5 Ways Inter-plugin Communication Streamlines Audio Mixing

masking meter

Inter-plugin communication is a technology developed by iZotope that allows our plug-ins to interact and share invaluable information with one another across your session, helping you produce, mix, and master—faster—and with better results.

Traditional plug-ins are limited by only being able to hear what’s happening on one track at a time. At iZotope, we know that many producers take a big picture view when thinking about their mix: such as making instruments like bass and a kick drum gel nicely, unmasking important vocal tracks from groups of instruments, or tackling audio mixing and mastering jobs in the same session: this is where inter-plugin communication becomes invaluable, saving you time and giving you a better understanding of your mix as a whole.

In this video, we’ll look at five ways inter-plugin communication can benefit your next session, using a collection of some of our latest and greatest tools, now found in Music Production Suite 2—everything you need to produce music. Plus check out other tips below the video to learn more ways inter-plugin communication can help you save time and mix better in the studio!

1. EQ two tracks at once (with different settings) using Neutron 2

When two tracks with a similar frequency profile occur at the same time in a mix, we get something called frequency masking. Neither track is heard properly because they are both trying to fit a small space that only has room for one. This is a common occurrence with kick and bass, guitars and vocals, and leads and backgrounds.  

Without years of experience, it can be a challenge to locate overlapping frequencies between two tracks and adjust them accordingly. As a result, you fall on guesswork as a process and sweep EQ bands up and down and side to side hoping an answer will present itself. Compound this with the visual and workflow nightmare of going back and forth between two EQs and inspiration takes a major hit.

With an instance of Neutron 2 on each track, the plug-ins will reveal the competing frequencies using Masking Meter and allow you to adjust both EQs at once.

masking meter
Unmasking in Neutron 2

Let’s go with the classic case of kick and bass. In the image above, the native kick EQ is in the top window and the bass EQ sits at the bottom. The grey and white panels indicate where frequencies overlap in the spectrum, and the red histogram lines show how often the masking occurs, so you know exactly where to focus efforts. Clearly, the main issue here is between 50–100Hz.

You can manipulate both instrument EQs from the same view to unmask your mix. Clicking Inverse Link makes the separation easier—a cut in one EQ will have a complimentary boost in the other, independent of Q. This way you avoid making drastic sweeps that compromise the mix and can instead achieve optimal separation with precision.  

2. Find and fix weak spots in a mix with Tonal Balance Control

To achieve a specific kick drum sound, shape vocal timbre, or emulate the sound of a vintage synth, it is common to keep a few reference songs on hand as a guide toward the desired results. While this method of comparison can be helpful to direct focus, there is a fine line before it breeds discontent, which is regularly counterproductive.

Tonal Balance Control offers a different kind of referencing tool to identify and address issues as you produce and mix. From a single view, you can see how the distribution of energy in your song stacks up against a reference target—either a single song, album, or collection of music representative of a genre.

2 - Tonal Balance visualization
Tonal Balance visualization

Tonal balance has to do with the way an entire mix works together as a listening experience, as opposed to what one track sounds like on its own. When a song has an even frequency distribution, you never feel the need to turn up monitors to better hear certain aspects, or conversely, turn things don’t due to overpowering elements that distract. Every instrument has a dedicated space in the frequency spectrum and the mix translates well to other playback environments.

The white lines indicate frequency distribution. Over the course of a song, they will move between and even outside of the blue bars, which represent the bounds of typical frequency ranges in a target. The more balanced energy is from low to high, the closer the white lines will be to the center of the blue bars. This visual lets you know where tonal balance issues lie in order to make quicker and more informed EQ decisions. This is particularly helpful for producers who work in rooms with poor acoustics, have hyped monitors, or rely entirely on headphones.

Most tonal balance issues stem from a single wonky track or instrument group. To reflect this, you can pull up the EQ for each Neutron 2 in your session within the Tonal Balance window. Instead of going back and forth between individual tracks and the master channel where Tonal Balance is located, you are able to see the big picture of your mix and adjust the details at the same time.

The inter-plugin communication between Tonal Balance Control and Neutron allows you to easily get a sense of what’s dragging down your mix and resolve it. If a white line goes beyond a target frequency range or gets close to it, this is a clear sign to dial up the related instruments and change their energy levels accordingly.

3. Organize backgrounds around a lead vocal with Visual Mixer

Visual Mixer creates a picture of your mix where you can intuitively set gain relationships, pan positions, and spatial location for individual tracks. While it is primarily designed to manage full mixes (more on that later), the plug-in proves equally useful for vocal mixes alone.

In a given pop or rap session, it's not uncommon to have backgrounds, harmonies, and ad-libs active at the same time to support a lead. Getting these parts to complement one another can be tricky, and going track-by-track inching digital knobs doesn’t exactly make the job any more exciting. I prefer to use Visual Mixer to make these judgments because it feels a lot more like sound design. From a single window, you can pull up each instance of Neutron, Nectar, and VocalSynth in a session and place them on a map that represents the stereo field. If you have tracks that aren’t using these plug-ins, throw on the lightweight Mix Tap, which will enable inter-plugin communication with Visual Mixer.

3 - Visual Mixer
Visual Mixer for vocals

Once you’re confident that each track in your vocal mix sounds good on its own, open up Visual Mixer and start dragging around nodes to find best settings. Vertical moves adjust gain according to the Visual Mixer dB meter and horizontal moves determine position within the stereo field. The width of each vocal can be increased and decreased from the handles on either side its corresponding each node.

While your ears will ultimately make the final decisions, the controls in Visual Mixer make it fun to order the importance of individual vocal tracks in a mix. Forget faders and knobs and simply follow your audio intuition.

4. Audition multiple mix arrangements with Visual Mixer

When is a song considered done? This question bugs producers and engineers of all experience levels. Without the physical constraints of the analog world, it's surprisingly hard to impose limits on musical exploration and just finish a song. Our tendency to overthink decisions at this final stage is further aggravated the mental and physical strain of long studio hours.

As I wrap up the arrangement of a song, I find it helpful to use the Snapshot function in Visual Mixer to audition mix configurations. You can save and recall up to three snapshots, providing just enough room for experiments without going overboard. I suggest making the first snapshot an objective mix, the second more creative, and the third a midway point between both disciplines. As you set each snapshot, think about the natural shape of your song and how Visual Mixer can enhance it.

The same rules apply: all tracks with Neutron, Nectar, VocalSynth, and Mix Tap can be seen and adjusted within Visual Mixer.

4 - Visual Mixer Snapshots
A/Bing snapshots in Visual Mixer

After pouring lots of time in DAW-centric work, working in this visual format is more pleasing is than turning pan dials, moving tracks levels up and down, and sweeping around with EQs. It allows you to zoom out and get a sense of the bigger picture without losing focus on the small stuff.

5. Get a 3D view of your mix with Insight 2

Insight 2 offers you an invaluable perspective on any aspect of your mix, from loudness, intelligibility, stereography and more. Its groundbreaking inter-plugin communication features give you a clear picture of how your tracks stack up against your entire mix.

By placing a Relay plug-in on important mix elements in a session, you can beam their frequency profiles into Insight 2’s unique real-time 3D spectrogram to create a detailed topographical map of the session audio. The colourful visual spread is a great way to see if certain mix aspects are over- or underrepresented in your session.

Conclusion

So much about music making relies on good communication. We sit down with bandmates to discuss what direction to take on the next album. We explain to producers what emotions should be felt when the chorus arrives. We use client notes and feedback to guide the mix.

Having one plug-in talk to another allows for more intuitive workflow and precision in a session. I think the four combinations in this article are representative of the benefits of inter-plugin communication for audio production and audio mixing, but there are still more to be discovered. They have sped up my workflow and made tedious tasks like setting audio level and sweeping EQ manage to feel new.

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