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Soinible Frei:raum Multifunction EQ Processor

Just when you think you’ve seen it all...

 

by Craig Anderton

 

Frei:raum is a VST/AU/AAX plug-in that’s based on a linear-phase, digital EQ engine but extends it into four different territories.

 

  • A conventional 7-band EQ. All bands can do peak boost and cut; the highest and lowest bands can also switch to lowpass and highpass respectively, while the next bands in can switch to high and low shelving. Linear-phase has fans (mostly for what it does with high frequencies) and detractors (mostly for what it does with low frequencies) but like any filter, it is what it is, and you use it as appropriate.
  • “Smart” EQ. This analyzes your signal and shapes a detailed, corrective EQ curve based on its analysis. Yes, it’s one of those “magic” things that some will hail as revolutionary and others will call a gimmick, but both miss the point—frei:raum provides a starting point quickly, and given the extensive tweaking options, it’s your choice whether to leave it alone or work with it further.
  • A multiband “Proximity” EQ, which you can think of as a de-reverberator to bring a sound either out front from ambience, or sink further back into it.
  • A multiband “Entropy” EQ, which is similar conceptually to a multiband transient shaper.

 

 

The Proximity effect is in the process of editing a drum track to bring the snare more upfront while keeping the kick’s “boom” from room sounds.

 

I wonder if whoever designed this had to clean up a lot of movie dialog, got really tired of having to do the same thing over and over again, and then decided to put everything needed for that task together in one plug-in. In any event frei:raum also has musical applications, so keep reading.

 

CONTROVERSY TIME

 

Let’s get the controversies out of the way first by paraphrasing some comments form the interwebz.

 

“I’d never pay $450 for a digital EQ, you people are idiots”...note that frei:raum is now priced at $299 (€279), but a lot of reviews and web sites reference the old price. My take is that someone doing film post-production would probably pay twice as much and consider it cheap. Someone in a home studio who wants a better vocal sound...not so much. The bottom line is there’s a 14-day full function demo, so you can decide whether its benefits justify the cost; furthermore, the individual "layers" will be released as separate plug-ins this summer. Price is yet to be finalized, but I'd guess $149.

 

“It has horrible latency and hogs CPU, no way I’d use it.” With 4,000+ samples of latency at 44.1 kHz it’s not designed to go on every track, although you can certainly use it judiciously on tracks, and then freeze or bounce if needed. Many will see it as more of a mastering tool.

 

“You can only go so far without hearing artifacts.” Well, sure. Remember Anderton’s Law of Noise Reduction: “Noise reduction works best on signals that don’t have much noise.” In the context of mastering, if the mix is so messed up that you have to push frei:raum to the limits, the problem is with the mix. It’s like Melodyne—the more you transpose a note from its native pitch, the more mechanical it sounds. There are consequences for trying to violate the laws of physics...

 

“Automatic EQ setting is just a gimmick for beginners who don’t know how to do EQ.” This reminds me of those who would see Gibson’s automatic guitar tuning system and sniff, “That’s ridiculous, I can tune a guitar.” Well I can tune a guitar too, but I can’t tune six strings at once, which is pretty sweet. In any professional environment, time is always money and I think the following example illustrates a strength of frei:raum.

 

I first tried out the Smart EQ on a track that needed a bit of a high-end lift and some carving out around 300-500 Hz. I had previously used SONAR’s QuadCurve EQ to dial in what I felt was the perfect response, and was curious if Frei:raum could improve on it. So I bypassed the QuadCurve and let frei:raum do its thing.

 

The results were shocking for two reasons. First, the curve that frei:raum created was extremely similar to the one I’d created with the QuadCurve—the frei:raum one was more detailed because that’s their “special sauce,” but in practical, sonic terms there was little difference between the two. However, the more detailed approach to the high end did produce results I liked a little bit better than just applying a broad EQ.

 

Hmmm...

The two curves, the top one created by the Smart EQ algorithm, and the bottom one created by a human, are strikingly similar.

 

So either I validated its decisions or it validated mine, but the main difference was that frei:raum had done the setting in about 10 seconds. It took me a lot longer to EQ manually. This is why the smartest Smart EQ attribute is that it’s placed under human control. The real value isn’t about expecting frei:raum to dial in the perfect sound in 10 seconds so you can go home early, but about doing the initial work so you can then tweak it to perfection—if needed—in a fraction of the time it would have taken to start from scratch.

 

WARNING: CURVES AHEAD

 

As in, learning curves. The documentation is sparse, to say the least. There are three somewhat helpful videos, but anyone who approaches this thinking “EQ—not a problem, I know how EQ works” will not be able to make much sense of frei:raum. If you’re going to check out the demo, here are some tips.

 

  • Recognize what works best for individual tracks or program material. To understand quickly what Entropy does, practice using it on a drum track with significant “ring.” With program material, the key is making subtle changes. But also remember that frei:raum adds considerable latency, so your DAW better have good plug-in delay compensation, and you don’t want to use this plug-in while tracking—mixing only.

 

The Entropy module bringing out the “snap” of snare and high toms.

 

  • Try Smart EQ on program material that needs overall EQ so you can come to grips with the baffling interaction of the three bands. I recommend setting up one band in “record” mode to learn the material’s spectral response (no, I don’t know why it’s called “record” instead of “learn”), then dragging the graph’s gain node up and down at different frequencies to hear the overall effect.
  • Proximity may seem like the least effective of the three, but it’s also the trickiest to adjust—not only do the three main controls interact, it’s important to adjust the EQ in the right frequency ranges. Also with a percussive instrument like drums, a little Proximity with a little Entropy will give better, and more natural, results than using Proximity by itself. I used it with some loops from Sony’s “Drums from the Big Room” sample library and it did attenuate the ambience, but Proximity was most effective when focusing on those parts of the drum kit that benefited the most from ambience reduction (generally the higher frequencies that interact with the snare “crack”), then supplementing it with some Proximity.

 

And here’s the most important tip of all: a little goes a long way. As with those who are just getting into compression for the first time, there’s a tendency to increase the controls so you can hear an obvious effect. But, that’s where frei:raum is at its most vulnerable for creating artifacts. I highly recommend using generous amounts of the master control settings and EQ-based modifications to find out where frei:raum has its greatest effect, and then pulling back from those extreme settings, acclimating yourself to the sound, and bypassing to compare the difference between the dry and processed sound. I found fre:raum to be at its best when adding that extra 10% - 25% of improvement that makes a difference, but doesn’t hit you in the face.

 

LIMITATIONS

 

Frei:raum has limitations other than sketchy documentation and exceeding many peoples’ budgets. A spectrum analyzer in the background would have been welcome to give visual feedback, although that may run counter to Sonible’s overall philosophy—after all, they include a button called “flying blind” that leaves you with a straightforward EQ-like interface, the master controls, and no fancy graphs.

 

If you don’t want to be distracted by the curvy graphics and pretty colors, this is the screen for you.

 

I also think Sonible could do themselves a huge favor by expanding the tool tips. For example, the tool tip for the Proximity Smoothing control is “use to smooth separation e.g. if artifacts occur.” I think something like “higher settings trade off more smoothing, a more natural sound, and fewer artifacts for a less distinct effect” would be a lot more helpful.

 

The other limitation is you need to spend time learning where frei:raum shines and where it doesn’t. After about a week of playing with it, I could listen to a track or program material and be fairly sure it was a likely candidate for frei:raum. With enough experience, eventually you build up a mental database of what works really well and what doesn’t but again, better documentation is very much needed.

 

IS IT FOR YOU?

 

Probably not if you’re into casual recording, but you probably already decided that after seeing the price, even though it's now lower than when it was introduced. Nor is it for you if you think that a few twists of the controls will make everything right in a semi-magical way; frei:raum is not a panacea.

 

However, it is a problem-solver with some truly brilliant attributes, and provides a significant, and innovative, tool for a professional’s bag of tricks. The Smart EQ is smart, not just because it does a good job by itself, but because it’s smart enough to let you make the final decisions. I’m sure it will get the same kind of flak LANDR gets, but I can’t escape the fact that the value judgments I made regarding EQ were almost invariably the same value judgments frei:raum made when presented with the same non-EQed track. Maybe it’s just coincidence...or maybe there are certain attributes we perceive more or less universally as “pleasing,” Sonible has cracked the code on what they are, and built them into frei:raum. I don’t know, but I do know the results can range from “helpful, now let me tweak it” to “wow...done.”

 

Yes the price is steep, but there’s some consolation that you’re really getting four processors, not just one. And no, it’s not just another EQ. Hopefully you know enough about its gestalt that you can download the demo and do more than just twist knobs randomly. In the process of discovering what frei:raum is about, you’ll find out whether its unique skill set is something you need.

 

Download the demo

Buy direct from Sonible for $299 (€279)

 

 

______________________________________________ 

 Craig Anderton is Editorial Director of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.

 

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