Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review: iZotope Stutter Edit

Product: Stutter Edit

Developer: iZotope

Formats: VST & RTAS for Windows (XP, x64, Vista, 7) and VST, AU, & RTAS for Mac OSX 10.5.8 or later (Universal Binary)

Demo: Unlimited, fully functional demo for 10 days, after that, unregistered versions have periodic audio dropouts.

Price: Regular price - $249, special price until February 28th - $149

Regardless of if you’re a fan of his music or not, there is no denying that BT (Brian Transeau to his mom & dad) has had a notable impact on electronic music in the past decade plus. Through his work as a collaborator, remixer, producer, composer, and performer, there was scarcely a facet of electronic music he hadn’t dabbled in. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that he would eventually become involved in the creation of music software. Initially, his company Sonik Architects released a remixing tool for iPhone and iPad called Sonifi. This laid the groundwork for his more ambitious plans to release a plug-in to simplify the process of creating the intricate stutter edits his productions had become famous for. iZotope knew that such a plug-in would likely create big waves in the electronic music community, and acquired Sonik Architects in 2010. Now, the first fruits of their combined efforts has seen the light of day in the form of Stutter Edit.


To understand what this plug-in does, it is probably helpful to understand what the stutter edit technique itself is. Basically, the process involves cutting up pieces of audio into tiny pieces and repeating them in rhythmically interesting ways. This is a gross over-simplification of the technique, as it is often combined with filtering, delays, distortion and other effects to create even more complex types of ear candy. iZotope’s Stutter Edit aims to make these types of effects accessible to those of us who might not have the time or patience to make hundreds or thousands of individual audio edits. What makes Stutter Edit even more interesting, however, is that it is MIDI controlled, making it ideal for live use - something that would be impossible to do the old fashioned way.


Nothing extraordinary here. Click on the installer, follow the prompts, and you’re good to go. Copy protection comes in the form of a serial number, and can optionally use an iLok dongle if you so choose.


Stutter Edit’s interface is very slick indeed featuring a black quasi-3D background over which the plug-in’s preset manager, programming interface, and individual effects modules are cleanly and logically organized. It’s very easy on the eyes and seems as if it would remain so even in live situations where lighting is not always ideal.

I’m not going to go into each and every aspect of the interface here, as it’s quite complex, but basically you have file management functions at the top, followed by note grids for setting the timing and even pitch of your stutters beneath that, real time quantization options beneath that, and on the bottom 2/3’s of the interface, the individual effects controls. It’s quite easy to get around, and although it looks intimidating and confusing at first, once you understand how the effect works, it makes perfect sense. So let’s talk about that.


Because Stutter Edit is a MIDI-controlled effect, the way it needs to be set up varies depending on which host you are using (the excellent documentation covers this for the most popular hosts). As an example, I’m using Logic. So to use Stutter Edit, I create an Audio Instrument Track, and assign Stutter Edit to that track. I then route the audio I want to effect to a bus, which I then select as a Sidechain Input in the Stutter Edit program. Now, any time I want to trigger an effect, I press a key on my MIDI controller that has a Stutter Gesture or Generator Gesture assigned to it (or program the appropriate MIDI note in Logic’s Piano Roll view), and sit back and listen to the coolness.

As I mentioned earlier, there are two categories of effects available: Stutter Gestures and Generator Gestures. Stutter Gestures are strings of effects that can be triggered with a single key press. These can be as complex or as simple as you like, but the general way they work is that there is a Gesture Length which determines the overall timeline the chain of effects plays over (ie 1 bar, 4 bars, etc.). Note that you can set up real time input quantization for when notes are triggered, so even in a live situation, if your timing isn’t perfect, Stutter Edit will correct your triggering to the nearest assigned note value. Very slick!

In addition to the standard stutter effects (these can be made to play tonal values or even scales if you like), a Stutter Gesture can consist of delays, filters, panning, bit reduction, lofi, and buffer position effects in any combination you desire. When you turn an effect on, there is a slider control that lets you set the lower and upper range the effect will be modulated through over the length of the timeline. Static values are also possible, but the real fun comes in setting up modulation ranges and letting the effect change and mutate over the span of the gesture. Impossibly complex-sounding effects that would’ve previously required hours of intricate audio editing are an absolute breeze to program here.

Generator Gestures trigger different selectable types of noise and samples over the incoming audio, allowing you to create sweeps, build-ups, break-downs, and transitions. These effects are triggered in the same manner as Stutter Gestures, including the quantization, but you can also quantize when the effect ends, which is extremely important when you’re trying to build or transition at a specific bar line. Generally speaking, Generator Gestures are on their own timeline, separate from the Stutter Gestures, however, the Generator Gestures include a Stutter Gate Send, which allows you to send the Generator’s output to the Stutter Gesture section to comine both sections for even more complex effects.

What I’ve described so far, already clearly opens the door to some very interesting ear candy, but when you consider that every single key on your MIDI controller can trigger its own unique Stutter or Generator Gestures, you can see how powerful this plug-in is, especially in a live context. Each of these key mappings is stored as a Bank, which can be recalled at any time. Switching between banks is very quick, so if one keyboard’s worth of mappings isn’t enough for you (unlikely), even in a live situation, you can switch between banks pretty quickly.

CPU usage is fairly modest, although I did encounter some show-stopping overloads when triggering Generator effects. Triggering some Generator effects from the Preset Manager also occasionally resulted in an audio overload followed by some bizarre clicking that sometimes required me to restart Logic to stop. I have no doubt that iZotope will iron these issues out quickly, but it’s something you should be aware of for the time being, especially if you intended to use it live. [UPDATE: I spoke with a rep at iZotope who confirmed this bug would be fixed in a patch to be released shortly.]

Specs and techs aside, how is Stutter Edit to use? FUN. The live triggering of the effects allows a spontaneity that really encourages experimentation. Even better, it sounds great on pretty much any kind of audio you care to throw at it: vocals, synth bass, guitars, drums, even entire mixes. The range of effects possible is very far-reaching ensuring that you’re not going to get bored with it any time soon. On the contrary, I can pretty much guarantee you’re going to go through a couple days at least during which you try it out on everything you can find. It’s really that fun.

The only real reservation I have about Stutter Edit is the price. Until the end of February, you can pick up Stutter Edit for a very reasonable $149, but after that, the price shoots up to $249, which I think is a bit steep even for a relatively complex plug-in like this. Your mileage may vary, I just think in a rough economy and a plug-in market where effects are becoming cheaper all the time, $249 is a bit excessive.

If I was a betting man, I’d say you’re going to be hearing this effect all over dance music in the coming year - probably to excess. Will it become the next Auto-Tune in terms of over-use? That remains to be seen, but there is just no way a plug-in that sounds this great and is this much fun to use isn’t going to be popular. No matter how people chose to use and abuse it, however, iZotope and BT have done a bang-up job with Stutter Edit and I look forward to seeing what the partnership brings us next. Might I suggest BT’s Hair Frosting plug-in?



Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, Tom! I have to admit that Stutter Edit looks really interesting for glitchy effects. But on the other hand there are quite a lot of competitors (Native Instruments The Finger, Twisted Tools Buffeater, Sugar Bytes Artillery 2, etc.) that are cheaper or even free (e.g. Buffeater Lite).

Are there any unique features in Stutter Edit compared to other MIDI controlled glitch effects?

Alan said...

Whenever I read the words "stutter edit", I always think of Shep Pettibone's remixes of Madonna from the 1980s... now THERE was some time consuming and frustrating editing (TAPE!).

Tom said...

Anonymous - I'm nor really familiar with any of the plug-ins you mentioned, but I've used various free buffer-related plug-ins for glitch type effects before. What struck me about Stutter Edit is how full featured and well thought out it was. Apparently BT used an early version of the plug-in for awhile in live performances, and I think that shows, as when I was reading the manual, I was frequently hit with a "man, they thought of everything" kind of feeling. Download the demo and try it out yourself... that's the best way to get a feel for it.

Glin said...

I wonder why they didn't call it AtomStutterizer Edit. I wonder just how this bit of software compares to the Atomizer feature on the TI, or if this blows the Atomizer out of the water. As a VST it leads me to think "Yes", but seeing as how the TI is just a VST with keys and knobs, I might be wrong. Perhaps some other Waveformless-er could enlighten me.

Joel R. Bisson said...

@TLAdmin the TI on VSTi means that is a VST Instrument, Virtual Studio Technology Instrument is what VSTi stands for, hope this helps.

oliver schmitt said...

great review tom! i must say i really like it - its quite complex but you can really create weird things with it :-)

best, olli