Music Tech: Hands-on with Zynaptiq Intensity
In search of the mythical “just make it sound better” plugin… Is Zynaptiq’s Intensity the Chosen One?
Author’s note: I do not review stuff immediately when I get it. I spend time with it, try it on real projects that I’m working on, and generally see how it works when used at the sharp end of production. That’s why my reviews are called “Hands-on” and why they will usually appear months after a product is released, not right away.
Also don’t expect a walk-through of how to use it — that’s what the manual is for. I’m here to tell you what results you will get when you do use it. Because ultimately it’s results that count! :-)
Detail | Clarity | Density | Loudness is the subtitle for Zynaptic’s Intensity plugin. All of which sound great but what exactly does any of it mean once we get past the marketing-speak? Let’s fire this one up and see how much of this we actually get, and how.
Like the last Zynaptiq plugin I reviewed, the remarkable Unveil, this uses some kind of weird Artificial Intelligence algorithm to do its magic, leading to one of the simplest User Interfaces I have ever seen (and that’s a good thing). There are basically just two big knobs, using the excellent Zynaptiq “ball” design: Intensity and Bias. There’s also a Bias Curve selector and the choice of Saturation or not on the output, and that’s really kind of it.
What is actually going on behind the User Interface is never quite explained in the manual, or anywhere else for that matter. Zynaptiq just use a lot of big words and obfuscation to say “it makes your stuff sound better”. Big claim, let’s test it…
Remastering some old indie singles from the 80s. All I had to go with were the original stereo mixdowns which weren’t terrible but they certainly weren’t very polished. I had been playing around with a bunch of different EQs and they were starting to sound OK, but they just didn’t sparkle the way they needed to. So I threw Intensity on the end of the mastering chain. On looking through the presets I found one for 80s/90s Mastering — that sounds like what I’m looking for! I chose that one and hit Play.
Ohmigod, this thing is fantastic! There was an immediate and massive difference in the mix. Suddenly I could hear stuff that had been completely obscured before. Vocals sounded clearer and better, the reverb was defined like never before, improving the stereo image, and guitars were much more in your face. This was… kind of impossible, but it sounded great!
I went back and switched off the EQ I had been using on the track previously, leaving nothing on but Intensity and a lo-cut filter I’d been using to clean up the bottom end a bit. Still sounded great! Turns out I didn’t even need that EQ after all.
I was worried that maybe this was the usual amateur problem of just making things sound louder, and hence better, so I selected the Level Comp setting and turned off the Saturation. Still sounded great. I turned the Bias knob up and down — and it turns out that this is the legendary “How much better do you want it to sound?” knob. Kinda that simple.
The Bias knob, on the other hand, kinda works like an EQ in conjunction with the Bias Curve. And I do mean kinda because it still doesn’t seem to work exactly like an EQ — but it does give you some of the same overall result, just… better. You pick one of the preset curves (or make your own with the editor) and the Bias knob sets how much of that curve is applied to the track. Very simple, very straightforward, very much something you will use.
So what exactly is going on? Honestly, I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to be compressing the sound (or if it is, it’s doing some kind of very weird subtle multi-band compression). It does seem to be doing some kind of harmonic excitation, but if so, it’s better than I’ve ever heard done by anything else in the past. There’s other stuff going on back there too, but I simply do not know what. Whatever it is, it works.
But having said that, one thing I did notice after using it a lot is a tiny amount of ear fatigue. That would tend to indicate an exciter at play — added harmonic distortion does tend to make that happen. To that end, I found that after my initial excitement (excuse the pun), I realised that a little bit of Intensity goes a very long way, and I started turning the Intensity knob down much lower than I had at the beginning. This gave me a much more subtle, but still excellent, improvement to my track. On to…
Another music remastering job, but this time a much more modern-sounding and superficially polished album. Unfortunately the tracks I was dealing with were also much more compressed and had extremely muddy bass, meaning a lot of very delicate forensic work to try to give them back some dynamic and clean up the bottom end. I ended up with a fairly complex effects chain, without any Intensity at all. I wasn’t even sure if I would need it in the end, since this job was more about tiny tweaks and cleanup. But I thought I’d add it to the end and see what happened.
I ended up spending a lot of time A/Bing the masters with and without Intensity. I used a slightly edited version of the Gentle Mastering preset and kept the Intensity knob set very low. Depending on the song I would either not use the Bias setting at all, or use a very small amount of it to provide that last bit of correction that the EQ in my chain wasn’t quite hitting. End result: it gave the master just enough lift to take it from sounding “really good” to “holy shit, that’s great”.
Conclusion (so far)
Up to now I haven’t had the chance to use this on individual instruments or tracks, so before I make a definitive conclusion I’d like to see how that works (watch out for an update on the that sometime later). But so far this thing is… amazing. It really is the legendary “just make it sound better” plugin. It’s incredibly easy to use, and gives stunning results. Just be careful not to overdo it! Whether you are a pro mastering engineer, or you are a home studio guy and just want something to quickly give your demos a more professional sound, this is a must-have plugin. Another 5/5 stars to Zynaptiq for this one.