Home Recording: Add a Dash of Nectar To Your Lead Vocals

“For me, the paramount lesson from doing years of studio work behind songs was that everything supports the lead singer,” veteran music journalist and former session musician Craig Anderton once wrote. “Your licks are there only to make the lead vocal more effective.” If ultimately, the backing tracks on a song are primarly there to support the lead singer, then doesn’t he or she deserve that vocal to be presented in the most polished light possible?

Izotope’s Nectar 2 is a suite of 11 vocal-oriented production effects compatible with most digital audio workstation (DAW) programs, with over 150 presets to get the news user started, all bundled within an attractive GUI that features an easy to follow workflow pattern. It’s available in most commonly used audio plugin formats, including RTAS, VST2 and VST3. Assuming you’re mixing down a song that features a decently recorded lead vocal, Nectar 2 can add plenty of polish, making it the standout feature of any recording. (And if your vocal wasn’t decently recorded, Izotope’s RX5 applet would be a very good place to start the clean-up.) But a vocal recorded into a decent-quality mic in a dry-sounding room (or a room treated with a combination of sE Electronics’ Reflexion Filter Pro Portable Vocal Booth and some ancillary duvets helping out) will give you the most flexibility in terms of getting started.

Once the singer has been recorded and his or her efforts have been comped down into the best single lead vocal track, the top to bottom nature of Nectar 2’s GUI highlights the normal workflow of producing a finished vocal, starting at the top of the GUI with pitch correction and ending with reverb, delay, FX, and limiter. A new user would likely flip through which presets sound best on top of an instrumental track, perform whatever pitch correction is necessary on the vocal, create whatever harmonies are desired, and then tweak the reset of the modules according.

Immediately apparent when listening to a vocal through virtually of the presets is the central component of Nectar 2, which is its recreation of the iconic EMT 140 stereo plate reverb, which in its physical form was a massive unit (about the size of an automobile) originally created by West German engineers in 1957. Nectar 2’s recreation is infinitely smaller and more flexible, as Ari Raskin of Sonic wrote in his review of Nectar 2:

While I didn’t have a real EMT 140 on hand for this review, just sonic memories from the days when I used to use them regularly (before the in-the-box era), I did compare Nectar 2’s plate to equivalent settings on the D-Verb and Lexicon LexVintagePlate plugins. The iZotope offering definitely won as far as feeling the closest to an analog reverb and sounding the realest. It was the most 3-D-ish and thickest sounding of the 3 plate simulations, although the LexVintagePlate had a little more of the shimmer that a good 140 has.

However, while the realistic plate emulation is a great new feature, I found it sort of shocking that in a plugin filled with so many options and parameters, designed to achieve practically any sonic vibe, plate reverb is the only style of reverb Nectar 2 offers. No hall, chamber, room, spring or ambience? We have all types of compression styles, EQ’s, delays, different distortions included…but plate is the only type of reverb useful for vocals?

I’m not sure whose idea that was. I will say though, when flipping through the presets, they all sound vastly different from each other so you’d never notice that they all happen to be using the same basic reverb algorithm.

As for the other features in Nectar 2, as Paul White of England’s Sound on Sound magazine wrote in his review, they include, harmony, delay, and…

The De-Esser section models the classic Dbx 902 split-band de-esser, so called because it compresses only frequencies above the split point when a sibilant is encountered. It isn’t clear whether it works differently from the one in the original Nectar — I couldn’t hear any difference in the end result, and it does a good job unless the sibilance is really pronounced. A single slider controls the amount of sibilance reduction, and in Advanced mode you can set your own de-essing frequency, this time via a draggable line in its display window rather than a physical slider. This section works very effectively providing you don’t overdo the processing to the point where you give the singer a lisp.

The Compressor module is largely unchanged, with four compressor types (Digital, Vintage, Optical and Solid State), plus switching for RMS or peak side-chain detection and a graphical display of the compressor curve. Parallel compression is available via a Mix control, and in this new incarnation it is also possible to set up two different compressors in parallel, the controls for each being selected via Compressor 1/2 tabs. The Advanced version of the Saturation module also offers a wet/dry mix control for parallel distortion treatments, which can be particularly effective for thickening rock and urban vocals. There are also more aggressive digital distortion options for when you want something that sounds just plain nasty.

In the EQ section, iZotope’s original parametric equaliser algorithms are now augmented by new Baxandall and Pultec-style filters. Finally, new to Nectar 2 is a general ‘FX’ module. This has four subsections that cover modulation effects such as phasing and chorus plus Distortion, Decimate (downsampling) and a type of stutter delay called Shred.

There’s no reason why elements of Nectar couldn’t be used on lead instrument solos as well. And the reverse is true — using Nectar for its De-Esser, EQ, Harmony, and other features, and then placing the vocal into the same reverb patch as the rest of the instruments on the song is a perfectly viable approach as well, particularly if the singer is to be placed deeper within the instrumental bed, perhaps if the goal is to create the sonic illusion of the vocalist and hard rock band all roaring away in the same room.

Speaking of the EMT 140-inspired reverb, I found several of the Nectar’s presets tended to have the reverb and delay slathered on a bit too thick for my tastes. However, it’s best to think of these as starting points for the sound you’re aiming for, rather than using them as-is. Nectar also contains lots of special effects patches, some of which are geared towards spoken performances and video dubbing, hence names such as Baneful ADR (yes, as in the Batman super-villain), Darth’s Daughter, and Munchkin Mayhem. However, these could also be excellent starting points for a bit of ear candy in a song.

In my initial experiments with Nectar’s harmony engine, I found it very good for creating background harmonies. Though unless I was using it as an obvious special effect, I’m not sure if I’d want to use those harmonies as a lead chorus, unlike say, a few of the patches in TC-Helicon’s VoiceLive 3 floor unit, which can be spotlighted in a pinch. And while some might argue that Nectar 2’s pitch correction isn’t as flexible as a benchmark product such as Melodyne, pitch correction is only one element in Nectar – there’s a lot of processing inside this unit, and plenty of bang for the buck.

One caveat; all this processing takes RAM; while it’s tempting to insert the plug-in onto multiple tracks, this could cause playback issues. I found that even with 24 gigs of RAM in my PC, Reason in ReWire mode stuttered continually when multiple Nectars were inserted into various tracks in Cakewalk’s Sonar X3e DAW. Of course, there are multiple workarounds; one approach would be to hold off on inserting Nectar until you’re at the mixing stage and all your software synths and Rewire instruments have been rendered. And on tracks other than the lead vocal, commit to a patch and render it, then delete, freeze or bypass that copy of Nectar.

All-in-all, this is a highly usable vocal plugin, with an easy to understand GUI and an excellent workflow between modules. While its component parts are available in more comprehensive versions from other manufacturers, having all of these plugins within one GUI, and its easy to follow workflow make for a terrific combination that’s both easy to get started with, and extremely powerful for the dedicated user willing to dig in under the hood.