Waves Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter ReviewA VERY RARE SIGNAL PROCESSOR IS REBORN IN SOFTWARE 5/01/2011 5:00 AM Eastern
Originally introduced in the mid-’70s, the Model 402 Aphex Aural Exciter was an instant hit—but you couldn’t buy one. The few units that were built could only be rented at considerable expense. The seminal tube-powered processor, which added musically related harmonics to audio signals, was used on select studio sessions for such icons as Paul McCartney, Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt. Its ability to add and enhance detail and presence on both individual tracks and complete mixes earned the august processor a devoted following. Aphex subsequently produced low-cost, solid-state versions of the Aural Exciter for retail sale, but the original tube-based units were lost in the mists of time. Or so we thought.
More than 30 years later, Waves obtained the original hardware unit from Aphex’s storage and modeled its distinctive sonic character with the guidance of producer/engineer Val Garay, a high-profile Exciter user back in the day.
The cross-platform Waves plug-in is available singly in both TDM (TDM, RTAS, Audio Suite, AU and VST) and Native (all the foregoing formats except TDM) versions. It’s also included in the Waves Mercury bundle. Mono and stereo configurations and resolution up to 24-bit/192kHz render the Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter ready for both mixing and mastering duties. I tested the AU version of the plug-in in MOTU Digital Performer 7.2.1 using an 8-core Mac Pro running Mac OS 10.5.8.
EXCITEMENT A LA MODE
Due to its phase-related idiosyncrasies, the original Model 402 produced different sounds when used on a mixer’s channel insert (MIX mode) vs. in an aux send/return path (AX mode, which was Garay’s modus operandi). Waves modeled both sets of sonic characteristics and assigned them to two respective modes for the plug-in, dubbed MIX2 and AX. The company anticipated that DAW users would also want the convenience of generating the AX mode’s response when the plug-in is used on a track’s insert, so the company created an additional mode for the plug-in, tagged MIX1, which does just that.
The upshot is that you should use either MIX1 or MIX2 mode—both of which blend generated harmonics with the dry signal— when the plug-in is instantiated on an individual track’s insert; you adjust the GUI’s AX MIX control to set how much Exciter effect you want to add to the dry signal. MIX2 mode audibly changes the frequency response of the signal, especially when high AX MIX control settings are used, so it’s most useful for coloring individual tracks. The more spectrally balanced MIX1 mode is suited to either mixing or mastering.
AX mode kills all dry sound at the plugin’s output, leaving only the Exciter effect. Use AX mode when the plug-in is placed on an aux to which you’ve bused your dry track. The AX MIX control is disabled in AX mode, so adjust the level of excitation using the dry track’s bus send. A fourth mode, BP, models the original hardware’s BP (bypass) mode, which was not a pure bypass and sounds slightly colored.
No matter which of the three active modes you use, the sound of the plug-in changes as you drive it harder. A wide-ranging input level control provides up to 18 dB of boost or attenuation to achieve the desired sound and manage headroom. The output level control, likewise, has a +/-18dB range. A VU meter (two meters for stereo configuration) shows either input, output or AX (harmonics) levels—selectable via a rotary switch—and sports a clip LED calibrated to 0 dBFS. You can recalibrate the meter’s headroom, which is 18 dB by default. Waves also modeled the 402’s analog noise. You can adjust the noise level of the plug-in from -48 to 0 dB (0 dB is commensurate with the original hardware’s noise level), or turn the noise off . You can also add 50- or 60Hz hum, modeled on the hardware unit’s power supply, or disable hum altogether. A and B workspaces are provided to help compare different setups.
Once I learned how best to use the Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter’s different modes, the rest was easy. The plug-in’s frugal control set made it child’s play to get great sounds. Aural Exciter sounded awesome on male lead vocals, lending increased clarity and intelligibility. MIX1 mode sounded the warmest and most balanced. With moderate AX MIX settings, it brought the midrange slightly forward but also increased sibilance somewhat. MIX2 mode, on the other hand, virtually eliminated all sibilance while pulling the midrange dramatically forward—perfect for rock vocals.
MIX1 with high AX MIX settings tightened up fl abby electric-bass guitar notes beautifully, making the instrument sing. However, I wasn’t charmed by what the plugin did to acoustic guitar: MIX1 sounded too tinselly and MIX2 too nasal. On kick drum, the plug-in made the beater slaps sound harsh and cutting. But Aural Exciter sounded outstanding on snare drum, as both MIX1 and MIX2 modes made it sound like a bottom mic had been added to this top-miked track, with MIX1 simultaneously producing warmth and sizzle and MIX2 mode bringing a bright and slappy tone. One caveat: If there is heavy hi-hat spill on your snare track, high AX MIX settings will make your ears bleed.
Next, I bused a finished mix to an aux and instantiated Aural Exciter in AX mode on the aux’s insert. This setup let me temper how hard I drove the plug-in’s input (using the bus send) without reducing the dry mix’s level. With a moderate amount of aural excitement applied to the mix, the plug-in enhanced detail and lent an open, airy quality. The downside was that some elements of the mix, such as arpeggiated acoustic guitar, sounded slightly glassy. I got similar results by placing the plug-in on the master channel’s insert and using MIX1 mode with the AX MIX control set to around 5 (turned up halfway). Injudiciously goosing the AX MIX control a lot higher produced a cutting, almost transistorized sound, cautioning moderation. I appreciated that I could adjust the meters’ headroom to 8 dB for mastering (while using MIX1 mode) because the default calibration otherwise kept the meters almost constantly pinned during loud choruses.
With the plug-in still sitting on the master channel’s insert, I auditioned AX mode just for grins (killing all dry sound). I was instantly enamored by how it evoked a bandlimited, slightly distorted sound reminiscent of a poorly tuned radio, albeit with enhanced high frequencies. Serendipity!
I got my best results using the Waves Vintage Aural Exciter on individual tracks. The plug-in sounds awesome on select lead vocals, snare drum and electric bass. But with judicious use, it can also transform a cloudy mix into an open canvas. This reasonably priced plug-in would make a great addition to any engineer’s toolkit.
Mix contributing editor Michael Cooper is the owner of Michael Cooper Recording in Sisters, Ore. By Michael Cooper