SPL Vitalizer Mk2-T is a software emulation of the famous hardware unit of the same name. It is a tube-driven sound optimising processor, which is somewhere between an EQ and a harmonic exciter, but sufficiently different from both to put it in neither category.
The Plugin Alliance version of the SPL Vitalizer Mk2-T promises to be a faithful emulation of the original. I, unfortunately, don’t have the hardware unit to compare it to, so I have reviewed the plugin on its own merit. A quick perusal of online opinions shows a predictable split between analogue and digital fans, and no real consensus as to whether the SPL Vitalizer Mk2-T by Plugin Alliance can compete with the hardware.
The GUI is an attractive replica of the original, with a bright brass-like appearance and the layout of a rack hardware unit. It looks nice and is easy on the eyes. The first thing I found with Vitalizer is that the manual is absolutely worth a read. I am normally an advocate of just playing around with the dials to learn the majority of a plugin’s capabilities, but in this instance, it became swiftly apparent that I hadn’t got a clue what I was doing!
The Vitalizer technology is actually pretty old, and the filters used are patented, so a lot of what’s going on under the hood can be approximated to modern terms, but it still sounds a little different. With that in mind, labels on the controls of the Vitalizer might not do what you’d think they do.
Before moving on to the individual dials, there are a couple of broad principles to at least attempt to understand. One of the main features of Vitalizer is an ‘unmasking’ technique. In short, louder frequencies are shifted slightly in time, allowing previously ‘masked’ frequencies to be heard. The effect of this is the perception of clarity, which is probably the characteristic most associated with the hardware Vitalizer. The second principle involves a great deal of science, which I can sum up as the perception of mid-range frequencies (those in the range of human speech) as being louder than those outside of that range. Therefore, the Vitalizer reinforces the frequency spectrum in line with human hearing.See also: Best FREE Mastering VST/AU Plugins!
The above may sound a bit like a science lesson, but it seeks to illustrate that there is so much going on under the hood of Vitalizer that it would be extremely difficult, if not nigh-on impossible, to accurately replicate via other means. Moreover, everything has been designed to sound musically pleasing, so the effort of trying to replicate the result using other tools is probably less cost-effective than simply using Vitalizer. The best modern equivalent technique is probably something akin to a parallel EQ, but even that doesn’t fully cover Vitalizer’s capabilities.
The ‘Drive’ dial sets the level at which the filters kick in. I was expecting overdrive or distortion, which is why I again emphasise reading the manual, as this had a completely different effect to what I was expecting. Once I understood what the ‘Drive’ dial was doing, it made a lot more sense. Although this is the first dial, it’s probably one of the last you’ll want to alter, as the other filters are set to ‘off’ by default. You can achieve more subtle effects by dialling the ‘drive’ back a little, and naturally, a boost will increase the effect. I found that in all applications it was only necessary to adjust this parameter slightly.
The ‘Bass’ dial, of course, controls the low end. Again, twiddling this dial alone will result in nothing happening, it is linked to the ‘Process’ dial. When engaged, turning it to the left creates a softer, rounder sound, for a smooth low end. Moving to the right, you get tighter, punchier lows. This wet signal is processed alongside the dry signal, so your low end is not so much changed as enhanced.
This will be familiar to those who use parallel processing in their mixes.
The ‘Compression’ control applies only to the processed bass signal, leaving the mids, highs and the unprocessed bass signal alone. It also has a gain reduction LED as a visual cue. The compressor itself is a soft knee compressor, and as you increase the compression value, the attack is lowered and the ratio raised. This is best used to ensure that the processed bass signal sits nicely alongside the original.
The next parameter labelled ‘Mid-Hi Tune’ is something you really have to use your ears for. In essence, its value is a frequency cutoff, everything above the value is boosted, and everything below is attenuated. Turning it to the left allows you to tame sounds that are overly bright, whereas moving to the right will add brilliance. As it’s not a static filter, it will be doing different things at different positions. Again, the parameter’s effect is linked to the ‘Process’ control, so if the ‘Process’ dial is set to off, nothing will be happening.
At last, we get to ‘Process’. This is the dial that is linked to the ‘Bass’ and ‘Mid-Hi Tune’ parameters. Turning the ‘Process’ dial up will increase the amount of processed signal blended with the original. Despite being in the middle of the GUI, you will probably want to turn this up first.
‘LC-EQ’ is another advert for reading the manual. After spending a few moments labouring under the false pretence that this was some kind of low-cut filter or something similar, I consulted the manual and learned that this is, in fact, a high-frequency control which can also affect the mids. The parameter is named after a type of coil filter used in the original hardware version. It excels in the vocal range frequencies and just gives a great natural sound. Another great use for it is to reinforce the frequencies attenuated by the ‘Mid-Hi Tune’ control if the highs are sounding great, but the mids were lacking as a result.
‘Intensity’ is similar to the process control but affecting the LC-EQ. Again, it’s set to ‘off’ by default, so this will need to be raised before you even touch the LC-EQ dial.
‘Stereo Expander’ should be a familiar sight for most producers. Greater values will increase the stereo image. Like all stereo expanders, it’s easy to overdo this effect, so be prepared to dial it back and not get carried away.
‘Output’ allows a boost or attenuation of the summed signal. As practically all of the dials will add something to the signal, it will almost always increase in loudness, therefore it’s advisable to use the ‘Output control to reduce the level to match the input level. Bearing in mind that the additional clarity you can achieve with Vitalizer will also make sounds feel louder than they actually are, you might want to use the output to stop some sounds poking out too much. It also includes an ‘overload’ LED which shows when the signal is beginning to distort.
There are four ‘Settings’ buttons labelled A/B/C/D, which allow you to store and compare different combinations quickly. The sounds you can achieve from Vitalizer are so musical that it’s easy to get carried away, so leaving one of these buttons with no processing is an effective way of A/B testing to make sure that your moves are in fact an improvement on the original.
The thing you learn with Vitalizer is that, as an emulation, it has to be faithful to the original. The original, however, does not have what you would describe as a modern workflow. You will be hopping back and forth between the various dials, in an order that isn’t exactly intuitive. Perhaps with modern plugins we are used to very well crafted, workflow-based GUI’s, it may take a little bit of time to get used to.
For instance, I was applying it to a drum bus. I first raised the ‘Process’ control, in order to actually hear the effect, before setting the bass control to “tight.” Then, I set the ‘Mid-Hi Tune’ to bring the cymbals out a bit. Then I went back to the ‘Process’ dial to tone it down while messing with ‘Compression’. Then I altered the ‘Drive’ control to see how that sounded, before adjusting the ‘Output’ control back to maintain balance in the mix. For all that it takes a bit of getting used to, the sound is unmistakably fantastic. Vitalizer has that feel of being a ‘secret weapon,’ as it’s hard to find an application where it doesn’t just sound great with minimal processing.
SPL Vitalizer may have somewhat confusing and oddly labelled controls, but it is laden with great sounds. Pretty much anything you set it to results in a better overall tone. It can enhance your bass, add a beautiful shimmer to your highs, make individual tracks pop out of the mix, or just sweeten the master bus in ways that would be nigh on impossible with stock plugins.
When describing Vitalizer’s sound, it’s difficult not to over-use the word ‘clarity’, but that is the single best explanation for how it affects the audio, especially in the highs. It feels like I can hear my audio better when Vitalizer is applied, and pick out the individual elements with greater ease.
The key I found with Vitalizer is to treat it like a bit of an MVP plugin. It’s easy to get carried away and add too much processing from Vitalizer, and if it’s too prolific in your mix, it’s very easy to lose balance. I found it was best to select the parts of the mix where I wanted to emphasise an element that I wanted to draw attention to and let Vitalizer add its unique sweetening to it. That’s not to say that you couldn’t throw it on every instrument in a mix if you wanted to, but it might just end up with too much going on and ruining the overall sound.
The hardware version of Vitalizer is often used in mastering studios. Like anything towards the end of the processing chain, subtlety is key here. The broad curves of Vitalizer’s filters can easily affect entire groups of instruments, making it perfect for mastering jobs.
In summary, despite it not being particularly intuitive, I can’t get enough of how Vitalizer sounds, it does bring audio to life, and if I can find a well-priced hardware version, I fully intend to snap it up.
More info: Plugin Alliances SPL Vitalizer Mk2-T ($249)
SPL Vitalizer Mk2-T Review
SPL Vitalizer Mk2-T has that feel of being a ‘secret weapon,’ as it's hard to find an application where it doesn't just sound great with minimal processing.