Izotope’s Stutter Edit Review
Modern EDM programming is filled with rabbit holes. You can be in the middle of inspired riffing, open a menu, discover some new widget or control function and you’re off on a tangent. Before you know it; it’s ten til midnight and the four bars you had at noon are a distant memory. The good news is, you’ve built a beat repeater matrix that ties to a delay and uses loop recording functionality to make an infinite pile of, unusable, musical garbage. So, that’s another Saturday rotting on the hard drive. In the wake of Skrillex and that Mau5 fellow, the process of creating one’s own floor filling masterpiece has been confronted with some deep expectations with regards to device building or deep automation editing. It really is the only way to get some of the chopped up, altered and mangled sounds that are so prevalent in the “dubsteppity,” electro-house-ish, glitchy, “what the hell is a complextro?” world of today. If you want to ride Skrillex’s “Oh My God” wave to the kind of superstardom that will have you summering in Ibiza; you’d better get a lab coat on and start planning that part of the song where the bass eats everything else in the mix, chews it up and spits out some bizarre digital face melting bass that makes the floor go nuts. Grab your calculator, open Ableton and just go ahead and drop 18 instances of beat repeat on the master fader. You’ve got your work cut out for you. Don’t forget that you need at least 300 million rotary encoders. It’s gonna be a pain in the ass, but it’s the only way to make the robot orgasm you hear in your head.
Well, it WAS the only way before Izotope’s Stutter Edit plug in. Stutter edit is a performance oriented effects plug in that covers time based effects ranging from simple stutters to time based delay, bit reduction and filtering. The effect functions via a continuous sampling (buffering) process, that keeps audio constantly loaded as it plays through the effect, making it ready for instant, mind melting glitch wizardry at the touch of a finger. I say the touch of the finger because each instance of the modules and settings available in the stutter edit matrix can be triggered via keyboard keys or any controller that sends note information. This is great news for the short of knobs. Similarly, the standard pitch bend on your keyboard comes automatically tied to the main filter that governs the output of the stutter effects, allowing for some very spontaneous and energetic tweaking on the fly. It’s all a bit much to take in, so between our video and this write up, I am trying to give a sense of just how flexible Stutter Edit really is. Let’s have a look at the layout.
The layout of the stutter edit “console” is broken up fairly intuitively: The top portion essentially amounts to a browser. Presets and gestures can be quickly recalled and assigned from this area. “Gesture” is what Izotope have chosen to call the individual patches that make up the larger presets in Stutter edit. In case the logic isn’t clear here, each key will be assigned a gesture, which may use any device in the stutter edit browser at whatever settings it likes. All of the gestures then assigned to different keys will then make up the larger preset. As you start to adapt to this logic, you begin to realize that you can think of gestures in chains, building complex moves that you can then access in future productions with the greatest of ease. A save button and access to the preset manager pane (where you can move your gestures from key to key and tweak your performance, as well as bring in favorites from other banks in your arsenal) finish out the browser functionality up top, with the only other control here being the global filter I mentioned earlier.
Moving downward, the panel just below the browser comprises a timing matrix and a visual display of what key your gestures are on. This visual readout of the keys is invaluable. If you press a key on your keyboard, the display will automatically switch to that gesture. Without the clear roadmap up top, it could be easy to end up in the wrong place due to an accidental key press. The timing matrix on the left is a bit more than a display. Ranging from 1/2 to 1/1024th, the timing matrix (or “Stutter Matrix” as Izotope have named it) allows you to stage what times the effects in the bottom panel will move through. In practice, this operates as follows:
Say you select 1/4, 1/8 and 1/16 on the timing matrix. (You can also select dotted and triplet times, but let’s just be simpletons for the moment here.) With these selected, you then go below to the Stutter pane in the actual effect matrix below. You widen the stutter effect timing sliders and over the length of the gesture (set in the dialogue between the effects and the timing matrix) the stutter effect will move from 1/2 note repetitions to 1/16 note repetitions. Because you did not select 1/4 or any of the dotted and triplet times, the timing will only pass through the 1/8 repetitions on the way to the 1/16 repetitions. This gives you very effective control; making sure that Stutter Edit doesn’t become some half crippled plugin claiming to be “generative” or “inspirational” rather than simply “useful.”
As previously mentioned, between the timing matrix/ key display and the effects that make up the meat of Stutter Edit, there is a continuation of the timing controls that sets gesture length, release mode and grid controls. Alongside these controls, there is a button that governs the looping mode. While the orientation (start to finish vs reverse) of the looping can be can be controlled on a per effect basis, the actual nature of the loops is controlled here. With the options being between the standard start to finish and repeat- or the aptly named “Palindrome Looping” that allows the loop to reach completion, then turn around and play backwards to the start of the loop, then cycle through the loop again (and repeat). The previously mentioned gesture length controls determine the time over which these loops will take place, ranging from smaller incremental times, to a couple of bars. The release mode determines whether or not the effect continues to completion after you release the key and the grid just helps you make sure your key pressing activity remains quantized so that human error doesn’t accidentally turn your rhythm into garbage.
Stutter Edit Overview and Demo UniqueSquared
Finally, let’s dive into the heart of the action: The effects matrix. The controls for each device are similar, so we’ll kind of start at the top and work our way through:
Stutter Effect: Much like an actual stutter edit, this repeats audio in rhythmic note values. Think of Ableton or Traktor’s beat repeat effects. The twist of Izotope’s offering is the ability to sweep through values in the way I described above. The top slider allows you to choose a single timing or decide how many of the activated values the stutter passes through. Or, if double clicked, can be set to a single value. The slider below governs the nature of that move and determines whether it will lean towards one extreme or the other, or move in a continuous pattern. This functionality is common to each device with the above selecting the timing range and the below selecting whether or not it races through and sticks at the end repetition or even passes up and down the selected times for the duration of the gesture. Left in the middle, the lower slider will always be the most even and straightforward version of the looping effect in question. That said, we can easily describe the other devices by their specific functionality.
Quantize Effect: While this might seem unnecessary with all the other timing controls present, don’t be fooled. This unit allows you to exert even more control over your transitional values. Even in the limited 1/2 – 1/8 – 1/16 change we discussed earlier, with delays and repetitions rattling all around, there are potentially a lot of loose note appearing in certain effects. The Quantize effect allows you to filter out these undesirables and give a very rigid stepped control that, creatively used, can create it’s own sort of beautiful chaos.
The Gate: What would all this stuttering and repeating be worth without a little chopping? Thank goodness for the Gate effect. Like all audio gates, this removes sound. In this one’s case, it does so with extreme rhythmic control and intuitive ease. Perfect for adding tension to pre-choruses and breakdowns, gating is a dance floor favorite and makes a pretty elegant appearance here thanks to the Stutter Edit interface. The sliders typically governing timing actually break tradition here and focus on the width of the gate and the panel is augmented with a control that adjusts the length of the tail/decay post gate.
Jump Pan: The jump pan takes a similar approach to the Gate processor, with the controls essentially governing the width of the stereo panning activity as well as the starting/return position of the pan. If you are somehow still reading at this point in the article, but don’t know what panning is, I am personally miffed, but panning is how one controls the left to right placement of sound in a mix. In the context of Stutter Edit, it amounts to “dancing stereo ear candy.”
Stereo Delay: Not Surprisingly, the Stereo Delay effect is a panel of four sets of timing controls. The timing oriented dialog returns here, but the two slider layout gives you independent control for left and right delay times, the feedback and the wet/dry ratio of the effect. This makes it one of the more versatile players in the plugin and allows you to create anything from a skittering continuous chaining of delay times and pitchy artifacts, to a simple even delay effect that gradually increases the feedback and repetitions.
Delay Band-Pass: Tied to the delay (you can’t effect what isn’t there), the delay band pass is a filter effect dedicated to the delayed signals alone. This gives you the ability to allow those repetitions we were just tinkering with have their very own filter sweep happening over the echoes. With frequency controls for the left and right as well as resonance controls, this amounts to two more versatile filters lurking in Stutter Edit, waiting to make you look like a studio wizard.
Buffer Position: The buffer position is cool for two reasons; the first being that the effect is rad and buffer shuffling is cool as a general rule. The second is that this is kind of a great way to understand what Stutter Effect is really doing with all the other controls. As mentioned, Stutter Effect is storing all incoming audio in a buffer for instant access. Well, long story short, this is that buffer. The part I was talking about that is so rad is that the Buffer position controls allow you to take direct control of that access. With multiple modes allowing for everything from reversing to random audio selection, the Buffer Position controls how you advance through that audio. Maybe you want to do a quick rhythmic advance through the audio in 16 note values? Done. Want the sound to play in reverse but have the playhead access it at random? Done. Want to do that on one side while having it do the 1/64th advance on the other? Done. Before you get too lost in it, though, just remember that this effect combines for magical results with the other Stutter Edit devices.
Low Pass Filter: In case you don’t know, a Low Pass Filter rejects all sound above a set frequency. Those cool effects where it sounds like the music is in another room and then it suddenly sounds like it is right inside your head? That’s a slow movement from rejecting all but the lowest frequencies to letting everything through and is a staple in most genres of EDM these days, as well as being a standard DJ effect. The usual timing controls are gone again, allowing for the cycle to be adjusted in terms of starting and finishing frequency, with additional timing controls for the filter resonance. Depending on gesture length, this can create anything from rapid pumping effects to slow transitions like the one I just mentioned.
High Pass Filter: Much as a Low Pass Filter rejects content above a selected frequency, the High Pass filter rejects everything below a certain frequency. Great for cool radio type effects and also for dropping the beat out and building anticipation. With the exception of the differences between the filter types, this functions identically to the Low Pass Filter.
Bit Reduction: This effect is one of two retro style options. Calling back to the early days of sampling, bit rate refers to the digital word length of samples. Not to be confused with the frequency rate which is the cycles per second at which the sound can be reproduced. The long and short of it is that the lower the bit rate, the more retro a sample will sound. This is due to the fact that older samplers were of low bit rates (8, 12 etc.) and part of that crunchy distortion we associate with them is that lower bit rate. The “distortion” as we know it, in terms of working in a lab trying to improve fidelity of digital recordings, would be regarded as background or unwanted noise. The inclusion of the effect here marks that strange fact that yesterday’s technological flaw is today’s nostalgic tradition. The timing controls here give way to bit rate over time. If you’re having a hard time imagining this effect, just imagine being able to cycle from a sound at a modern bit rate (24 or 16) to a sound at a super low bit rate (like a phone signal, which is around 4 bits.) This is a great tool for stylizing one of your already insane breaks and I found that between this control and the Lo-Fi, I was able to create some really cool washed out chaos for punctuating measures.
LO-FI: This is a retro effect like the Bit Reduction unit, but this one approaches it from the other side: sample rate. Sample rate is the cycles per second at which a sound is reproduced. If bit rate determines the word length of a sample, and consequently it’s accuracy, the sample rate determines the fidelity at which this reproduction will be played back. Again, this might be hard to picture in your mind- so, with your sound card, play back a song you are familiar with. While you listen, take the song from the highest available to the lowest available sampling rate. Now you are getting a picture. In the case of this device, the range is actually from 20hz to 20,000hz. While this doesn’t really account for the full spectrum of audio possibilities, it does count for the range at which one can expect effectively retro results.
Dry Gain / Effect Gain: I have consolidated the last two for the fact that they are two sides of the same coin. These are essentially independent controls for the wet dry ratio of the Stutter Effect affected signal versus the dry original signal. Seemingly plain, these are ideal for tailoring gestures to build and diminish in intensity.
So, that’s a fairly comprehensive breakdown of the Stutter Edit interface. I am honestly still integrating Stutter Edit to my productions and am still coming up with my standard methods for deploying it. I have a funny feeling I still haven’t scratched the surface. Just in the time since I shot our own video for Stutter Edit, I have discovered the timeline override; which allows you to hi-jack the gesture timeline with the mod wheel. This allows the extension and truncation of gestures at will and lends a whole new dimension to this time based wonder device.
In my demo, I also stuck to strapping stutter edit over the master bus, but it is great for a track or group bus effect. I am currently working on using it as a faster way of getting through modern vocal effects and edits. Also, speaking of dubstep/electro/complextro, I’ve been working with Stutter Edit as a way of dealing with Wolgang Gartner styled chopped up basses a bit faster. The current popular method being to use multiple tracks and different bass sounds, I’ve found quick ways to generate the same sort of squawks and warbles using stutter edit and the original bass line. A little experimentation and quick editing easily rival the results of multiple bass tracks and endless automations and edits. I think it is always important to understand what you are doing/ the techniques you are emulating or revamping; but I also think that inspiration and time are typically in short supply and have competing agendas. That said, if I can do something faster, why on Earth wouldn’t I?
Which brings me to my final words on Stutter Edit. I have been working with independent devices to create the effects Stutter Edit whips up effortlessly for years now. My constant thought process in the background of intense editing sessions has been “there has got to be a better way to do this and I really should be able to flexibly move this work between projects instead of having to put the time in all over agin on the next project.” I found myself constantly returning to the part of the project where I re-mapped the same old things, or rewired the preset I was building in the last project. It’s never been quite as intuitive as I liked it, and I often would have to fight to keep myself from thinking the work was screwing up the song or having it take my inspiration away altogether. With Stutter Edit, I find myself using techniques I had been leaving for final stages of a production far earlier in the process. These effects not only embellish the work I have done, but inform and inspire it to new heights. Anything that delivers great results with ease while also rewarding in depth planning is a winner in my book. On that front, Stutter Edit does not disappoint. In fact, I half expected it to be yet another “glitch” plugin that delivered mediocre results from behind the disguise of a “super futuristic and game changing interface” or some other marketing jargon. Instead, with Stutter Edit, I found that the more I worked with it, the more powerful it seemed. More importantly, this plugin that had the potential to be a one trick pony turned out to be deep, versatile and expressive. When you’re trying to squeeze gold from zeroes and ones in the studio, you can’t go wrong with products like Stutter Edit. I highly recommend downloading the demo and trying it out.