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Change Your Room’s Acoustics Using Plug-ins

July 2, 2014
I’M SURE many of you, our dear readers, have pored over stories of famous recording engineers extolling the benefits of using room mics to record in palatial studios, only for you to bewail, “Yeah, but my room sounds like a culvert! I want to hear less of it.” Or, “Good in theory, but I’d need mic diaphragms the size of sperm whales to capture the faint ambience my tiny room produces.”

Fig. 1. Zynaptiq Unveil is used to diminish, remove or amplify ambience on a mono or stereo recording. Unveil is set up here to completely remove reverb from a recording.
Fig. 2. SPL Mo-Verb can magnify the amount of natural reverb on a mono or stereo track to an extraordinary degree.
You could plunder your savings, bring in the wrecking ball, hire an acoustician and rebuild bigger and better. Screw that! Here’s a low-cost and instant fix: Use plugins to give your room tone a make-over. In this article, I’ll show you how to ply three different types of processors to silence a bad room or make a small but good room sound huge. I’ll also explain how to spruce up the timbre of your room ambience.

Muzzle Your Studio Mid-side (M/S) plug-ins such as Brainworx bx_control V2 can lower the output level of the side channel for a stereo track, where most room reverberations live. But while M/S processing can reduce ambience, it can’t totally eliminate it. And any benefit it bestows comes at the expense of a shrinking stereo field—at extreme settings, the processed track will sound mono. Furthermore, M/S processing only works on stereo tracks; it can’t reduce ambience embedded in a mono track.

Two other technologies are far more effective at deep-sixing ambience. Plug-ins such as SPL De-Verb (and the company’s more full-featured Transient Designer) use envelope followers in part to reduce the sustain portion—including any reverb tail—of an audio signal. Zynaptiq Unveil (an Electronic Musician Editors’ Choice Award winner for 2013) uses cutting-edge pattern recognition and perceptive modeling to separate ambience from dry signal, allowing you to attenuate or boost room tone (see Figure 1). Both De-Verb and Unveil can completely eliminate ambience from a two-channel recording without shrinking the stereo field, and they work equally well on mono tracks.

Fig. 3. Brainworx bx_digital V2 equalizes room tone on a stereo track, removing mud and attenuating sizzling frequencies, while simultaneously widening the soundstage.
At very high settings, De-Verb’s reverb-reduction control can cause the sustain of a track’s desirable dry elements to be shortened and make the overall sound slightly muffled. But unless you’re dealing with a truly poisonous room, such extreme settings won’t be necessary and De-Verb should perform like a champ. That said, Unveil is the most transparent-sounding plug-in I’ve heard for drying up room tone; it can completely rid a recording of ambience while retaining the presence and natural envelopes of sounds in the track’s foreground. Crank Unveil’s focus control fully clockwise to make your distant-miked instrument sound like it was close-miked in a completely dead room.

Grow Your Shed M/S plug-ins like bx_control V2 can also boost the output level of a stereo track’s side channel, thereby increasing the ambience on a recording. Of the three technologies discussed in this article, M/S processing typically provides the widest stereo image but the least amount of reverb boost. SPL Mo-Verb—a plug-in that uses the same technology as De-Verb but to opposite effect—provides the most reverb boost, even on mono tracks (see Figure 2). Jacking up its reverb-enhancement control can make your studio sound exponentially more ambient. That said, high settings can also boost the volume and sustain of instruments such as crash and ride cymbals tremendously and cause audible pumping (not always a bad thing!). Unveil can provide a laudable amount of reverb boost on mono and stereo tracks alike and lends the most natural sound on drum tracks. Even with its focus control fully counter-clockwise (boosting ambience to the max), Unveil retains the organic balance of a stereo drum track’s dry components. Optimal settings of its other controls preclude pumping and other artifacts.

Any of these plug-ins can be used on a full mix. Once you’ve adjusted your room ambience to be in desirable proportion to the dry elements in your track, you can sculpt the room tone further using an M/S equalizer such as Brainworx bx_digital V2 (see Figure 3). Equalize the side channel to taste while leaving the mid channel alone. Dry components in the side channel—such as stereo-miked cymbals— will be filtered along with the ambience, but tracks such as kick, snare, and bass that are panned dead-center won’t.

Blow Up Your Crib For a totally extreme effect, place Unveil, Transient Designer, and bx_digital V2 in series—with bx last in the chain—on an aux track to which a drum kit’s stereo room mics have been bussed. Turn Unveil’s focus control and the attack on Transient Designer fully counter-clockwise. Crank the sustain control on Transient Designer to the max. Set bx_digital V2’s stereo-width control to around 200% and filter the side channel’s high frequencies to tame the now-blistering cymbals. With this setup, a closet will sound like an empty warehouse!

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