Vocal Processing Plug-in For Mac OS & Windows By Paul White
With up to 13 different processing tools available, if Nectar 2 can't make your vocal track sound good, nothing can!
Nectar, reviewed in SOS March 2011 (/sos/mar11/articles/nectar.htm) was originally developed by iZotope as a comprehensive toolkit of vocal production elements wrapped into a single plug-in environment. Like the original, the new version 2 of the Nectar plug-in contains 11 separate processing sections, but the palette has been changed slightly, and now comprises Harmony, Plate Reverb, FX, Pitch, Delay, De-Esser, Saturation, Compressors, Gate, EQ and Limiter. The update also sees these functions joined by two separate plug-ins as part of a more upmarket Production Suite version. One of these is based on the section of the original plug-in that dealt with controlling the level of breaths,In Overview mode, you see simplified versions of all 11 processing modules with just a handful of controls. while the second new plug-in caters for offline pitch editing and correction.
Nectar 2 is a cross-platform plug-in that works in RTAS, AudioSuite, VST2, VST3, Audio Unit and AAX formats, including the 64-bit AAX protocol used by Pro Tools 11, and is authorised online or to an iLok key.
In The Dark
Other than Breath and the offline pitch editing, Nectar still opens as a single plug-in window, this time with a slightly larger, redesigned graphic interface that bears an obvious family resemblance to iZotope's Ozone 5 and Alloy 2 all-in-one processing plug-ins. Though it looks quite different from the previous version, being darker and considerably less orange, Nectar 2 remains, in the main, easy to navigate, as most of the text is white on a very dark grey background. However, iZotope have succumbed to the temptation to make just a couple of things in the meter section black on a dark grey background, rendering them almost invisible under anything other than ideal viewing conditions. I don't know why extremely dark GUIs are currently in vogue but I'm not altogether in favour; I'm all for style but not if it gets in the way of functionality!
Apart from having the spectrum analyser/EQ screen at the top rather than the bottom, Nectar 2 actually works in pretty much the same way as before. A browser is used to select presets from drop-down menus classified by musical genre, and there are over 150 new presets in version 2. As with the previous version, a large number of 'macro' presets can be called up by the user and then adjusted in an Overview mode using a manageable number of controls, making it well suited both to professionals who need results in a hurry and those less experienced users who are not so confident about their processing skills. Each preset calls up the required combination of the individual processing sections and their settings and the simplified Overview controls let you switch individual processing modules on and off and adjust key elements of the sound. In Overview mode, a single slider might actually adjust several parameters behind the scenes, and the controls are often named after terms producers might use; instead of being presented with a shelving high EQ, for example, you might be invited to adjust a control called Sparkle.
Clicking the Overview button brings up an Advanced mode for deeper editing, which brings access to the individual controls of each section in about the same depth as you'd expect to see for conventional plug-ins. In Advanced mode the various processing modules can also be reordered by dragging and dropping to create custom signal flows, while in basic mode all you can do is switch individual modules on or off and adjust the basic front-panel controls. The lower DSP, lower-latency Tracking mode has been retained as an alternative to the 'full fat' Mixing mode, the latter using lookahead where necessary to fine tune the processing at the expense of slightly higher latency. Metering is included for the inputs and outputs along with level controls as before, but if you already own iZotope's Insight metering plug-in, this can also be viewed from within Nectar 2.
The headline addition in version 2 is an automatic harmony generation module. Advanced mode lets you edit the parameters of an individual module in more detail. This is the new Harmony module.This works as well as most such devices, and can sound reasonably natural as long as you sit the harmonies behind the main vocal rather than featuring them too strongly — they can start to sound obviously 'electronic' if turned up too far. The algorithm is able to make a guess at suitable notes by analysing the main vocal melody, but where it can't do this correctly, you can input your own choice of key or enter your own scale data on a miniature keyboard display. Depending on the song's chord structure, a single harmony setting may or may not work, so you might find yourself having to break the vocal part up across several tracks and then apply a different harmony setting to each section to make it fit the song. Alternatively, you can use MIDI to force it to generate specific harmony notes as long as your host allows MIDI to be sent to audio processing plug-ins (Logic, for insance, still doesn't let you do this). Up to four harmony voices can be created, and the gain, pan, delay and other parameters of the individual harmony parts can be adjusted using an X/Y control pad. Parts can also be set to unison and detuned or delayed slightly to give a layered vocal effect.
Updated pitch-tracking algorithms are used both in the harmony and pitch correction sections. The original Nectar Pitch Correction module was clearly based on the classic Auto-Tune paradigm, employing a correction speed control that determined how quickly the pitch was brought to match the closest target scale note. The new version looks rather different, but does more or less the same job. You can choose from a variety of preset scales or create custom scales, and as ever, fast correction speed settings give you the familiar 'hard-tuned' robotic sound with slower speeds sounding more natural. There's also the option to preserve the formant of the processed vocal, which is useful when creating harmonies.The Production Suite includes a new offline pitch processor reminiscent of Celemony's Melodyne.
The new off-line pitch editor bundled with the Production Suite is reminiscent of a simplified version of Celemony's Melodyne Plug-in. Audio must first be loaded into the plug-in; it is then passed to the offline editor, and kept in sync with its correct DAW timeline position using ReWire. This works perfectly well and is a useful tool to have on your side if you don't have Melodyne, though Melodyne does offer a greater degree of control to include things like pitch droop and note length.
The Breath control module has also been turned into a separate plug-in, apparently because it requires lookahead to work and so incurs additional latency, which made the original Nectar plug-in less suited to being used during tracking. It works much as it did in the earlier version of Nectar and is useful for taming excessive breaths without losing them altogether, something that is tedious to do manually. Once the threshold is set, the process is reasonably forgiving of normal changes in vocal level. The gain-reduction line superimposed on the waveform display shows where the process is being applied. You can also audition only the detected breath sounds to make sure you're not eating into anything you shouldn't.
The revamped reverb module in Nectar 2 emulates an EMT 140 stereo plate reverb unit, and is a definite step up from the original Nectar reverb, getting very close to that vintage plate sound — always a favourite on vocals. There are relatively few controls in Advanced mode but there's everything you need to get the job done, including pre-delay, reverb decay time and wet/dry mix, with a graphic display of the reverb tail or audio spectrum.
Delay likewise remains a key effect in just about any type of vocal processing, and here the delay itself can be modulated or flavoured with controlled distortion as well as having all the expected controls for delay time, feedback and so on. Delay times can be sync'ed to host tempo when necessary, but there's no tap tempo facility, which I would have found useful when working on material recorded 'free' of the grid. Five saturation models named Analogue, Retro, Tape, Tube and Warm allow coloration to be added to the delays. A conventional expander/gate is available to mute low-level noise, and now has a variable attenuation setting. The limiter is quite conventional and seems to be the same as in the earlier version.
The De-Esser section models the classic Dbx 902 split-band de-esser, so called because it compresses only frequencies above the split point when a sibilant is encountered. It isn't clear whether it works differently from the one in the original Nectar — I couldn't hear any difference in the end result, and it does a good job unless the sibilance is really pronounced. A single slider controls the amount of sibilance reduction, and in Advanced mode you can set your own de-essing frequency, this time via a draggable line in its display window rather than a physical slider. This section works very effectively providing you don't overdo the processing to the point where you give the singer a lisp.
The Compressor module is largely unchanged, with four compressor types (Digital, Vintage, Optical and Solid State), plus switching for RMS or peak side-chain detection and a graphical display of the compressor curve. Parallel compression is available via a Mix control, and in this new incarnation it is also possible to set up two different compressors in parallel, the controls for each being selected via Compressor 1/2 tabs. The Advanced version of the Saturation module also offers a wet/dry mix control for parallel distortion treatments, which can be particularly effective for thickening rock and urban vocals. There are also more aggressive digital distortion options for when you want something that sounds just plain nasty.
In the EQ section, iZotope's original parametric equaliser algorithms are now augmented by new Baxandall and Pultec-style filters. Finally, new to Nectar 2 is a general 'FX' module. This has four subsections that cover modulation effects such as phasing and chorus plus Distortion, Decimate (downsampling) and a type of stutter delay called Shred.
I recall being rather impressed by the first version of Nectar; the presets alone could bring a smile of instant gratification to your face. Incarnation two delivers more of the same, but with a cleaner interface layout and some worthwhile improvements and augmentations. Harmony is a great addition, and while the FX section offers mainly familiar effects, it is good to have it on board.
Inevitably there are some presets that seem a touch over-processed, but you can either skip these or dial back the settings to a more sensible level. Building some of these treatments from scratch would take a lot of time and skill, so although an experienced DAW user may be able to get similar effects by combining existing plug-ins, Nectar 2 can still be a great time-saver for the busy professional and is most definitely not just a tool for beginners. Advanced edit mode isn't particularly scary, so I'd encourage all users to venture in there from time to time as you can't break anything. Even so, the simplified Overview mode will give you an ample degree of control in many instances. For me, the vastly improved reverb alone makes the upgrade worth the ticket price, and I'm sure users will also have a lot of fun with the auto harmony capabilities.
All the individual components of Nectar have numerous equivalents, but there are far fewer choices when it comes to all-in-one solutions. Check out Toontrack's EZ mixing tools and Waves' various producer signature collections for the nearest equivalents.
- A versatile toolkit of vocal processing tools accessed from one plug-in window and saved as a single plug-in setting.
- Very easy to use, even in Advanced mode.
- Usefulness of the presets is necessarily limited by their being somebody else's idea of what is needed, but if you're prepared to adjust them or delve into Advanced mode from time to time, that won't be a restriction.
- No delay tap tempo.
Nectar 2 is a well thought-out set of vocal processing tools, presented in a format that should suit both experienced users in a hurry and those new to mixing. The new reverb sounds pretty authentic, and the automated harmony generation can be useful as long as it's used sparingly.