Test Drive: Nectar Vocal Processor from iZotope

by Steve Cunningham

It would appear that Santa was good to us this past season, and I for one didn’t even notice it until well after the fact. It would seem that beginning late last November, while we weren’t looking, iZotope evidently became the Official Audio Plug-In Supplier to Santa Claus. Through this exclusive relationship with the Old Guy in the Red Suit, we were presented with a hot new music-recording oriented plug-in, one which seem on the surface to have application to the radio production community.

I’m speaking of iZotope’s new Nectar vocal plug-in. Nectar provides a complete channel strip in production, for recording, effecting, and sweetening voiceover tracks. The product is geared for recording musicians, of course, but given how many are either ex- or wannabe-musicians, when haven’t we borrowed from those guys for our own nefarious purposes? Let’s take a look and see if we can misuse this device.

voiceover-dialog

NECTAR

Nectar is an all-in-one vocal effects processor from iZotope. I cannot say for certain, but it’s possible that this product may have some of its roots in an email conversation I had a couple years back with the president of the iZotope. He asked me if I could imagine a single plug-in that voice actors could use for all their processing needs, and if so, what the various parts might be and how might they be arranged. It was a brief exchange, I have no idea what role it may have played, and I take no credit for anything. But I remember a conversation like that, and Nectar seems to have all those requisite parts I listed at that time plus much more.

Nectar is essentially a channel strip for vocals, and it includes eleven modules in a single plug-in: EQ, Compressors, a Gate, a Limiter, a De-Esser, Delay, Reverb, Doubling, sound-shaping modules like Saturation, and specialty modules like a Breath Control (to reduce breath noises) and Pitch control (to correct pitch anomalies). These modules occupy the bulk of the space in the user interface, and the most-used controls are available there for tweakage. There’s a whole lot of processing power here and literally dozens of controls to tweak, even in the basic, producer-oriented front panel view (and yes, the Company refer to the basic view as being “producer-oriented”).

In what I assume was an effort to further simplify this “producer-oriented” process of programming Nectar, iZotope provides a large number of presets called Styles, which in turn are grouped into categories which they refer to as Genres (more on these presets below). Depending on which modules are activated for a given Style, the front panel controls and labels may change, so don’t assume. The right side is where you’ll find a pair of large-ish stereo input and output meters, and of course the left and right channels on in and out can be linked or independent.

At the top right is a slide switch which allows you to put Nectar into either Mixing mode or Tracking mode. In Mixing mode, all modules are available and produce the highest quality sound, which uses more CPU power. Tracking mode limits the operation of some modules in exchange for a lighter CPU hit and near-zero latency processing.


ADVANCED VIEW - BEHIND THE CURTAIN

Between the slide switch and the meters is a button labeled Advanced View, which turns the UI into a detailed secondary look at each module individually. This view also lets you get at all of a module’s controls instead of only the most-used ones. This is truly where the action is, and where you’ll also get specialized metering for those modules that need metering. All eleven modules appear on the left as buttons, and clicking on a module’s button reveals all the controls in a large window. A checkbox within the button enables and disables that module. The modules process incoming sound in series according to the position of each button in the list, with the exception of Pitch and Breath which must always be at the top. The others can be dragged up or down in the list at will, which will let you compress your EQ’d sound or EQ your compressed sound.

Most of you will be quite comfortable working with individual modules, as they tend to be set up like the discrete processors you use every day. The compressors have attack, release, threshold and ratio settings, but also include both a filter and a seldom-seen button that puts them in Parallel mode. These compressors can model responses ranging from Digital to Vintage to Opto to Solid State. The only thing missing is a look-ahead feature when in Mixing mode, so the compressor could anticipate large changes in input levels.

The analog-modeled EQ is a five-band fully parametric affair, with each band capable of high- and low-pass, high and low shelving, a full parametric bell, and a steep high- and low-pass. All bands include a Q control to govern width, controllable frequencies run from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, and the gain goes from +15 dB down to -30 dB. And with a Q that can be tightened to 12, you can do some serious surgery when what you need is a -30 dB cut on a troublesome frequency. That’s powerful stuff right there.

A few modules are unique; the Doubling module features a grid to set Gain on a y-axis versus Pan on an x-axis, and Pitch versus Delay on another grid. And the Pitch module may look strange to those who’ve never “AutoTuned” a song to death (yes I did that). But this sort of esoteric layout is the exception rather than the rule.

Each module also has a set of common controls: Solo and Bypass buttons help you compare the sound with and without a given effect, an Options button lets you customize meter response and such, and a History button lets you see the recent changes you’ve made for comparison purposes. A Reset button will bail you out should you get lost in tweakage by resetting everything to its default position.

WORKING WITH PRESETS

The first time you instantiate the plug, you are asked to select a Genre and then a Style from a fairly long list of preset choices. Choosing a Genre reveals a list of a dozen or so presets, which are the Styles. The Genres are named musically as you might expect: classical, country, folk, Soul and RnB are among them. However, within the Genres the Style names can be a puzzle. For example, there is a Voiceover and Dialog Genre -- but until I tried it out I had no idea what Bleachers might sound like, much less Dark Lord.

I must admit that I clicked through the Genres and Styles with some trepidation. After all, I’m old enough to remember Mister Microphone, that tabletop voice processor from Roland, and all the other voice changing toys that have come and gone over the years. There are certainly some presets in Nectar that live up to the stereotype, particularly in the Special FX section. But most are actually quite sensible and definitely usable, despite the smattering of weirdos in the pack. Examining the settings of Styles within the Voiceover and Dialog Genre illustrated the method to iZotope’s madness.

For example, the Nectar Dialog Style from that Voiceover and Dialog Genre is a relatively flat preset that rolls off the bottom around 120 Hz. Meanwhile an increase in presence and some gentle de-essing yield a smooth sound with a strong lower midrange, although intelligibility suffers a bit (my evaluation showed this one better for women than for men). Nectar VO is similar, but with a bit more compression and a boost in the upper midrange for a slightly more in-your-face sound and better intelligibility. The aforementioned Bleachers turns out to be a present sound with little low midrange but a healthy dose of gymnasium echo. Commercial Spot has gobs of presence and compression, while Documentary is uncompressed but adds a bass boost and a bump around 4K for presence. Hopefully you get the idea here, and of course you can copy and paste settings as well as create your own from scratch.

I found the best way to work with Nectar was to start with a preset that was reasonably close to what I heard in my head, and then tweak it. Since the individual modules behave like plug-ins I have now, it wasn’t much trouble to get something that sounded good. I suspect that’s the way most production pros will work with it. In doing this I did detect some interaction between the modules, and setting levels carefully to build a good gain structure is the key to getting good sound from these modules. In particular, the Saturation module goes from well-behaved to completely out-of-control in short order, so it should be used sparingly.

Nectar is fully automatable, depending of course on your editing software. I did most of my evaluation from within a current copy of Cocko’s Reaper, which allowed me to automate any of the dozens of parameters. Reaper also managed to handle Nectar’s reported delay time. I was then able to set delay compensation in Reaper properly. It’s important to note that with some presets, especially those that use the reverb, the total delay was substantial and the voiceover track felt late relative to the rest of the spot. Kicking delay compensation did the trick as Nectar reported its delay times accurately, as far as I could tell.

The graphics are a bit retro and too cute by half for my taste, but that’s just me. The controls aren’t fiddly at all, and they all seem to get the job done. What’s more, these modules all use iZotope’s DSP algorithms, which are among the best available anywhere. But these modules do have personality... the EQ has a bit of soft grit as befits analog modeling, while the compressors can go either opto fast or vintage slow. And the incoming level really does make a difference in the sound of subsequent modules, although I like this particular character. It’s there you’ll begin to hear the interactivity between modules, as there is with most channel-strip type processors like this one. The only module that was somewhat of a disappointment was the Reverb module, which sounds to be of the standard algorithmic variety rather than a nice convolution reverb. Although it comes equipped with filtering that should have improved things, it still reminded me of Waves’ RenVerb, which is not one of my faves. On the other hand, I’m also spoiled by the amazing convolution reverbs that show up in so many editors... maybe it’s just me then.

The only significant downside to Nectar is the documentation, which is only available on-line as a set of HTML-formatted Help Files. The whole thing is well-written and complete, but because it’s online I could not get to it when I really needed it, which just happened to be while I was working away from the old Wi-Fi signal. Nectar runs on Windows from XP to 7, and on Mac 10.5.8 or better (including Snow Leopard). It comes in RTAS/AudioSuite format for Pro Tools 7.4 and up, including PT9; it’s also available as Audio Units, MAS, VST and Direct X. Heck, I didn’t know that anyone was still using DirectX, but there it is.

If you have a complete set of plug-ins for recording and mixing voice tracks and you’re happy with them, then you might want to move along since there isn’t anything here that hasn’t been done before. But if you’re looking to upgrade your rig for a relatively small amount of money, then Nectar may well be for you. It is comprehensive and complete, easy to use (mostly), and sounds good even if it isn’t totally uncolored. Steve sez check it out.

iZotope’s Nectar is available directly from iZotope online as a download-only product, and lists for $299. For more information worldwide, go to www.iZotope.com.

Comments (0)

There are no comments posted here yet