Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review: Tone2 AkustiX

Product: AcustiX Audio Enhancer
Developer: Tone2
Format: 32 and 64-bit VST and standalone for PC. VST and AU for Mac.
Demo: Demo version (which shuts down after ten minutes of use) on the product page.
Price: $79

Tone2 have made quite a name for themselves with their excellent Gladiator 2, ElectraX, and other synths, but this time out, they've switched things up a bit and presented us with AkustiX, an effect plug-in they describe as an "audio enhancer" designed to help give your mix a more polished sound.

Installation of AkustiX comes via a download and standard installer. Once your plug-in is installed, you locate a keyfile you received with your order, and you're good to go!

The manual for AkustiX comes via a 16-page PDF (only 9 of which contain the actual information). It describes the functions of each portion fairly well, although it could probably stand to go a bit in-depth. Most of the functions are relatively easy to figure out just via experimentation, though, so this isn't a huge deal.

The overall look of AkustiX is very similar to Gladiator 2's with a dark background and a blue preset display, offset with orange and grey elements. All of the controls are nicely sized and labels are easy to read.

The Browser is found in the top left portion of the interface, allowing easy navigation through the presets, file operations (saving/loading presets and banks), and a bypass switch that allows you to A/B the effected and dry signal. A volume control is also found here.

Immediately to the right of that is the first effect block, called the Psycho EQ. This is basically a dynamic EQ that boosts and EQs frequencies in a non-linear way that is supposed to mimic the way human hearing works. The end result is supposed to be a signal that sounds louder without necessarily being all that much louder. There are four controls here: Dynamic Fatbass, Loudness Mix, Loudness Bassboost, and Tone. Dynamic Fatbass is essentially a bass enhancer designed to make a signal sound louder by boosting its bass. It sounds very nice on individual bass and kick tracks, but I found it to get a bit muddy with full mixes unless you're extremely subtle. The Loudness Mix and Loudness Bassboost are made to work together where Loudness Mix controls the overall wet/dry mix of the loudness effect, whereas the Loudness Bassboost specifically controls the bass levels. This was a bit more effective on full mixes, as it allows you to keep the low end a bit more under control. The Tone knob is a simple control for adjusting the overall tonal balance of the signal, allowing you to brighten or muffle the sound as needed. A little bit goes a long way.

On the next row of controls down, you'll find the Ultra Stereo effect, which is divided into Virtual Surround and Silky Surround controls. The Ultra Stereo section is intended to alter the perceived spaciousness and distance of the mix and can also be used to "stereoize" mono mixes. The Virtual Surround parameter allows you to add a decent sense of space so long as you don't over-do it. On the other hand, I found the Silky Surround to be anything but. It tended to destroy the punch in drums and added a strange, almost mechanical/metallic quality to audio at higher settings.

Next to this is the Phase Enhance, which has two controls, Lazer Punch and Diffuse Cream. While these effects are intended to "mask non-lineararities in loudspeakers and simulate a more natural dispersion of sound, I didn't find them terribly useful. Lazer Punch is supposed to add an "analog" type punch to signals, but to my ears, it just adds a chirpy quality to attacks (much like a laser sound effect). I didn't find it to sound particularly analog, nor did I think it added much punch. A good sound design tool for psy-trance kick drums? Absolutely. Useful for adding punch to a whole mix? Not so much. The Diffuse Cream is supposed to add a "soft, silky" analog quality to your mix, but I just found that it sucked all the life out of everything I used it on. It might be good on individual pad or string tracks (or anything without much of a fast attack), but I thought it sounded awful on full mixes.

Next to this is the Multi Exciter. This is similar in function to other audio exciters that are intended to add brightness and sparkle to whatever you feed through it. The controls here are a Mix control (for setting the wet/dry mix of the effect), and a Frequency control for setting the frequency the exciter does its thing on. I'll be honest, I couldn't notice much difference with this effect applied even with the Mix knob cranked. Sweeping through the Frequency control didn't achieve much audible difference except at the very low end, where it introduced an odd "rattling/sizzling" to high frequency sounds.

On the very right of this row, you'll find the Smart Filter, which is tasked with adding clarity and openess to your mix. It features a Clarity Enhance knob, which is the parameter for adding this clarity. At lower settings, this adds a subtle bit of crispness to high frequency elements, but at anything over 50%, I once again got the sizzling artifacts and the transients sound smeared. The Noise Reduction is decent enough for basic noise reduction duties and at extreme settings, could be used for some interesting sound design as it adds a bit of a digital warping sound.

On the bottom row is the Stereo Enhance section, which uses the old trick of delaying one side of an audio signal by a small amount to produce an exaggerated stereo field. What makes this one special is that it is multi-band, allowing you to dial in different settings for your low, mid, and high frequencies. Each band consists of a Gain, Widener, and Delay control. If you've got a pretty well-arranged track, this works pretty nicely. It's more subtle than the Ultra Stereo effect, and the control by frequency band allows you to use it on a full mix without widening bits you don't want to widen. Only the mid band has a frequency control. It would be nice to add this control for the low-end and high-end as well, to allow users to get a bit more precise. There is also a Mono button for checking mono compatibility.

Finally, we have the generously-sized Display section which gives you a real time look at the frequency or phase of the effected signal, depending on which mode it is in. My only real complaint here is that it ceases to function when the effect is in bypass mode. It would be nice, since this section doesn't effect the sound quality, if it were to still remain active in bypass so users can compare the dry and effected signal.

While Tone2 seems to intend for AkustiX to be used on full mixes, I found it was hard to get results that sounded great across the entire mix. While a parameter might sound nice on the high end, for example, it may at the same time, mess up the low-end. Indeed, I found most of the presets to sound pretty lousy on most of the mixes I fed it. Dialing in more subtle settings can help tame things a bit, but I still don't think that's where the strength of this plug-in lies. On individual tracks, I found AkustiX much more useful. Effects that might have ruined the transients of drum and bass sounds, often sounded great on an individual pad or string sound track, for instance.

Aside from some of the oddities mentioned previously, there are audio artifacts when turning the knobs (a bit similar to the clicking/sizzling sound). These aren't a deal breaker, but are a bit unpleasant to listen to. Granted, this isn't the type of effect you're likely to tweak in real time onstage, but as you're trying to dial in settings in the studio, it can be a little distracting.

One feature I think would be immensely useful for AkustiX is an overall Wet/Dry knob to set the level of all the effects at the same time. As this is a plug-in that works best when used subtly, such a control would be a nice addition.

Overall, AkustiX is a mixed bag. Tone2 obviously have the interface pretty well sussed out. It's easy to figure out and unless you want to know the technical explanation of how each effect is working, you probably won't need to crack the manual if you're familiar with plug-ins in general. As a general sound-shaping tool for individual tracks, AkustiX isn't bad, but in all my experimenting, nothing jumped out at me as something I HAD to have. And in some instances, I didn't find certain effects to be pleasing no matter what I did with them. Your mileage may vary, so the best bet is to download the demo and give it spin yourself. As an overall mastering/mixing tool for full mixes... well, it's certainly cheaper than many other plug-ins aimed at the same purpose, but one could argue you get what you pay for and mastering certainly isn't an area where you want to skimp, in my opinion. [6/10]

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