Review – soothe from oeksound
If you don’t hear it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. That goes both for not-so-obvious resonances in your audio material and instances of soothe on your tracks.
by Aljoša Feldin, Sept. 2017
A Problem soothe Is Solving
One of the first and most noticeable nuisances when dealing with vocals in your mixes are all the sibilant sounds that authors of lyrics can’t avoid putting in there. Once you treat these with a de-esser of your choice, you might think you are home free, but you are not. We record vocals in different budget-related circumstances, so, it is likely that in your vocal track, you have some resonances generated by the room in which the vocal was recorded, there might be some resonant artifacts generated by the microphone used, and last but not least, the singer’s vocal tract itself is a source of surges in some frequencies, that she or he doesn’t have much control over. So it’s time for some notching with your favorite EQ, dynamic EQ, or for broader moves, multiband compressor.
But first, you need to clearly identify the offending frequencies. If you can’t put your finger on exactly what it is that is bothering you in the track, you resort to a well-known sweeping of a single band high-Q EQ boost listening for sudden spikes. In next step you need to decide how to treat the identified frequencies. That involves one parameter (Q) if you are notching, two if you are dipping (in addition to Q, the depth of a dip) and three more when using dynamic EQ or multiband compressor (with threshold, attack, and release on top of the previous two). And it doesn’t stop with vocals. Think overheads, hi-hat, guitar amps, and pretty much any acoustic instrument tracked. The work we put into treating these tracks for resonances accumulates rapidly. The reason I am wasting your time with things you probably already understand, is exactly that. By doing all that, we are wasting time we should be spending doing something creative.
Enter soothe. Oeksound from Helsinki, Finland, claim to have devised a fast and user-friendly solution to these problems. soothe is advertised as a spectral processor for suppressing resonances in the mid and high frequencies.
Appearance Transformed into Reality
Should one have to guess, soothe transforms the incoming signal to a frequency spectrum and looks for frequencies the amplitude of which exceeds some threshold that is relative to signal’s overall volume and/or to amplitudes of frequencies in the vicinity of the identified ones. Based on the chosen parameter values, it then suppresses the amplitudes of these respective frequencies. Again, one would guess that in order not to mistakenly eliminate higher harmonics of the signal’s base frequency, there are big chunks of theory coming both from music and physics, backed by some learning on typical sound sources, behind this plugin.
The manual explains the GUI layout and parameters’ functions well.
The large depth knob controls the overall strength of the process. It acts as a soft-knee global threshold that is relative to the input signal’s strength, i.e., the displayed dB values do not have any meaning in absolute terms. Since higher values mean more reduction, this would actually best be read as input drive into a compressor with fixed threshold that compensates for the amount of drive in the output stage.
Frequency and reduction graph (FRG) conveniently shows where in the spectrum soothe is operating and by how much respective frequencies are suppressed.
In addition to the global depth, soothe provides five filters to differentially concentrate on frequency ranges that you might find more critical than others. The shape of these filters is shown in the FRG. Black and white dots resemble HP and LP filters, respectively, while red, yellow, and purple act as parametric bands. Since we have the operation of parametric EQ stamped onto our genes already, you are bound to make couple of mistakes when tweaking these filters at first. For example, when you drag the red dot down, you are not reducing the level of frequencies in its respective band; you are reducing the amount of their suppression. Admittedly, the vertical position of the dot is called sensitivity (sens) and is shown to the left of the FRG, so it makes sense; higher values, higher the sensitivity to frequencies in this band relatively to global depth parameter. Similarly, when you increase the value of bandwidth parameter, you might at first expect to be tweaking the Q value, but you are not. You are increasing the width of the range in which you have instructed soothe to cut more or less relatively to global depth.
All filters can be disengaged by double clicking on their respective dots in the FRG or to the left of it, in the band section. It is worth noting that with all filters bypassed, soothe is still working following global parameters. This is from where one of my wishes for future releases is coming. Occasionally, I would like to be able to solo a particular band to zero in on its frequencies. You can still do it, if you set HP and LP filters accordingly, but it is couple of moves to many, and then you need to set them back where they were, if they are in use.
All the fun starts with global sharpness and selectivity parameters. Sharpness controls the width of the cuts. Higher the values, sharper the cuts, so, it acts somewhat as a Q value. With a lower value here, soothe will be suppressing a wider range by a smaller amount, while with a higher value, there will be a higher number of narrower and deeper cuts in the selected range. Selectivity sets a threshold that particular frequency’s amplitude must exceed to be understood as a resonance by soothe. Higher values mean that soothe is pickier and will need higher spikes to trigger the suppression, i.e., like a standard compressor’s threshold.
There is a learning curve to the plugin and sometimes the changes it brings are so subtle that delta button is really useful, as via a null test, you get to hear exactly what is being taken out of the source.
There are also standard stereolink, oversample, resolution, wet (dry/wet mix), soft bypass and preset management features there.
The first and the most obvious is the application this thing was created for. I am dealing with a female vocalist with nice and open voice, but as soon as she so much as thinks of belting, she develops some whistling living predominantly at 3.1 kHz and 4.3 kHz. Being a big fan of a higher number of smaller moves, I would typically use soothe as the first effect in the chain and would aim at reducing these known resonances by some 3dB, collaterally cutting some minor offenders along the way. I would focus in with appropriate filters, with sharpness around 5-6 and selectivity 6-8. In order not to overdo it, I would stop here and would next follow with some other dynamic EQ to check the residue at the deepest dips – resonances that soothe identified.
Another interesting thing to do is to check for comb filtering artifacts in your tracks. With both sharpness and selectivity set relatively high and with global depth at some level that would result in 1+ dB cuts, check the delta mode. If you can easily recognize comb filtering in what you hear, chances are that you would be able to convince yourself that the soothed sound is cleaner and closer compared to non-soothed one. With some appropriate filtering, for me, this works even on an amped bass track.
There is a way to train your ears to recognize offending frequencies and the respective ranges they live in quickly. Along the way, you also get a grip on how soothe operates. Bypass all filters, dial in sharpness=0, selectivity=10, and switch to delta mode. You don’t hear anything, as you shouldn’t. You’ve instructed soothe to look for strong aggregate but relative surges of energy in very wide frequency ranges and there just are not any. When you start increasing sharpness slowly, first prominent downward oriented blobs start to show up. Usually you would first hear quite some low middle frequencies that you actually don’t want to take out. This is unavoidable because, energy-wise, lower frequencies are normally dominant and soothe was designed to cope with frequencies above these anyway, so you engage HP filter with appropriate settings and tweak it as you go. When you increase sharpness further, you will begin to hear the delta sound becoming more and more unnatural, which means you are zeroing in on the problem frequencies.
Don’t Do It by Default
As with many other plugins, soothe’s promise of providing your mixes with instant magic, backed with praise by some of the industry’s top producers and mixing engineers, is very tempting and you may quickly find yourself overdoing it. To that end, there is even a preemptive entry on oeksound’s FAQ page where they address this issue suggesting that one can always bring some life back to the track with post-soothe saturation. To avoid that, just don’t overdo it. I noticed one needs to be careful especially with where and how transients on mic’d guitar amps, for example, are affected.
Also, it helps to know your sound source a little. As shown in the two pictures of a soothe instance on a trumpet track, no matter at which of the two extremes the global selectivity parameter is, soothe is picking and cutting the same frequencies. This is a consequence of trumpet having very prominent higher harmonics with potential resonances from tracking not being powerful enough to be picked up. Soothing this track simply means taking away its essence.
Admittedly, once you spent some time mastering it, soothe is quite a time saver. You can always achieve similar results with a dynamic EQ, but it will take you longer. To introduce artifacts from its process, you must push soothe really hard and it’s not the linear phase pre-ringing one would expect, according to oeksound, it’s just noise that’s left after removing resonances very surgically. There are two wishes this reviewer has about the plugin’s GUI. It would be handy to be able to pick some other color scheme as the light gray/light blue/white makes it hard to read the Frequency and Reduction Chart (I know, we should concentrate on what we hear ) and to the same point, a resizable or simply bigger GUI would be beneficial as well.
If you are on a control-freak side of mixing, soothe will never render your favorite dynamic EQ obsolete, but it will save you a lot of time and when used wisely, will improve your sound. You can always use a 20-day fully functional trial period to check it out for yourself.
For more info and/or to grab it, you would want to go here: soothe by oeksound.
Details: Available in 32-bit and 64-bit and compatible with all major DAWs. No dongle required. Online access required for the initial activation of the product and trial. One license allows activation of the product on 3 machines. Licenses are valid for both Windows and Mac OSX platforms.