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Key Features: The early days of audio plugins were primordial to say the least; behind the nostalgic square-edged program designs lay frustrating limitations on how many plugins you could use due to a lack of processing power.
As processing power gets faster and cheaper than ever, clued-in audio plugin developers have turned their attention towards optimising user experience. Mixing and mastering engineers have been reaching for audio plugins that prioritise workflow and useability, to reduce time spent tweaking settings for minute differences in sound, in an attempt to make the process resemble an art rather than the science experiment it has in part become.
Leading the way in intuitive plugin design is Baby Audio, a New York based plugin company who have been rapidly growing in popularity. Baby Audio’s latest work, Smooth Operator, is a signal balancing tool that uses spectral processing to smooth out and enhance audio signals in a way that cannot be achieved with regular equalisers or compressors.
So what does this mean to the uninitiated? To put it simply, Smooth Operator is a multi-purpose, intelligent, finaliser/dynamic EQ designed to optimise frequency and dynamic information within the context of a mix, providing subtle separation whilst also taming harsher transients and resonances within the sonic envelope.
The result is one of the best plugins we have found for instantly ‘professionalising’ a track, proving the best antidote for taking the ‘low budget’ out of your profoundly low budget recording practice.
Like its name would suggest, the ‘Smooth Operator’ is primarily concerned with righting past wrongs (especially in regards to resonant peaks) and for this it is nothing short of exemplary. Featuring cutting edge, intelligent resonance detecting algorithms (designed to automatically detect and resolve ‘fatigued’ frequencies), the Smooth Operator features some of the most advanced processing of anything in this special.
Anybody familiar with Baby Audio, will be able to tell you how pretty their plugins look at the visual level and the Smooth Operator is no exception. The modern, clean as a whistle optics of the UI are a cut above. The plugin itself is fully scalable and can be switched between three different pastel colour schemes, to reflect your surroundings/mood.
The frequency curve on the UI operates more like an extremely smooth multiband compressor and less like a traditional Graphic EQ, allowing you to set the threshold in an undulating manner across the frequency spectrum, meaning you can set the attenuation to taper off gradually, as you move away from the offending frequency. The red node in the centre allows you to pull down the attenuation curve in its entirety, which is great for treating a broad range of different program material.
The solo function is another handy feature, is a great way to hear what’s going on below the surface in regards to attack transients and secondary and tertiary harmonics.
Smooth Operator comes loaded with a massive preset library, proving the perfect starting point to work from and it was in these presets that we garnered the most success from this extremely powerful audio processor.
Mixdown Says: In a bid to soothe the audio nerd within, we put Baby Audio’s intelligent algorithm to the test, blindly chucking the Smooth Operator’s presets across a whole host of poorly recorded sources, then A/B’d the results to see if the detection algorithms would translate well across multiple playback systems.
More often than not, the presets improved the overall sound quality and balance of the source, meaning that if you are ever left questioning whether a particular instrument is too harsh (and lack the appropriate monitoring setup to be certain), then the ‘blind Smooth Operator hail mary’ could be the newest trick to add to your playbook.
For instruments like Kick and Bass (ie instruments that feature inconsistent dynamics coupled with extremely complex harmonic information, also with a tendency towards masking and frequency build at the mic position) we found the Smooth Operator’s unique blend of spectral dynamic EQ to be the perfect ‘get out of jail free’ card, displaying a remarkable ability to continually salvage the unsalvageable.
This also goes for sources like guitar or backing vocal subgroups, or anywhere prone to resonant buildup brought about by using the same microphone across multiple tracks. For these kind of hatchet jobs, the Smooth Operator is your new best friend.
Overall: An extremely powerful plugin, with the prettiest of user interfaces and with the ability to turn your ramshackle trash into smooth, translatable treasure? What’s not to like?
Head to Baby Audio to find out more.