Improving your mix with iZotope

In classic analog mixing consoles like Neve or SSL, each fader includes a channel strip. This is a series of in-line processors that can be applied to each individual input and usually consists of some combination of an EQ, gate, and compressor. If a studio mixing engineer doesn’t use the built-in effects, then they may have a rack of outboard effects units that can be patched in and out of the mixing console. iZotope offers a number of processing products that are the software equivalent of the channel strip or effects rack.

I’ve written about iZotope products in the past, so I decided to take a look at their Mix & Master Bundle Plus, with is a collection of three of their top products – Neutron 3, Nectar 3, and Ozone 9. These products, along with RX, are typically what would be of interest to most video editors or audio post mixers. RX 8 is a bundle of repair effects, such as noise reduction, click repair, and so on.

Depending on the product, it may be available within a single plug-in effect, or several plug-ins, or both a plug-in and a standalone application. For instance, RX8 and Ozone 9 can be used within a DAW or an NLE, in addition to being a separate application. Most of the comprehensive iZotope products are available in three versions – Elements (a “lite” version), Standard, and Advanced. As the name implies, you get more features with the Advanced version; however, nearly everything an editor would want can be handled in the Standard product or for some, in an Elements version.

The mothership

Each of these products is an AU, VST, and/or AAX plug-in compatible with most DAWs and NLEs. It shows up as a single plug-in effect, which in iZotope’s parlance is the mothership for processing modules. Each product features its own variety of processing modules, such as EQ or compression. These modules can be stacked and arranged in any order within the mothership plug-in. Instead of having three individual effects applied to a track, you would only have one iZotope plug-in, which in turn contains the processing modules that you’d like to use. While each product might offer a similar module, like EQ, these modules do not function in exactly the same way from one product to the next. The range of control or type of function will differ. For example, only Ozone 9 includes mid/side EQ. In addition to new features, this newest series of iZotope updates includes faster processing with real-time performance and some machine learning functions.

If you can only buy one of these products and they perform somewhat similar tasks, how do you know what to use? First, there’s nothing to prevent you from applying Ozone, Nectar, or Neutron interchangeably to any individual track or a master bus. Or to a voice-over or a music mix. From the standpoint of a video editor using these plug-ins for the audio mix of my videos, I would simplify it down this way. Nectar 3 is designed for vocal processing. Neutron 3 is designed for music. Ozone 9 is designed for mastering. If I own all three, then in a simple mix of a dialogue track against music, I would apply Nectar 3 to the dialogue track, Neutron 3 to the music track, and Ozone 9 to the master bus.

Working with iZotope’s processing

Neutron, Nectar, and Ozone each include a wealth of presets that configure a series of modules depending on the style you want – from subtle to aggressive. You can add or remove modules or rearrange their order in the chain by dragging a module left or right within the plug-in’s interface. Or start from a blank shell and build an effects chain from the module selection available within that iZotope product. Neutron offers six basic modules, Nectar nine, and Ozone eleven. Many audiophiles love vintage processing to warm up the sound. In spite of iZotope’s sleek, modern approach, you’re covered here, too. Ozone 9 includes several dedicated vintage modules for tape saturation, limiting, EQ, and compression.

All three standard versions of these products include an Assistant function. If you opt to use the Assistant, then play your track and Nectar, Neutron, or Ozone will automatically calculate and apply the modules and settings needed, based on the parameters that you choose and the detected audio from the mix or track. You can then decide to accept or reject the recommendation. If you accept, then use that as a starting point and make adjustments to the settings or add/delete modules to customize the mix.

Neutron 3 Advanced includes Mix Assistant, an automated mix that uses machine learning. Let’s say you have a song mix with stems for vocals, bass, drums, guitars, and synths. Apply the Relay effect to each track and then iZotope’s Visual Mixer to the master bus. With the Standard version, you can use the Visual Mixer to control the levels, panning, and stereo width for each track from a single interface. The Relay plug-ins control those settings on each track based on what you’ve done using the Visual Mixer controls. If you have Neutron 3 Advanced, then this is augmented by Mix Assistant. Play the song through and let Mix Assistant set a relative balance based on your designated focus tracks. In other words, you can tell the algorithm whether vocals or guitars should be the focus and thereby dominant in the mix.

Note that iZotope regularly updates versions with new features, which may or may not be needed in your particular workflow. As an example, RX8 was just released with new features over RX7. But if you owned an earlier version, then it might still do everything you need. While new features are always welcome, don’t feel any pressure that you have to update. Just rest assured that iZotope is continually taking customer feedback and developing its products.

Be sure to check out iZotope’s wealth of tutorials and learning materials, including their “Are you listening?” YouTube series. Even if you don’t use any iZotope products, Grammy-nominated mastering engineer Jonathan Wyner offers plenty of great tips for getting the best out of your mixes.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Soundtheory Gullfoss Intelligent EQ

There are zillions of audio plug-ins on the market to enhance your DAW or NLE. In most cases, the operation and user interface design is based on familiar physical processing hardware. Often the user interface design is intentionally skeuomorphic as either a direct analog to the physical version or as a prompt to give you a clue about its processed sound and control functions.

When you first open the Gullfoss equalizer plug-in, you might think it works like many other EQ plug-ins. Grab a frequency point on the graph line, pull it up or down, and spread out or tighten the Q value. But you would be totally wrong. In fact, this is a plug-in that absolutely requires you to read the manual. Check out the tutorial videos on the Soundtheory site and its operation will make sense to you.

Soundtheory launched Gullfoss (which gets its name from the Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland) as its first commercial product after years of research into perceived loudness. According to Soundtheory, Gullfoss is not using artificial intelligence or other machine learning algorithms. Instead, it employs their computational auditory perception technology. More on that in a moment.

Gullfoss installs as an AU, VST, and AAX plug-in, so it’s compatible with a wide range of DAWs and NLEs. License management is handled via iLok – something most Pro Tools users are very familiar with. If you don’t own a physical iLok USB key (dongle), then license management is handled through the iLok License Manager application. You would install this with a free iLok account onto your computer. iLok management allows you to move the plug-in authorization between computers.

The Gullfoss equalization technology is based on balancing dominant and dominated frequencies. The plug-in automatically determines what it considers dominant and dominated frequencies and dynamically updates its processing 300 times per second. User control is via the Recover and Tame controls.

Increasing the Recover value accentuates dominated frequencies while Tame adjusts the emphasis of dominant frequencies in the mix. Bias controls the balance between Recover and Tame. A positive value shifts more of the processing based on the Recover frequencies, whereas a negative value shifts the emphasis towards Tame. Brighten tells the Recover/Tame mechanism to prefer lower or higher frequencies. Boost balances low versus mid frequencies. Positive values favor bass and negative Boost values decrease bass and increase mids. Finally, there’s an overall gain control and, of course, Bypass.

By default, you are applying Gullfoss processing to the complete sound spectrum of a track. There are left and right range boundaries that you can slide inwards. This restricts the frequencies being analyzed and processed to the area between the two boundary lines. For instance, you can use this with a tight range to make Gullfoss function like a de-esser. If you invert the range by sliding the left or right lines past each other, then the processing occurs outside of that range.

One tip Soundtheory offers as a beginning point is to set the Recover and Tame controls each to 50. Then adjust Bias and Brightness so that the small meters to the left and bottom of the graph hover around their zero mark. This provides a good starting point and then adjust more as needed. Quite frankly it requires a bit of experimentation as to how best to use it. Naturally, whether or not you like the result depends on your own taste. In general, this EQ probably appeals more to music mixers and less to video editors or audio post engineers. I found that it worked nicely as a mastering EQ at the end of a mix chain or applied to a completed, mixed track.

I’m a video editor and not a music mixer, so I also tested files from a corporate production, consisting of a dialogue and a music stem. I ran two tests – once to the fully mixed and exported track and then also at the mix with the two stems isolated. I found that the processing sounded best when I kept the stems separate and applied Gullfoss to the master bus. Of course, this isn’t the best scenario, because the voices and music cues would change within each stem. However, with a bit of experimentation I found a setting that worked overall. It did result in a mix that sounded clearer and more open. Under a proper mix scenario, each voice and each music cue would be on separate tracks for individual adjustments prior to hitting the Gullfoss processing.

In regards to music mixes, it sounded best to me with tracks that weren’t extremely dense. For example, acoustic-style songs with vocals, acoustic guitars, or woodwind-based tracks seemed to benefit the most from Gullfoss. When it works well, the processing really opens up the track – almost like removing a layer of mushiness from the sound. When it was less effective, the results weren’t bad – just more in the take-it-or-leave-it category. The Soundtheory home page features several before and after examples. As a video editor, I did find that it had value when applied to a music track that I might use in a mix with voice-over. However, for voice control, I would stick with a traditional EQ plug-in. If I need de-essing, then I would use a traditional, dedicated de-esser.

Gullfoss is a nice tool to have in the toolkit for music and mastering mixers, even though it wouldn’t be the only EQ you’d ever use. However, it can be that sparkle that brings a song up a notch. Some mixers have commented that Gullfoss saved them a ton of time versus sculpting a sound with standard EQs. When it’s at its most effective, Gullfoss processing adds that “glue” that mixers want for a music track or song.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Boris FX Optics

Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom are ubiquitous digital photography processing tools that hold a place in nearly every pro and semi-pro photographer’s toolkit. From straight-up image correction and enhancement to wildly creative looks, it’s hard to beat what these tools offer. However, when you get into the stylistic filter options, Photoshop looks a bit stale. You can certainly push the artwork to new levels, but it takes talent and often a lot of work. That’s not in step with today’s mindset, where powerful, yet simple-to-use effects tools are the norm. (Click any image in this post for an enlarged view.)

Enter Optics for Photoshop

Last September Boris FX acquired the award-winning effects developers Digital Film Tools and Silhouette. Optics is a new tool developed since this acquisition, specifically designed for the photography market. It features a plug-in for Photoshop and Lightroom (as well as Bridge), which is paired with its own standalone application. Optics shares design similarities with DFT, but also integrates other BorisFX products, such as 75 of the Sapphire filters – a first for Photoshop users. According to Marco Paolini, Optics product designer for Boris FX (and co-founder of DFT and Silhouette), “Optics is the only Photoshop plug-in that specifically simulates optical camera filters with presets based on real-world diffusion filters, as well as realistic simulations of film stocks and motion picture lab processes.”

To use Optics from within Photoshop, simply apply the Optics filter effect to a layer, which opens the Optics Photoshop plug-in. If you first converted that layer into a Smart Object in Photoshop, then the final Optics result will be applied as a Smart Filter and can be toggled on and off in Photoshop. Otherwise, that layer will appear with the “baked in” result once you exit Optics. From Lightroom or Bridge, use the “edit with” command to route the image to the Optics application. Lightroom will send either the original version of the image or with any Lightroom effects applied. When done, a processed copy of the “sent” image appears in Lightroom. The Optics Standalone application supports an extensive set of camera raw file formats in addition to JPEG, TIFF, DPX and Kodak CIN files.

Filters and looks galore

Optics offers 160 filters with thousands of customizable presets. The filters are grouped into nine categories, including color, diffusion, stylize, and more. The user interface is designed with tools and controls bordering around the image. Top – tool bar for masking and view control. Left side – the layers stack. Bottom – filter groups and selection. Right side – two tabs for presets and parameter adjustments. You can show or hide these panels as you like, depending on what you need to see at the time. Resolution choices for the image viewer include 1K, 2K, 4K, 5K, 6K, 8K, and Full resolution. The available choices in the resolution menu are dynamic depending on the size of your image. A lower resolution helps to speed up processing results on lower-powered machines, but you’ll want Full to correctly judge some effects, like sharpening.

If you are comfortable in Photoshop, then you already know how to use Optics. You can build up complex effects using a combination of different filters by using layers. Each layer can be masked and includes all of the usual composite modes. Optics uses floating point processing. This means you can blow out highlights or exposure in one layer, but then bring it down again without information loss in a higher layer. Test out different looks simply by building them onto different layers. Then toggle a layer on or off to see one look versus another. For instance, maybe you’re not sure if you want a sepia look. Just make one layer sepia, disable it, and add a new layer for a different style. Then enable or disable layers to compare.

The EZ Mask is a super-cool function. Let’s say you want to separate a fashion model from the background. First draw rough mask lines for the interior (the model), then rough lines for the exterior or background. Optics will then calculate a very accurate mask. Trim/adjust the mask and re-calculate as needed to better refine the edge. Masks may be inverted as well as copied between layers, which enables you to apply separate effects inside and outside of the mask area. In the example of the model, this means you can create one look or set of effects for the background and a completely different style for the model.

Optics includes a number of stylized render elements that can be added to images, like the moon or lightning zaps. This also includes a ton of lens flare effects, thanks to the included Sapphire filters. In addition to the variety of presets, you can further customize the flares by launching the separate Lens Flare Designer, which is integrated into Optics.

Working with Optics

Optics runs on Macs (macOS 10.13 or higher) and PCs (Windows 10 or higher) with fairly basic hardware requirements. I was able to test Optics on both an iMac Pro and my mid-2014 MacBook Pro. There was a minor license activation issue with the laptop, which was quickly sorted out by Boris FX’s customer service technician. Otherwise, the installations were very smooth. No hiccups with the iMac Pro. Optics responds well on less powerful computers; however, processing-intense effects as well as workflows with a stack of complex layers will perform better on a faster machine. For example, effects that were instantly responsive on the iMac Pro took a bit more time on the older MacBook Pro. If you are only photo developing/color correcting, then you probably won’t notice much difference.

The Optics Standalone application may also be used to process single stills without coming in through Photoshop. The new files can be left in their original size or optionally resized. You can save custom presets, which may be used for single images or to batch process a folder of stills. For example, if I wanted all my vacation stills to be processed with a certain Kodak film stock preset.

Batch processing offers another interesting possibility. Optics will batch process any image sequence, whether from a camera (such as drones) or from a video file exported/rendered out of After Effects. As long as they are JPEG, TIFF, DPX, CIN, or camera raw files, you are good to go. This is a cool way to apply a custom look that you may not have access to as a video filter or plug-in effect, even though Optics is a still photography application.

Select “batch process” and load the image sequence. Then load a saved Optics setup that you have created. Batch processing will save these files as a new image sequence complete with the custom look applied. Finally, reconstruct the processed image sequence back into a video file using After Effects, Resolve, or any other application that supports image sequences.

If you work with a lot of stills and hate going through the gymnastics that Photoshop requires in order to create truly unique looks, then Boris FX Optics will be a game changer. It’s very addictive, but more importantly, Optics offers a huge improvement in efficiency. Plus you’ll have filter options at your fingertips not normally available in Photoshop alone. You might quickly find yourself doing all of your image processing strictly in Optics.

As with other Boris FX products, Optics is available as a perpetual license or subscription. Click this link for Optics video tutorials.

Click through the gallery images below to see further examples of looks and styles created with Boris FX Optics.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Building that Zoom Look

COVID-19 has altered our lives in many ways, but it has also changed our visual language. Video conference calls didn’t start with this pandemic, but by now Skype, Zoom, WebEx, Blue Jeans, and other services have become part of our daily lives – both as participants and as viewers. We use these for communicating with friends, distance learning, entertainment, and remote corporate meetings. Not only has video conferencing become an accepted production and broadcast method, but the “video conference look” is now a familiar entertainment style for all of us.

Many of these productions are actually live. Through elaborate and clever production techniques they can indeed achieve a quality level that’s better than the average Zoom call. However, in many cases, the video conference appearance with multiple participants on screen, was actually created own post, precisely because that aesthetic is now instantly recognizable to all of us. The actual interaction might have happened over Zoom, but full-frame video was simultaneously captured. This enables an editor to polish the overall production and rebuild the multi-screen images where appropriate without being tied to the highly-compressed, composite Zoom feed.

Building multi-screen composites in post can be time-consuming, which is where templates come in handy. Apple Final Cut Pro X offers a perfect solution for editing this style of project. There are a number of paid and/or free video conference-style Motion templates on the market. Enterprising editors can also build their own templates using Apple Motion. A nice free offering is idustrial revolution’s XEffects Video Conference – a toolkit of effects templates to easily build 4-up, 9-up, and 16-up displays.

If you need something more involved, then check out Video Walls 2 from developer Luca Visual FX, which can be purchased and installed through the FxFactory platform. This Motion template includes a series of 15 FCPX generators that cover a range of video wall and video conference styles.

The templates use image drop wells for videos and stills, which are arranged into a grid or row with adjustable borders and drop shadows. Some of the generators permit circles as well as rectangles with adjustable rounded corners. Positioning may be controlled to re-arrange the grid pattern and even overlap the panes. These generators include build-in animation effects along with keyframeable parameters.

If you want to mimic a video conference call, there’s also a dedicated generator for a Zoom-style menu bar that appears at the bottom of the screen. Border highlights around an image well may be changed as you edit to maintain the illusion that the highlight color syncs to whichever speaker in the group is talking at any given time..

Overall I found these temples easy to use and adjust. The one thing to be mindful of is that if you build up a video wall of 20+ video clips, this is like 20+ layers of video. Therefore, large video walls will require some horsepower. However, it was possible to do this on my mid-2014 MacBook Pro, albeit a bit more slowly. The good news is that all of this happens within the generator, so there’s only one clip on the timeline. You may also stack multiple instances of these templates if you need to have more images on-screen at once. Or if you want to add the menu bar template on top of a video conference template.

There’s no telling how long the pseudo-Zoom look will be in vogue. However, Video Walls 2 gives you enough variety that it should have legs beyond our current “work from home” mode.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Dialogue Mixing Tips

 

Video is a visual medium, but the audio side of a project is as important – often more important – than the picture side. When story context is based on dialogue, then the story will make no sense if you can’t hear or understand that spoken information. In theatrical mixes, it’s common for a three person team of rerecording mixers to operate the console for the final mix. Their responsibilities are divided into dialogue, sound effects, and music. The dialogue mixer is usually the team lead, precisely because intelligible dialogue is paramount to a successful motion picture mix. For this reason, dialogue is also mixed as primarily mono coming from the center speaker in a 5.1 surround set-up.

A lot of my work includes documentary-style entertainment and corporate projects, which frequently lean on recorded interviews to tell the story. In many cases, sending the mix outside isn’t in the budget, which means that mix falls to me. You can mix in a DAW or in your NLE. Many video editors are intimidated by or unfamiliar with ProTools or Logic Pro X – or even the Fairlight page in DaVinci Resolve. Rest assured that every modern NLE is capable of turning out an excellent stereo mix for the purposes of TV, web, or mobile viewing. Given the right monitoring and acoustic environment, you can also turn out solid LCR or 5.1 surround mixes, adequate for TV viewing.

I have covered audio and mix tips in the past, especially when dealing with Premiere. The following are a few more pointers.

Original location recording

You typically have no control over the original sound recording. On many projects, the production team will have recorded double-system sound controlled by a separate location mixer (recordist). They generally use two microphones on the subject – a lav and an overhead shotgun/boom mic.

The lav will often be tucked under clothing to filter out ambient noise from the surrounding environment and to hide it from the camera. This will sound closer, but may also sound a bit muffled. There may also be occasional clothes rustle from the clothing rubbing against the mic as the speaker moves around. For these reasons I will generally select the shotgun as the microphone track to use. The speaker’s voice will sound better and the recording will tend to “breathe.” The downside is that you’ll also pick up more ambient noise, such as HVAC fans running in the background. Under the best of circumstances these will be present during quiet moments, but not too noticeable when the speaker is actually talking.

Processing

The first stage of any dialogue processing chain or workflow is noise reduction and gain correction. At the start of the project you have the opportunity to clean up any raw voice tracks. This is ideal, because it saves you from having to do that step later. In the double-system sound example, you have the ability to work with the isolated .wav file before syncing it within a multicam group or as a synchronized clip.

Most NLEs feature some audio noise reduction tools and you can certainly augment these with third party filters and standalone apps, like those from iZotope. However, this is generally a process I will handle in Adobe Audition, which can process single tracks, as well as multitrack sessions. Audition starts with a short noise print (select a short quiet section in the track) used as a reference for the sounds to be suppressed. Apply the processing and adjust settings if the dialogue starts sounding like the speaker is underwater. Leaving some background noise is preferable to over-processing the track.

Once the noise reduction is where you like it, apply gain correction. Audition features an automatic loudness match feature or you can manually adjust levels. The key is to get the overall track as loud as you can without clipping the loudest sections and without creating a compressed sound. You may wish to experiment with the order of these processes. For example, you may get better results adjusting gain first and then applying the noise reduction afterwards.

After both of these steps have been completed, bounce out (export) the track to create a new, processed copy of the original. Bring that into your NLE and combine it with the picture. From here on, anytime you cut to that clip, you will be using the synced, processed audio.

If you can’t go through such a pre-processing step in Audition or another DAW, then the noise reduction and correction must be handled within your NLE. Each of the top NLEs includes built-in noise reduction tools, but there are plenty of plug-in offerings from Waves, iZotope, Accusonus, and Crumplepop to name a few. In my opinion, such processing should be applied on the track (or audio role in FCPX) and not on the clip itself. However, raising or lowering the gain/volume of clips should be performed on the clip or in the clip mixer (Premiere Pro) first.

Track/audio role organization

Proper organization is key to an efficient mix. When a speaker is recorded multiple times or at different locations, then the quality or tone of those recordings will vary. Each situation may need to be adjusted differently in the final mix. You may also have several speakers interviewed at the same time in the same location. In that case, the same adjustments should work for all. Or maybe you only need to separate male from female speakers, based on voice characteristics.

In a track-based NLE like Media Composer, Resolve, Premiere Pro, or others, simply place each speaker onto a separate track so that effects processing can be specific for that speaker for the length of the program. In some cases, you will be able to group all of the speaker clips onto one or a few tracks. The point is to arrange VO, sync dialogue, sound effects, and music together as groups of tracks. Don’t intermingle voice, effects, or music clips onto the same tracks.

Once you have organized your clips in this manner, then you are ready for the final mix. Unfortunately this organization requires some extra steps in Final Cut Pro X, because it has no tracks. Audio clips in FCPX must be assigned specific audio roles, based on audio types, speaker names, or any other criteria. Such assignments should be applied immediately upon importing a clip. With proper audio role designations, the process can work quite smoothly. Without it, you are in a world of hurt.

Since FCPX has no traditional track mixer, the closest equivalent is to apply effects to audio lanes based on the assigned audio roles. For example, all clips designated as dialogue will have their audio grouped together into the dialogue lane. Your sequence (or just the audio) must first be compounded before you are able to apply effects to entire audio lanes. This effectively applies these same effects to all clips of a given audio role assignment. So think of audio lanes as the FCPX equivalent to audio tracks in Premiere, Media Composer, or Resolve.

The vocal chain

The objective is to get your dialogue tracks to sound consistent and stand out in the mix. To do this, I typically use a standard set of filter effects. Noise reduction processing is applied either through preprocessing (described above) or as the first plug-in filter applied to the track. After that, I will typically apply a de-esser and a plosive remover. The first reduces the sibilance of the spoken letter “s” and the latter reduces mic pops from the spoken letter “p.” As with all plug-ins, don’t get heavy-handed with the effect, because you want to maintain a natural sound.

You will want the audio – especially interviews – to have a consistent level throughout. This can be done manually by adjusting clip gain, either clip by clip, or by rubber banding volume levels within clips. You can also apply a track effect, like an automatic volume filter (Waves, Accusonus, Crumplepop, other). In some cases a compressor can do the trick. I like the various built-in plug-ins offered within Premiere and FCPX, but there are a ton of third-party options. I may also apply two compression effects – one to lightly level the volume changes, and the second to compress/limit the loudest peaks. Again, the key is to apply light adjustments, because I will also compress/limit the master output in addition to these track effects.

The last step is equalization. A parametric EQ is usually the best choice. The objective is to assure vocal clarity by accentuating certain frequencies. This will vary based on the sound quality of each speaker’s voice. This is why you often separate speakers onto their own tracks according to location, voice characteristics, and so on. In actual practice, only two to three tracks are usually needed for dialogue. For example, interviews may be consistent, but the voice-over recordings require a different touch.

Don’t get locked into the specific order of these effects. What I have presented in this post isn’t necessarily gospel for the hierarchical order in which to use them. For example, EQ and level adjusting filters might sound best when placed at different positions in this stack. A certain order might be better for one show, whereas a different order may be best the next time. Experiment and listen to get the best results!

©2020 Oliver Peters