Izotope Ozone 5 Advanced – Review
Izotope’s Ozone 5 Advanced is a full featured, comprehensive system for mastering productions within any RTAS/Audiosuite, VST, MAS, Audio Unit or Direct X compatible host software. Version 5 represents the culmination of a few versions worth of tweaks to a system that started out on a good foot in the first iteration. Feature enhancements and fixes are bountiful in the latest release from a company that has consistently released compelling and useful software. However, before we dive into the software itself, we should probably talk about what mastering is, exactly.
The mastering process essentially takes its name from the mediums of the past. Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, the recordings produced for broadcast and retail had to be carted around in physical form. The final mix was bounced from whatever recording method of the day to a “master copy” that would be the basis for further duplication and archive of the audio production. The earliest mastering lathes amounted to needles in rooms on the other side of recording horns that would be used to cut wax cylinders to record the sounds being made in the next room. I was not there, but I always assumed that this is where the T-Rex would go to play harp, or possibly this is how Steven Spielberg was able to figure out what raptors sounded like.
It was magnetic tape that ultimately allowed the master disc to be cut separately from the live performance. In context, the master was being prepared as a master for vinyl duplication, so the art of mastering was achieving the dynamics intended in the mix, at broadcast friendly volumes that wouldn’t knock needles off records. As the art of recording progressed the dynamic range of recording mediums began to offer significant clarity and quality in terms of capability. This special engineer who was present to cut a quality disc became a wizard of compression and equalization. The mastering engineer became a stylized master of dynamics who could do far more than standardize your mix; they could actually improve it by focusing the frequencies, removing the unwanted and enhancing the sonics of the original recorded mix. As formats have marched on in the passing years, the mastering engineer has remained firmly positioned in the midst of all media post production; protecting audio recordings from artifacts and clipping while also stylizing and sweetening the final audio products in all broadcast and retail media.
Modern mastering is the subject of endless debate. From the “loudness wars” to compression/limiting dependent modern production techniques, or whether one should even attempt mastering their own work; mastering is just as affected by the computer music paradigm shift as all other aspects of production. Traditionally the task is handled with a series of specialized, high end hardware units. Different engineers used different pieces, but you can count on a certain degree of dynamics processing gear to be present. All manner of gear can be deployed for the task, from Tube-Tech to Avalon to Summit pieces. While the rig is responsible for the actual process, what is being paid for is the ears and the room. The ears belong to the genius engineer who can figure out what is gumming up the low end and bring that bass into focus. The room is a flat and even room that tells few enough lies that the master you walk away with won’t fall apart on your car stereo.
The process can often be surrounded with a bit of wizardry and mysticism; but you can hear what you are paying for. Unfortunately, the process is not cheap by any means. Mastering sessions don’t require the kind of time that a studio recording session does, but the owners of the facilities still face the same overhead and have always had to price accordingly. As internet delivery methods have evolved, mail out mastering services have surfaced and made it a realistic prospect to knock mastering jobs out quickly and easily. This is fine for the band and their full length release; but what about the cottage studios and home producers turning things around for broadcast and trying to bid competitively? What about the home producer maintaining their own self imposed web release schedule? All debatable aspects of mastering aside, the process is absolutely necessary for anyone releasing music; nothing lets you know the board mix only works in the studio quite like hearing the bass fall apart on the dance floor or watching the track disappear into a whirl of smeared mid range signals when deployed for broadcast. That studio might not be replaceable, but there certainly is call for an economical solution for unavoidable processing tasks.
So, as recording came home to the PC, it was only a matter of time before we saw the first mastering solutions come too. Probably the most favored of the early options was IK Multimedia’s T-Racks (obviously named after the harp playing Tyrannosaurs of a bygone recording era.) T-Racks was a great system; offering a GUI that made you feel like you were really tweaking hardware and audible results that brought home productions up a notch. Limitations in where you could go with the T-Racks architecture ( at least the T-Racks of a decade ago) ultimately pointed to the fact that it was not the end all be all. In the years that followed, a second competitor appeared on the field. Izotope’s Ozone struck a chord with users who had outgrown T-Racks and ultimately wooed more users previously opposed to mastering in the home studio. Ozone still pursued a friendly interface, but with less emphasis on looking like the classic gear it was replacing. Instead Ozone embraced its computer heritage, offering up a series of readouts to help the user quickly identify troubled frequency ranges through visual feedback. Come forward in time to version five, and Ozone has preserved and improved this approach.
Ozone 5 Advanced has focused on bringing critical functions as close to top level as possible while still maintaining an efficient workflow. The best description is to say that while Ozone may have elected to avoid looking like the analog hardware it seeks to assist or replace, it didn’t avoid trying to sound like it. Instead, Ozone attempts to bring that sound into an intuitive user interface that takes advantage of the platform to create an intuitive tool that informs and assists the user. With Ozone Advanced, that interface comes with the added bonus of being able to use the components that make up the mastering process individually. This means you can develop your own mastering path, or even add another plug in or external device into the process. Each individual device comes with a bread and butter preset library to assist the novice user or simply speed up the process for mastering veterans. The standard Ozone interface present in both the regular version and Ozone 5 Advanced also includes mastering presets that activate all of the modules or as many as necessary for the intended sound; which can be chosen according to genre or task. These presets aren’t bad either. I am pretty particular, but I don’t find myself making that many changes to my favorite presets in either case. This system is already pretty intuitive and Izotope have taken the care to add a thoughtful series of descriptions for each function in the processor(s) that define what things do and how to approach their use. All in all, I find that the interface plays out quite thoughtfully. The Ozone system is made from eight tools: The Maximizer, Equalizer, Multiband Dynamics Processor, Multiband Stereo Imaging Processor, Post Equalizer, Multiband Harmonic Exciter, Reverb, and the Dithering unit. Six of these are available as individual components in Advanced, with the dithering tool and the post equalizer being the sensible omissions. Whether considering purchasing the added flexibility of advanced or the still complete toolset of the basic Ozone package, these components are the meat of the program, so let’s take a look at them.
The Maximizer is ultimately a limiter in a tuxedo. I’m not saying this to be snarky either; I’m talking about a limiter that wears the tux like George Clooney. In the most basic terms, the Maximizer boosts the perceived loudness of the overall track while avoiding clipping. Izotope’s IRC (Intelligent Release Control) modes use parallel processing to take this process further by running several algorithms at once and then choosing the “best” algorithm for the job at hand. Version 5 introduces an IRC III, or Intelligent III mode that takes extra care to avoid artifacts like pumping that could potentially be introduced in the process. I personally love the helping hand of anything like this if it speeds up the process and delivers great results and have not been disappointed with the Maximizer in use. I find that its effects are immediately apparent and pleasant, so long as the chosen settings are appropriate for the material. In the case of the user who has brought their process to the computer but still harbors a strong distrust for robots, fully manual modes are also available. Either way, full advantage can still be taken is use, between the comprehensive control set and the metering, loudness histogram and spectrum displays available to monitor the output of your adjustments.
On either side of the chain, Ozone offers 2 paragraphic equalizers that each offer 8 band systems that provide comprehensive filtering. In addition to bell filters, High and Low Pass, High and Low Shelf, and Flat options are present. The inclusion of the post EQ option in Ozone’s basic iteration provides the added flexibility of being able to shape the signal before and after other processing in the chain. The visual feedback from the Spectral Analyzer is a great tool for hunting down offensive frequencies and can be a Godsend to fatigued ears up against a deadline. Ozone’s matching EQ functionality allows users to take “snapshots” of recordings that have the sound they are after and create these EQ settings. This is a function that I cannot begin to stress the usefulness of. What better way to teach yourself how to get the sound you want than to be able to take a picture of it and apply the curve to your material. Again, for those still waging war on robots, a comprehensive control set allows for full advantage to be taken of what amounts to a very advanced EQ unit. In the case of Advanced users; in addition to being able to structure your own signal chain by deploying as many EQs as you like, you can also take advantage of the Mixed Phase EQ Mode and Independent Curve Shapes. These respectively amount to enhanced individual band controls and the ability to have deeper control over what EQ shapes you use in the different Modes of the EQ.
After being told for years to use our reverb in moderation, it might seem a little sketchy to deploy reverb at the final stage of a mix; but sometimes a little space at the end can really bring out the space in a track. Naturally, this requires a reverb with precision controls and musical sound and the reverb present in the Ozone chain delivers in the form of an easy to use, comprehensive reverb unit. The Advanced package adds Theater, Cathedral and Arena modes to the plate, Room and Hall modes included in the standard version. Hall is the new kid on the block in both the standard and advanced releases and Advanced adds enhanced early reflection control and a Crossmix control made for balancing stereo configurations for the reverb output. Regardless of which version you use, the Ozone reverb is a great sounding convolution based reverb unit that can be used to save flat mixes and live recordings that need a little bit of air and shine.
On the way from the computer to the CD, an annoying beast known as Quantization Distortion can be introduced to your pristine 24 bit signal that you are asking to change to 16 bit format. Explaining dithering and word length and the other digital concepts at work here has been done by wikis and wizards better prepared to sum it up than me; but different formats use different bit rates and your signal is going to go through dithering at some point and it’s nice to have a solid tool for the job. The simple explanation is that going from higher resolutions to lower ones is a complex process where you are asking the computer to round off the data that makes up your sound and determine where necessary audio ends and noise begins. Errors in this process can do everything from giving cymbals and singers excessive and embarrassing lisps to turning the whole signal into gap riddled garbage. Dithering is, in my humble opinion, unavoidable but scary. Luckily, Ozone’s system swings in like some kind of superhero, winks and says “I’ve got this. You should totally go get some coffee.” As usual, the informative Ozone display not only simplifies the process, it explains it. If there’s any part of the recording process that still makes me stop and exclaim “I need an adult,” it’s the dithering in the final bounce before delivery to a client; and Ozone’s dithering unit really does offer some confidence during an unavoidable part of preparing media for multiple formats. From retro results to ring tones, you should be covered with this unit. The omission of the unit from the individual components is slightly less sensible to me- it means that if you prefer Izotope’s unit for your productions but take advantage of building your own chain in advanced, you still have to include an instance of Ozone at the end of your chain. I wouldn’t mind seeing this addressed in future revisions to the program, but it isn’t really a deal breaker for me.
Among the many near intangible words we use to describe what we are looking for in a recording, punch and sparkle are among the more infuriating. Sometimes a bit of digital bite or analog warmth can add the right kind of harmonic distortion to accomodate these seemingly difficult to capture qualities. The harmonic exciter in Ozone offers Warm, Retro, Tape, Tube, Triode and Dual Triode modes. The Triode modes are unique to the Advanced package. Both are modeled after analog pre-amps and offer up to four frequency bands of control. Each of these modes are designed to offer different types of of saturation and subtle distortions that sculpt the sound, with the interface allowing full control over the frequencies controlled and the amount of distortion introduced. The results are unmistakeable, with oversampling available this unit can be used to achieve both hyper excited futurist sounds and analog memories as well as most things in between.
Sensibly, Izotope say they intended for this to be the most powerful processor in Ozone. Good job then, as this multiband compressor sounds, well, amazing. Multiband compression allows you to set different thresholds, ratios and output levels for different frequency ranges and is essential to getting the right sound for various genres. Ozone’s system includes a learn mode that can analyze incoming audio and set crossover frequencies on its own; or you can choose from presets broken down, as usual, by task and genre. Comprehensive controls with the usual readout allow for pursuit of the perfect sound by novice and advanced users alike. The displays and depth of control are, as usual, exactly what is appropriate for the task at hand. The Advanced package adds three features to the unit. True Envelope Detection helps eliminate artifacts and aliasing typical of RMS compression. The Detection Circuit Filter prevents pumping in single band compression modes. Finally, Variable Knee Control adds variable knee controls to each band of compression for one last flourish of flexibility in this complex but easy to use unit that has dealt admirably with anything I have tried to throw at it.
Yet another dangerous process in the art of finalizing a recording is the final adjustments to the stereo image. Using crossover frequencies to break apart the signal and adjust its overall width can make your music sound amazing. It can also make your music translate poorly everywhere but your studio. Visual feedback and some guidelines can be essential to your confidence in navigating these waters. I hate to sound like a broken record; but it really is nice to be able to tell users of all levels “I think this will help.” A little goes a long way and visual readouts from the spectrum view and Antiphase Prevention helps to stop your tailoring of the stereo signal from resulting in incompatibilities with mono playback. The Advanced package offers an additional Stereoize Mode that is meant to help take mono material into the stereo realm with a little depth enhancement. Again, this feature still ensures that your work doesn’t break the mono compatibility of the sound. I have yet to do any mono testing with this feature, but positive results in tests of the other side of the process lead me to believe I should expect nothing less than a beautiful handling of the conversion.
One thing to be aware of when considering the differences between Ozone Advanced and Ozone is that while the flexibility of individual components may not be present in the standard version, that doesn’t mean you can’t tailor your signal path. There is still a very user friendly user definable routing dialog that allows you to drag and drop modules to re-order them to your liking. The advantage of the Advanced package is the ability to have as many instances as you like of one type of processor or another, or to deploy instances on individual tracks. In tests I used certain processors for drum and bass enhancement as well as vocal polishing and in every case I found myself saving presets for future use. These are easy to recall thanks to the Preset Management system.
Izotope really seem to focus on getting their products to market with innovative and easy to use GUIs and I find that their system works very well for me. I had used Ozone previously around version 3 and been very impressed. With version 5 I have finally seen it come to my own studio and it is a very useful utility I will likely use for years to come. No, I don’t think there is ever going to be a market that won’t need mastering houses. While the components used in the process are important, the ears of the engineer, their knowledge of the rooms and processors they use and their experience finalizing productions are always going to be a valuable asset in a constantly changing field. Frankly, it’s thanks to them that a plugin like Ozone can exist as they have set standards, developed equipment and made the sounds our ears want to hear. However, with a little respect and the desire to achieve the sound in your head, Ozone does make it possible to turn around your own projects on a budget with results you can live with. The Advanced features come at a significant price increase, but in use I found it was easy to see why I was glad to have the Advanced version. On the other hand, I also found that on a budget, I could certainly make the standard version handle most tasks beautifully.
iZotope Ozone 4 Advanced Overview UniqueSquared
Sometimes the only engineer you can afford who you can also agree with is yourself. Sometimes you are running your own label out of your studio and setting your own release schedule. Sometimes you are a poor musician just trying to make things happen. If any of this applies to you, you might just need to get yourself a little Ozone. You can hear some of my test results on our video demo, where I am applying it to the audio previously used for the Stutter Edit demo, but the acid test is on your own material. Pop over to the Izotope site and grab a demo to become a believer. Let us know what you think!