Posted on February 20th, by Graeme in Mini Reviews.

When you’re just starting out in your music career usually the budget isn’t brilliant or at least you need to buy a lot of stuff first up. This can mean compromises in microphones, preamps, audio interfaces… you name it. Later on you’ll begin to hear the shortfalls that affordable gear suffers – which isn’t to say it’s bad, only that top quality gear deserves a top quality price. You will hear the difference.

One solution for getting more out of budget equipment might be to invest in a plug-in like the Noveltech Vocal Enhancer from Plugin Alliance. It’s an effect that promises to add polish and a professional feel to otherwise lack-lustre recordings.

Do these “fix it in the mix plug-ins” really work?

The secret ingredient in the Vocal Enhancer’s make-up is called an Intelligent Adaptive Filter (IAF) which promises to take all the hard work out of identifying and selecting the characteristics in a recording that can be enhanced. That’s achieving something that normally takes years of experience to learn. The GUI allows the user to focus on a specific frequency range between High and Low cut-off filters, and the Vocal Enhancer then works its algorithmic magic to draw out the more “pleasing” characteristics of the signal. The IAF analyses both the frequency and dynamic content in the material to find these favorable sounds.

The two primary settings are the Focus Frequency and Enhancement knobs. Because the Focus Frequency affects dynamics as well Noveltech decided not to have this setting display the precise frequency it’s focusing on – apparently with all the processing going on under the hood this becomes an inexact science. Still, you can hear it working and tweak this setting how you like (and see it affecting the FFT display, too). The Enhancement control determines how much effect is applied.

The IAF could be always crunching the entire frequency spectrum above 1kHz; you can think of the Focus control as more of a Q setting that literally focuses the plug-in, however you can exclude as much of the signal as you want using the high and low filters. You can narrow it down to a very small field and Resonance settings on these filters can soften the transition lines.

The metering is self-explanatory, as is the automatic gain control you can use. The software gives you a half-dozen presets that can’t be changed – you can’t store your own inside the plug-in GUI either. You’ll have to use your DAW host’s preset system. A Store button only dumps the current settings into the B side of A/B buttons to let you compare further tweaking with the last good results.

Okay, enough of all this knob-and-button, and GUI stuff – you want know does it actually work?

If you’re hoping for a plug-in that can convert a cruddy, dodgy SM58-clone vocal into Neumann brilliance at the flick of a virtual switch, then no. What about adding some shine to a good recording made with decent gear? Absolutely. The Vocal Enhancer is a final polish that adds air and presence to material, to a certain extent mimicking those expensive microphones and preamps. Don’t get too excited – you’ll never replace real quality, but the Vocal Enhancer can significantly improve some material. It brings in a brightness and clarity, sometimes revealing aspects of the recording you didn’t know were there.

Just don’t get too carried away.

For the review I was using what I consider a good vocal recording. After dialing in some nice Vocal Enhancer and listening only a short while, when I bypassed the plug-in for comparison my original material really sounded dull and awful – which I know it’s not. Now I know why Plugin Alliance used terms like pleasing, pleasant and favorable to describe the added character that Vocal Enhancer produces, because you soon come to miss it when it’s turned off. Straight away, I could envisage novice users falling into a trap of applying Vocal Enhancer to everything until your mix got bright enough to light up a football field. It can add extra sizzle to guitars, keyboards, overheads… anything really, but be careful. Vocal Enhancer needs to be used sparingly and with constant monitoring to ensure against over-use.

Vocal Enhancer definitely delivers on what it’s designed to do – and that’s help you get a vocal or instrument track to feature in a mix without a lengthy and volatile plug-in chain needed for providing an edge. The Vocal Enhancer will do it all alone and with a minimum of fuss. The GUI isn’t difficult to get your head around.

In the plug-in world there’s a zillion reverbs, EQs, and compressors to mention just a few, and if you’re new to the game it’s best to fully understand how these effects that are standard in your DAW work, before spending money on top-shelf equivalents. Investing two hundred bucks in a plug-in like the Vocal Enhancer is a different story. It might add that elusive, better sound you can’t seem to get now and be dollars spent well, rather than buying another microphone or interface for the same kind of money.

It’s not a magic wand or an easy way out of learning your chops. Think of it as a secret herb and spice you can try adding to the mix that can make a real difference.

The good thing is that with Plugin Alliance you can trial the effect before hitting the credit card. Vocal Enhancer comes in all plug-in flavours and you can try it for yourself for 14 days or watch some good demo videos at Price is $199.00.