iZotope Neutron, The Basics

Get started with this comprehensive and futuristic mixing package
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Some companies release channel strips, but the Massachusetts-based tech firm never do anything by halves: Neutron 2 is a fully-featured ‘mix assistant’ plugin that uses AI and machine learning technology to help you get things done. Naturally, Neutron’s announcement in 2016, and its subsequent update last year, could have easily come with trigger warnings for production purists, with allegations of ‘auto-mixing’ and ‘no talent needed’ among the reactions by the general public. But if there’s one piece of advice we can give you about Neutron, it’s “Don’t dismiss it” — this software can give you a starting point, sure, but this simply frees up more time to go in-depth on your mix where it counts. With the advanced tools on offer, Neutron can stand up against any sonic challenge.

SPLITTING THE ATOM

Neutron is a massive package with a lot to offer. You may have heard of its AI functionality and its machine-learned algorithms, but there’s loads more to get your cursor on. At its core, Neutron is a channel strip plugin, offering a reorderable strip of six processors — Gate, EQ, two Compressors, Exciter and Transient Shaper — to do the actual signal sculpting legwork.

We’ll show you those in the tutorial below.

Neutron 2’s channelstrip effects

The power of Neutron comes from its six talented effects modules. Here’s how they work and what they can offer …

Neutron’s default channel strip starts with its Gate, moves onto an EQ, through two compressors, before hitting an Exciter and a Transient Shaper. All these processors can work in three bands, and are also reorderable and can be deactivated. And yes, using less processing in Neutron will make things easier on your CPU — especially using the VST3 plugin version.

Neutron’s Gate processor is a multiband effect that gives frequency ranges for three separate gates, the EQ contains eight bands plus low and high filters and shelves for a total of 12, with loads of functionality. Next, two compressors, offering Peak or RMS compression styles for taming complex signals. Exciter and Transient Shaper modules round things off.

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The Gate has Threshold, Ratio, Attack and Release settings for each of three bands. There’s also Hold, Hysteresis, Band Bypass, Solo and sidechaining onboard. Each of the EQ’s 12 bands can be made dynamic, with downward or upward modes and sidechaining.

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Onto the two compressors. There’s Vintage mode, which changes the style and also the metering. There are three bands of compression per processor, each with Threshold, Ratio, Attack and Release (plus Mix) and sidechaining.

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The three-band Exciter offers Full, Defined and Clear modes with Drive and Blend levels for each. There’s an X/Y pad to choose from Tape, Retro, Warm and Tube distortion. The Transient Shaper offers Attack and Sustain levels plus attack gradients.

To make the most of Neutron, the idea is that you add it to every track (or a number of buses) in a mix, allowing the different instances to communicate with and react to each other. For large projects, small CPUs or tracks you want to mix with your own plugins, there’s the Mix Tap effect, which acts as a sort of ‘Neutron monitor’, telling the other instances what’s on that track but not changing the sound.

Once you’re set up with instances of Neutron or Mix Tap, it’s time to get into the meat of things. Neutron’s Track Assistant is its most talked-about feature. Engage it, select some target settings, play Neutron the channel’s audio in isolation, and Neutron will use its artificial intelligence to engage its modules and provide a starting point for a full mix. Now we can start tweaking.

Neutron’s EQ is a clever character. With other Neutrons loaded over other channels, you can call up other instruments’ frequency spectra and let the plugin detect any masking that’s going on between the two. You can then tweak the Neutron EQ of the masking channel right from the masked channel’s plugin instance as well. The EQs also have individual Learn functionality and Inverse Link, a function that ties a boost in one instance to a cut in another instance.

Once you’ve sorted your channels, the Visual Mixer lets you set levels, panning and width for all channels from the same view, dragging pucks about to make corresponding changes in each plugin instance. Nobody had that in the ’70s!

Tonal Balance Control comes with Neutron and Ozone, and again communicates with other plugin instances to analyze the track’s frequency spectrum, plus the dynamic range of the bass frequencies. Target curves are included, and you can load custom curves from audio files. The aim is to bring ‘tonal balance’ into line with commercial music. Again you can use this plugin to access the EQs within the other instances.

Neutron comes in two types: Advanced ($499) contains everything we’ve outlined here; Elements ($129) strips back what the processors can do and how much Track Assistant can shape; and the ‘Standard model’ [geddit?] foregoes the Tonal Balance Control, Mix Tap, and reduces the Input/Output controls.

Using Neutron 2’s Track Assistant for AI mixing

This handy tool listens to your instruments and provides a starting point for you to take things further

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01 Here’s a multitrack project in need of some mixing. We start by inserting a Neutron instance over every single channel.

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02 We start with the guitar track, launching Neutron and hitting Track Assistant. We have Instrument, Style and Intensity (of processing) options to choose from, and then we click next, solo the track and let Neutron hear it.

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03 Neutron has set up an EQ, a single-band compressor and an Exciter, and selected some settings for them already. Some EQ bands are dynamic, the compressor’s Threshold and Ratio have been set, and the Exciter has been set up as a two-band formulation.

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04 We do the same thing with our kick and our snare track, taking Neutron’s suggestions. Actually, we didn’t insert a Neutron on our two pad channels. Instead, we add Neutron Mix Tap plugins, which allow other Neutron instances to analyze their content without running the full plugin.

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05 On the bass track’s EQ, we can activate Masking and select the kick channel, giving us analysis of where the kick’s signal is clashing with the bass. We can add EQ bands from this view to both the kick and the bass.

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06 And finally, it’s time for some bypassing and reactivating on every Neutron in the project to check the results of this artificial intelligence mixing.