The iZotope O8N2 Bundle includes two of the developer’s flagship products: Neutron 2 Advanced, a channel strip plug-in designed for mixing (see Figure 1), and Ozone 8 Advanced, a mastering suite that is also useful as a master-bus processor and runs as either a plug-in or standalone app (see Figure 2). Both have a modular architecture that allows you to configure custom processing chains from a choice of processors.
The reason iZotope bundled these products, in particular, is because they can be used in tandem, thanks to the developer’s new Inter-plug-in Communication feature and the included Tonal Balance Control plug-in. These allow you to access the EQ sections of Neutron 2 and Ozone 8, as you adjust the frequency balance of a mix. I’ll cover this in detail later in the review.
Neutron 2 and Ozone 8 also share the distinction of utilizing machine learning, a form of AI that analyzes music and makes intelligent processing suggestions. (iZotope used machine learning for the first time in the original version of Neutron.)
NEW TO NEUTRON
Before getting into how the two products interact, let’s look at what’s new in each, starting with Neutron 2. For those unfamiliar with this plug-in, it’s a comprehensive channel strip that offers an EQ, two compressors, an exciter and a transient shaper, all of which have multiband capabilities. You can open any combination of modules and place them in any order.
In Neutron 2, iZotope improved some of the existing features and added several new ones. One significant upgrade is to the Track Assistant, which is the AI-informed feature. In the original Neutron, you turned it on, played the track and it analyzed it and created its settings. In Neutron 2, you can choose the intensity of the processing in advance, and whether you’re going for a Warm, Balanced, or Upfront (defined as “Upfront Midrange” in the manual) sound.
Once you’ve made those choices, it asks you to play the track for analysis. During playback, the display shows the Track Assistant’s progress towards creating its custom preset, ticking off a brief checklist as it goes. Once it’s finished building the setting, which usually takes 10 seconds or less, you’re given the option to accept it or not.
A module that has been added in version 2 is the Gate, which the developer says was the number-one customer request after Neutron was originally released. Like Neutron’s other dynamics processors, the Gate can do multiband processing and is extremely flexible.
Another significant improvement in Neutron is in the I/O section, which adds controls for Stereo Width, Panning, Mono (summed), Swap Channels, and Polarity Invert, giving you a lot of additional control. As a result, Neutron 2 provides all the channel-strip processing you could ever need, unless you’re looking for specific vintage-gear emulations. Neutron 2’s processors are quite versatile—they can be clean and transparent or add character and saturation, and their sound quality is excellent.
Thanks to its Inter-plug-in Communication technology, iZotope was able to add several ancillary plug-ins that expand Neutron 2’s functionality. The aforementioned Tonal Balance Control is probably the most significant of these, but the other two are also powerful.
One is called the Visual Mixer (see Figure 3). Designed to be opened as the last plug-in on the master bus, it features a graphic representation of your mix, with movable nodes that embody the various tracks. Move them forward and back to adjust volume, and side to side for panning. When audio is present on a track, the Node lights up. It even turns red when the track is clipping. You can expand a track’s stereo width by pulling on the handles on the side of each icon.
When I first tried the Visual Mixer, I opened it on a mix that was already in progress and quickly discovered that’s probably not the best way to use it. It’s more effective to begin with your DAW mixer zeroed out; that is, faders set to 0 dB of gain and pan pots in the center. That way, the visual relationships between the elements in the Visual Mixer are basically the same as in your DAW mixer before you start moving nodes around to change volume or panning. If you don’t start with your DAW mixer zeroed, you could have, say, a track that is panned hard left in the DAW and is coming from only the left speaker, but shows up as centered in the Visual Mixer.
Only tracks that have Neutron 2—or another new and included plug-in called Mix Tap—instantiated on them will show up in the Visual Mixer’s interface. Essentially, Mix Tap gives you the features of the I/O section of Neutron 2 without any processing modules (see Figure 4). It uses less CPU and, thus, can help in a situation where you want to open more instances of Neutron 2 than your processor can handle. Not that Neutron 2 is a processor hog: It’s actually quite efficient. But once you have it on multiple tracks along with all the other plug-ins you might use in a mix, the CPU load can really add up, which is why Mix Tap’s efficiency is helpful.
The developer touts the Visual Mixer as a new mixing “paradigm,” because it creates a visualization of the mix that you don’t get from a standard DAW mixer. My guess is that some people will see it as a helpful way to conceptualize their mix, while others will consider it superfluous. After using it for a while, I number myself in the latter camp. To me, the time it took to configure it—including instantiating Neutron 2 or Mix Tap on every track (if all your tracks don’t show up in the Visual Mixer, it defeats the point of it) and zeroing out my DAW mixer—wasn’t worth any insights it might have provided.
INTO THE OZONE
Ozone mastering software has been growing in power with each successive version, and version 8 is no exception. It adds one new module, the Spectral Shaper, and improves the performance of several others, including the Exciter, Vintage Compressor, and Vintage Tape modules.
To me, the most significant new feature in Ozone 8 is the Master Assistant. Like Neutron 2’s Track Assistant, the Master Assistant analyzes your audio as it plays, chooses modules that it considers appropriate, and sets their parameters to create a custom preset.
When you first click on it, you get a screen asking you to choose one of three different project types: Streaming, CD, or Reference. Streaming sets a level appropriate for streaming music services; CD gives you three level-intensity choices, and Reference lets you set a level that matches a reference track that you upload. The ability to upload Reference tracks is also new and can be used to A/B your master with other songs.
Once you’ve selected your choices for the Master Assistant, it requests that you play some audio. As it’s analyzing and applying processing, you see a screen that updates you on the steps it’s taking. You’ll hear your music get appreciably louder from the limiting that’s applied, and after about 10 seconds in total, the Master Assistant asks you if you want to accept the setting or not.
Ozone 8 also gives you a lot of generic, yet powerful, presets to use as starting points, but I mainly found the Master Assistant option superior, because it creates settings customized to your audio. IZotope stresses that the Master Assistant is not doing the mastering for you; it’s just giving you a starting point. That said, it can get you pretty close. I used it on an 8-song album project and not only did it make excellent processor choices, it yielded songs that were pretty closely matched in level, which was a time saver.
While experienced mastering engineers would probably want to create their settings from scratch, the Master Assistant is an excellent choice for the rest of us, as it brings a level of quality and consistency to your projects very quickly.
Ozone 8’s new Track Referencing feature is easy to use and very helpful. You can upload up to 10 reference tracks (it supports a variety of audio-file formats) and A/B any of them with your song at the flick of a switch. Not only can you adjust the gain to match your song, but you can also set up loops of specific segments of the reference tracks. In addition, you can view a spectrum analysis of an uploaded track and compare it with that of your song.
The new Spectral Shaper module lets you subtly attenuate frequencies within a user-selectable range (see Figure 5). It’s primarily designed to reduce harsh high-frequency content when mastering. IZotope uses similar technology in its Spectral De-Esser in RX6, and you could use Spectral Shaper as a De-Esser if you were applying it to a single track. It’s relatively easy to use: Set the frequency range you want to affect and apply attenuation using a threshold slider and controls for Attack, Release and Tone.
The Spectral Shaper, like all the other modules in Ozone 8 Advanced (and Neutron 2 Advanced, for that matter) can be opened in your DAW as an individual plug-in, which gives you even more utility for mixing. What’s more, many processors in Ozone 8 can be switched between Stereo and Mid-Side modes, giving you additional processing flexibility.
Another improvement in Ozone 8 is a revamp of the Exciter module, which now lets you choose from among seven modes for each band: Analog, Retro, Tape, Tube, Warm Triode, and Dual Triode.
The included Tonal Balance Control plug-in (see Figure 6), which works with both Ozone 8 and Neutron 2, is designed to let you visually compare the balance of frequency content in your music against that of typical songs in one of three (very broad) Target Curves: Modern, Bass Heavy (EDM and Hip Hop), and Orchestral.
The developer says it analyzed a huge number of recordings to come up with these frequency ranges. However, I wish it offered a few more Target Curves that were a little more genre-specific, as Modern is pretty broad. Fortunately, Tonal Balance Control allows you to upload an audio track of your choice, or even an entire album, which it then quickly analyzes and lets you use as the balancing reference.
Tonal Balance Control, which you should place after any processing on your master bus, features a main screen called Broad View. Here, you will see the frequency spectrum broken up into vertical sections representing Low, Low-Mid, High-Mid, and High frequency ranges. Indicated by green shading within each section is the range from the Target Curve. When music is playing, you see a white line that indicates where your song’s frequency content resides compared to those shaded areas. When the line is inside of the range, that indicates that it is in balance. A Crest Factor meter is also visible, showing you whether your mix is too dynamic or too compressed in the low end, which is also helpful.
Tonal Balance Control has a second viewing option, Fine View, which represents the information as a continuous line rather than four separate sections (see Figure 7). I found Broad View easier to comprehend at a glance.
From within Tonal Balance, you can open up a functional version of the primary EQ of Ozone 8 (for making adjustments to the full mix) or that of any individual track from your song that has Neutron 2 or Mix Tap instantiated on it. The EQs appear at the bottom of the Tonal Balance screen.
When you make EQ adjustments, you see the Tonal Balance change in real time. Let’s say your mix is showing up with too much low end. You could either open Ozone’s EQ and tweak the overall low-frequency content, or get more specific and open, say, the individual Neutron 2 EQ for the kick or bass, and adjust that, all without leaving the Tonal Balance Control plug-in.
Especially if you work in an untreated studio, the ability to adjust your mix to fit into a standard frequency range is quite helpful for making your music sound more balanced.
BUNDLE OF USEFULNESS
The O8N2 Bundle gives you the tools you need for frequency and dynamics processing of your audio, from the track level to the master. The Assistant features found in Neutron 2 and Ozone 8 speed up and simplify your workflow significantly. Even if you would prefer to come up with all the settings from scratch, Tonal Balance Control and the new Track Referencing features in Ozone 8 can help you create mixes or masters that stand up against the competition.
On their own, both Neutron 2 and Ozone 8 are comprehensive and powerful, but used together they make for an intelligent and impressive mixing and mastering ecosystem.
Tonal Balance Control. Ozone 8’s Master Assistant, Track Reference, Spectral Shaper, and Exciter. Neutron 2’s Track Assistant, Mix Tap, Visual Mixer, Gate, and improved I/O.
Configuring the Visual Mixer can be tedious. Tonal Balance Control needs more genrespecific target ranges.
Mike Levine is a composer, producer, and multiinstrumentalist from the New York area. Check out his website at www.michaelwilliamlevine.com.