Review: Toontrack EZmix 2 by Zach McNees

Let’s face it: Today’s music and songwriting professionals are expected to not only deliver content that’s exciting, creative, and multi-genre but also make sure it sounds pretty damn good out of the gate. Oh, and the client needs it yesterday. Many world-class songwriters and composers admittedly fight and hack their way through their DAWs, struggling to focus the sound of their recordings well enough to pass for listenable.

Enter Toontrack and EZmix 2. Toontrack, a company most known for their game-changing drum-sampling software engine Superior Drummer, have created a plug-in DSP tool called EZmix which simplifies many of the tasks of mixing down to simple and focused presets.

With their upcoming release, EZmix 2, Toontrack has expanded on an already successful formula, bringing new sounds and new features into the mix.

TECH SPECS: EZmix 2 is a Native-only plug-in for use on MAC and PC and retails for $149. Formats are RTAS, VST and AU at 32 and 64-bit where available. Product authorization for EZmix 2 and future Toontrack products has also been simplified as the plug-in itself can now access the user’s account and authorize automatically.

WHAT IT DOES: EZmix 2 is a powerful yet simple mixing tool for focusing and enhancing the sound of tracks with a wide variety of mixing presets for inserts, busses, aux sends and FX creating a quick and headache-free “set and move-on” mixing experience.

THE INTERFACE: EZmix 2 is divided into four sections.  At the top is a cascading set of instrument selection tools followed by the scrolling list of available presets.  At the bottom are meters and gain knobs for input and output as well as two control knobs with varying parameters based on the selected preset. On the right is a graphical display of the various virtual outboard gear, amps and effects which illuminate when in use.

EZmix 2 GUI

IN USE: I sat down with good friend and PBS composer Richard Jay so we could compare our unique viewpoints on EZmix 2.  I also tested EZmix 2’s features out on a few of my most recent mix sessions.

EZmix 2’s cascading preset options allow users to refine the sound they’re looking for based on a wide variety of presets starting with Instrument Groups.  Drums, Bass, Guitars, Keyboards, Percussion, Strings, Vocals and others in a “Miscellaneous” category will get you started. You can then refine each of these selections to a specific instrument like Kick, Snare, Electric or Acoustic Guitar, Organ or Piano and so on. On the next column, the search can be refined further with a selections of amps, effects, musical genres and mixer options for Insert, Groups Bus or Aux Send  allowing users to wade through the hundreds of settings available to find what they’re looking for quickly and easily.

All of the tests Richard and I did both together and individually were done on dry tracks free of any additional plug-ins so that we could audition the true sound of EZmix 2 without any additional enhancement before or after in the chain.

Richard and I started by auditioning electric guitar presets for one of his upcoming TV cues on a clean guitar track that was sounding a little flat.  Richard began navigating the menus, first selecting the “Guitars” Instrument Group, then the “Guitars Electric” Instrument and narrowing the search to the pop genre.  We quickly learned that each preset in EZmix 2 has a very unique and sculpted sound.  Since the control over the sound of each preset is minimal, if the preset you’ve selected doesn’t immediately strike you as the right sound for your instrument, your best bet is to continue searching.

We settled on a preset called “Guitar with Delay” that engages EQ, Compressor, Chorus and Delay effects which were finely tuned and well blended.  The two user controls available are Delay Time and Delay Amount.

Chuck Ainlay Guitar Preset

This particular preset sculpted a healthy amount of low midrange out of the guitar, boosted the high-end slightly and compressed the overall signal noticeably but not to the point of overkill. Chorus and adjustable delay finish off the sound instantly making the guitar lush and dreamy while widening an originally mono track into a unique stereo sound.

One of the most significant changes in this version 2 of EZmix is the addition of amplifier simulations and new effects units.  There are over 30 world-class amp presets available – from heavily distorted Marshall and Mesa Boogie emulations to spacey Jazz Chorus and delay-heavy sounds as well as tremolo and wah effects.

I spent some time applying EZmix 2 to some of my drum tracks – both acoustic live drums and sample based loops. Settings for Kick allowed me to audition several different choices, each blending EQ, compression and Aural Exciter-style sonic enhancement effects for a sound that ran the gamut from scooped and punchy to soft and retro.  I actually ended up selecting an “Enhanced Metal Kick” preset that seemed to work really well on a vintage style kick drum for an Americana-type track.

EZmix 2 also offers a wide variety of presets designed for use on a bus fed from a group of tracks. Drum bus presets include parallel compressors, tape simulators, crunchy over-driven sounds and drum room reverb simulations. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed with the Tape Simulator presets on my drum bus with big rock drums. The tape sounds are stunningly life-like with great saturation, overdrive and dynamics squashing.  I should note that this particular preset had only one control for Tape Drive, which I didn’t end up adjusting at all. Perfect with one click!

Users will find this type of sonic variety across the board on all the dedicated instrument groups available in EZmix 2 so I will move on to vocals.  I demoed many of the presets available for the rock track I was mixing for songwriter (and Julia Nunes bandmate) Mike Comite. The presets available do a great job at covering a lot of ground from lo-fi “indie” effects to sonic enhancements for EQ, compression and parallel compression to packaged presets that include reverbs and delays. I settled on a preset called “In Your Face” which gives the user controls for EQ on one knob and Compression and De-Esser on the other.  The result is a smooth and professional sounding vocal that is punchy and leveled out dynamically.

A few of the other notable presets worth mentioning within EZmix 2 are a suite of mastering limiter plug-ins that do a great job at putting the finishing touches on a mix with level and EQ as well as a great deal of FX-only presets for reverbs, delays, chorus and stereo enhancements.

TO BE CRITICAL:  The first issue I had with EZmix 2 was that the plug-in itself could stand to take up much more screen real estate in general or at least offer the option to increase the size.  The main reason for this is the graphical depictions of the outboard gear and effects take up about one third of the plug-ins space without providing any usable features thus making all the important text very small and sometimes difficult to read.

I also found the cascading menu system a little clunky at times and difficult to quickly start over and get back to the main menu. Users have to deselect each menu parameter in order to go back. Finally, I would like to see some attention given to the gain staging issues that are created by the vast amount of processing.  Many of the presets in EZmix 2 boost the sound by 8-10 dB on the output which can completely clip a track that had a good level going in. This can easily be fixed by adjusting the output knob but could be easily remedied by including appropriate gain reduction in the preset.

IN CONCLUSION:  While EZmix 2 is a great tool that can quickly enhance a great deal of tracks in a session, it is not a fix-all or an auto-mix plug-in. Professional engineers tend to sneer at this type of unit because it doesn’t allow the precision control that we’re used to. However, Toontrack has created an extremely well-thought-out and excellent sounding plug-in that can help every songwriter, composer and intermediate engineer achieve excellent results for a price that everyone can afford.

It should also be noted that there are a great deal of additional EZmix preset packs available for $29 each that will significantly enhance the abilities of EZmix 2.

Visit http://www.toontrack.com for more information on the Toontrack EZmix line. EZmix 2 will be available for demo and purchase on February 7, 2012.

Zach McNees is a Brooklyn-based producer/engineer/mixer and live recordist who’s worked with Björk, Rob Thomas, Julia Nunes, The Gregory Brothers, Pixies, Liars and Alice Cooper. Get in touch with Zach via http://www.zachmcnees.com.