iZotope Nectar (Mac/Win) Review

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Most good mixes apply at least three plug-ins (or analog effects) to a vocal track. I often use as many as five, as well as one or two delays and one or two reverbs. In Nectar, iZotope has created one plug-in that offers a complete vocal-processing signal chain. Other plug-ins, such as the Waves Signature Series, offer EQ, compression, delay, doubling, and reverb in a single plug-in, but Nectar adds pitch correction, a de-esser, breath control, a gate, and saturation. And, it includes an exhaustive array of presets organized by vocal style.

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FIG. 1: The Main view of Nectar has easy, intuitive controls for each vocal preset.

The Main view has a dropdown menu of musical genres with submenus of styles within each genre (see Fig. 1). Simple adjustments for levels, space mix, size, color, saturation, pitch-correction scale, de-esser amount, breath target, and gate threshold are on the front panel. There is a somewhat tweakable graphic EQ display, as well as input and output meters and level controls. One section of the front panel changes its function depending on the selected style. These functions are sometimes given impressionistic names such as Girth or Psychedelic, and they usually control a unique element of the selected style.

The styles are put together well, and demos of many of the genres are available at the iZotope website. The style names are somewhat arbitrary; there''s no reason why an R&B style, for example, couldn''t work in a dance track. It''s helpful for beginning mixers to see the settings laid out so clearly—both for ease of tweaking and to learn how certain vocal sounds are achieved (see Web Clips 1 and 2).

Nectar has two operation modes: Mixing and Tracking. Mixing mode employs a look-ahead function that improves sound quality but introduces latency and uses more CPU power. It''s for mixing situations where delay compensation is available. Tracking mode eliminates latency and reduces CPU load. Use that in tracking and live situations. (The Breath Control module is deactivated in Tracking mode.)

The HTML manual, which is stored on your computer, is clearly written; you access it by clicking the Help button. The advantage of HTML documentation is that it employs hypertext linking.

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FIG. 2: Nectar''s Advanced view has in-depth control of each parameter.

You click the Advanced View button to access the individual components that make up each genre style (see Fig. 2). Components are displayed on the left, and when a component is highlighted, its parameters appear.

With the exception of pitch correction and the breath-control module, which always come first, you can reorder the components in the signal chain by dragging them up or down. Each component also has a Power button and a Bypass switch. In a nice touch, clicking the Solo switch leaves just the highlighted component on.

Whereas the Main view uses impressionistic labels for the functions, the Advanced view uses conventional audio engineering terms. This works well, although you sometimes have to experiment a bit to see exactly how Advanced view parameters correspond to Main view parameters. The Main view parameter Smash, for example, controls both settings on the Limiter module; it has no direct Advanced view equivalent.

You can automate every parameter on the Advanced view, but due to multiple correlations between parameters as just described, you can''t automate the parameters on the Main view. In Pro Tools, the keyboard shortcut for automation (Control > Option+Command click) does not work so you need to access the automation from the plug-in page. Currently, no mono-to-stereo option is available in Pro Tools, but iZotope plans to address this in a subsequent release.

Nectar''s Pitch Correction component is full-featured and competitive with other stand-alone pitch-correction plug-ins (see Web Clip 3). The main control is correction speed. At 0, you get the Cher effect, which at higher settings becomes less noticeable. At 50 and above, pitch correction is smooth and transparent. The scale choices are chromatic, major, minor, and custom. My one minor gripe here is that the black-key scales are all written as sharps—A# major instead of Bb major, for example. (I''m told this will be fixed).

On the Advanced view, an additional window (also called Advanced) opens for pitch correction. That''s where you set the reference pitch (A=440Hz by default), formant shift, and formant scaling. You can also detach and enlarge a graphics display that works like the graphics displays on other pitch-correction plug-ins.

The Breath Control function is well-designed and, for some people, may alone be worth the price of admission. Its Threshold slider controls the breath-detection sensitivity, and its Target/Gain slider controls the amount of attenuation. Target mode reduces the breath to the target level regardless of how loud it was, whereas Gain mode reduces it by a set amount. A rolling graphic display shows the waveform and where the effect kicks in.

In a previous mix, I had to manually pull down every breath because after the vocal was compressed and EQ''d, the breaths sounded too harsh. Nectar''s Breath Control achieved the same result quickly and with no noticeable artifacts (see Web Clips 4 and 5).

For some voice-over applications, such as telephony (“press 1 for customer service”), breaths need to be completely eliminated, which is quite time-consuming. Breath Control did this better than other de-breath plug-ins I''ve tried, although it sometimes missed a breath or cut off the tails of s''s and f''s (see Web Clips 6 and 7).

Nectar''s breath control function could be a huge time-saver for telephony engineers, but its latency—26,623 samples at 44.1kHz sampling rate—is a big drawback. Delay compensation needs to be turned on in your DAW to use Breath Control as an insert. In Pro Tools, which has a maximum delay compensation of 4,000 samples, Breath Control must be used as an Audiosuite plug-in (if latency is a problem). Also because of latency, Breath Control is the only module that doesn''t work in Tracking mode.

The reverb module is a standard, algorithmic digital reverb. You get four plate and three hall presets. You''ll find controls for pre-delay, damping, color, low-cutoff, high-cutoff, decay time, and wet/dry mix. I found the plates to be quite useful, with a lot of transparency. The hall presets, however, lacked the depth and warmth that you can get from a convolution reverb. For classical crossover or other styles where a large warm reverb is desired, I would recommend using one of Nectar''s plates, then adding a separate large-hall convolution reverb plug-in.

The Delay module has a useful feature set: Digital, Analog, and Tape modes with a Trash mode for the last two, and it includes filter and modulation. I would like to see a send-to-the-reverb here.

The Doubler module is well-designed and offers up to four voices. You can set the pitch variation between 0 and 100 cents (a semitone), and you also get an octave-up/down option; intervals in between are not available. A Variation slider provides pitch and timing randomness. The sound is clean and comparable to other doubler plug-ins.

The Saturation module adds various types of harmonic distortion to the vocal. It ranges from slight brightening and thickening to moderate audible distortion. An Overdrive switch would be nice for those times when you want the vocal-through-the-Marshall sound. You have five types of saturation, as well as a mix slider that lets you add distortion while keeping the clarity of the original signal.

The De-Esser differs from a standard de-esser in that it does not have a threshold control; it attenuates the “s” down to the target level regardless of the program level. This is a nice touch.

The Compressor module offers the standard Digital, Vintage, Optical, and Solid-State modes. What makes it special is the optional Parallel mode, which brings in a separate compressor running parallel to the first. This has all the features of the first compressor with the addition of a shelf EQ to increase or decrease the highs and lows. If you brighten the parallel compressor, you can get the Motown sound. The ratio of the brighter compressor is set lower so that louder notes are somewhat brighter than softer ones.

The EQ section sports a 5-band graphic EQ. It can be edited in a limited way on the Main view and extensively on the Advanced view.

Nectar is a great concept, and I applaud iZotope for tackling it. I''d love to see a few more items in the future. A multiband compressor, like Waves C4, would be great for those vocalists with too much midrange edge at high volumes. An Overdrive switch in the Saturation module would also be nice. A harmony generator would be a worthy addition. An auto-ride effect would round out the unit. With those things added, you could do a vocal mix in about two minutes.

Nectar is more taxing on the CPU than equivalent separate plug-ins. I''m told that this will be addressed in the first update.

For beginning and intermediate vocal mixers, I highly recommend Nectar. I would also recommend it for someone who is on a tight budget and doesn''t have many plug-ins. The effects in Nectar are a step up from the effects that come within most DAWs, if only for their color and character.

For more advanced engineers, I would recommend it as a time-saver for rough mixes and for live use. You could save a signal chain for a particular singer and open it in seconds. Some modules in Nectar could become go-to effects for advanced engineers. I will definitely be using the Breath Control as an offline effect. The Saturation, De-Esser, and Plate reverb effects could also find their way into a pro mix. In general, the sound was not as crystal-clear as a high-end EQ followed by a top-quality compressor and reverb.

Steve Skinner is a Grammy-nominated writer/producer/keyboard player/programmer living in New Jersey. He has mixed lots of vocals.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the Nectar product page.