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iZotope Neutron 3 Review at Audio Plugin Guy

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I’m going to do things differently this time around, so listen up beginners and roll your eyes experienced mixing engineers. What is to be presented here is a look behind my process of mixing a song particularly as it relates to Neutron 3 from iZotope, which was used on each and every individual instrument track. I will use one generic instrument track as an example for all so don’t worry about hearing basically the same thing for all 25 or so tracks. Got some basic tips along the way that hopefully everyone should already know and follow or creatively ignore.

Step 1: Clean your tracks.

This isn’t sexy and can be extremely tedious, but it helps you get to know all the tracks and possibly spot little gems that you might want to spotlight. At the very least zero out everything at the very beginning and end of each track so your beginning and end aren’t full of unwanted filth. Quick note for Mac Users: I do this outside my DAW (Logic Pro) with an app called Amadeus Pro along with the macro program Keyboard Maestro 8. This makes it comparatively painless to meticulously go through each track and remove what is possible to remove without doing harm.

Step 2: Bring it all in.

Bring in all the stems, order, name, and color them. I also group them into busses (Folder Summing Stacks in Logic). Consistent ordering, coloring, and grouping is essential from project to project so you can quickly find things. Can’t adjust it if you can’t find it.

Step 3: Get a rough balance.

Here’s one of the big two new features of Neutron — the Mix Assistant — which I love and many online have railed against. It’s a tool which you first use as intended and then tweak to your heart’s content with the Visual Mixer which is a HUGE WIN.

First thing you do is drop a copy of Neutron 3 (or the separate Relay plug) at the top of each track, and a copy of Visual Mixer at the top of your main Mix Bus or the 2-bus (or anywhere, really, it makes no sound itself where it is inserted). Now you are required to make a decision as to what tracks get the main Focus, those that are supposed to stand out as loudest. Lead vocal and obligatory guitar solo are prime candidates here. You have to select at least one. Also, all tracks should be panned dead center before you start with faders at zero. You then let Mix Assistant do its thing while you play the entire song from beginning to end. My guess is that for each track an Integrated LUFS level is being determined. Once it’s done you get the opportunity to correct its guesses for instrument type and category and then you have several level sliders to adjust instrument groups it provides.

So initially Mix Assistant balances your mix as best it can, which is pretty good SOMETIMES, and then gives you the opportunity to adjust volume level by groups. Then you accept and commit these initial levels. This is where the fun begins.

The Visual Mixer will now show you all your tracks in a centered vertical line. Up and down on the field is volume level, left and right are pan. THE WINDOW IS RESIZABLE!!! This resizable window is so very important here, like full screen important while you are exclusively working with it. One point of confusion will be finding a specific track in the mess of icons. The right-hand column contains a list of all the tracks. Click the leftmost “eye” and that toggles visibility of that track, and clicking on the name of the track brings it to the front. This is must know so you can easily find things in what can be an overlapping mess.

Now the fun begins. I highly recommend that with each individual track you drag its icon up, down, left, right, and in little circles around the board. Sure, certain things belong dead center but still do this to get a feel for everything that is going on. Through this process, you are adjusting the pan and volume of each track and after you go through each one a time or two or three, you will have a very good rough mix panned in such a way as you are unable to likely do with the faders and knobs of your DAW. This is genius and I don’t know why I did not appreciate this is the last version of Neutron. Maybe the resizable window helped me with that since there is so much more room to spread things out.

In my mind, the Mix Assistant and the Visual Mixer are huge wins that deserve your undivided rapt attention.

Step 4: Treat the tracks.

Neutron 3 has something called Track Enhance which is inexplicably hidden under the Mix Assistant button. When you click Mix Assistant you get options for “Balance” which we’ve already used in Step 3, and “Track Enhance” which we’ll use here. With Track Enhance you need to use it at a point in the song where there is audio happening on that track because it will listen and then make you a custom preset. For the song I mixed for this article, I accepted each custom preset and then tweaked it as I’ll describe shortly. So you select Track Enhance, click the Next button, and then start playing where that track is doing something interesting. Now we’ll talk about what I basically did with each track.

Step 5: Sculptor.

Invariably, it seems, every custom preset on every track has an instance of Sculptor as the first module, which is by far the star of the show here. Sculptor is also a separate plugin and I have used it as such to great effect. Best I can figure, Sculptor is a Spectral Dynamic Match EQ, aimed at specific instruments or purposes. Only I seem to use that terminology, but I have no other way to describe it. Let’s break down what I mean here. Spectral means it happens at each frequency across the frequency spectrum. Dynamic means that it is always shaping the sound over time relative to how loud your track is. Match EQ means that it is molding your audio track into an “ideal” instrument or audio of some sort. What it is, once you learn how to adjust it properly, is that magic knob you’ve always wished for, catering to many specific instruments.

Let’s put this in plainer English, and I dare say that I might not be fully understanding this. iZotope, in my imagination, got the curve of an ideal kick drum. When you apply Sculptor and select Kick, it applies a match EQ to your kick to push it into sounding more like their ideal kick. With the Track Enhance feature, Neutron 3 seems to default to 50 effects with Sculptor on every track. I highly recommend tweaking Sculptors three main controls after making sure the correct instrument or function is selected. In our example case, we are choosing Kick for the kick drum track.

Adjust the big control first, this is what I have decided to call the Spectral Dynamic Match EQ. My kick was weak on the low end. Increasing Sculptor from low to high makes the bottom end of that kick more robust while also Match EQing the rest of the frequency spectrum as well. the middle control is labeled Tone, and it seems to me to effectively be a tilt EQ, tilting the Match EQ. And lastly there is a Speed control which affects the speed of the dynamics of the Match EQ, or the shaping effect that is under the hood with Sculptor — listen to the transients as you adjust Speed.

With the other modules, I tend to trust Neutron’s EQ cuts and will typically add one bell curve to find something I like and bring it out or to tamp down some mud, and also make sure every track has a highpass EQ raised up to the point where I can hear the tone being shaved off and then I back it off from that point a little. With the compression I find myself toning down the thresholds to about 1 dB of compression, and with the Exciter I am very much playing with the amount and also moving the little puck around to see what sounds and feels right.

One other thing I do strictly in Neutron 3 or Relay instead of the Visual Mixer is stereo spreading of each element. This can be done with the Visual Mixer icons for each track but it is too hard to fine-tune. In Neutron 3 or Relay at the bottom right is a box that makes it very easy to adjust the width. I gave everything at least a tiny bit of extra width, even the kick, and bass. Once you have everything spread out in the Visual Mixer, I found it both fun and extremely satisfying to play with the width of each track and then find just the right width so it fits nicely in its pocket. A little goes a long way, and none is not at all ideal from my many experiments. You have a width control, find the right amount even if it is to make it narrower!

6. That’s it, really.

That is, that’s it for Neutron 3. I might or might not add additional processing to specific tracks and to the busses they are routed to — it does NOT need to be the only thing you use, as capable of a channel strip as it really is. In the Song I’m about to present you with, I did all the above to all 19 tracks. Every track is balanced and panned with the Visual Mixer and the sounds on each instrument track and vocal are adjusted with Neutron 3. 14 of the nineteen tracks I did not find it necessary to add anything else at all. Everything is routed to one group bus or another and six of those seven groups (every one except the brass) only has a single compressor on it. That compressor, by the way, is the new AR-1 from The House of Kush and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Finally, on the 2-Bus I have some final compression, EQ, and limiting.

APG Score - 4.43 / 5

  • Digital Sound quality - 4 / 5
  • Analog Sound quality - 3 / 5
  • Ease of use - 4 / 5
  • Interface - 5 / 5
  • Presets - 5 / 5
  • Value for money - 5 / 5
  • Neutronic AI Mania - 5 / 5

Summary

While Neutron 3 is not the be-all-end-all only thing you’ll ever need to produce a top-level mix, it will take you a long way. After I wrote this article I have done a couple of other mixes. What I did AFTER Neutron 3 on each individual track is to then use a proper channel strip and whatever else I found needed to be done. In that context as a first important step, I find Neutron 3 to be a new essential part of my process. Just don’t expect Neutron 3 or any other product for that matter to replace everything, and instead let it be part of your process — in that context, Neutron 3 is solid gold.

Pros

Infinitely resizable windows. Artificial intelligence. Spectral Dynamic Match EQ for specific instruments and use cases. Visual dragging of track icons in the stereo field including width adjustment per track. Much improved CPU performance. This update is a sea change for Neutron. Sculptor and the Balance assistant are some seriously good toys!

Cons

This is not likely to ever be a $29 special. You gotta pay for functionality like this. There is precious little analog sound or depth of field that you can indeed get from some other vendor’s plugins, but you can use those after Neutron. There is a moderate learning curve that I attempted to help you with here. In the visual mixer, it seems to be impossible to make fine width adjustments, needing to use Neutron or Relay instead.

Original Source - Audio Plugin Guy.

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