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Accelerate Your Mac!
Bring in the Noise
Mac Audio Column
by Thad Brown
11/17/98
Ray Gun Noise Reduction and Restoration plug-in

-What it is and what it does-

While the debate over analog versus digital audio quality rages on, and will continue to do so for some time to com, nobody contests one advantage that digital has over analog--media durability. A virgin LP to my ears does in fact sound better than a CD, but play that LP 10 times and it's quality inevitiably begins to degrade. Carp all you want about clock jitter and sample rates and ultrasonics, but a CD has the zeros and ones lined up in the same row each time.

Because of this advantage in the media, many people want to archive their vinyl reocords onto more durable CD via those wonders of the late nineties, CD recorables. I have had grandiose visions of doing some of the same, until I try to get around the logistics of accessing my 500 title vinyl collection currently in storage in Wisconsin with my computer system. Haven't quite gotten that one worked out yet. The Ray Gun preset is a simple, easy to use plug-in that will let somebody with reasonably sophisticated ears take some of the his, pops, and clicks, and even some noise off of digital recordings. It is, according to Arboretum, a specialized version of their high end Ionizer application. The Ray Gun package consists of a few different pieces, the free Hyperengine recording/editing environment, plug-ins for pretty much every format you will likely ever use save TDM. Apparently Arboretum thinks that the big boys either won't have much use for this one or will just use the Audiosuite version.

-The test system and ratings scale-

This next paragraph is getting sort of comical. I always copy it over from the last review and then realize that I've changed everything (or put differently, I've spent horrifying amounts of money on new equipment) so I have to write it all over again.

The audio box in my little room of sonic anarchy is a recently purchased UMAX S900 with a Powerlogix 220/110 card accelerated to 325/130. I use the stock IBM SCSI drive as a boot/app disk, and have a Seagate Barracuda for audio. My primary sequencing/recording environment is Cubase VST/24, working with a Kawai K500Os which replaced the long in the tooth Fatar controller and Roland U-220; the Alesis Nanosynth remains. Routing and monitoring are via the ubiquitous Mackie, with a gloriously overpowered Macke M-1400i power amp working over the Tannoy PBM 6.5II monitors like a dominatrix on crank. And I wonder why I never have money for nice clothes. Starting with this review, unless there is a really good reason to do otherwise, I will use my Korg 1212 card for reviews. I'm sick of repatching the cables, and the mini-jack on my UMAX is getting a little sketchy anyway.

I use a weighted ratings system with six categories, where the total points possible are an easy to value 100. They are

  1. Installation and configuration. 10 points

  2. Audio features and quality. What can it do and does it sound good while doing it. 30 points.

  3. GUI. I sometimes spend hours in a row for days in a row working with the same app. Will the interface be frustrating, tiring, or unintuitive after all those hours? 20 points.

  4. Compatibility. Will the app integrate with other applications and support files from other apps and platforms. 10 points.

  5. Documentation. 10 points

  6. Overall value. I have no choice but to spend my audio dollars carefully, is this app worth it? 20 points.

INSTALLATION AND CONFIGURATION

The Ray Gun installer CD has a seperate icon and installer for each application you intend to use. I installed the stand alone version, the Cubase VST version, and the Premiere version to use with Peak. Everything worked fine from the get go, until just for kicks, I tried to use the "generic VST" version instead of the specific Cubase one. For some reason this wreaked all kinds of havoc and crashed Cubase a few times. Eventually a little pref trashing took care of it, but I have no idea what happened. If you decide to get this package, use the app specific installers if you can.

Another samll quible is that you have to reenter the world's longest registration number each time you install the plug-in for a new application. Small drag, but a drag nonetheless. Big thumbs up to Arboretum, however, for avoiding floppy based authorization. Either they trust their customers or have just given up and want to save the licensing fee for the protection software. In any case, it's nice to know that if I have a disk crash, I won't have to be begging for a new authorization floppy and waiting for it to arrive in the mail.

9 out or 10 for crashing Cubase.

AUDIO FEATURES AND QUALITY

The Ray Gun is a refreshingly simple and straightforward app. The whole thing fits into one uncluttered screen. In addition to the plug-in format specific stuff like preview, preset and apply to selection type controls, the Ray Gun has only four sets of controls. A noise reduction section with a pair of sliders, a pop section with one slider, and buttons for filtering low end rumble and hum. At the far right are a pair of sliders for master gain, in case you reduce so much noise that the audio needs a bump up. Each of these sections is designed to work on one kind of undesireable noise. The first section is mostly for constant surface noise and hiss, which is useful both for vinyl and cassette transfers. The second section looks for snaps crackles and pops, and gets rid of the very sudden transients that they produce, and has to make an educated contextual guess and fill in a few samples worth of data where that pop occurred. Low end rumble can come from any number of sources during playback, and 50 and 60 Hz hum are generally the infuriating results of grounding gremlins somewhere in the recording or playback process. The "features" that matter are all here, and they even work on some non-transfer tasks.

Audio quality throughout is excellent. Arboretum makes clear in the included documentation that no noise reduction is perfect. Any changes you make to the noise will, to a greater or lesser degree, mess with things you would rather not change. It's especially easy for a novice to get so hyped up on killing the noise that they start to kill the high end of the music and wind up with a very quiet and very dull recording. You have to listen carefully and excercise a little restraint. I actually don't mind some hiss and have avoided consumer noise reduction since the first time I pushed in the "famous brand name" button on a cassette deck and suddenly the cymbals moved fifteen feet back from the drummer. If used judicously on transfered audio, the Ray Gun yields excellent results. I transfered some vinyl and tape recordings to my computer and used it to clean off a little hiss and actually preferred the result to the original. It does, however, take some time, and the sliders do work with each other, so you wind up chasing settings back and forth until you find the "sweet spot."

Of course, I never make mistakes when recording, so I never have noise problems on my own stuff. Strangely enough, every now and then, some other person sneaks into my apartment when I'm not here and records tracks with fan noise and sirens in the background and ground loops and all manner of noise problems. This character also plays and sings a LOT like me, so if you run into this person, be careful, if he looks like me as well, things could get kinda scary. In any case, when trying to do some work on the tracks this other guy leaves on my drive, the Ray Gun also came in handy, even though it's not the primary purpose of the plug-in. It did a fine job cleaning up some non-optimally staged gain on a miced acoustic guitar, and removed some single coil guitar pickup hum quite nicely as well. I put the hum back in because I like it there, but it could be fairly unobtrusively removed if I wished.

It certainly is possible to totally kill stuff as well, though. And as with any such program always go back and "refresh" your ears with the original to be sure that the high end isn't getting totally botched. The neural denoise in SonicWORX did a better job, but for a real time plug-in at this price, quality is outstanding.

25 out of 30 points.

GUI

The Ray Gun is designed very well. All of the functions are easily accessable in one window, and the sliders have plenty of room for small adjustments. Some of the available settings seem fairly extreme, so the faders might not really have a useful throw like what shows up on the screen, but I really can't say for sure. Big green virtual lighs come on behind buttons when they are pushed, so there is no problem finding which modules are on or off. Loading, saving, and managing presets is also very straightforward. It's actually fairly stylish as well.

Screen shot

This is probably also the place where I should talk about the Hyperengine, which is the free editor Arboretum includes with the Ray Gun. The Hyperengine is actually quite a full featured app considering it's free. It allows real time DSP with capable plug-ins, and if you own other Arboretum software plug-ins like Hyperprism or Ionizer, they show up in the plug-ins menu here as well. As nice as it is, if you have Peak or Sound Designer II, I really doubt you will switch over from the other program. Hyperengine is no match for them I used Peak or Cubase or Vision DSP after using Hyperengine long enough to form a reasonable opinion. Props to Arboretum, though, for providing a host app for the plug-in for more casual users who would not even want to spend the $99 for Peak LE.

Aroboretum clearly went the extra mile to get the Ray Gun to be useable an accessable, and they include a host app for it that doesn't suck. For those of you with a CD burner and Toast, then, all you would need to get those scratchy LPs archived is the Ray Gun and Toast, which you probably got with your burner anyway.

18 out of 20.

COMPATIBILITY

Fantastic. Support for every format save TDM, and support for nearly every app out there. Even ones I bet they didn't really WANT to spend the extra time on.

9 out of 10

DOCUMENTATION

The doco is good, but I had a devil of a time using it. Arboretum includes documentation in HTML format which is fantastic as far as I am concerned. I see no reason why anybody should have to have Acrobat when they almost certainly have a web browser of some sort. For those fifteen people in the world not currently the subject of corporate battles between Microsoft and Netscape, an HTML viewer is included. Here's the kicker though, I couldn't get the file associations to work right because I'm not running some extension or another, so I would fire the link and it wouldn't go anywhere. I eventually found the table of contents with a .html extension and could read it with Netscape or the viewer, but it took a while. Maybe I'm being unjustly picky, but why not just make the first link an HTML file with the table of contenets?

Once in, the doco was good. A little heavy on somewhat confusing symbols, but all the info is there, including sections on the particulars of specific formats. They also went out of their way to warn against over processing with noise reduction. Excellent stuff.

7 out of 10.

OVERALL VALUE

In the perhaps most important of all categories, the Ray Gun truly shines. For only $99 Arboretum gives you an excellent noise reduction plug-in that will work with anything currently made, and toss in a decent editor/recorder and some free Hyperprism plug-ins as well. For people on a budget this small set of apps could do everything from basic editing of samples to LP archiving to cleaning up location recordings to editing interview audio and who knows what else. Paired with Peak LE for another $99, and it's a truly killer combination.

18 out of 20.

CONCLUSION

Perhaps the best thing aobut Ray Gun is its simplicity. In the audio world, complexity and features can be added to an application simply to put it in the add copy, and all those new gizmos of dubious utiltiy make the whole thing harder to use and learn. The Ray Gun is simple enough that I believe anyone with decent hearing and good speakers or headphones could be using it effectively in a few hours, even if they know little or nothing about audio. It's also refreshing to have a small "paring knife" audio app. It does a few thing very very well and doesn't try to everything for everybody. Particular tools for a particular problem, and there is nothing at all wrong with that. The Ray Gun finishes with a very fine 87 on the xlr8 scale. It's a good tool that won't break the bank.

Send Thad Feedback or new links at: tcb@caliban.grendelnet.com


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