Intelligent Sounds & Music Aroma Plug-In from Ploytec
Sometimes it takes scents to spice up your audio
by Craig Anderton
Aroma is one of those processors that’s intended to add a certain “magic mojo” to masters and other audio files. The effects are based on analog processes, but there are no specific claims as to what’s being emulated; the company mentions “tape” and “valves,” but the reality is I don’t care as much about an “accurate” emulation as I do about whether the effect is useful and/or interesting. (As an aside, I feel similarly about amp sims: I’m less concerned whether a sim models a Marshall amp perfectly than whether it makes a good amp sound I would want to use on a track.) That said, Aroma does seem to have been inspired by Cranesong’s excellent HDD-192 hardware, while taking liberties that only a software version can do.
Because you can download a trial demo of Aroma (Mac/Windows VST2/VST3/AU/AAX, with challenge/response protection), you can decide for yourself if this plug-in is something you need. However, to my ears Aroma is at its best when used subtly; I had to spend quite a bit of time with it to understand which effects and settings would benefit audio files the most. So, the purpose of this review is to give a head start for those who choose to download the trial version…as well as to describe a distinctly non-conformist processor.
SPICE RACK IN A PLUG-IN
Aroma in Stereo mode, with the Transfer menu open that can exchange parameter values between the Stereo and Mid/Side modes.
There are four processors, enigmatically called Salt (emphasizes even harmonics), Pepper (emphasizes odd harmonics), Sugar (tape compression), and Chili (sort of like a more aggressive version of the Pepper processor). Each has an Intensity and Flavour control to alter the sound beyond the basic emulation, as well as a bypass switch. Aroma can operate globally in Stereo or Mid/Side processing modes; with Mid/Side processing, the controls are duplicated for independent control over mid and side components.
Mid/Side mode provides individual controls for the mid and sides for each of the four processors.
The effects themselves can be subtle but they can also increase the level, which makes comparisons difficult. As a result it’s important to match levels precisely when doing A/B comparisons so you can identify what’s happening with the audio. For example with the Sugar processor, the processed and unprocessed sounds didn’t seem all that different—except that I could increase the processed sound’s level quite a bit before it hit the same peak values as the unprocessed version, which revealed its tape compression-like effect.
Also note that these effects are dependent on input level. There’s an input level control, and you want to make sure that you don’t exceed the recommended level, as shown by an orange ring illuminating when you’re feeding in too much signal. I obtained what I thought were the best results when hitting the input as hard as possible, short of distortion.
THE FOUR EFFECTS
Sugar adds body and depth, although as with all the effects, a little goes a long way—in stereo, I gravitated toward Intensity and Flavour settings around 50%. Mid/side processing worked very well on just the sides to widen the apparent stereo image and “fatten” up the sides a bit. This was an effective and very useful process.
Chili “hypes” the sound a bit. I also found this effect useful, but combining mid/side processing with Sugar and Chili had the ability to “lift” a track up a bit. I did my usual A/B comparison method of closing my eyes and clicking bypass so many times I didn’t know if the effect was in or out. When I clicked a few more times to compare, it was easy to tell that the bypassed version was not as pleasing.
I wasn’t really a fan of Salt; it added distortion which is fine and all that, but given how much I try to get as clean a sound as possible, generally saturation doesn’t really do it for me except for individual tracks—not masters. However, Pepper was much more to my liking; it created a fatter, bigger sound if not taken to extremes.
You do have to be careful when using multiple processors at once, though. I found the effect cumulative, and the sound could get ugly pretty fast. In those cases, I was better off dialing back the individual effects.
Note that there are options to transfer parameters between mid/side and stereo options, along with three slots to temporarily store and compare various settings. Given how much of mastering—and mixing in general—requires A/B comparisons, this is very handy.
Initially, I wasn’t too sure about Aroma. I would turn things up all the way to really hear the effect, and a lot of times, it sounded worse than the unprocessed audio. But as I learned more about how the processes affected the overall sound, and dialed back the settings to enhance rather than overpower, Aroma added a dimension to a track that I couldn’t obtain in other ways. In that respect, the “spice” analogy is accurate—you can ruin a great meal with too much spice, but also, use spices to enhance a meal into more than it would be otherwise.
Overall, I don’t necessarily see Aroma as a “must-have” processor, like a linear-phase multiband compressor or a quality “maximizer.” However, for under $100 it provides a suite of effects that can substitute for individual processors designed to produce effects like tape emulation and saturation. Also, the mid/side processing is extremely useful—if you download the demo, make sure you check out what this can do to tracks. For me, mid/side processing is where Aroma has the sweetest scent.
Finally, although Aroma is promoted mainly as a mastering plug-in, do try it on other source material. For example, I found that acoustic guitar, bass, and drum loops could benefit from Aroma’s spices.
It’s definitely worth downloading the trial version and finding out for yourself what Aroma can do. Once you learn how to dial in the right settings, it can enhance your music in unique ways. -HC-
Aroma introductory video
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.