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Plugins with a Twist

Roger Nichols Digital offers deep control with compressors and EQs By Frank Moldstad

Youve got to hand it to Roger Nichols. The veteran engineer/producer turned software developer has come up with some of the most creatively named plugins on the professional audio market, including Uniquel-izer, Frequal-izer, and Dynam-izer. Altogether, there are five plugins in the line, rounded out by Finis and Inspector XL (thankfully not named Finis-izer and Inspector-izer).

The names aptly describe what these plugins do. Dynam-izer is a dynamic compressor that works on Zones instead of frequency bands. Uniquel-izer is a filter-based equalizer that lets you create EQ curves from a selection of 11 filter types. Frequal-izer is a linear phase equalizer designed to preserve phase. Finis is a  brickwall limiter and Inspector XL is an multifunction audio analysis tool.

They are marketed and distributed by Roger Nichols Digital [web site here] under a licensing agreement with Elemental Audio (some are renamed). Formed by Roger Nichols and Reinhold Probst, Roger Nichols Digital is co-developing future plugins with Elemental Audio, drawing on the latters coding and DSP expertise and the golden ears and session presets of Roger Nichols.

A seven-time Grammy-winning recording engineer/producer,  Nichols is best known for the half dozen or so Steely Dan albums he engineered, including ?Two Against Nature (2000 Best Engineer Non-Classical, Album of the Year and Best Album by Duo or Group). Hes also worked with John Denver, Al Jarreau, Frank Sinatra, Tower of Power, Sly Stone and Joe Cocker to name a few. In 1978, Nichols also developed the Wendel, a sampling drum machine for digital drum replacement. For the past 20 years hes been developing DSP software for his own use, making his move into the plugin market a natural transition.

All five of these plugins are compatible with Pro Tools RTAS, VST and Audio Units, and RND has also just announced Pro Tools TDM and Universal Binary versions. I installed them on a PowerMac G5 running in AU format under Logic Pro 7. The plugins support sampling rates up to 192kHz. Pricing is $249 each, except for Inspector XL, which is $299. Four of the plugins -- Dynam-izer, Uniquel-izer, Frequal-izer and Finis are available as a bundle for $899. Theres also one free plugin available for download Inspector, which includes some of the analysis functions of the full Inspector XL. They require the use of a iLok USB Smart Key to operate, a $40 copy protection device available from PACE Anti-Piracy, Inc. that holds up to 100 licenses.

The plugin interfaces are neat and tidy but crammed with functionality. This includes precision control over audio parameters, some of which arent even accessible with other plugins. They are not the type of plugins where you just fire them up, select a preset, twist a few knobs and youre done. They do have presets, but the concept behind these plugins is deep control over audio bands and frequencies.

Well start with the compressor/limiters, Dynam-izer and Finis, and in Part 2 of this review, well take a look at the EQs.

Dynam-izer is a compressor with a twist. Its talent is being able to zero in on specific audio Zones where compression is desired, while leaving the frequencies in other Zones unaffected. This is very effective at bringing out specific elements of a mix, such as a vocal, without impacting other parts, or applying more compression to some parts than to others.

Dynam-izer interface

While this sounds like what a Multiband compressor does, Dynam-izers approach is very different. It does not divide audio into separate frequency bands the way a Multiband compressor does. Its more of a dynamics processor that works on levels in multiple regions, called Zones. A graph in the center of its interface allows the loudness of up to four different Zones to be adjusted. Instead of working on frequency bands, Dynam-izer controls level ranges in whatever Zones the user has specified. A Zones parameters are established by dragging little handles representing input and output compression ratios.

The manual introduces the Zones concept with a very good overview of compression thresholds and ratios. It uses the analogy of depressing the cushion on a chair to illustrate how these work. Representing the audio levels is the cushion, while the hard surface of the chair is the threshold. Without any pressure on the cushion, it is like an uncompressed audio signal at 0 dB. But when a hand depresses part of the cushion, it is made to fit into a smaller space, determined by the threshold the hard surface of the chair underneath. The depressed area of the cushion is akin to a Zone in Dynam-izer, which the manual illustrates by setting up a side by side comparison of a depressed cushion with a scale overlaid and the Dynam-izer interface showing the audio compression equivalent.

Hand compressing chair cushion is mirrored in Dynam-izer interface at right.

A key filter at the left of the interface allows you to EQ the overall sound with an adjustable curve. The key input can be applied with up to three filters, including parametric, shelving, low/high/band pass, and notch.

Cloud meters in action
One of the most noticeable aspects of  Dynam-izer are the ?Cloud Meters displayed next to the main input and output dB meters on the right. The Cloud Meters show what part of the volume envelope is being compressed, with darker red areas where the most compression is happening, yellow for areas that are lightly compressed and no color where compression is not being applied. There are also controls here for a limiting function.

Once you grasp the Zones concept, there will be all kinds of situations for applying this plugin. For instance, in a mix where the snare drum level is adequate but the vocal is a little low, Dynam-izer could be used to bring out the vocal without affecting the snare, something that would be more difficult with a Multiband approach. Say the snare is peaking at around -6 db while the full-bodied part of the vocal is sitting at around -18 dB. Zone 1 can be established to affect a range from -18dB to -24, or wherever is the level of the vocal qualities you want to boost. Zones 2, 3 and 4 can be assigned ranges, and then attack, release, ratio and gain can be set for each Zone.

Dynam-izer is also great on individual tracks, as an examination of presets such as De-Esser, Snare Pop, Tight Snare, Intimate Vocal shows. When used on single tracks, the Zones can bring out very precise areas of an instrument or voice. The manual cites several examples using Dynam-izer that would not be possible with a traditional compressor. One is trying to tailor the sound of a snare drum by compressing the initial punch while making the tail more prominent. In a traditional compressor, attempting to specify different compression settings for different audio levels is not doable, because all of the audio has the same ratio, attack, and release. 

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Related Keywords:Roger Nichols, professional audio, plugins, compressor, limiter, EQ, recording, Uniquel-izer, Frequal-izer, Dynam-izer, Finis, Inspector XL


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