Music and Technology: iZotope RX3, the Miracle Product

Screen shot of iZotope RX3 interface.
Screen shot of iZotope RX3 interface.

COLLEGE PARK, Md., April 19, 2014 – Considering what a niche field music technology is, an astounding variety of quality software packages are nevertheless still available to fulfill all manner of specialized artistic needs. Yet given the pleasant reality of high-level musical tools created by engineering geniuses, iZotope’s RX3 software remains an almost miraculous product, a package that so thoroughly exceeds expectations as to warrant a category of its own. 

RX3 bills itself as the “Complete Audio Repair” suite, and it ably fits the bill. It can be used as a plugin in your favorite digital audio workstation (DAW), or in its very effective stand-alone mode.

So how can it help your average composer?

Consider that otherwise wonderful recording you have, the one where somebody commences a coughing fit that invariably coincides with the most delicate and exposed portion of your piece. How many recordings do you have that are littered with sneezes, rustling pages, or perhaps the percussionist dropping his mallets at just the wrong moment?

Or perhaps you have a good recording that simply has too much reverb, or contains terrible line noise. Some potentially decent recordings are otherwise so marred by ambient noise as to be unusable in a professional demo.

RX3 claims to be the equalizer when it comes to such audio disasters. We tested RX3-Advanced on a live choral recording made in a Warsaw Cathedral. The recording had previously been cleverly edited to minimize the effects of a major clip—a type of distortion that seems to “squash” a given sound. But painful artifacts yet remained in the form of jarring crackles that surfaced in the bass register.

Furthermore aside from a well-placed sneeze and rustling pages, there were the additional issues of tweeting birds, the sounds of footfalls thudding and shuffling around the cathedral, the woody bumping of a few slammed pews, and even the sound of an old woman’s boots squeaking in a most insistent fashion as she slowly progressed from the front to the back of the Church. In short, a potentially luminous recording was seriously marred, and RX3 had its chance to shine.

Our first step was to use the “Denoise” and “Remove Hum” features to remove some background hum from the recording. Here we noted our first example of RX3’s simple and visually intuitive interface. It allowed us to quickly accomplish the tasks at hand. RX3 allows users to toggle between a stereo waveform view of their audio, a spectral analysis, or some combination of both. 

Screen shot, RX3's Spectral Repair tool.
Screen shot, RX3’s Spectral Repair tool.

Working in spectral analysis, we were able to visually identify almost every instance of unwanted noise. That nasty cough appeared as a visual blip on the spectral display, at which point – using the astounding “Spectral Repair” feature – we could draw a lasso around the offending noise and zap it away. It was almost as simple a process as removing red-eye in PhotoShop, with the default tool settings alone often getting the job done well without the necessity of further tweaking.

It was with particular glee that we were able to isolate every squeak and squawk of that poor old woman’s galoshes, mercifully removing them from an otherwise tender moment in this recording.

“Spectral Repair” was also able to remove the painful artifacts of extreme (and mostly repaired) clipping, even though the offending segment was embedded in the most prominently filled portion of the frequency spectrum. This task required a bit more precision and effort on our part. But RX3’s ability to intelligently accomplish such a task while taking into consideration the surrounding sonic material was more than confirmed.

Judicious application of this tool often led to perfect repairs; namely, instances where either those minimized audio artifacts or reduced remnants of an offending noise that yet remained were nevertheless vastly preferable to the original. Indeed, the “Spectral Repair” tool would be worth the purchase of this product in and of itself. In the future, iZotope might even consider offering this tool as a stand-alone plugin for other applications.

Our sample recording – having been made in a very acoustically active church building – was also a nice opportunity to test RX3’s “Dereverb” feature, which is only available in the advanced version. As one might expect, it performed admirably up to a point, with a total removal of reverb seriously affecting musical data.

Having gotten this far in cleaning up our favorite choral recording, it was nice to see that further work could be done in-house without the need to export to an external DAW. Using the equalizer (EQ) we were able to address some balance issues in the recording.

Finally, we were pleasantly surprised to find that third party plug-ins could be used in RX3. In this case we brought in our favorite reverb plug-in, which enabled us to add in a bit of algorithmic sheen to the otherwise beautiful acoustic environment of this recording.

After about three hours of work, we ended up with a completely revitalized recording that could easily be included on a professional, commercial release. Having so quickly achieved such a beautiful result, we were able to experiment with several other features of RX3.

One particularly useful tool allows the user to isolate “musical” or “noise” data from any recording. For instance, a recording of a single singer can be split up into pure musical tones and extra-musical information, such as breath noise. In this context, a “breathiness” can be added to a recording, creating a greater sense of immediacy.

In another context, we were able to both reduce and increase the sound of key-clicks in the recording of a woodwind instrument. Such effects, often quite audible in a live performance, provide a sense of intimacy in a recording.

As a final test, we imported the noisy audio from two separate audio interviews currently being prepared for online consumption. Here we were able to experiment with the highly effective “learn” feature of RX3’s Denoising tool, tweaking the “learned” results until we achieved an ideal balance between vocal timbre, room noise, and those always-present digital artifacts. Some carefully sculpted EQ’ing polished the results, while RX3’s plugin host allowed us to add some gentle reverb to an otherwise dry recording. The job was done in no time.

At the end of the day, you might wonder how you ever worked without RX3. The software comes in a standard (MSRP $249.00) and “advanced” version (MSRP $749.00.) The standard version is more than sufficient for your average composer, as it provides the highly desirable Denoise module as well as a good version of the Spectral Repair tool along with the ability to use third party plugins. Both versions of the product are available as a limited ten day trial, downloadable from the company’s website.

(For a product comparison visit the iZotope website.)

RX3 is perhaps the most revolutionary and awe-inspiring music software release since the debut of Melodyne, and as such defies the typical rating scale. It bundles incredible power, CPU efficiency, and a very quick learning curve into a simple and attractive package. Little wonder that it has received awards and accolades from across the industry, even including a recent Emmy award.

The only thing missing from RX3 is a warning label. Interacting with such near miraculous yet easy-to-use software-based power is purely addictive.

Product Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

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