Essentials: iZotope Neutron
Finally there’s a tool that allows you to be just a musician again. The usual mixing effects can work wonders – if you know how to use them. Neutron can do that for you if you don’t.
by Alex Arsov, Nov. 2016
iZotope Neutron is an advanced mixing tool that can analyze incoming audio signals and offer you a ready-made preset based on a specific characteristic of that track or even of the whole mix. A combination of five essential mixing effects that can build or ruin your mix, five effects that can define the whole mix and take years of experience to learn how to use properly.
And The Story Goes…
Someone asked through Facebook if working with iZotope Neutron is a bit like cheating. Cheating? Come on, maybe if you claim being a mixing guru and then go charging people for mixes done by Neutron. Even in this case this would be totally legal, as Neutron is just a tool, actually quite a fantastic tool. Let’s put stupid prejudices aside and try to see what iZotope Neutron is and what it can do for us and where its strongest point is.
If you are mixing engineer, then Neutron can come to you as a good starting point, second opinion or as a great assistant that can set everything that you would do anyway in less than ten seconds. But we are more interested in what it can do for the average working musician. Let’s start with my case. Not sure if I’m totally a typical one, but here are the facts: I’m quite a good musician (I hope that after seven albums and being featured on eight compilations I can say that without being too modest). These days, being a good musician is just a good start. You have to be everything: a producer, designer, mastering engineer and also a mixing engineer.
I’m a bit afraid that I’m not such a brilliant mixing engineer. I’ve spent years learning mixing. Actually I’ve spent much more time on developing my mixing skills than I’ve spent on actually making music. End result? Not bad, but still not there. As soon as I got Neutron I tried it on one of my last songs, one that I had given my best mixing shot. The sad truth about my years of mixing practice is that a few minutes later I got a better mix by just letting Neutron do the job. I switched off all equalizers and compressors from every track, leaving only reverbs, delays and other modulation effects as they were. All I did was set Neutron on those channels and started the “Track Assistant” function, letting Neutron analyze and suggest settings for me. Then I just set the volume levels for all channels, adding here and there a bit of a deeper low cut, checking overlay frequencies with Neutron’s “Masking” function, not on all channels, only on bass and kick tracks to check they don’t interfere in the low frequencies. More or less, that was all. If it ain’t broken, don’t try and fix it.
Why should I take literary iZotope’s suggestion to use Neutron just as a starting point, if it did the job in a less than ten seconds quite better then I could ever do? I never thought that something like Neutron will appear so soon and honestly, this is the best plug-in that I ever got. Instead of a few hours of standard mixing I spend less than half an hour on the mix with a “little” help from Neutron. If it’s a simple song, then even less than fifteen minutes.
In a Row
We already mentioned that Neutron is a host for five basic mixing effects: an equalizer, compressor, exciter, transient shaper and limiter. Those effects can be inserted in any combination and you can simply drag and drop them horizontally, changing their order.
The first one is a 12-band equalizer. This can serve as normal static bands or as a dynamic equalizer allowing you to compress just a desired frequency range. All bands can also be side-chained, compressing or expanding the side-chained source. Maybe not such an important detail, but it is still a very nice addition that we get also a piano roll overlay view among the others frequency views, showing you the exact note name for the chosen frequency.
Let’s go back to band and filter types. You can choose between three different filter types for Low and High shelf bands: Analog, Baxandal and Vintage. Low and High cut bands work at ranges from 6 to 48 dB slopes, plus a resonant filter shape for adding some weight to the low end or some air on high end. Every band can also be soloed, helping you to know what the hell you are doing at any moment – a blessing for such “skilled” engineers as me. To make a long story short, I have all sorts of high quality equalizers in my arsenal, but this one proves to be extra flexible, shoulder to shoulder with some of the best ones.
Next is a multiband Compressor that can actually also work as a single band compressor. It offers two basic modes: clean modern and vintage compression. You can choose between Peak RMS or transparent “True Envelope” detection. It also has auto gain to automatically compensate level differences caused by the compression. There is also an auto release option and, as with the equalizer, it offers an option for internal or external side-chaining for all three bands. You can also easily set Threshold, Gain, Attack, Release or Mix ratio for every band. The compressor also has a multi-band spectrum view, where you can see how much and which part of a signal is being reduced. I’ve never learned a lot about how to work with compressors in the past, but now I’ve learned to manage this “Track Assistant” button everything is working as it should.
The three-band Exciter comes with a nice XY pad window placed under every band, where you can combine four saturation types: Tube, Warm, Tape or Echo. You can choose just one or blend between all four.
The Multi-band Transient Shaper comes with three bands and three different contour shapes: sharp, medium and smooth, along with additional attack and sustain controllers. It can work wonders on your drums, guitars and vocals. I decided to play safe with this one and use it mostly when “Track Assistant” was added in a rack.
The last one is a Limiter with Transparency, Low latency and Hard limiter algorithms. Of course, for your safety there is also a true picking limiter option.
All effects are top sounding and give clear, transparent, nicely defined results. In the Advanced version you also get also all those effects separately with a “Learn mode” where the program will suggest frequency spots that should be tweaked on the equalizer or at which frequency the bands should be split in case of other effects.
As a Whole
I didn’t have enough time to try all of the enormous number of presets that come with iZotope Neutron as I felt a bit too much in love with this “Track Assistant” function, but nevertheless, there are a wealth of different groups of presets ranked by instrument group names containing large number of various presets for acoustic, electric or any other group that belongs to that instrument. In a drum group we find many presets for kicks, percussion (in general or particular kit elements), snare, toms, and there is also a great variety of presets for string instruments and different moods inside the orchestral section. What is most impressive is every separate effect comes with a similar large number of presets. I glanced through all the directories of presets and didn’t find that any particularly group is missing (and I always find some).
Track Assistant recognized drums, percussive instruments, basses, guitars and vocals, while it adds all other instruments under the clean category. I presume they will add more categories in the future, but until then we can get along with some presets. I had some issues with some orchestral stuff but after changing some settings under Track Assistant, changing mode from “Broadband Clarity” to “Warm and Open” everything fell into place.
Another area where iZotope programming really shines is a “Masking” function that allow you to easily find frequencies that are critically overlapped inside the various instances of Neutron and even from single instances of a separated Neutron equalizer that is inserted on any other track. All you need to do is to press the Masking button and choose the second instance of the equalizer from a drop down menu where are all other equalizer instances are presented. At least for this function, it is helpful to go through the manual to learn how and where you should use it. It’s true what the iZotope experts say, that Masking, or frequency overlapping is not necessary a bad thing and unmasking should be performed only if you notice some level drops, moodiness or undefined parts and sometimes it is good to try with panning first before cutting some frequency out of a signal. There is also an inverse link function allowing you to link bands on different instances of equalizer making one band cut the same frequency where on another there is a boost.
Of course, iZotope provides some additional settings under Track Assistant mode allowing us to set Subtle, Medium or Aggressive mode to tell Neutron how it should process our signal. Additionally we can set another three different types of processing under every one of those three basic modes. Broadband clarity, Warm and Open or Upfront Midrange give different results depending on the chosen input signal and our personal wishes. I have realized that Warm and Open works well with some orchestral things, but on other hand you can also combine these three options between different instruments inside the arrangement as Neutron can’t tell the difference between a background and lead instrument.
Which Brings Us To….
I simply can’t tell you how priceless this plug-in is for me. It comes as a salvation, after all those years I’ve spent trying to learn something that I’m not good at, and I finally get a plug-in that allows me to concentrate on what I’m best at. I can finally enjoy making my music without being terrified how many additional hours I will spend mixing it. No, it is not a miracle tool, but trust me, it comes very, very close to this definition. A high cut here, a low pass there, a touch more compressor here and there and the end result is achieved. After all, this is not a toy aimed at mixing and mastering engineers, no matter how handy this tool could be for them, but it is a blessing for all musicians that want to finally achieve more professional sounding end results. Of course, it is just a tool, so there is still place for human mistakes, but if you have at least some basic knowledge of mixing then this could be a win-win combination. Izotope, you totally rock.
For Future Updates
Not that I complain much, but I have a few wishes. Or maybe let’s call them suggestions. Or let’s just say thoughts from a user’s point of view. I know, this is just version 1.00 and I’m aware how much effort, hours of planning, measuring and programming iZotope put into this plug-in, so I presume all the things I’m mentioning here will come in future updates. So, let’s start. Sometimes, quite rarely, Neutron does not correctly recognize some groups of instruments (basses that lack low end or orchestral percussion with low big hits). It would be nice to have an option for such cases, to tell Neutron which sort of input signal it could expect. Also, I hope to see some Orchestral options between basic recognized categories in some future update. There are plenty of Orchestral presets here, but by default, Track Assistant puts all orchestra instruments in the Clean, undefined category. Also having an advanced version, I’d be thankful if iZotope could add a Track Assistant option on separate plug-ins, not just in a main, multi version. The Learn function is nice and useful, but it would be a blessing to have an equalizer on every track that can suggest the best equalizing solution for that instrument. Same goes for other effects. Neutron is quite light on CPU considering the types and how many different effects are used simultaneously, but still, not so light that you can use it on every single track on anything but the fastest computer (like mine for example). Therefore, Track Assistant on separate effects could be a nice life-/CPU-saver. I also miss an option to copy settings from one instance to another. Not to mention that I simply could not understand why side-chaining works inside a single instance but not between more instances of Neutron, to side-chain two instances of Neutron directly resolving issues between bass and kick for example. At the moment, at least as far I know, it is possible only through external options. That’s all, no more “suggestions”. Time to enjoy this one-and-only, absolutely revolutionary plug-in.
More info at https://www.izotope.com/en/products/mix/neutron.html
The price for iZotope Neutron is $249USD and for iZotope Neutron Advanced $349 USD
ESSENTIAL for: It gives you an opportunity to become a musician again. Something that you dreamt about before you started your life as a musician, realizing later that you are doing almost everything but making music.