Smooth Operator is a unique new way of reaching out and sculpting sound at the spectral level – and it’s terrifically addictive and creative.
Okay, I know what the first glance at this looks like. This seems to be an EQ, right? One that is apparently very into pastels? And I also admit that I’m wary of plug-ins these days that boast lots of “smart” features to try to dumb down conventional audio tools that work perfectly well.
But look closer, because Smooth Operator is actually none of that. The basic conceit here is to take spectral processing – translating a sound into an FFT for all-at-once real-time processing – out of the domain of just doing audio restoration and into something creative and fun. “Signal balancer” is another term for this, but it’s fluid enough that you can also throw things out of balance in nice ways.
And, wow, does it work. You get something that can be a precise tool for mastering and equalization and compression alongside your conventional interfaces, but that can also be pushed to its very limit for creative re-imagining of sound material. It’s really everything a digital audio tool should be – that hands-on, sound-shaping feeling that a computer works a bit like your imagination.
Normally we talk about frequency-domain tools (like EQ) and time-domain (like compressors, limiters, and expanders). The best way to understand Smooth Operator – and tools like it – is that it’s both of those at once. That makes sense, because digital software is capable of translating to and from a frequency domain – which in turn is intuitive to your über-gestalt brain.
This is amusing to me, of course, because I’ve several times over written background text (and once an entire textbook) where I treat these things as separate categories. But there’s no particular reason for that hard distinction in the digital domain.
So yes, like an EQ, Smooth Operator does give you a live visualization of your sound spectrum and some draggable nodes you can use for parametric control of frequency. But it is also a compressor, so if you drag a node to the extreme, instead of filtering the sound, you get all sorts of lovely frequency-domain compression. Oooh.
And I do encourage you to be extreme with the UI, as I found all sorts of wild accidents. I also found some situations where I might get a particular form of precise control beyond what my favorite EQ and compressor might give me.
That pretty interface gives you a number of controls:
- Effect level of a particular frequency, with slope/Q (as on an EQ)
- SOLO per-node for each portion of the spectrum
- FOCUS – “granularity/intensity” of the spectral algorithm is how Baby describes it. You normally crank it to 70-90% but this is also capable of some unique results across its range, depending on the source material
- SIDE CHAIN
There are some great presets in there, too, which are a nice way of nudging you in a particular direction. It’s deceptively simple; it feels less like a single tool and more like a whole way of working with your source material – especially when you figure in sidechaining.
I’ve been a huge fan of Baby Audio lately for their new twists on oft-seen categories (delays, tape echo, compression). So much of the sharpest innovation in sound right now is independent plug-in developers, and they’re no exception. Apart from some very attractive UIs, all their stuff is both organic and futuristic, through and through, even when they’re throwing some emulation into the mix.
I gush partly because I’m really curious what some bleeding-edge producers will do with this. It is eminently source-dependent, which means it really encourages you to mess with your sound material – you know, the actual music.
The preset makers come from folks who have worked with some major stars, but that’s all the more reason to get it in the hands of some left-field unknowns.
Oh yeah, and it’s US$39 through the end of May. ($69 thereafter) Bundles also available.
VST, VST3, AU, AAX, 32-bit and 64-bit, support for Windows 7+ and macOS from 10.7 through the latest Catalina and Big Sur. Free trials available. No Apple Silicon yet, will ask.
No money at all? Check Magic Switch, a push-button chorus (which doesn’t in fact sound overly like the Juno-60) and Baby Comeback, a clever delay/echo (released in collaboration with our friends at UK mag Computer Music). I have now the full version of these and still throw the free ones on a track now and then:
PS, Ableton Live users – the UI looks perfect with my favorite theme at the moment, because I got tired of looking at the dark one all the time and switched to this:
So part of the notion that it’s new to use these tools for creative purposes and not just restoration is – that none of them had been marketed that way. (You’re free to use them however you like!)
It’s still not a crowded field compared to conventional dynamics and EQ processing, but there are some cool entries in the scene.
First and foremost would definitely be oeksound’s soothe2 plug-in, as reader Eric Beam reminds us. There are even some aesthetic similarities. oeksound definitely gives you more options – a mid/side mode (very cool) and stereo balance, precise timing controls, more hands-on control of the algorithm, and so on.
oeksound calls all of this a “dynamic resonance suppressor.” That is… kind of an awful thing to call it, but it does describe one terrifically important use case, which is that this is much better at sweeping through frequencies and removing nasty resonance than is a conventional EQ.
The big difference is price – oeksound’s offering is 199€ which alone I suspect puts it in the sights of a different audience and use cases.
As with some other Baby Audio stuff, they’ve made some of those decisions for you with the algorithm – but I quite like the particular character they chose. Basically, Baby’s forty bucks is a no-brainer to dive into this and mess around with it – and the less-serious pricing and controls ironically might help encourage you to abuse it creatively. That puts the whole concept in front of other folks, which might well make you think about investing more in soothe2 – the approach here really is that important. (I can definitely justify have two of these given how much duplication there is in bog-standard EQs!)
See also Gulfoss from Sound Theory, which apart from marketing that does indeed focus on restoration, otherwise offers a lot of the same features. (Select frequency, determine amount of processing, and even sidechain.)
And before there was any of this, there was Tom Erbe’s take – the SoundHack Spectral Shapers (which are in fact derived from the the same concept — see spectralgate):