Tasteful saturation and distortion are two of the most critical aspects to any great mix; especially when mixing in the box, quality saturation is often the deciding factor in whether a mix sounds overly digital or not. While many beginning producers think of saturation as a secondary tool in their mixing palette, experienced engineers know that great saturation can do what many other effects - EQ, Compression, Limiting, and Stereo Enhancers - do, but in a far more pleasing and natural way.
With saturation being such an essential effect - and one that is incredibly difficult to get right in the digital realm, where the analog nonlinearities that make saturation so effective are difficult to emulate - we’re always on the lookout for outstanding new plugins in this space. ISM, maker of the cult classic BazzIsm plugin, has teamed up with Ploytec to release one of the most interesting plugins of 2017 - Aroma. In this review we’ll put Aroma’s saturation and mastering grade mid/side processing to the test to find out if this is a worthy addition to your saturation toolbox.
Setup & First Impressions
We’re always fans of plugins which don’t require a hardware dongle, and setting up and authorizing Aroma is an absolute breeze. Purchase and download the plugin from ISM’s website, enter your serial code, and you’re up and running.
Unlike most plugins which aim to emulate analog processing, Aroma does not use hardware skeuomorphism and is built around a proudly digital, and simple, design. Aroma uses 4 modules, all named for their various ‘heat’ capabilities (Salt, Pepper, Sugar, Chili) to offer unique saturation flavors. Aroma’s interface is large and looks great on my retina MacBook Pro, which I can’t say for all of my mastering FX. Labels are clear, knobs are big, and the plugin allows for easy bypass and A/B/C comparison between different settings.
As a bonafide plugin junkie, I can say with confidence that saturation is probably the hardest analog emulation to get right. I’ve tried dozens of saturators that claim to mimic the feel of driving analog circuits, and I can count on one hand the number I trust to do the job. Aroma earned a spot on that short list within an hour of firing the plugin up for the first time. This is a truly outstanding tool for mixing and mastering, and is deserving of far more hype than it’s getting.
Each module has a distinct flavor, driven largely by the nature of the harmonics it adds to signal passed through the plugin. Salt adds a mix of odd and even order harmonics (typical of valve/tube distortion), Pepper adds predominantly odd order harmonics (perhaps modeling solid state gear?). Sugar adds sweetness that we’d expect from analog tape, and Chili is easily the most modern of the modules, with a driven but bright and clean tone that is simply incredible.
If Aroma merely offered these 4 modules, it would still be one of the most oustanding saturation plugins on the market. But ISM and Ploytec didn’t stop with simple stereo operation; clicking a button changes the modules to mid/side mode, allowing you to dial in varying levels of both intensity and procesing for each module for the mid and side channels. For mastering engineers, I am hard pressed to think of a more useful and flexible tool for saturation and enhancement of a stereo mix, but the mid/side features are also equally useful during the sound design and production process.
To our ears, Salt is a spot-on emulation of the beautiful sound of driving valve and tube gear into the red; small amounts of drive add a boost in perceived level at equal volumes, and driving the module closer to 100% produces a natural limiting effect as well as a bit of pleasant overdrive.
Pepper, to my ears, emulates solid state circuitry, with an emphasis on the odd order harmonics of the signal. It does a phenomenal job of brightening and crisping up drum loops and other percussive material, and would be at home in any hip-hop or EDM mix. Even in stereo mode, it also seems to add just a bit of width to the signal, but in an entirely natural way - it more seems to unmask frequencies in the sides rather than adding artificial ones.
Sugar, much to my surprise, might be the best analog tape emulation in the box to date. While the module doesn’t allow the flexibility (tape speed, Bias, Wow & Flutter Control) that my dedicated tape plugins do, it is an absolutely spot on model of how tape rolls off harsh highs and rounds transients in a pleasing way. The amount of apparent volume you can squeeze out of drums on this module while maintaining identical peak levels is something I haven’t seen from any other plugin.
As a producer who focuses mostly on pop and electronic music, Chili was far and away my favorite of the 4 modules; while all are oustanding at what they do, Chili’s sound is uniquely modern. It is bright, punchy, clean, in your face, and just sounds perfect, for lack of a better word. This has become something I run just about everything in my mix through, because it’s just that good. Running Synths, Drums, Vocals, and Guitars through Chili is like taking a veil off your sounds - everything just sounds better.
Conclusion / Recommended For
Normally we try to temper our excitement over great plugins by pointing out downsides, but I’m really not sure I can find a single one with Aroma.
Adding to the best in class sound is the plugin’s hard-to-believe CPU friendliness. Running Ableton Live at a buffer of 128 samples, 4 Aroma plugins stacked on a single channel only registers a 1% CPU hit. Compared to other saturation plugins I have that each grab 10% or more of my i7 CPU, this is a plugin that can be used across an entire mix with ease.
In conclusion, Aroma gets my early vote for 2017’s plugin of the year, and it is easily the most natural sounding and convincing saturation plugin I’ve heard to date. This is a home run for ISM/Ploytec. 10/10.
- •The best ITB saturation and analog enhancement we’ve heard.
- •Supremely useful mid/side mode for sound design & mastering uses.
- •Always pleasant, never harsh.
- •4 models are genuinely distinct from one another; this plugin covers a lot of ground with minimal controls.
- •Some serious algorithmic wizardry here; hardly any CPU hit.