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19 January 2012

IZOTOPE OZONE 5 ADVANCED | £669 (€799/$999)

Ozone 5, also available as Advanced
It’s long been held that iZotope Ozone is a tool of the mastering engineer, a person steeped in arcane audio lore who exercises some kind of voodoo over final mixes in order to take them from passable to ear-gasmic. In doing so, obscure outboard (kit you could never afford) and in-box esoterica is brought to bear, its function beyond the ken of mere mortal project studio pilots. Mastering is, after all, the domain of an elite breed of engineer, scientist and audio wizard who, in another life, was a bat. What use, therefore, is a suite of mastering tools in the creative pursuits of tracking and mixing? The answer, in the way iZotope has engineered things, is: Lots.

Ozone 5 Advanced breaks down into six processing components, each of which is as legitimately employed in the composition, arrangement, recording and mixing stages of music production as in the final meltdown prior to publishing. At launch, announced last October 2011, iZotope’s Nick Dika spoke of Ozone 5 Advanced as offering: “…mixing and mastering engineers an even higher level of flexibility, precision and control.” Nick did not, however, mention we muzos who are never happier than when appropriating whatever comes to hand and slapping it capriciously onto the audio canvas, our muses to indulge. Before a blow-by-blow account of each item in Ozone 5, let’s settle back for video overviews of the standard and Advanced products…

Looking good, then. The UK print press seems to think so, speaking of it “keeping apace of today’s best mixing and mastering software” (Computer Music); offering “a dazzling array of options for making your mixes sound great” (Future Music); and toting “a feature set and performance that makes it a truly professional product” (Music Tech). OK, I’m going to keep the technical briefing brief on this page by pointing you towards iZotope’s product page, where you can find all the data you need to assess this upgrade to Ozone 4 (along with 10-day demo downloads), and direct existing v4 owners in the UK to distributor Time+Space for details of upgrade deals in £Sterling.

Talking about money, hmmm… You could by a 64GB iPad with Wi-Fi and 3G for the price of Ozone 5 Advanced, so it may come as some relief that a ‘lite’ version is available offering a cut-down feature set at a more recession-friendly £169 (a feature comparison chart can be had on iZotope’s website). A quick tour of Advanced’s key features reveals analog-modelled processing (the means to imbue audio with warmth and bite) all adding to a mix’s punch and notional space, a revamped reverb, mid/side processing so you can tweak the centre and edges of a stereo panorama in isolation, and loads of visual feedback.

Bounding through the modules, let’s first alight on the Maximizer. Yup, it’s a limiter and features IRC III, aka Intelligent Release Control. The problem with limiting (a means of compressing peaks in a signal to bring up the surrounding quietude) is that it can introduce ‘pumping’, a rhythmical phenomenon that can interfere with, or sometimes contribute to, the beat of a track. Call On Me Mr Prydz and I’ll tell you when you’ve gone Too Far. IRC III artificially intelligently picks the right algorithm for the programme material so as to introduce minimal artifacts and, in use, it does a splendid job. I was working on some old rock mixes that needed floor-filling oomph overall, but it being prog rock there were numerous tempo changes. Ozone 5 Advanced coped admirably in a whole-mix scenario. However, thanks to the modular nature of the software’s design, I could take just the Maximizer and insert it on the kick drum and snare channels without invoking the entire suite. Placed on a single audio source, Maximizer makes it possible to add mucho beef to undercooked sounds, and is even good at the tracking stage. If you’ve a dynamically deranged vocalist, slap him or her through Maximizer and track a much richer-sounding source. With Advanced, meanwhile, there’s Transient Recovery, which emphasises transients and so preserves rhythmic detail when upping loudness, potentially transforming a TR-808 pattern into something that sounds far more wholesome than pathetically insipid.

Ozone takes a twin-barreled approach to EQ with dual paragraphic equalizers combining eight bands of adjustable bell filters and a number of additional filters, including high-pass, low-pass, high and low shelving and flat. So, you can get the initial signal shaped, pass it through additional processes and EQ the result later on. We’ve analog modelling if desired, or pristine digital linear-phase filtering, the effects of which are displayed in a real-time or snapshot spectrum analyzer. It does make your desk’s EQ functionality look a bit weedy. If ever you wanted to take a forensic approach to a mix, ensuring each component sits in strictly defined frequency bands in a given stereo position, this is the tool for the job. It also makes that old mixing trick, the Q-sweep, a breeze. Reduce the volume, set a boost with a very narrow Q, play the source and move the boost from low to high. Anything overbearing will leap out at you suggesting notch reduction in the offending frequency band.

Ozone’s Reverb offers Plate, Room and Hall modes, while in its Advanced form presents Theater (sic), Cathedral and Arena - all modes you’d expect from a capable ambience applicator. High and low-frequency decay times are individually adjustable and a cunning Mid/Side option enables you to ‘dry’ the centre of the mix while spacing out the edges. Again in Advanced, there’s a shiny new Early Reflections setting for finer control of that important third dimension of a mix, depth. If new to this mixing malarkey, it’s useful to think of a mix in three dimensions (we’ll ignore time as a fourth dimension - even Electro Harmonix hasn’t come up with a quantum stompbox. Yet). We’ve stereo positioning in, say, the X axis and frequency in the Y. Applying echo and/or reverb makes for yet another dimension (Z, perhaps), encouraging the human brain to perceive sound sources as right up close (very short, immediate reflections), or far away (a delay before the reflections begin to sound, then a long tail). The Early Reflections setting enables you to exercise fine control over suggested distance. Also, in Advanced, we’ve a Crossmix control by which left and right balance can be adjusted. In all, Ozone 5 packs a highly tweakable reverb with a healthy dose of analog colour if required. On which topic...

Dynamics is possibly the most alluring of the modules. It’s a four-band device giving you analog-modelled linear-phase and hybrid crossover filters for a compressing, limiting, expanding, gating armoury of gadgets that’ll doubtless find their ways into many an insert point. The bands are colour coded to help navigation and a Gain Reduction Trace view shows what is going on in all bands as the material plays. There’s even a Learn mode that’ll automatically set crossover frequencies in response to the incoming signal. The well-heeled opting for Advanced can also enjoy alias and artifact prevention technology, pump-reduction via a Detection Circuit Filter and a continuously variable knee control. If you’re a little lost at this point, let’s just say that Dynamics adds beef to lousy sounds and doesn’t introduce unwanted elements. It’s highly controllable, gives a lot of visual feedback and edges Ozone 5 further into must-have territory.

If you need yet more oomph, it’s time to engage Ozone’s Harmonic Exciter. It adds bite or warmth to a signal by generating harmonics. That’s also what a tube amplifier does and you’ll have noticed that guitarists are loath to part with their phat-sounding, valve-driven heads and combos. Also, a good many producers like to mix to analog tape to take advantage of its tonal characteristics. Retro, Tape, Warm and Tube models feature in this multiband processor, and there’s a multiband time-offset facility to get bass elements biting. Advanced users can take analog modelling a stage further with Triode and Dual Triode modes - essentially, digital recreations of tube technology designed to subtly (or otherwise) distort the signal, but in a warmly pleasing way. Working with some lacklustre mixes of yesteryear, I’ve been using the Harmonic Exciter to liven things up, artificially adding harmonics to make the mixing equivalent of a silk purse. If you’ve a load of old tapes that just do not cut the mustard, this is the module for giving them an edge.

And so we come to Stereo Imaging, a four-band processor offering control over stereo width by frequency. The usual practice is to go wide with higher frequencies and narrow with lower, the latter being perceived as less directional (and if overloud, they can knock the stylus out of a vinyl groove). Having control over such a process, and the facility to monitor what precisely is going on in the stereo panorama, is a Very Good Thing. Potential phase cancellation problems can be headed off thanks to a Phase/Channel meter display, and there’s Antiphase Correction by which width can be added to any frequency band without you getting stumped by mono compatibility woes. In fact, in Advanced there’s a Stereoize Mode by which mono sources, or very narrow stereo, can be widened, again without compromising mono compatibility. So that’s the majority of your radio audience serviced. And a few more width-lacking tracks from the archive (we’ve all got ‘em) hauled screaming into the 21st Century.

You’ll have gathered by now that I’m something of an Ozone fan. Well, I have been using the product since v3 and it’s splattered all over everything I’ve produced in the past few years. My main concern with v5 was that iZotope may have broken too many eggs into the pudding and stodged it (some developers have been known to bloat their wares into near unusability, my Word). To my ears, and preferred methods of workflow, such is not the case with Ozone 5 Advanced.

This latest Ozone is a substantial improvement on what has long been a substantial processing package. Its modular presentation means you can instantiate just the elements needed on any particular channel or bus and become a lot more adventurous in sound sculpting - note that some of the screenshots in this post are just of individual modules; others the whole suite. The question for most will hang over the price. At £669, it ain’t cheap. Then again, you can get the altogether more svelte Ozone 5 at £169, which does pack a powerful punch. However, you’ll miss one of the best bits - the Meter Bridge. It’s a collection of audio analysis tools that gives educative insight into what is wobbling your tympanic membranes. To see what I mean, cop for this vid...

Neat, huh? A real-time 2D or 3D spectrogram of your sound that uses the graphics card efficiently so as not to disturb the computer’s CPU. And get those meter taps for yet more insight into how the audio is behaving. It has to be worth budgeting for Advanced just for that lot, perhaps starting out with the cut-down version and taking advantage of an upgrade deal when budget allows. It’ll also give you chance to smarten up your processing chops, such is the flexibility and sheer wealth of advanced options available. There are numerous presets already on board to get you started, and much can be learned by delving into the editing options for each.

One thing is for sure: Ozone 5 Advanced is going to be a go-to processing suite for many, from tracking and mixing to drumming up rough masters. I’m of the view that mission-critical mastering should be a task given to a disinterested third party and not embarked upon by whoever mixed the material. That said, I personally would rest easy knowing that such a third party is using Ozone.