People used to find excitement in planning new gear additions for their racks. Now people get even more excited about acquiring new plug-ins for their computers. Strangely enough, the plug-ins that create the most excitement seem to be the ones that emulate actual analog rack gear. I’ve seen just about every piece of analog gear be reborn in plug-in form — but I must admit, I didn’t see this one coming. Waves, a company that is extremely prolific in thinking up new emulations and wacky graphic interfaces, has brought back a piece of analog gear that very few people have ever seen or used — the original Aphex Model 402 Aural Exciter.
While many may have used the mass-produced Type C or the 204 Aphex Exciters, the concept of “excitement” didn’t start with those units. It started with the much more expensive Model 402 in the mid-1970s. But even then, you couldn’t buy it. Only a handful were ever made, and they weren’t for sale. You could only rent the unit for session use, and you had to pay a fee based upon how many minutes of music it was applied to. Because of its revolutionary effect, the few units that did exist were booked solid. So what the heck did the 402 do? It was a tube-based analog circuit that added phase shift, EQ, and synthesized harmonics to an audio signal. This had the effect of adding clarity and brightness to whatever was run through it. It could be used during tracking but saw more action in being applied to the final mix. These units and the lower cost Type C Exciters were on many studio tracks and live PA mix buses.
So back to the plug-in. Waves has gotten ahold of one of the only remaining 402s for modeling this plug-in. And in traditional Waves fashion, they have recreated the original unit’s front panel look and feature set. There are photo-realistic VU meters with clip indicators. There’s an input level control as well as a large virtual knob that controls the amount of processing. A mode switch allows you to run 100% “wet” for use on an aux bus, or with a blend control for use as a track insert. They have even included controls for emulating the analog noise of the original hardware piece, as well as the 60 Hz hum from the power supply, which can also be switched to 50 Hz. (Although I appreciate the authenticity of modeling the noise and hum, I’m not sure how useful it is. I would probably leave those turned off.)
If you have ever used an Aphex Exciter, then this plug-in responds pretty much exactly as you might expect. There is an unmistakable sonic character to an Aural Exciter. As opposed to simply adding EQ to a signal, this is shifting the phase and adding harmonic content to it as well. It does have a seductive quality when added to a mix. It brings detail forward that you may have been trying to capture. It can make crunch guitars speak in the mix. It can add some sizzle to background vocals. You can bus parts of a drum kit to it to make the snare pop a bit more. It can add articulation to a muddy bass guitar.
While I appreciate the ability to insert the plug-in on individual tracks, I found that I got the results I needed by setting it up on a bus and sending just the amount I needed to it from each track, with better success than sending the whole mix through it afterwards. It was a quick and easy way to bring something forward while adding clarity. I used it to keep a guitar line from getting lost under the vocal and to add distinction to multilayered vocal parts. It also helped an acoustic piano articulate through a somewhat dense mix. Although I have not had an Exciter as part of my normal rig, it was a nice tool that was easy to apply when needed.
Now, as with anything, it needs to be used in moderation. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “brighter is better.” I’m sure that many who use this plug-in for the first time will run the risk of making their mix overly crispy. A little discipline and self-control will be needed. While I see the use for this effect, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. The Aural Exciter process does tend to exhibit a bit of a buildup in the upper midrange if applied to all tracks. While it does add overall brightness and clarity, this buildup does seem to be predominant in the upper-midrange frequencies.
Also, keep in mind the state of recording in the mid-’70s when the original Aphex Exciter was released. Not a computer in sight, multitrack tape machines that may or may not be in proper alignment, and in some cases, somewhat slow analog consoles that might do some damage to transient response. In those conditions, something that could add clarity through additional harmonic content could be a desirable thing. But it’s a different world today. We don’t (usually) have tape softening the high frequencies. Many modern circuits have faster response than their vintage counterparts. I’m not sure how often we need to add this sort of harmonic content to our comparatively cleaner modern digital signals, especially when considering the potential for upper-midrange harshness if overused. But if you are looking for a perfect way to implement the classic Aphex 402 Exciter in a DAW-based project, this is the perfect answer. It should be looked at as another useful tool to have in your bag of tricks. It does a great job of emulating the Aural Exciter hardware, and it comes in TDM and native versions.
(Native $250 MSRP, $500 TDM; www.waves.com)
by Mike Jasper
Former Trillium Labs software engineer Steven Massey (Tape Op #68) - who worked on both TL Aggro and TL Space - now makes Pro Tools plug-ins for the rest of us. No dongles, affordably priced,...