By Pat Birk
Izotope is back with its latest release, Ozone 9. And with it, iZotope hopes to provide a comprehensive package of tools to streamline the audio engineer’s workflow. The company has been on my radar for a number of years now, having used the RX suite extensively for clean up and restoration of production audio.
I have always been impressed by RX’s ability to improve poor location sound but was unfamiliar with the company’s more music-focused products. But, in addition to being an engineer, I am also a musician, so I was excited to try out the Ozone suite for myself.
Ozone is first and foremost a mastering suite. It features a series of EQ, compression, saturation and limiting modules meant to be used in a mastering chain — putting the final touches on your audio before it hits streaming platforms or physical media.
Since Ozone is primarily (though by no means solely) aimed at mastering engineers, the plugin features a host of options for manipulating a finished stereo mix, with all elements in place and no stems to adjust. Full disclosure; My mastering experience prior to this review comprised loading up an instance of Waves Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain, applying a preset and playing with the settings from there. However, that didn’t stop me from loading a recent mix into Ozone and taking a crack at mastering it.
Ozone has deeply integrated machine learning and I immediately found that the program lives up to the hype surrounding that technology. I loaded my song into the standalone app and analyzed it with the Master Assistant feature. I was asked to choose between the Vintage and Modern setting, select either a manual EQ setting or load a mastered song for reference and then tell Ozone whether the track was being mastered for streaming or CD.
Within about 15 seconds of making these selections and playing the track, Ozone had chained together a selection of EQs, compressors and limiters that added punch, clarity and, of course, loudness. I was really impressed with the ballpark iZotope’s AI had gotten my track into. Another really nice touch was the fact that Ozone had analyzed the track and assigned a series of colored lines beneath the waveform to represent each section of the song. It was dead on, and really streamlined the process of checking each section for making adjustments.
As a musician who came up listening to the great recordings of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I often find myself wanting to add some analog credibility to my largely in-the-box productions. iZotope delivers in a big way here, incorporating four vintage modules to add as much tube and transistor warmth as you desire. The Vintage EQ module is based on the classic Pultec, emulating its distinctive curves and representing them graphically. My ears knew that a little goes a long way with Pultec-type EQs, but the graphic EQ really helped me understand what was going on more deeply.
The Vintage Compressor emulates analog feedback compressors such as the Urei 1176 and Teletronix LA2A and is specifically designed to minimize pumping effects that can appear when compression is overdone. I had to push the compressor pretty hard before I heard anything like that and found that it did a really nice job of subtly attenuating transients.
The Vintage Limiter is based on the prized Fairchild 670 limiter and it does what a limiter is meant to do: raise the level of the mix and decrease dynamic range, all while adding a distinctive analog warmth to the signal. I’ve never gotten my hands on a Fairchild, but I know that this emulation sounds good, regardless of how true it is to the original.
The Master Assistant feature arranged all of these modules in a nicely gain-staged chain for me, and after some light tweaking, I was well within the neighborhood of what I was hoping for in a master. But I wanted to add a little more warmth, a little more “glue.” That’s where the Vintage Tape module came in. iZotope has based its tape emulation on the Studer A810. The company says that the plugin features all of the benefits of tape — added warmth, saturation and glue — without any of the wow, flutter and crosstalk that occurs on actual tape machines.
Adjustable tape speeds have a noticeable effect on frequency response, with 7.5ips being darker and 30ips being brighter. More tonal adjustments can be made via the bias and low and high emphasis controls, and saturation is controlled via the input drive control. The plugin departs
from the realm of physical tape emulation with the added Harmonics control, which adds even harmonics to the signal, providing further warmth.
I appreciated the warmth and presence Vintage Tape added to the signal, but I did find myself missing some of the “imperfection” options included on other tape emulation plug-ins, such as the Waves J37 tape machine. Slight wow and flutter can add character to a recording and can be especially interesting if the tape emulator has a send-and-return section for setting up delays. But Ozone is a mastering suite, so I can see why these kinds of features weren’t included.
Each of the vintage modules has a modern counterpart in the form of the Dynamics, Dynamic EQ, EQ and Exciter plugins. Each of these plugins is simple to operate, with a sleek, modern UI. Each plugin is also multiband with the EQs featuring up to eight bands, the Dynamic EQ featuring six and the Exciter and Dynamics modules featuring four bands each. This opens up a wide range of possibilities for precisely manipulating audio.
I was particularly intrigued by the Exciter’s ability to divide the frequency spectrum into four quadrants and apply a different type of analog harmonic excitement to each. Tube, transistor and tape saturation are all available, and the Exciter truly represents a modern method of using of classic analog sound signatures.
The Modern modules will also be of interest to sound designers and other audio post pros. Dynamic EQ allows you to set a threshold and ratio at which a selected band will begin to affect audio. While this is, of course, useful for managing problems such as sibilance and other harsh frequencies in a musical context, problematic frequencies are just as prevalent in dialogue recording, if not more so. Used judiciously, Dynamic EQ has the potential to save a lot of time in a dialogue edit. Dynamic EQ or the multiband compression section of Ozone’s Dynamics module have the potential to rescue production audio.
For instance, in the case of a fantastic performance during which the actor creates a loud transient noise by hitting a prop, the Dynamic EQ can easily tame the transient noise without greatly affecting the actor’s voice and without creating artifacts. And while the EQ modules in Ozone feature a wide selection of filter categories and precisely adjustable Qs, which will no doubt be useful throughout the design process, it is important to note that they are limited to 6dB boosts and 12dB cuts in gain. The plugin is still primarily aimed at the subtleties of mastering.
Dialogue Editors, Listen Up
Ozone’s machine learning does provide two more fantastic features for dialogue editors: Match EQ and Master Rebalance. Match EQ intelligently builds an EQ profile of a given audio selection and can apply it another piece of audio. This can aid greatly in matching a lavalier mic to a boom track or incorporating ADR into a take. I also tested it by referencing George Harrison’s “What Is Life?” and applying it to a mix of my song. I was shocked by how close the plugin got my mix sounding like George’s.
Master Rebalance, meanwhile, is meant for a mastering engineer to be able to bring up or lower the vocals, bass, or drums in a song with only a stereo mix to work from. I tested it on music and was very impressed by how effectively it raised and cut each category without affecting the parts around it. But this will also have utility for dialogue editors — the module is so effective at recognizing the human voice that it can bring up dialogue within production tracks, further separating it from whatever noise is happening around it.
Match EQ yields impressive results and could be time-saving for music engineers crossing over into the audio post world — like those who do not own RX 7 Advanced, which features a similar module.
The Imager module also has potential for post. Its Stereoize feature can add an impressive amount of width to any track and has a multiband feature, meaning you have the option to, for example, keep the low frequencies tight and centered while spreading the mids and highs more widely across the stereo field. And while it is not a substitution for true stereo recording, the Stereoize feature can add depth to mono ambience and world tone recordings, making them usable in the right context.
The collection of plugins is available at three price points — Elements, Standard and Advanced — which allows engineers to get started with Ozone at any budget. Elements is a stripped down package of Ozone’s bare essentials, Standard introduces the standalone app and a sizeable step up in terms of featureset and Advanced is replete with every mastering innovation IZotope has developed to date, including new toys like Low-End Focus and Master Rebalance. A complete list of each tier’s corresponding features can be found on Izotope’s website.
Ozone 9 integrates an immense amount of technology and research into a sleek, user-friendly package. For music recording and mastering engineers, this suite is a no-brainer. For other types of audio post engineers, the plugin provides enough perks to be interesting and useful, from editing to design to final mix. Ozone 9 Elements, Standard and Advanced editions are available now from IZotope.
Pat Birk is a musician and sound engineer at Silver Sound, a boutique sound house based in New York City.