Formats: Mac VST & Audio Units; PC VST
Few plug-ins survive eight years in the hostile and rapidly changing world of digital audio, but Voice Tweaker is one. We first reviewed it in October 1999, and since then it's gone through three major updates. These have added a welter of new features and a completely redesigned interface, as well as support for Mac OS X and the VST plug-in standard, and Voice Tweaker is now sold under the Xponaut banner. At heart, though, it's still the same product. Voice Tweaker is intended as an affordable alternative to the likes of Auto-Tune, offering both pitch correction of monophonic signals and a range of more creative effects such as formant shifting and harmony generation.
A forthcoming Pro version will introduce an equivalent of Auto-Tune 's Graphical Mode for the first time, allowing the user to 'draw in' their desired pitch curves. In the current version, however, pitch correction is handled automatically, and it's very easy to set up. You choose a scale to correct to, either from a preset list, by clicking notes on an on-screen keyboard or writing them into a MIDI part in your sequencer. Then it's simply a matter of adjusting the Correction control. This equates to the Retune Speed control in Auto-Tune, with fast settings providing a more obvious and mechanical sound, and slow settings a more natural result. If you want to use Voice Tweaker for basic pitch correction, you'll also need to reset the Output Mix control to fully wet. Further parameters for fine-tuning the detection algorithm are buried in an Options menu.
The quality of the basic pitch correction is not bad, though as with any completely automated process you would have difficulty applying it to an entire lead vocal without it being obvious in places, and you'll probably benefit from automating the Correction control to tone down some artifacts. The results don't have the same transparency as you can get in, say, Melodyne, but provided the original vocal isn't too far off, I'd expect to get something usable. However, the heavily stylised interface compromises ease of use a little, and in particular, the weird dartboard-style display that shows how far the original pitch is out is next to useless. I assume the Pro version will be better in this respect.
Where Voice Tweaker does shine is in the creative effects that it makes possible. The Scale Offset parameter makes it easy to create vocal harmonies, though you'll need to use multiple copies of the plug-in on separate tracks if you want to create multiple harmonies. In small amounts, the formant shifting can make an intriguing and subtle change to the timbre of a voice, and in large amounts, it can make things sound plain silly. There's also an Auto Vibrato control that allows you to introduce additional vibrato on sustained notes, but the fun really starts with Voice Tweaker 's modulation matrix. This features four slots where you can assign sources (LFO, input signal amplitude, note pitch, MIDI note pitch and MIDI velocity) to destinations such as pitch, formant, mix and the slightly puzzling Hold Waveform. According to the manual, this last "allows you to hold the last waveform of the input signal indefinitely, but it is still output at the pace which the input signal dictates". I never quite got a handle on what this option does, or how to use it, but the others offer plenty of fun ways to muck about with the sound. For instance, you can set it up so that higher notes have more vibrato added, or louder notes are corrected faster than quiet ones, or assign LFO to formant shift for weird pulsating effects.
At $99 or 77 Euros, Voice Tweaker won't bankrupt you, and it's an intriguing alternative to the big names. Given the option, it probably wouldn't be my first choice for pitch correction on an exposed vocal, but I'm not convinced that any fully automated plug-in can generate completely transparent results in any case, and Voice Tweaker definitely offers some new and interesting ways to create off-the-wall vocal effects. Sam Inglis
$99 or 77 Euros.
Xponaut +46 0 18 13 42 50.
+46 0 18 19 44 50.
Formats: Mac & PC TDM & native
Waves Maxx Volume provides a convenient and very effective way of making mixes sound louder and punchier without the need for any sophisticated mastering knowledge or specialist equipment. Using just a few intuitive controls you can make a mix sound much bigger without squashing all the life out of it, but there's a catch: currently, Maxx Volume is only available as part of the Waves Mercury Bundle, which might best be described as the ultimate audio professional's plug-in tool kit. I'm hoping that it will find its way into smaller and less costly bundles, or be offered as a separate plug-in.
In essence, Maxx Volume combines elements of existing Waves plug-ins L2 Ultramaximizer, C1 Parametric Compander, Renaissance Vox and Renaissance Compressor, but organised so that all the work can be done with just a handful of controls. To the left of the plug-in window is a section that provides low-level, soft-knee compression to signals falling below the Threshold, the idea being to gently increase the overall energy by bringing up the level of quieter signals. A yellow button on the Threshold fader activates this section, and a meter shows by how much the dynamic range is being squeezed. Gain determines how much gain is applied to signals below the threshold level.
Next up is a gate, which actually uses a downward expander to provide less obtrusive gain reduction during pauses, and to the right of the panel is the High Level section. In contrast to the first compression stage, this is a more conventional compressor that applies gain reduction only to signals that exceed the threshold.
The centre section has a slider labelled Leveler, and looked to me at first as though it might be a limiter like L1 or L2, but in fact Maxx Volume doesn't include a limiter, so if you're using it on the master buss you need to take care with the output level or put a limiter plug-in directly after it. I asked Waves what was going on inside the plug-in, and they explained that the 'Leveler' is an automatic gain control that operates with a slow attack, and as such can be considered as an RMS compressor similar to those used in some broadcast applications. Peaks get past it, as it reacts quite slowly, so the High Level compressor operates with a faster attack and has its own auto gain make-up to reduce the impact of these peaks and to further increase the average level. The output gain is simply a scaling fader at the output and so doesn't protect you from clipping. The central orange energy meter shows the audio signal level after levelling and also has a hairline indicator to show where the Low threshold is set.
I tested Maxx Volume on one of my own mixes, which I thought I'd got to sound pretty loud and punchy, but within a minute or two Maxx Volume had stomped all over the competition, making the mix sound vastly louder, more exciting and very punchy, yet without the audibly unpleasant side-effects that such drastic dynamic processing often produces. Indeed, the effect seemed to be to open out the mix and make individual instruments sound more separate. I set the low-level compression first, to bring up low levels by around 8dB, then used the high-level compressor to squeeze another six or so dBs off the top. There seems to be plenty of scope, from gentle bolstering to flat-out, raw energy, and the results are always flattering, providing you don't get too carried away. I found the best results were obtained with the Low threshold at -30dB or less and the High threshold at around -8 to -12 dB.
You can also use Maxx Volume on individual tracks within a mix, which is where the gate may be more useful — you're unlikely to use one when mastering. Pretty much all the adjustment can be done by ear, so you don't need specialist knowledge of dynamics processing. This really is the silver-bullet fix for making mixes sound louder and more commercial, and I can't wait to try it on my next Mix Rescue project. Perhaps it's just as well that only Mercury Bundle users can get their hands on it at the moment, otherwise we could see the loudness wars escalating to another level! Paul White
Mercury Bundle £8806.63 (TDM) or £5281.63 (native) including VAT.
Sonic Distribution +44 (0)1582 470260.
+44 (0)1582 470269.
Formats: Mac & PC Powercore
Though I've been using a beta version of this particular pice of software for almost a year now, it isn't particularly easy to review because I still don't really know what it does! I know what effect it creates and I know how to use it, but I know very little about the processes involved. Vocal Enhancer uses the same principles (which Noveltech call IAF, or Intelligent Adaptive Filtering) as Noveltech's Character plug-in, a tool that has endeared itself to a lot of Powercore users. To run it, you need a computer running Windows XP or Mac OS X that's up to the task of supporting a TC Powercore system, and host software that can access Powercore plug-ins.
Though the name of this plug-in includes the word 'enhancer', it isn't a conventional harmonic generator — it's just that there's not a lot else you can call a plug-in that enhances your vocal sound. You get definition and crispness in a very adjustable and musical way, but without harsh side-effects, and whatever your vocal track sounds like, Vocal Enhancer will bring out the best in it. What we do know about the process is that it somehow boosts the material's tonal characteristics dynamically, so you can think of it as a type of dynamic equalisation that bases its action on the spectrum of the sound being processed. The frequencies that are boosted constantly vary as the source material changes, which is what gives this plug-in its believable sound. If ever there was a 'make my vocals sound better' process, this is it!
All the controls are found in one window. A large frequency spectrum display shows you how much enhancement is being applied and where, a button labelled Strong switches between normal and heavy-duty processing, and the Focus Frequency control allows you to direct the processing to whatever area of the spectrum you feel sounds best, by dragging vertical lines that control adjustable high and low filters. Each filter 'line' also features a triangle-shaped control that may be moved vertically to increase the resonance of the high-pass and low-pass filters, and a switch to set the filter slope between 12 and 24 dB/octave. There are no hard and fast procedures for setting any of these controls; as with normal EQ, you just have to use your ears. The tonality of the dry part of the signal isn't changed by these filters — just the range over which enhancement takes place.
The Enhancement control sets the amount of processing and the display shows the new energy being created by the plug-in 'riding' on the input sound spectrum, so you get some idea of what is being added and at what frequencies. The display is a type of real-time analyser and shows the amount of processing in the frequency range 1kHz to 20kHz. There are meters to monitor the input and output levels, as well as a Reduction Meter that can be used in conjunction with the Auto On button to provide and monitor automatic gain compensation, to allow for any level changes introduced by the processing. One point of interest is that the dynamic nature of the process assumes a non-compressed source signal, so it may be best to place your vocal compressor plug-ins after Vocal Enhancer rather than before, otherwise the effect might sound less than optimal. Similarly, unless you're doing a real salvage job, you shouldn't need the Strong mode.
Powercore users will know that all external DSP boxes and cards tend to double the system latency, but Vocal Enhancer has a No Latency Mode button that can be engaged by clicking the Noveltech logo. This gets rid of the additional DSP latency so that you can monitor more easily while tracking, but takes up more CPU power, so is best left off when mixing.
I have to admit to really loving this plug-in. Somehow it manages to push vocal sounds that extra mile to bring them up to the front of the mix, with all the definition and presence you could hope for, but without the harshness sometimes associated with conventional harmonic enhancers. Furthermore, because the enhancement is always changing to match the spectrum of the incoming audio, the result is very natural, even when the processing is quite heavy. I also like the way you can focus the effect on whatever part of the spectrum you feel needs most attention, so if the high end is OK but you need to strengthen the more throaty elements of the sound in the mid-range, you can do that too. Using the plug-in is pretty straightforward, and providing you don't use it to excess, it invariably improves on what you feed into it. Even over-warm tube mics can be given the required degree of presence and sparkle if you find them too dull for the job in hand, so Vocal Enhancer could cut down on the number of different vocal mics you need in a commercial facility. It also works really well on voice-overs for radio ads, and can even be used as a mastering tool to add a bit of definition to a complete mix, so don't feel that it is only useful on sung vocals. Once you've tried it you won't want to be without it. Paul White
299 Euros including VAT.