The rise of downloadable music has proceeded more quickly than nearly everyone imagined. When “MP3” surpassed “sex” as the number one search term on the Internet, it was clear to those who work with recorded music that consumers had embraced this new technology. With the rise of MP3.com and the onslaught of peer-to-peer services like Napster, MP3 files have become the de facto standard for online music. For a large percentage of listeners, MP3s have supplanted CDs, much as CDs crowded out LPs before them.
Product PointsApplications: Multimedia; studio; broadcast
Key Features: VST and DirectX plug-ins for Mac and PC; five mastering control actions (EQ, reverb, stereo enhance, gain and volume)
Contact: Arboretum Systems, 650-738-4750; 800-700-7390; www.arboretum.com
This is a mixed blessing for those of us in the pro audio world. Unlike previous revolutions in delivery formats, this one is notable because the new format provides a lower sound quality than the one it replaces. While a 10:1 or better reduction in file size is crucial for trading files, the loss of data is audible. With this in mind, Arboretum Systems released Realizer Pro 1.1, a real-time plug-in that promises to make MP3s sound closer to CD quality.
Realizer Pro can be purchased as a CD-ROM or as a download from the manufacturer’s Web site ($74.95). Versions are available for Mac and PC, both of which are included on the CD. The software is not standalone, but is designed to work with your player, encoder or editor as a DirectX or VST plug-in (also available are Realizer Shareware, for $9.95, and Realizer Plus, for $19.95, as plug-ins for Winamp and SoundJam-Ed.).
Realizer is thus compatible with most audio software, notably Sound Forge and Winamp, two popular choices for professional and consumer MP3 creation, respectively. This open architecture also means you can process nearly any audio format supported by the host software, including WAV, AIFF, and of course MP3, at most sampling rates and bit depths.
The interface is clean and straightforward. It is divided into five distinct sections: equalization, reverb, stereo enhance, gain and volume. Each section contains individual sliders for accessing parameters, and has a separate bypass control, which is a very helpful touch.
The equalization section features four side-by-side sliders. The two middle sliders are labeled mid-lo and mid-hi, and are just that – low and midrange boost or cut. Specs for these are not provided, but spectrum analysis reveals that the low-mid band is centered around 300 Hz and the high-mid band at around 1 kHz, both with a Q between 1.5 and 2 octaves, and 10 dB of boost or cut.
The low- and high-end sliders, however, are not straight EQ, but harmonic synthesizers. Each of these adds harmonic distortion to augment the low and high frequency ranges of the tracks.
The low control sounds somewhat like a cross between a loudness control and the bass maximization algorithm that is ubiquitous on consumer portable stereo systems. The high-end enhancer sounds like it is adding second and third order harmonics, as in an aural exciter.
In the reverb section are controls for diffusion, feedback and mix. The diffusion control affects the smear, or the ability to hear distinct echoes, while the feedback control affects the reverb’s length, or tail. There are no controls for room size or predelay.
Below the reverb sliders is a single slider marked stereo spread. The product literature does not describe the actual nature of the processing, but to my ears it sounded like a combination of phase shift and equalization. Using sweep and burst tones, again this was confirmed. In fact, at its most extreme setting, the sweep tones went from a flat line to what appeared to be a wave, alternating boost and cut about one-third octave at a time from the left to the right channel, almost like a wah pedal.
Additionally, some of the frequencies are delayed by about 10 milliseconds. The combination of these algorithms serves to psycho-acoustically distinguish the left and right programs from each other, causing the listener to perceive a higher degree of stereo separation, although with some cost to fidelity.
The last section is the gain section, with one lone slider marked “loud.” The gain section is essentially a compressor with fixed-ratio threshold and speed, in addition to heavy gain makeup. This effectively squashes the dynamic range and normalizes in one stroke. The final output section contains real-time meters with peak indicator and stereo volume controls.
Installation could not be easier. A simple click on the setup icons and you’re ready to go, without even having to reboot. I did not encounter any hitches getting the software to be quickly recognized in my audio programs.
The Realizer is a coarse tool, best used with restraint, especially on already mastered studio recordings. Nonetheless, for quick adjustments, all the basic tools are at hand.
The “loud” control works as advertised, doing a very effective job of boosting the average perceived volume and punch of the track.
The equalization section is fairly effective in adding that sought-after high-end sparkle and resonant low end. The Realizer’s harmonic synthesizer is perhaps closer to what people have in mind when they are looking to brighten a track, add rumble or remove muddiness or hollowness.
I found the stereo control to be a little disconcerting. Using EQ, delay, and phase shift to widen the stereo image can be a crude process. When used with extreme subtlety, it was possible to make some minor improvements in extremely dark and centered mixes. But for most pre-recorded material, stereo imaging should not be a problem. If a mix is overly centered, little substance can be achieved by working on the two-track mix.
The reverb was respectable sounding when appropriate. In general, additional reverb is not needed on mastered recordings.
Since the plug-in is designed to help make MP3s sound more like CD quality, I brought up side-by-side versions of some familiar recordings in a variety of formats. I used straight 44.1/16-bit WAV files as a benchmark, and compared them with MP3s that I had encoded myself at a variety of compression ratios, and with a couple different encoders.
Even with trained ears and high-quality monitoring, the MP3s compared very well indeed with the uncompressed audio.
Predictably, at the higher compression ratios the differences became more apparent. When using low-quality MP3 software, like some of the freeware and shareware products available for download, the characteristic fuzziness can become quite obvious.
The key with the Realizer is restraint. I found that I rarely moved any of the sliders more than about five percent from their default position. Nearly imperceptible changes in each of the parameters, when used together, were enough to tighten up a problem file effectively. For audio that has not been mastered, a little stronger touch was appropriate, but in general, subtle nudges yielded the best results.
If you are dissatisfied with the quality of your downloads, or wish to sweeten your home or live recordings, Realizer Pro 1.1 is an effective tool. It is easy to use, places all the important features at your fingertips and is reasonably priced.
Clearly, more advanced mastering tools are available, but the programmers at Arboretum have identified a niche and filled it well.