Sonible frei:raum by Diogo C
- Plugin: frei:raum
- Developer: Sonible
- Compatibility: VST, AU, AAX (32/64-bit, Win/Mac)
- Price: $279 euros (EDU discounts available)
- Demo: Fully-functional for 14 days
- DRM: Serial number with online check
An unconventional and innovative approach on equalization
At first glance, frei:raum is an ordinary linear-phase equalizer with parametric bell-type bands, a set of of high-pass/low-pass filters (HP/LP) and an option for high/low shelves, up to a total of seven available equalization bands. Using it as regular EQ it sounds like...a regular linear-phase EQ and everything that comes along with it i.e. pre-ringing. Frei:raum starts to shine once you start playing with the Smart, Proximity and Entropy EQ functions.
The magic starts once you start playing with the Smart EQ’s magic wand function, which is available on its three central bands and once enabled will analyze incoming audio over a period of time, transforming the bell-shaped filters into something completely different once you start cutting or boosting. There’s a slightly reminiscent of matching-EQs on the Smart EQ, however it becomes instantly noticeable that we’re not dealing with such a thing here since there’s no curve-matching. Instead of this common-place approach, frei:raum actually makes decisions for you: it judges the energy across the spectrum of the incoming audio and shapes the frequency curve according to what it thinks to be the best sonic balance. This leads to a rather unconventional approach where common equalization concepts are basically thrown out of the window and it becomes a matter of moving knobs until it sounds good.
Smart EQ works great when used as a first step on a track or bus to set the tonal balance right and adapt the overall sonic character to your liking, then you can follow with your regular equalization cuts and/or boosts and compression/limiting and yada yada. Its great to nudge a track to the right direction and it also does wonders when your go-to EQ fails you or when you’re totally uninspired for some tone-shaping activities. After many hours of use I honestly gave up understanding how it calculates things and how it decides what gets boosted or cut, but in the end the sounds that can be achieved with the Smart EQ are nothing less than awesome. This is a truly innovative tool that has no alternatives whatsoever and stands unparalleled, which is huge statement given how crowded the plugin market is nowadays.
Next in line is the Proximity EQ. Just a heads-up before we move forward: frei:raum's three modules are wired in series (Smart to Proximity to Entropy EQ). Back to the topic: the most obvious use for the Proximity EQ is de-reverb or emphasizing how close a sound is. You’ll get a bit more transient/initial attack information and while leaving the harmonic/decay relatively untouched. I can see the Proximity EQ being a very good problem-solver, similar to what can be achieved with other de-reverberation alternatives but with a degree of flexibility that is hardly seen elsewhere. Vlad/TDR’s free Proximity plugin can also do a similar thing albeit without the frequency-dependency and can give you a good hint on this subject in case you’re entering unfamiliar territory. Once you wrapped your head around the concept, Proximity EQ is rather intuitive: grab a band you want to emphasize or de-emphasize, set it to taste and you’re done. There are also two knobs to control the overall response of this section, similar to the ones offered on the Smart EQ.
Last but not least is the Entropy EQ, which sounds a bit more radical as a envelope/spectral shaper than the Proximity EQ since it can eat up (or enhance) more harmonic information than the former, even though one complements the other quite nicely. Since the signal travels inline within the plugin, sound will probably very processed by the time it reaches the Entropy EQ, so perhaps bypassing the other two tools will be useful to get a better understanding of this processor. On it’s own it can be quite dramatic, and I like to think of it as a transient-oriented equalizer. One thing that needs to be said is that the amount of processing done by frei:raum can eventually come at the price: artifacts will likely emerge and the pre-ringing that comes along with linear-phase implementation can jump out.
Overall this is a powerful plugin that can shine on a number of different scenarios and frei:raum can be very useful when fixing a bad recording, balancing a problematic song or giving a track some unique tone. I also can see a good reason to use it on sound design and it will likely shine on post-production jobs as well. Regardless if used as a problem-solver or as a creative tone shaper, this is a very interesting plugin that has to be considered when your regular tools aren’t cutting it anymore or if stepping out of the commonplace is desired.
Some big numbers
Perhaps the only flaws with frei:raum are two big numbers which will greatly limit its use - or even break it altogether. The first big number refers to the huge latency bite the frei:raum takes to do its voodoos. Whopping four thousand samples for a stereo instance of this plugin (at 44.1 kHz) will likely hurt the Pro Tools users more than most, but such a number is problem regardless of the DAW you choose. Such number also implies a hefty dose of processing power consumed, but luckily the CPU bite is bearable and most modern system will be able to handle this plugin without any hiccups. Nonetheless, Pro Tools users will likely hit the latency barrier before they run out of Intel (or AMD) juice - assuming they're not using a bunch of frei:raum instances. If used in a mastering context both the processing and latency required are less problematic since there won’t be a ton of other things happening at the same time, but for other applications like mixing and/or post-production where track counts can rise to oblivion you'll have to commit and use the frei:raum smartly i.e. bounce or freeze some instances.
The second big number, and the most problematic number to the eyes of this reviewer, is the asking price Sonible has chosen for its maiden plugin. Four hundred euros is way above what most of the population will spend on a single plugin, regardless of how good it is, and for a new upcoming company such a high price tag gets even harder to understand. It’s a tough pill to swallow. For that price I also miss some features such as input metering, real-time frequency analysis and also an auto-gain function would be very useful in this plugin so we can have the chance to compare A/B settings or before/after with properly matched levels.
Perhaps breaking down the frei:raum into its parts could be a good remedy for both problems: latency and processing requirements could be lowered and the price made more accessible. It would make perfect sense since the three parts won't likely get a lot of simultaneous use and in my experience with this plugin it was way more common to reach for just one of the tools instead of using all three at the same time, unless when doing something creative or fixing a very troublesome track.
Frei:raum is a plugin that can really be called ground-breaking and unique. Most importantly, it sounds awesome and can do things that other plugins will have problems doing - if they can do it, which I'm not sure to be possible. However, innovation like this comes at a price, but in this case it might be a bit too much for most of the DAW-based population. Luckily there's a fully-functional 15 days trial for you to decide whether or not it's worth it.
- Sound quality: 5/5 - Sounds like nothing else. No equalizer sounds similar to the frei:raum, but that's not saying it's the best equalizer ever made. It’s a niche product but one that excels on its purposes.
- Ease of use: 4/5 - The Smart EQ is very intuitive to use but it takes time to get the best out of Proximity and Entropy EQs.
- Features: 4/5 - Lacks input gain control and metering and having a frequency analyser wouldn't hurt as well. I'd also welcome a parallel mode and a gain compensation function.
- Bang for buck: 3/5 - Steep asking price, but luckily you have 14 days with a fully-functional demo to figure out if it's worth it.
Test system: Intel i5-2500, 16 GB RAM, SATA 2 HDDs, OSX 10.9.2/WIN 8.1, Cubase Pro 8/Pro Tools 12
Last edited by Diogo C; 9th May 2015 at 02:40 PM..