Clariphonic DSP mkII is a parallel mastering equalizer emulation by Kush Audio, based on their similarly named hardware unit.
While primarily designed to treat the high end on a mix bus, Clariphonic can also be applied to individual channels to give them a top end lift that would otherwise be difficult to achieve. Many engineers and producers describe the hardware unit as an essential piece of kit, and the mkII version of the plugin promises to be as faithful an emulation as is humanly possible
Under The Hood
A parallel EQ is a simple premise but difficult to achieve in practice. Trying to do this with your stock plugins will get you in the ballpark, but it’s never quite right to my ears, suggesting to me that there’s a bit more going on under the hood in dedicated parallel EQ plugins than you might expect. In essence, we are all used to EQ units that sculpt our sound, boosting and cutting with varying degrees of precision depending on the application. A parallel EQ combines the filtered signal with the dry signal, resulting in a smoother, sweeter alteration. This lends itself to shelf boosting, as something that would sound harsh and garish on its own can be blended nicely with the dry signal to give a much more musical boost.
Clariphonic is a very precise parallel EQ, in that it exclusively treats the high end. The signal is split into three and summed again at the output. The first signal is left unprocessed and is summed in exactly the same state in which it entered the processor. The other two are fed independently into Clariphonic’s two engines, “Focus” and “Clarity.” The plugin then processes the two copies of the signal individually, summing them back together with the dry signal afterward. This allows for a fair degree of optimization, as you can treat the signal with either or both of its engines.
The “Focus” engine consists of one dial and two switches. This might seem like only a handful of controls, but they effectively work like mode selectors. The “Focus” dial controls how much of the effect is applied, as you may expect. The first switch lets you select between “Lift” and “Open” modes, determining where the shelf will be operating. In “Lift” mode, you are treating everything from the 800 Hz region upwards, so a lot more of the midrange is brought up with the highs. In “Open” mode, the filter shifts to the upper mids, around 3 kHz.
The second switch will select either “Tight” or “Diffuse” mode, which will change the filter from a bell to a shelf. This change obviously affects the behavior of the Focus engine, where selecting “Tight” will cause the boosted frequencies to drop off after the peak.
The “Clarity” engine works in much the same way, but the controls do different things. Again there is one dial and two switches. The dial is used for adjusting the intensity of the effect. As for the switches, you can select “Presence” or “Sheen” from the first one, and “Shimmer” or “Silk” from the second. “Presence” is set at around 5 kHz, whereas “Sheen” is applied around 9 kHz. I found the effects of “Presence” to be far more noticeable and less subtle than the other filters, probably because, like the “Lift” region, a fair few instruments are sharing that range.
“Shimmer” and “Silk” are set around 19 kHz and 38 kHz respectively, at the top and above the average human frequency spectrum. The benefit of raising the filters above the human hearing spectrum is that the very top end will be raised with them. When you hear producers talk about “airiness” or similar concepts, they are usually referring to a high-end lift that adds a certain intangible something to a mix. I found both of these filters were able to take a piece of audio that is already bright sounding, and just give it a little something extra without becoming hissy.
Each engine has an “Out” switch which acts as a bypass. So, by altering the switches, you can activate a minimum of one and maximum of three simultaneous filters and blend them to taste. Bearing in mind that Clariphonic is a mastering EQ, these filters will be wide and gentle and should be used to enhance entire groups of sounds rather than individual parts. That said, the benefit of plugin form is the ability to have multiple instances which would be difficult to replicate in the hardware realm.
With the controls described, it’s worth noting that there are two copies of the engines within the plugin, on the left and right. Three different modes can be activated to control how these behave. In “Stereo” mode, both sides of the plugin are linked, and whatever you modify on the left will be mirrored on the right. In “Dual Mono” mode, left and right are unlinked and can be altered separately. This can give some interesting effects where different types and amounts of processing are applied to the left and right channel. Finally, in “Mid-Side” mode, the signal is split into middle audio and side audio. The left engines are applied to the middle, while the right engines apply to the sides. I’ve used mid-side processing before while mastering and, although I usually like to remove some of the low end from the sides of the mix, Clariphonic could perhaps be used to add more air to the sides to complement the stereo image.
Alongside the mode switches is a bypass switch, as well as a preset selector. There are a handful of presets that assist in demonstrating which modes the developers prefer for broad applications, such as snare drum, overheads, etc., although the plugin is easy enough to use without having to resort to presets.
So, that’s how it works, but how does it sound? Clariphonic has a painfully addictive sound quality that makes it easy to see why it is often described as a ‘desert island’ processor. The danger with Clariphonic is going overboard with it. Each of the filters gives a rather transparent sweetening to the sound. However, it’s very easy to get carried away and keep cranking the dial, especially the “Clarity” engine. If you find an old manual for the hardware Clariphonic, even it advises halving the amount of processing you think you need.
In terms of applications, the obvious use for Clariphonic is on the master bus, as a late stage sweetener. When your mix needs just a little something extra, I’d be surprised if a small amount of Clariphonic’s processing couldn’t get you there. It is the tangible sound of polish. The other no brainer here is on a snare drum. If you want to add a glorious snap to your snare, Clariphonic is the way to go. Handclaps also sound lovely with only a small amount of processing.
Finally, I found that room mics and overheads benefitted greatly from a little bit of attention from the “Clarity” engine, after the cymbal hiss was cleaned out with a more precise EQ. I felt that it gave my cymbals back a bit of their broadness after I had aggressively dug into them with notch filters.
Users who may not enjoy Clariphonic are those who like precise and definable control with their plugins. Other than a vague guide as to where the filters roughly operate, there are no visual or statistical cues in Clariphonic. Instead, you are encouraged to use your ears and dial in the processing to taste. I think this works nicely, however, I am aware that some users do like to be able to precisely input their processing. If you like to know exactly which frequencies you are treating and by how much, this might not be to your tastes.
Lastly, Clariphonic is a little heavy on the CPU. I found it was adding 5-10% to my CPU meter while running. Although this isn’t a devastating amount, it does mean that you may not be able to have more than a couple of instances running on a normal processor.
One thing I do have to mention that doesn’t apply to the plugin itself is that Clariphonic requires an iLok 2 dongle in order to work. Obviously, for a large studio handling lots of licenses this probably isn’t an issue. However, I have to look at it from the perspective of a bedroom producer. For me, having to have an iLok 2 taking up a USB slot at all times is a bit of a hassle. I appreciate Kush have a right to protect their product from piracy in any way they see fit, but on a laptop, where most bedroom producers do their work, it can be an issue.
I sometimes try to imagine what people with no knowledge of production techniques think that music producers and mix engineers do. I sometimes suppose that they think, amongst the endless mixing consoles they see on TV or YouTube, there is a magic button that you turn up, and it makes everything sound better. Call it the “Awesome” dial, or the “Better” button. Clariphonic’s sweet filters and simple controls are about as close to this as you’re going to get in the real world. The effect its engines have on your audio is very addictive, and for that reason, I can see it being reached for again and again to add that layer of sheen to a mix which is the difference between almost-finished and finished.
With simple controls but huge benefits, Clariphonic is another great plugin emulation that makes me wish I had the hardware version. As well as purchasing the plugin, Kush offers a subscription service which gives access to their plugin range.
More info: Clariphonic DSP mkII ($199)
Clariphonic DSP mkII Review
The effect Clariphonic's engines have on your audio is very addictive, and for that reason, I can see it being reached for again and again to add that layer of sheen to a mix which is the difference between almost-finished and finished.