McDSP SA-2 Dialog Processor by Diogo C
- Plugin: SA-2 Dialog Processor
- Developer: McDSP
- Formats: AU, VST3, AAX Native and DSP
- DRM: iLok USB
- Price: MSRP $149 Native/$249 HD (AAX DSP)
- Try and buy: SA-2 (14 days fully-functional demo available)
The scope: McDSP brings us the SA-2 Dialog Processor, a plugin that is based on a multiband limiter unit called “Sonic Assault”, which is used by academy-award winning engineer Mike Minkler on hundred of successful movies. The SA-2 is a five band dynamic equalizer that is optimized for voice and will operate within the frequency area where the critical content of the human voice resides i.e. the mid-highs and highs. It tackles a very recurrent and common problem when mixing, which is shaping the middle and high frequencies of the human voice in a way that’s both natural and pleasing. We all know that due to an extensive number of reasons the recordings of the human voice that we deal with are not ideal, common detractors being overly bright microphone capsules, bad voice and microphone placement, bad performances and even general nature of the some languages can get you in a tricky spot - for example, the amount of esses and their sibilant sound is more prominent on some language than others, my native Portuguese language being an especially tricky one! The SA-2 is a tool that is optimized for this particular application, but above all it’s a dynamic manipulator for the mid/high range of the spectrum so it can also do a whole lot more that just dealing with voice and all the esses that comes along with it.
Sound quality: This plugin is amazingly natural when you stay above the fifty percent mark on those gain reduction meters, and it holds up well when going further. One aspect that determines the quality of dynamic equalizers (and of multiband processors in general) is the amount of phasing artifacts that will inevitably arise when applying such processes. If it strikes a good balance between solving the problem while not creating a new one then it's good tool. The SA-2 holds up very very well and can do a lot of gain reduction before it enters the “phasey-n’-fizzy” top end territory. It’s very natural even on it’s hardest modest and can be quite stealthy if you set it that way. By ear I’d say that the attack is quite fast but the release is slightly slow and there might some program-dependency at play here, which all leads to a smooth sound that is mostly artifact-free. It’s quite easy to familiarize with how the SA-2 sounds and reacts to signals due to its streamlined design, which is simple yet effective. Once you get familiar with it then it’s easy to find a spot where it can work and put it to good use. Besides being a vocals/speech-oriented plugin I’ve also found the SA-2 very useful to tame overheads and soften bad top end on guitars and synths.
Features: Despite being inspired by this particular unit, the SA-2 delivers much more than the original piece and it packs some extra features that are not available on the hardware, such as different envelopes (modes) and different options for its frequency range (band modes). Those two options makes the SA-2 very versatile and capable of covering a decent ground as far as dealing with mid-to-top end is concerned. Add to that a set of input and output controls, bypass buttons and a nice gain reduction meter and you have a plugin that is very ease to use with its uncluttered interface. A couple of small reservations from this reviewer would be the lack of I/O metering and the interface size, which is a bit too small, but for a de-esser the provided controls should suffice.
Ease of use: The SA-2 is at first sight a straightforward and very easy tool to operate plugin. Just turn the bands on, pull the thresholds until the desired frequency regions are compressed, dial some gain back to compensate and that’s it. I’ve found that feeding it with signals slightly hotter than usual gave me more confidence with the threshold and general responsiveness of each band. There are three options for the compression envelope, which are soft, normal assault - I think that doesn’t need any explanations! The same can be said for the frequency band modes, which can be set from narrow to large along with a "vari" option which I'm assuming does something in the lines of a proportional Q equalizer design i.e. Q/bandwidth is narrowed as gain reduction happens. As I’ve mentioned above, it lacks metering and the interface might feel a bit too small, but those aspects can hardly detract from its ease of use. Last but not least, SA-2 has a very light CPU footprint and very low latency, which means having as many instances as needed.
Bang for buck: My experience with de-essers tells me that no one works for all situations. As featured as they might be, I haven’t found one that covers all situations and the good ones and the ones who stay are the ones who can deal with a broader number of situations and that can only be assessed over a certain period of time. Having said that, I have a strong feeling that the SA-2 is here to stay and mosts tests I've made with it so far have been very positive. I'm particularly getting a lot of use from the top (rightmost) band, it’s a remarkable de-esser on it's own. Coincidentally my usage of the bands decrease along with the plugin's band count, first band (leftmost) being the least used although it might do a good job to soften overly-biting guitars or cymbals. I also like the Assault mode a lot, this plugin would be great with that mode alone, but it's good to have a couple other modes for softer operation. Overall this is an excellent choice in the de-essing and mid/high-end equalization department, but the SA-2 is a bit on the steep side when it comes to cost, so keep an eye out for some deals if you wish to further you bucks without depriving yourself of any bang.
Recommended for: The SA-2 reveals itself as a very useful tool on any occasion where the human voice is present, be that a movie, a talk show or a song, so I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who deals with the human voice! Mixing engineers and dialog editors will definitely find some good uses for the SA-2. Also recommended to anyone looking for a fresh and relaxed approach on dynamic equalization.