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Mastering with iZotope Ozone 5: Harmonic Exciter (Part 4)

Hey, guys. Eric Tarr here for In this video I’ll be demonstrating how to use a harmonic exciter to bring some life to your mix.

So far, I’ve used the iZotope Ozone 5 plug-in to do some simple spectral processing to remove unnecessary low frequencies and high frequencies, and also some reverb to blend my whole mix together.

In this video, I’m going to move on to the harmonic exciter module. Here’s what I’ve got so far.

[song plays]

Now, if you’re someone who works in a home recording studio, or just someone who primarily works in the box, you might have asked yourself when you’re working on projects, “why do my mixes sound different from other music that I’m used to listening to?”

There can be several reasons for why this is happening, but one possible reason is that a lot of music that people listen to has been recorded and mixed on systems that add subtle saturation or harmonics.

So now, many people are used to listening to music this way, so they come to expect it, and even think that it sounds better in some cases. Well, one of the good things and bad things about digital recording systems is that you can record a very clean signal and you can process it in a linear fashion, but this is different from a lot of analog systems that might not be able to record as clean of a signal, and in some ways can even saturate signals or add harmonics from non-linear processing.

So a harmonic exciter is something that can be used to simulate and achieve this same kind of sound.

So let’s get to the controls of the plug-in. I’ve already switched over to the module, I’ll just turn it on now. There are two basic controls that you’re going to be working with here. There’s an amount control, which is going to be how much processing is taking place – how much of the harmonics are being added into the original signal. You also have a dry/wet control – a mix control that allows you to cross-fade between 100% of the processed signal and 0% of the completely dry signal.

Before I even get to adding in harmonics, I want to point out that right now it’s in multi-band processing mode, and that there are actually four separate bands that you can add harmonics to separately. If you don’t want to do this, all you have to do is go into the options tab, click on the “exciter,” and switch to the number of bands. I’m going to leave it as four bands, because I think that’s what I want to work with.

Before I even get to do any of the signal processing, what I like to do whenever I’m working with multi-band processing is figure out the different frequency regions that I want to focus on.

The way that I like to do this and pick them is based on the frequency regions of where basic instrument groups are located. So usually, in the low frequencies, that’s where you’re going to have the bass and the kick drum.

I picked my cut-off frequency here between the low frequency region and the low-mids, so that I’m primarily just focusing on the bass and the kick drum down here. So, if you want to focus on that, you just click on the solo button up here and you can do that.

[song plays with just the lows]

Cut out the snare… now it’s primarily kick drum and bass guitar.

Next, I’ll focus on the low-mids. Here, I’m basically just looking for primarily the vocal region.

[song plays with just low-mids]

Next up, in the high-mids I’m looking for more of those melodic instruments. Things like acoustic guitars that have a lot of the upper-mid frequencies, and then the high frequency band is going to be just those kind of brilliant sounding frequencies, where things like cymbals and stuff are.

[song plays with just upper-mids, then just highs]

Alright, so perfect. The iZotope Ozone 5 plug-in has even got it color coded so you can see what processing is taking place down here is associated with what frequency bands. So I’ll start out with the red, and I’ll go all the way up.

For the low frequencies, what I usually like to do is bring in a little bit of the amount, and the purpose of this kind of harmonic saturation that I’m adding in here is that I wanted to beef up the low end.

Now, you’ve got a couple different modes to play around with. Usually, for the low frequencies I gravitate towards tape, and also for the high frequencies. Tape kind of saturation is known for doing nice things to low frequencies and high frequencies, so I usually start out with this one and play around with the amount in the mix until I find what I like.

[song plays]

Now, with all kinds of processing at the mastering stage, you want to make sure you don’t overdo it, and there are a couple ways which you can actually overdo it. One is to have the amount knob too high, and one is to have the mix knob too high. So usually what I like to do is start it around the 50% and then go from there.

Typically, I’m turning it down though, and then try out what the clean signal sounds like.


[song plays with just lows]

Alright, and you can bypass it up here also using this button. You can see some harmonics are being added, especially even above the frequency region that you’re working on.

Next up, the low-mids.

[song plays with just low-mids]

So, that’s the yellow region right here, or the gold one. Typically, for the low-mids, especially where a lot of the vocal frequency energy is located, I’m trying to do very little saturation or subtle saturation, and so going from the lowest saturation here on the warm one, all the way up to dual triode – that’s going to be the most saturation that takes place – I usually gravitate more towards these ones up here for the low-mids and even the high-mids, but I’ll try them out and you can hear what they’re doing.

[song plays with just low-mids]

So even on warm, at full amount, it’s a very very gradual and subtle effect. Retro is more dramatic, but not really what I’m looking for.

So, I’m going to move back to the warm and find a really good level that I liked.

[song plays with just low-mids]

Usually, I try and add it in to where I’m not really noticing it, but then as soon as I take it out, then it feel like something’s missing. Alright, now I’ll look at the upper-mids.

[song plays with just upper-mids]

Here’s where I might be more experimental with adding in more harmonics on some of these other modes.

[song plays with just upper-mids]

So, dual triode was a little bit too harsh and piercing, I’ll back this off a little bit. Tube and triode were both nice. Finally, I’ll move on to the high frequencies. Again, a lot of times I gravitate towards using tape 1 because I think it’s going to do nice things to high frequencies, but I’ll try them all out here.

[song plays with just highs]

The tape actually ended up sounding too piercing to me, so I switched over to the triode. I’m going to back this off a little bit.

[song plays]

Now, let me A/B it back and forth so you can hear what the harmonic exciter is doing in that what it’s really doing is just bringing some life into the mix and giving it some more energy.

[song plays, harmonic exciter bypassed and re-enabled]

I think it’s hyping up a little too much in the higher frequencies, so I’ll back these off a little bit. Back off the low-mids, and I thought maybe it could even use some more really at the low frequencies to pump that area up, so I’ll try it again.

[song plays, harmonic exciter bypassed and re-enabled]

You know, the harmonic exciter just by it’s very nature should be a subtle effect, and if you notice it, then there’s a problem. You don’t want it to actually be noticed, but I guess the best way to describe it is that when you take it away, it feels like something’s missing. When you add it in, everything sounds right, but then when it’s gone, then your mix seems hollow and it seems like it’s lacking something.

So that’s really all there is to the harmonic exciter. Stay tuned for the next video, where I move on to the compression module and show you how I like to control the dynamics of my mix.


Eric Tarr

Eric Tarr

Eric Tarr is a musician, audio engineer, and producer based in Nashville, TN. Currently, he is a Professor of Audio Engineering Technology at Belmont University.

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