Focus is a mastering utility (VST/VST3/AU/AAX plugin formats for PC and Mac) that is billed as being the culmination of SoundSpot’s psychoacoustic research.
Based on what its developers describe as a “secret mixing chain,” Focus is designed for applying punch and clarity to the audio signal on the input while helping the user highlight the most important parts of the mix.
Knobs and Buttons
Focus is simple enough in appearance, with two large dials that line either side of the interface. The one on the left is labeled as “Position” and allows the user to move the frequency curve in the center display of the plug-in, either to the left (low-frequency end), or the right (high-frequency end). The dial on the right is marked as “Dry / Wet” and determines the amount of effect applied to the signal. Positioned next to the knobs are two rows of numbers, representing roll-off for both the low and high-frequency bands, marked in decibels.
The bottom part of the GUI features a set of four buttons labeled “BW” which control the bandwidth of the curve in the center display, making it either wider or narrower. To the right of these are two buttons numbered “1” and “2” that control the “color” of the plug-in, and a speaker icon nestled in between them, that when pressed, bypasses the plug-in. On the very right is a “Mono on/off” button, which switches the plug-in from mono to stereo mode and vice versa. The plug-in comes with only four presets, and using your ears while adjusting the available control parameters comes as somewhat of a pre-requisite.
The manual recommends using lower slopes and a broad bandwidth to find the desired sweet spot with the Position knob and then backing of the Wet / Dry knob until you have reached the required effect. Applying said settings and sweeping does make a difference and a somewhat pleasing one. I put Focus second in line on my mastering chain, which puts it after EQ and before my compressor and limiter, and it most definitely made a positive difference on my test electronica track, specifically making my mix more prominent, and giving it some real “pop”. Finding a pleasing spot in my mix, I then switched between the “1” and “2” buttons, and the results were subtle yet different, with “1” yielding a slightly warmer sound than “2”.
I mainly tested Focus in my mastering chain, but I am sure that it could find a place on individual channels and instrument busses as well, helping bring out elements of a mix. Still, I would advise using Focus in this context sparingly, because adding too much emphasis to multiple mix elements can do more harm than good. You can easily end up with an unbalanced, harsh sounding mix, so make sure to use Focus mainly as a final mastering tool.
A caveat here, the manual states that “If you find that Focus isn’t improving your mix, this is perfectly normal. Not all mixes require additional compression or EQ…“. And I wholeheartedly agree that, sometimes, it is better to leave things out rather than pile on too much and end up with a muddy mess. Rule of thumb is, if it sounds good, leave it alone, and the less you have to do to your final master, the better.
Pretty In Pink
To test if and how Focus was making an actual difference to the character of the signal in a signal chain, I set up a little experiment using a pink noise generator and a spectrum analyzer. The pink noise generator was placed in front of Focus in the chain, and the analyzer came after it. Surely enough, Focus was altering the signal and making an audible and discernible difference on the output, although figuring out what exactly went on “under the hood” requires a more in-depth analysis.
As far as I can tell, Focus applies a phase shift to certain frequencies, resulting in a pleasant tonal change which, when used correctly in a mastering context, definitely does adds clarity to a mix and makes it “pop.” Whether it is worth the asking price is up to the reader to decide, especially considering that different producers have very different mastering workflows. Most importantly, instead of emulating a specific hardware mastering chain as some specialized mastering plugins do, Focus relies on various psychoacoustic principles to enhance the sound in ways which might not be possible with hardware.
SoundSpot Focus is a useful mastering tool which provides an easy way to tighten up and brighten the final mix without investing a lot of money in expensive software or professional mastering services. The plugin takes advantage of advanced psychoacoustic processing techniques but keeps all the complicated stuff “under the hood”, allowing the users to concentrate on enhancing their mix in a musical way instead of being bogged down with technicalities. It is, in a way, a budget alternative to high-end tools such as the Clariphonic DSP mkII by Kush Audio.
If you’re looking to expand your mastering arsenal with a plugin that sounds good, doesn’t require you to read a manual before using it, and at the same time lets you save some money for other software, Focus is absolutely worth a look. As always, I would highly recommend downloading the trial version (available on the product page linked below) and taking the plugin for a spin to see if it’s a good fit for your workflow.
More info: SoundSpot Focus ($99)
SoundSpot Focus Review
SoundSpot Focus takes advantage of advanced psychoacoustic processing techniques but keeps all the complicated stuff "under the hood", allowing the users to concentrate on enhancing their mix in a musical way instead of being bogged down with technicalities.