iZotope Neutron 3 Advanced by Diogo C
Product: Neutron (Advanced)
Formats: AAX, Audio Unit, RTAS, VST2/VST3 for OS X 10.9+ and Win 7+.
Price: $199/299 MSRP (Standard/Advanced)
DRM: Challenge/Response or iLok (dongle not required).
Demo: Fully functional for 10 days.
iZotope presentes Neutron, a new channel strip plug-in that not only offers the traditional set of tool one expects from a channel strip such but also brings some intriguing new concepts for those mixing in the box. Neutron is a one-stop solution for most single-track needs and includes one equalizer, two multi-band compressor, a transient shaper and a exciter (or distortion/saturation) module that can be sequenced in any order, which initially is nothing exactly groundbreaking, but things gets really interesting when you look at the innovations brought by iZotope for this plug-in: Track Assistant and Neutrino mode. I’ll proceed to a quick breakdown of each of the modules included in Neutron then proceed to the evaluation and scores.
Equalizer: I'll start with the EQ which is probably my favourite module! This is one brilliant equalizer that sounds great and it’s one great workhorse kind of tool for basically any situation. Equipped with eight parametric, high/low shelves and a set of HP/LP filters, this EQ can either operate statically or dynamically (only the filters are always static), which gives it a ton of versatility. All bands are highly adjustable, the parametric ones have variable bandwidth and progressive-Q or band-shelf options, shelves have three modes (Baxandall, resonant or vintage/Pultec-esque with a "push-pull") and filters can either have variable resonance or 6/12/24/48 slopes. As with all Neutron modules the EQ also benefits from a “mix” parameter. This EQ also houses two features that are central to Neutron’s purpose: Masking EQ and “Learn”. Masking works by comparing two Neutron instances and from that it shows “collision” areas in the frequency spectrum where the audio content gets too crowded. Masking allows for two channels to be equalized on the same Neutron window, which can enable some interesting workflow options and save time. The “Learn” function suggests a few frequency points for you to adjust depending on the content, which can be handy to automatically spot resonances. It’s necessary to say that Masking and Learn aren’t doing any sort of “auto EQ” or doing adjustments on their own, keep in mind that they’re only analytical tools that will hopefully inform your decisions and they won’t pull or push any EQ gain or bandwidth settings. One great thing about the dynamic section of this EQ is that (just like the compressor) it comes with many sidechain capabilities, enabling many different triggering options.
Neutron's EQ is arguably one of the very best in the business today.
Compressor: Neutron comes with two multi-band compressors with up to three bands with variable crossover points, variable ratio/attack/release/knee controls and two (modern/vintage) operating modes . It’s also equipped with internal and external sidechain, a set of low and high pass filters on the detector path, external sidechain and extensive internal sidechain options, where one band can trigger the compression on other bands. Probably the only processor that I didn’t instantly love, this compressor feels a bit out of place here for some reasons. First is that I don’t quite feel the need for a multi-band compressor on a channel strip for individual tracks, let alone two - I’d rather have two EQs if we’re to have two units of a processor or to be really honest I’d rather have a nicely featured gate/expander, which would be really useful in a single-channel context. Second reason is that I do use a lot of single/wide-band compression on most channels and on that application it feels a bit cramped since the bands are all at the screen at the same time, so they’re kind of small and the controls are squeezed to fit the interface. In that regard I feel like Ozone has a better way of handling this and if we’re really going to have multi-band compression that is the way to go, with large controls at the cost of visualising all band controls at the same time. Third and final reason is that although this is an effective compressor it’s also kind of a boring one, albeit very good at that with auto-gain and three detection methods. The vintage mode is slightly less boring but not exactly the an exciting compressor in this day and age. Nevertheless, the cramped controls are biggest gripe here and I’d probably be very much okay with this processor if the interface was better.
Exciter: An interesting saturator with very slick controls, also with up to three variable frequency bands. Instead of going for a conventional approach this module goes a bit further, offering four saturation options (tape, warm, tube and retro) that can be blended one to the other through a X/Y control, so you can literally a little bit of all of those modes, on each of the three bands independently, which is really cool. It also offers three tone modes that adds a light touch to a specific area - “full” mode adds some low-mids, “defined” adds a bit of high-mids and “clear” takes a bit out of the low-mids. Push with caution as it can easily go into the harsh distortion territory, but since it’s equipped with per-band and global dry/wet controls it’s quite easy to get it under control. This is a “fun” module, not exactly something every track needs but it can certainly have a fair share of use, especially on music for subtle analog-esque saturation and there might be some use for it as a distortion unit for more radical effects.
Transient Shaper: A straightforward to use transient manipulation tool with up to three bands with variable crossover points, attack/sustain controls and three operating modes (sharp/medium/smooth). This is a surprisingly good processor and I’ll admit that I wasn’t very much excited about it when I first opened Neutron. As I started mixing with it there was several “ah-ha!” moments where I felt that it was very good to have this module, and even better to have it as multi-band tool - contrary to the compressor, I felt like it was highly beneficial to have multi-band transient shaping on the single channel level and I got some good use out of it. The operating modes were helpful, with “smooth” being particularly good sounding to my ears, and having the capability of narrowing down the process to specific areas on the spectrum was also a big plus. Overall this is a solid processor that would do on its own as a standalone product.
Limiter & Master Section: A very straightforward limiter is placed at the end of the signal chain, with three different modes that provides good balance from very clean to somewhat colored limiting. Neutron also comes with big Input and Output sliders and peak/RMS metering with very good resolution, but I wish that it also came equipped with Ozone’s loudness-compensated bypass, which would really cool to have here. The master section also houses a zero-latency option for Neutron, which will disable Neutrino processing and save some CPU as well.
Neutrino: Initially presented as free plug-in, the Neutrino Mode is the “mojo” section of Neutron, offering something close to what is associated with the analog character but with a novel approach that takes in consideration what kind of content you’re processing in order to do its thing. There are four Neutrino “modes” (Voice/Dialogue, Guitar/Instrument, Bass, and Drums/Percussive), each of them internally optimised towards a particular set of instruments or application. There’s also an entirely clean mode, which does not apply any processing.
Track Assistant: Perhaps the most innovative feature yet potentially and understandably controversial. This is quite literally “auto-mix”, as it will scan a portion of the incoming audio and make decisions for you, such as setting up the order of the modules, some settings within them and also setting up the Neutrino mode. I initially found it very unappealing, I have low interest in such concepts - but what I do have is curiosity, so I opened a very raw mix in its early stages, went through a bunch of tracks and checked what Track Assistant would do to them. To my surprise it got some settings “almost right”, like for example removing some excessive low end or dealing with unruly dynamics with reasonable compressor settings and even spicing up dull tracks with some transient-shaping and saturation. There’s kind of pattern, where it will make a couple of EQ cuts, one or two EQ boosts, multi-band compression/saturation with not-so-wild settings and eventually transient-shaping. It won’t automatically make a “mix” for you in the sense that its adjustments are not taking into consideration all the other sounds around a given track, but it does nudge you towards a tone that will obviously require further tweaking.
Advanced and Standard versions: The core Neutron plug-in is the same on both standard and advanced versions, but owners of the advanced version will be able to use on surround work (up to 7.1), while owners of the regular version have to stick to stereo. Advanced version also enables standalone plug-ins for each of the Neutron modules, which is great news given how good the modules are (especially the EQ), but I’m not sure if that’s enough to justify the extra hundred bucks required - unless you need/want surround capabilities of course. I think it would be a nice move if iZotope revised this idea and simply give everybody standalone plug-ins (on a sidenote: same goes for Ozone, which adopts this same policy). It would be a generous move and generosity is always a good thing.
Sound Quality: Overall this is an awesome sounding plugin and some of Neutron’s modules are truly stellar. The EQ is definitely one of my favourites at the moment, it was a rare case of an instant favourite with its lovely set of features and very open/precise/transparent sound. The transient shaper is also really good, the exciter can be useful and while the compressors aren’t exactly what I’d call awesome they do their jobs nicely. As a whole Neutron is one the very best channel strip plugins out there and undoubtedly a great choice for a “go-to” channel strip for many applications.
Ease of use: Track Assistant aside, Neutron is pretty easy to use and its operation is very much effortless. Ordering and tweaking the modules is very straightforward and there shouldn’t be any major complications other than dialing good settings for the work in hand. Neutron’s layout definitely deserves some praise, with a clean and uncluttered interface, good real time analysis and different scales so you can zoom in or out as you like. Each module has its own set of interface features geared towards their application, for example the EQ’s bands can be hidden for a bigger EQ plot and frequency analyzer, which is a cool touch. Where things may get complicated is in the performance department, as Neutron isn’t exactly a lightweight plug-in. It’s a bit taxing on the system’s resource once you engage the Neutrino mode, adding some considerable latency that should be compensated by the DAW, but fortunately it also comes with a zero-latency mode in case you’re not interested or can’t afford to have the Neutrino mode all over a crowded mix. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t be a problem on most modern computers and everybody will likely be able to run a good number of Neutrons.
Features: A great set of features that combine most of the classic channel strip tools and some welcome innovations to the DAW mixing world. Once again the EQ is the star of the show in terms of features, with the Transient Shaper and Exciter following closely and the Compressor lagging a bit behind. What would be really good here would be to have two “dynamics” modules, each doing compression/limiting and expansion/gate using the current multi-band framework. That would make Neutron a more well-rounded and a true workhorse channel strip. Nevertheless, this is a nicely featured plug-in and one in which the sum is greater than its parts. The modules and Neutrino section come together nicely and mixing with Neutron all across the board is definitely a rewarding experience.
Bang for buck: Great value if you haven’t settled yet on a “default” channel strip workhorse or if you’re looking for something fresh.
Recommended for: mixing engineers, both in music and post production. Producers looking for a go-to channel strip that can ease their sound shaping processes.
Click below for full resolution (1080p) screenshots.