control points are shelf controls. When you adjust the high frequency and it operates as a shelf, then everything above that frequency is rolled off. The same for a low shelf, except that the roll-off is in the other direction – lower frequencies. The slope of this roll-off can be gradual or sharp, depending on the features on the plug-in.

An extremely sharp slope at the low-end creates a high-pass filter (higher frequencies are allowed, lower frequencies are cut). An extremely sharp slope at the top is a low-pass filter. Depending on the equalizer model, a high-pass filter control may also be referred to as a low-cut control. High-pass versus low-cut is purely a semantics difference as the controls work the same. Some EQs allow the slope of the low-cut to be adjusted along with the frequency, while others leave the slope at a fixed amount.

Compressors

Compressors come in more varieties and with a wider range of features than EQ plug-ins. For most, the core operation is the same. The intent is to squash audio peak levels to reduce the overall dynamic range of a track between low and high volume levels. The smoother a compressor works, the more natural and unobtrusive the compression effect is.

The threshold control determines the volume level at which the compressor starts to bite into the signal. As you lower the threshold, more of the signal is impacted. Some compressors also include an input gain control to raise the audio coming into the filter ahead of the threshold control.

The ratio control determines the amount of signal compression, i.e. gain reduction above the threshold. A 2:1 ratio means that 2dB of gain over the threshold would be reduced by half to 1dB. A 4:1 ratio would be a reduction from 4dB down to 1dB for any audio peaks that exceed the threshold.

The make-up gain control (when available) is often used to compensate for the gain reduction. When you apply a heavy amount of compression, affecting a larger range of the signal, the overall output will sound lower. Increasing the make-up gain compensates for this volume loss. However, this risks also bringing up the noise floor, since quiet portions of the tracks have been attenuated, too.

When you see the compressor settings displayed graphically, the adjustment appears as a hockey stick standing on its end. The threshold point is displayed on the graph as the point where the line bends. The angle of this bend is the ratio. The higher the ratio, the flatter the bent section of the line. A slightly curved bend is referred to as a soft knee, meaning that compression kicks in more gradually.

The response of the compressor to peaks is controlled by the attack and release adjustments. Set a fast attack time and the compressor will react quickly to peaks. A slow release time means that bite of the gain reduction holds on longer before the compressor returns to a neutral effect. The attack and release times determine the characteristics of how that compressor sounds. As an example, your adjustments would be different for speech than if you were recording drums. The impact of the compressor would sound different in each case.

The lookahead setting determines how far ahead the compressor plug-in is analyzing the track in order to respond to future peak levels. But, you are balancing performance versus precision. Long lookahead times require more processing power for the computer. A very short lookahead value means that some peaks will get through. Lookahead only works when you are working with a recorded track and isn’t applicable to compression on live sources, such as in a recording session.

Multi-band compressors and limiters

There are two special types of compressors. The multi-band compressor divides the sound spectrum into several frequency ranges. This enables the user to control the amount of compression applied to different parts of the signal, such as low versus mid versus high frequencies. As we will see in Part 4, some equalizers can be paired with compression controls to create a combo plug-in of EQ coupled with multi-band compression.

Another variation is the limiter. This is a compressor that’s designed to block all volume peaks above a determined threshold. Limiters are important if you have to deliver files for broadcast or streaming services in order to stay within loudness parameters. Some editors and mix engineers will place a multi-band compressor followed by a limiter on their stereo output mix bus for this reason.

Finally, some compressors include a built-in limiter, often referred to as a brick wall limiter. This is a second stage of compression with a tighter ratio. Graphically, the slope after the knee would appear flat. The limiter threshold is designed to fully compress all peaks that exceed the set level of the compressor. Typically the limiter values would be set somewhat higher than the compressor adjustments in order to allow for some dynamic range between the two.

In Part 3, I’ll check out one of the more popular audio plug-in developers, FabFilter Software Instruments, and their Pro-L2 Limiter plug-in.

Click here to read Part 1.

©2021 Oliver Peters

Audio Plug-ins for Editors – Part 1

Audio mixers and audio editors who spend their time at the business end of a DAW certainly have a solid understanding of audio plug-ins. But often it’s something many video editors don’t know much about. Every NLE includes a useful complement of audio filter effects (plug-ins) that can also be augmented by a wide range of third party options. So it’s worth understanding what you have at your fingertips. After all, audio is at least 50% or more of most video projects. For this and the following three posts, I’ll focus on some thoughts pertaining to what video editors should know about commonly used audio filters.

Numerous audio effects have been highlighted in previous posts. I personally use various Accusonus and iZotope effects on my work, most often for audio clean-up. That’s been very important in this past year with restricted production activity. Quite a lot of my recent edit jobs worked with source material from Zoom calls and self-recorded smartphone video – all with marginal audio quality. So clean-up tools like iZotope RX have been quite important.

Since a lot of what I do is corporate in nature, the mixes are relatively simple – usually voice and music with a minimum of sound effects. Other than some clean-up processing (noise or reverb removal and so on), my most frequently used effects are equalization and compression. These tools let me shape the mix and control levels. 

All audio plug-ins are the same. Or are they?

Audio effects typically come in two flavors. One group could be described as “digital” and is intended to process audio in a transparent fashion without adding tonal color on its own. The other group is considered “analog,” because these filters are intended to emulate the sound of certain analog processing equipment. Naturally, since these are software plug-ins, the processing is actually digital. However, analog-style emulations are designed to mimic the tonal qualities of classic outboard gear or of channel strip circuits built into analog consoles like Neve and SSL.

Tonal color is often created by how the audio is processed, such as the slope of the attack and release characteristics when the filter begins to affect the sound. In theory, you should be able to take a digital-style EQ and boost a frequency by a given amount and Q value (the width of the effect around that frequency). Then, if you apply a second instance of the EQ and cut (lower) that same frequency by the same dB and Q values, the two should cancel each other out and the signal should sound unaffected. An analog-style filter that has been designed to emulate certain models of peripheral gear will not be transparent if you try this same experience.

If you buy two competing digital audio plug-ins that have the same controls and features, then the way each alters the sound will likely be more or less the same. The only difference is the “skin,” i.e. the user interface. However, when you buy an analog audio plug-in, you are looking for certain sound characteristics found in current or vintage analog hardware. A developer could go the route of licensing the exact signal path from the original company. They can then legally display a branded UI that is skeuomorphic and looks just like the physical version that it represents. Waves has an entire repertoire of such effects. So if you want an SSL 4000-series E-type channel strip, they’ve got a software version for you.

The other development approach is to reverse-engineer the sound of that physical gear and release a plug-in that emulates the sound. It might be dead-on or it might only be reminiscent. The skeuomorphic interface is designed to look and feel like that gear. If you know the real device, then you’ll know what that plug-in can be expected to sound like. Apple Logic Pro has a wealth of effects that are emulations. If you want to use a Vox or a Marshall guitar amp filter, simply pick the one that features a similar faceplate. Nowhere does Logic actually call it a Marshall or a Vox, because Apple hasn’t licensed the exact circuits from the original manufacturer. Instead, they classify these as “inspired by” certain musical eras or genres.

Native versus third party effects

Audio plug-ins are installed using one of several protocols, including AAX, AU, and VST/VST3. This means that you can use the same effect in multiple host applications. However, DAWs and NLEs also install their own native effects that are only available within that single application. This can mean better performance versus third-party effects, which is especially true with current versions of Final Cut Pro and macOS.

One of my favorite native filters is the Logic compressor found in both Logic Pro and Final Cut Pro. It features seven compressor styles built into a single plug-in. The choices start with Platinum Digital, which is the digital (clean or transparent) version of this filter. The next six panes are different analog models, which are emulations of such popular outboard gear as Focusrite and DBX. There are two choices each for VCA, FET, and opto-electrical circuit designs.

Set the exact same adjustments in any of the compressor’s panes and the tonal color will vary slightly as you toggle through them. If you are unfamiliar with these, then check out some of the YouTube tutorials that explain the Logic compressor’s operation and which of the actual gear each of these panes is intended to emulate. I personally like the Studio VCA pane, which is based on a Focusrite Red compressor.

In Part 2, I’ll take a deeper look at two of the most common filtering functions – compression and equalization.

©2021 Oliver Peters

Final Cut Pro at 10 and Other Musings

Recently Final Cut Pro (formerly Final Cut Pro X) hit its tenth anniversary.  Since I’ve been a bit quiet on this blog lately due to the workload, I thought it was a good time to reflect. I recently cut a set of involved commercials using FCP. While I’ve cut literally thousands of commercials in my career, my work in recent years tends to be corporate/branding/image content in the five to ten minute range. I work in a team and the tool of choice is Premiere Pro. It’s simply a better fit for us, since the bulk of staff and freelancers are very fluid in Adobe products and less so with Apple’s pro software. Sharing projects and elements also works better in the Adobe ecosystem.

Cutting the spots in Final Cut Pro

In the case of the four :60s, I originally budgeted about two days each, plus a few days for client revisions – eleven days in total. My objective was to complete the creative cut, but none of the finishing, since these spots involved extensive visual effects. I was covering for the client’s regular editor who had a scheduled vacation and would finish the project. The spots were shot with a Sony Venice, simultaneously recording 6K RAW and 4K XAVC (AVC-Intra) “proxy” files. The four spots totaled over 1200 clips with approximately an hour of footage per spot. My cutting options could be to work natively with the Sony RAW media in Premiere Pro or DaVinci Resolve, or to edit with the proxies in any NLE.

The Sony RAW files are large and don’t perform well playing from a shared storage system. I didn’t want to waste the time copying location drives to the NAS, partially for reasons of time. I also wanted to be able to access media to cut the spots whether at home or at the work facility. So I opted to use the proxies, which allowed me to cut the spots in FCP. Of course, if you think of proxies as low-res files, you’d be wrong. These Sony XAVC files are high-res, camera-original files on par with 4K ProRes HQ media. If it weren’t for VFX, these would actually be the high-quality source files used for the final edit.

I copied the proxy files to a 2TB Samsung T7 SSD portable drive. This gave me the freedom to edit wherever – either on my iMac at home or one of the iMac Pros at work. This is where Final Cut Pro comes in. When you wade through that much footage, it’s easy for an NLE to get bogged down by caching footage or for the editor to get lost in the volume of clips. Thanks to skimming and keyword collections, I was able to cut these spots far more quickly than using any of the other NLE options. I could go from copying proxy files to my first cut on a commercial within a single day. That’s half of the budgeted time.

The one wrinkle was that I had to turn over a Premiere Pro project linked to the RAW media files. There are various ways to do that, but automatic relinking is dicier with these RAW files, because each clip is within its own subfolder, similar to RED. This complicates Premiere’s ability to easily relink files. So rather than go through XtoCC, I opted to import the Sony RAW clips into Resolve, then import the FCPXML, which in turn automatically relinked to the RAW files in Resolve.

There are a few quirks in this method that you have to suss out, but once everything was correct in Resolve, I exported an XML for Premiere. In Premiere Pro, I imported that XML, made sure that Premiere linked to the RAW files, corrected any size and speed issues, removed any duplicate clips, and then the project was ready for turnover. While one could look at these steps and question the decision to not cut in Premiere in the first place, I can assure you that cutting with Final Cut was considerably faster and these roundtrip steps were minor.

Remote workflows

Over the past year, remote workflows and a general “work from home” movement has shifted how the industry moves forward. So much of what I do requires connection to shared storage, so totally working from home is impractical. These spots were the exception for me, but the client and director lived across the country. In years past, they used to fly in and work in supervised sessions with me. However, in more recent years, that work has been unattended using various review-and-approval solutions for client feedback and revisions. Lately that’s through Frame.io. In the case of these spots, my workflow wasn’t any different than it would have been two years ago.

On the other hand, since I have worked with these clients in supervised sessions, as well as remote projects, it’s easy to see what’s been lost in this shift. Remote workflows present two huge drawbacks. The first is turnaround time. It’s inherently an inefficient process. You’ll cut a new version, upload it for review, and then wait – often for hours or even the next day. Then make the tweaks, rinse, and repeat. This impacts not only the delivery schedule, but also your own ability to book sessions and determine fair billing.

Secondly, ideation takes a back seat. When a client is in the room, you can quickly go through options, show a rearranged cut, alternate takes, and so on. Final Cut’s audition function is great for this, but it’s a wasted feature in these modern workflows. During on-prem sessions, you could quickly show a client the options, evaluate, and move on. With remote workflows, that’s harder to show and is subject to the same latency of replying, so as a result, you have fewer options that can be properly vetted in the cut.

The elephant in the room is security. I know there are tons of solutions for “drilling” into your system from home that are supposed to be secure. In reality, the only true security is to have your system disconnected from the internet (but also not totally bulletproof). As Sony Pictures, QNAP owners, Colonial Pipeline, agencies of the US government, or multiple other corporations have found out, if a bad actor wants to get into your system, they can. No amount of encryption, firewalls, VPNs, multi-factor authentication, or anything else is going to be guaranteed to stop them. While remote access might have been a necessary evil due to COVID lockdowns, it’s not something that should be encouraged going forward.

However, I know that I’m swimming against the stream on this. Many editors/designers/colorists don’t seem to ever want to return to an office. This is at odds with surveys indicating the majority of producers and agencies are chomping to get back to working one-on-one. Real estate and commuting costs are factors that affect such decisions, so I suspect hybrids will evolve and the situation in the future may vary geographically.

Final Cut Pro’s future

I mention the WFH dilemma, because remote collaboration is one of the features that Apple has been encouraged to build into Final Cut Pro by some users. It’s clearly a direction Adobe has moved towards and where Avid already has a track record.

I’m not sure that’s in Apple’s best interest. For one thing, I don’t personally believe Apple does a good job of this. Access and synchronization performance of iCloud is terrible compared with Google’s solutions. Would a professional collaboration solution really be industry-leading and robust? I highly doubt it.

Naturally Apple wants to make money, but they are also interested in empowering the creative individual – be that a professional or an enthusiast. Define those terms in whatever way you like, but the emphasis is on the individual. That direction seems to be at odds with what “pro” users think should be the case for Apple ProApps software, based on their experiences in the late years of FCP 1-7/FCP Studio (pre-X).

I certainly have my own feature request list for Final Cut Pro, but ultimately the lack of these did not stop me from a rapid turnaround on the spots I just discussed. Nor on other projects when I turn to FCP as the tool of choice. I use all four major NLEs and probably never will settle on a single “best” NLE for all cases.

The term “YouTube content creator” or “influencer” is often used as a pejorative, but for many filmmakers and marketeers outlets like YouTube, facebook, and Instagram have become the new “broadcast.” I recently interviewed Alexander Fedorov for FCP.co. He’s a Russian photographer/filmmaker/vlogger who epitomizes the type of content creator for whom Apple is designing its professional products. I feel that Apple can indeed service multiple types of users, from the individual, self-taught filmmaker to the established broadcast pro. How Apple does that moving forward within a tool like Final Cut Pro is anyone’s guess. All I know is that using the measurements of what is and isn’t “pro” no longer works in so many different arenas.

©2021 Oliver Peters

May 2021 Links

It’s time to check out some more articles and reviews that I’ve written for other publications since January, but which I haven’t reposted here.

Understanding Premiere Pro’s Color Management 

I wrote about trusting Apple Displays. This is a follow-up article about color management and Premiere Pro (Pro Video Coalition).

Aviation and Final Cut Pro – Combining Passions for Compelling Videos 

YouTube influencers are a big part of the content creation landscape today. Their videos cover many, different niches and often have a surprisingly large base of followers. I take a look at YouTube, aviation, and the use of Final Cut Pro to post-produce these videos (FCP.co).

Is Your Audio Mix Too Loud?

Unless you’ve delivered master files for broadcast, you might not be as tuned into meeting delivery specs, especially when it comes to the perceived loudness levels of your mix. I discuss working with audio in Final Cut Pro to mix and master at optimal levels (FCP.co).

Color Finale Transcoder – BRAW, ARRIRAW, DNG and CinemaDNG in FCP

The folks at Color Trix have come up with an ingenious solution to augment Final Cut Pro’s camera raw support. The new Color Finale Transcoder adds additional camera raw formats, notably Blackmagic RAW. Check out my review of the software (FCP.co).

©2021 Oliver Peters