Toontrack EZmix 2
In our December 2011 issue, we reviewed Toontrack’s EZmix, a preset-based multi-effects plug-in (developed in conjunction with effects gurus Overloud) that’s designed to quickly help the user find an appro- priate effects chain for any recording application. Users browse and select presets based on easily-understood criteria, and each preset offers a preconfigured chain of effects with basic controls that let the user quickly tweak his sounds to taste.
EZmix’s utility is expanded by EZmix Packs, presets that are either created with a particular musical genre or application in mind or are inspired by the personal tastes of famous producers who lend their skills to the program. In our previous review, we looked at the first seven EZmix Packs: collections from famed mixmeisters Chuck Ainlay and Mark Needham, as well as genre-savvy Packs for Electronic, Metal, Modern Pop/Rock, Rock, and Songwriters’ Tools.
Toontrack recently raised the ante with EZmix 2. Let’s take a look at what’s new in the latest version, and while we’re at it, we’ll take a spin through some of the new EZmix Packs on offer.
EZmix 2 can run as a standalone application or as a plug-in for Windows XP SP3/Vista/7 hosts that handle VST and RTAS; the Mac version (OS X 10.5 or better) also includes AU. Once purchased and downloaded, each product can be authorized on up to four computers (and active on any two of them at a time); tracking your authorizations and serial numbers is made relatively easy and clear via your account at the Toontrack website.
What’s new in 2?
A lot! The number of effects in EZmix has more than doubled with the new version, and version 2 sports a new overall look. The new program is compatible with the old EZmix sounds and Packs; it just adds more options.
EZmix 1 had 16 effect types: 5-band parametric eq, lowpass filter, highpass filter, compressor, limiter, transient shaper, frequency gate, tape simulator, chorus, hall reverb, inverse reverb, tape delay, filter delay, distortion, bit crusher, and Overloud (a “tone enhancer” com- bining compression, eq, and harmonic generation).
EZmix 2 has now added: de-esser, multiband compressor, mastering lim- iter, advanced filter, aural exciter, special distortion (modeled, according to Toontrack, upon the famous Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi), guitar amplifiers, guitar cabinets, rotary speaker, wah-wah, vibrato, tremolo, octaver, flanger, phaser, stereo enhancer, and new reverbs (room, plate, and spring) with algorithms from Overloud’s BREVERB and SpringAge reverbs.
With few exceptions this list of additions divides neatly into two categories: effects intended to bring tracks and mixes to a new level of polish (including effects normally seen in the mas- tering chain) and effects commonly used on guitar. Although many Packs have great guitar sounds, Toontrack won’t have a fully guitar-centric Pack out until November... but the Mastering Pack makes heavy use of these new capabilities, as we’ll see.
While the “look” of the program is completely different— a virtual “gear storeroom” with the currently-active devices graphically highlighted (see the screenshots)—it works just like version 1 did. There’s a comprehensive browser that lets you hunt through presets by a variety of criteria and tag your favorites for storage in a separate list. You can sort by musi- cal genre (e.g. rock vs. jazz vs. electronica), intended source instrument (e.g. bass vs. guitars vs. drums), “type” (e.g. insert vs. group bus vs. aux vs. master), and more—even the particular producer who designed the sounds.
Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, you just click through the presets until you hear one that’s close to what you like. Then you can tweak the two Big Dials until you’re where you want to be—these two parameter con- trols actually alter multiple settings on multiple effects at once in a sensible way, so while some things are being turned up, others are simultaneously being turned down if that’s what the sound calls for. A pair of displays gives the two parameters fanciful titles like “Lift” or “Punk”, or in some cases a description of what’s being altered (“Bit Crusher Drive, Compressor Threshold and Ratio”), and they can be automated in your DAW, as can the Input and Output level knobs (each with its own level meter).
That’s it—browse, select, tweak, done.
The new Packs
Of the six newest EZmix Packs, four—Core Expansion, Dirt, Mastering, and a new Pack from veteran mixer Randy Staub—require the new effects in EZmix 2. The two other new Packs, Alternative Rock (by Chris Pitman, whose back- ground includes Guns N’ Roses and Tool) and Metal Essentials, work with old and new versions of EZmix.
Core Expansion is just that: an expanded set of sounds that provide a “core” for your mixing work, with a little something for everyone. EZmix 1 effects like the Transient Shaper stand next to new arrivals like the De-Esser and give you all sorts of cool audio tricks with just a click— check out Bass Lo-Hi Balancer and Snare Bottom Shortener. The widely varied presets range from very sub- tle and beautiful to truly raunchy (a 5-deep FX stack for tambourine?!), and makes this Pack a go-to for the user who wants a little bit more of everything.
Dirt is very aptly titled: this mass of hugely distorted, eq- tweaked audio filth holds the prize for “too much is never enough”, with chains of up to 11 effects in a single preset. The new stomp boxes and guitar amp/cabinet modules are in evidence here, but interestingly this Pack doesn’t have a large number of guitar patches (the few it does have are dev- astating). If you’re doing a lot of work in alternative, punk, metal, or any other genre that requires twisting and man- gling your sounds, you’ll want to audition this Pack.
The Randy Staub Pack showcases the workflow of an engi- neer whose multi-decade career includes artists from Michael Buble´ and Celine Dion to Metallica and Mo¨tley Cru¨e. What I found interesting about these presets was their simplicity and effectiveness—Randy rarely uses more than 3 modules in any preset, but gets amazing results on drum buses and keyboards, strings and vocals. There are a few “over the top” presets for vocal special effects, but for the most part what you get here is pixie dust: your toms hit harder, your over- heads sparkle while blending with the rest of your drums, your vocals take on character and interest, and your mix bus comes alive. Neat stuff!
The Mastering Pack rarely goes over-the-top with drastic effects, but these presets have a subtle power of their own that is perhaps the best showcase for EZmix 2’s depth and power. I don’t think this Pack can replace a good mastering engineer, but it’s a nice quick way to cleanly widen your stereo image, tighten your drums, control excessive bass rumble, smooth out the frequency response of your mixes, and provide volume without distortion. EZmix comes into its own here, and I can see some users buying this Pack and putting EZmix 2 on their DAWs’ Master bus permanently.
Users familiar with EZmix 1 will have a couple of things to get used to on this new version besides the new look. With several really powerful new modules under the hood, EZmix 2 can work your CPU quite a bit harder than the old version did. While most presets are still quite efficient, there are a rare few that could get you into trouble: one preset in Dirt gave me 18% CPU load in Ableton Live 8 running on an 8-core Mac Pro!
Perhaps a little more daunting is the price change. EZmix 2 has more than twice the number of available effects, and the added modules are very pow- erful; that’s reflected in a big jump in price. Does that make it too costly? I would argue not. You’re getting way more than twice the effects power for just over twice the price, and the upgrade from version 1 actually rewards early adopters by ending up a bit cheaper than buying version 2 new.
There simply isn’t anything else like EZmix out there; it’s fast, intuitive, sounds phenomenal, and provides you with the ability to not only trash up your sound but to improve it in truly musical ways. Last December I called EZmix a top con- tender for Handiest Plug-In Ever; EZmix 2 holds onto that claim and strengthens it with added capabilities that we’re not used to thinking of getting from a plug- and-play effects suite. It won’t replace dedicated plug-ins, but for newcomers to
mixing, and for pros in a hurry to get great results while on the clock, it offers serious value in terms of quality sound and time saved.
/Mike Metlay, Recording Magazine