Audiolens w/ Ozone and Standalone (no Ozone) - worth it?
Hello fellow music-makers! Full disclosure: I received a free copy of Ozone 10 Advanced (thank you!!!) and promised to do a review. I also promise to be as objective as I can.
Given that there's already an excellent general review of Audiolens + Ozone 10 by user T-O on this forum I figured I'd do something a little differently: is the $25 Audiolens a useful tool on its own or is it only usable in the context of an Ozone 10 master Assistant toolchain?
Standard Use Case: Audiolens + Ozone 10 (or Neutron 4)
Well, before I answer that question let me agree with most of the other reviews out there at this time: if you're already an Ozone 10 (or Neutron 4) user, Audiolens is an absolute no-brainer. As long as you have your plugins updated to their latest versions (I had some issues where my reference targets were not automatically populating in Ozone 10 until I made sure both products were up-to-date using the iZotope Product Portal) the workflow is almost completely effortless.
You kind of feel guilty using it – it's that easy.
Not that it's 1-click and you're done, but in a minimum of clicks you can dramatically improve your mastering chain and hear immediate results, then tweak from there. For me, who has to master 2-3 tracks a week, this can translate into a couple of hours' in time savings every week! That's huge - and if you charge a fixed fee for mastering, you've just increased your effective hourly rate with no additional cost your clients!
A Learning Tool
Professional or amateur, we're all on the same path of constantly trying to improve our ears, our discernment and our knowledge of mastering: looking for ways to recognize common issues and having multiple strategies to mitigate them. The ability to capture a number of reference tracks and then - most importantly - to be able to visualize their spectra and compare to your own tracks' analysis is another "lens" (ha ha) into the music and gives you more data to triangulate your insights.
I would never suggest using the averaged spectral graph that you get after you've finished capturing a segment of audio with Audiolens as your only source of insight about a mix or a track; but as a means to augment the information that your ears are telling you, and being able to quickly spot characteristics across the frequency domain, the visual feedback is invaluable to being able to understand what you're hearing.
This will help you learn to hear better, and understand what you're hearing in a different way.
So Much More Material!
Now of course you can achieve the same thing (if you're an owner of Ozone 10) without Audiolens – the targets that the Master Assistant comes with are already quite varied and super well curated, and you have the ability to add in and analyze your own audio tracks (or those that you have ripped to your hard drive from some other means). But with the addition of Audiolens to your workflow, you just have so much more material via streaming services to explore, analyze and use to inform your mixing decision-making.
Furthermore, because Audiolens isn't actually storing the audio sample, but rather performing its analysis and only storing the target data, you don't have to deal with any sticky copyright issues. And besides, ripping tracks is time-consuming, requires specialized software and is fraught with issues like sample rate matching. Audiolens removes those barriers and reduces friction in the reference acquisition process. This translates into more time spent exploring and learning and less time down in the weeds.
(Mac) Behind-the-Scenes: Rogue Amoeba
As I was reading the Mac installation process it became clear that what allows such a seamless plug-and-play capture of audio (it really is completely transparent!) is the use of Rogue Amoeba's Audio Capture Engine (ACE). This made me very happy to hear as Rogue Amoeba has been the leader in audio software "rewiring" on Macs for more than a decade now and their products are almost flawless. I was not surprised that it just "worked" perfectly out of the box.
Audiolens gets system "pass-thru" audio piped directly into its capture buffer, so if you can hear the sound playing on your computer's speakers, Audiolens will hear it as well, exactly the same way. (This is also why you should maximize your playback volume in your streaming software).
Once I realized this, I started to suspect that one might be able to glean some utility out of Audiolens even without the Ozone suite...
Audiolens as a stand-alone tool?
If you're using Ozone 10+ or Neutron 4+ already, then Audiolens is really a no-brainer, but what if you're using other mastering plugins and don't want to invest in a new suite at this time? Is Audiolens useless?
As it turns out, the answer is actually "no".
You can use Audiolens to capture reference profiles, and then, provided you have a means to output your DAW's audio to the system's default internal audio bus, Audiolens will pick it up and superimpose it upon the visual graph of your reference captures! If you have a dual-monitor setup, you can keep Audiolens up on one monitor and tweak your DAW's master signal chain to your heart's content and observe how it matches your reference. Or you can easily switch back and forth to observe the impact of your adjustments in almost real-time.
Not too bad for a $25 (currently free!) tool!
A couple of things you want to be aware of if you're going to use this approach. Playing back a full mix from your DAW over the system bus means you're not using your audio interface's DSPs and, depending on the number of plugins and the complexity of your signal processing, you could be bogging down your CPU and creating all sorts of problems that Audiolens will hear including distortion, stuttering and – heaven forbid – crashes.
There are a few solutions here. If you're not too concerned with real-time adjustments and are prepared to take a tweak-and-listen approach, then you can just increase your audio buffer in your DAW's audio settings. This will of course introduce more latency in your playback, but since you're not recording the delay shouldn't be too much of an issue.
The other solution, if you really want to use your DAW, is to use an audio routing tool (like Rogue Amoeba's Loopback) and route your audio from your Audio Interface's output back to the internal audio bus, which Audiolens is monitoring. As of this writing, Audiolens has not been registered as a "Monitoring Device" with Loopback (something they ought to address IMO), which would allow you to pipe audio from any source (not just the internal audio bus) into Audiolens giving you even more control.
Thanks to the generous folks at Native Instruments and iZotope, I've now got my own copy of Audiolens + Ozone 10 Advanced and I'm sure it will become a staple for me in my weekly mastering tasks, saving me time and giving me new ways to improve and train my ears! The ability to generate visual reference material AND audio profiles that the Master Assistant can use is clutch and will encourage me to explore more genres and styles due to its frictionless workflow.
I will definitely continue to use sampled (aka "ripped" via Loopback) reference tracks, which I import into a separate channel in my DAW (bypassing my Mastering bus), so I can use my ears for qualitative evaluation of my signal chain, but now I'll have some visual information via Audiolens to help me triangulate issues and opportunities in the mix.
For those who want to explore reference material visually without the investment in other iZotope products, you can still use Audiolens as a stand-alone tool that can show you in real-time how your mix compares to your reference tracks in the frequency spectrum domain. It won't be the full picture by any means, but can still help generate useful insights for where to start tweaking your signal chain.
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