Test Drive: Finis and InspectorXL from Elemental Audio

by Steve Cunningham

I’m always on the lookout for unique bargains, especially when it comes to software processors and plugs. Several tempting tidbits came across my email box this month, but by far the coolest and most interesting are two plug-ins from Elemental Audio. The crew at Elemental create what are arguably some of the most innovative plug-ins around, and then offer them at a very reasonable price. Last year we looked at their excellent Neodynium frequency-controlled multiband compressor [RAP 11/04], and I’ve told everyone I know to download Elemental’s free Inspector metering plug.

This month we’ll take a look at two of the newest additions to their collection — a flexible brickwall peak limiter called Finis, and Inspector XL, a version of Inspector on enough steroids to compete in the Home Run Derby. They’re both available for PCs and Macs, they’re both effective, and they’re priced right. Let’s check ‘em out.

Finis

FINIS

Finis is a brick-wall limiter and loudness maximizer plug-in, with more than a few interesting twists. Like all plugs from Elemental Audio, it’s available as a download-only product in VST and RTAS formats for the PC and the Mac, as well as in Audio Units format. It runs on Pentium III or better processors, under Windows ME or later.

On the Mac it is strictly for OSX, so that means G4 or better. It works at sample rates up to 192 kHz, and is reasonably gentle on CPU resources. To install Finis you first run an installer, and then an Authorizer that accepts the serial number you’ll get via email when you buy the plug.

Finis’ main screen is its only interface, and it consists of controls on the left and large meters on the right. All parameters are displayed as numbers, and clicking in a number field lets you type in a value. Alternatively, you can either click a button or grab a slider to adjust the parameter or your choice.

Finis starts out looking like a standard limiter that has a standard Input with a generous range of from -25 dB of attenuation, to +25 dB of gain. There’s also a standard Release slider that is adjustable from 2 ms to 2 seconds, and a Ceiling slider that can be set from -24 to +8 dB. The meters on Finis are up to Elemental’s high standards — they’re clear and large, with both peak and RMS meters for input and output, as well as an Attenuation level meter. But here, things begin to change.

There’s a subtle Reaction parameter that controls how aggressively Finis reacts to incoming audio that approaches the Ceiling level. Then there are buttons to select one of three Types of limiting, with Type I recommended for heavy limiting with audio that often exceeds the Ceiling, and Type III recommended for material with occasional transients.

Another twist with Finis is the I/O Crest Factor meter, located below the main audio meters, which functions almost as a psychoacoustic meter. It indicates the average increase in apparent loudness based on the difference between the input and output signals. It may sound like audio voodoo, but it actually works in giving you an overall visual sense of how the limiter is affecting apparent loudness and resulting dynamic range of the material. It’s a bit slow to react, but it settles into position once it has a sense of the overall processing level you’ve set up. You can adjust other parameters and see how they affect your track. And believe me, Finis is one of those plugs that you’ll want to demo on your own material... it’s a hands-on experience.

Finis is a limiter, and of course the main job of a limiter is to limit peaks in audio tracks. Unless, of course, you produce radio imaging or commercials for a living, in which case a limiter’s function is to make things sound AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE at all times. Finis does that very well, without coloring the sound in any way. Yes, it will squash the life out of anything you put into it, if you set it up to do that. Actually it’s one of the best plug-in limiters I’ve ever used for that good old car-dealer-weekend-event-voiceover sound. Speech becomes thick, and goes well beyond in-your-face without overdoing the mids.

Of course it’s actually better used to simply limit the peaks, allowing you to raise the input and get a louder-sounding product without actually pounding it to death. And that strange I/O Crest Factor meter helps.

The I/O Crest Factor is one of the more useful tools I’ve seen for those who’d like to exercise some self-control. It actually measures the ratio of the peak level of the signal to the RMS level, in decibels. A lower crest factor indicates audio with a higher average loudness and less dynamic range. The I/O Crest Factor meters give you a quantifiable means of determining the dynamics of your track, and can help you get tracks that are louder overall without sacrificing all the dynamics. But whether you’re a squasher or a tweaker, Finis won’t color your track.

Finis comes with a well-written 60 page PDF manual, which you can download at any time from the Elemental Audio website. While it does a fabulous job at explaining how to use Finis, and does a particularly nice job on the I/O Crest Factor, I wish it had detailed the differences between the three Type presets.

Finis is available from Elemental’s website for $159, and a demo version is available. Steve sez go get it and check it out at www.elementalaudio.com.

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