Want to add some well needed brilliance and presence to your mix?
Or maybe you want to make things a little more gritty, or add some perceived clarity.
An harmonic exciter plug-in, when used right, will do that for you. So in this plugin guide, we’ll go over a few of the best exciter plugins to give your mix that special brilliance.
Quick answer: iZotope Ozone Suite’s Exciter offers the best that money can buy.
This is followed by The Abbey Road Studios Brilliance Pack by Softube.
The lowest price? Take a look at Valve Exciter by AudioThing.
The rest of this guide will explore these plugins for closely, and name a couple others to boot.
Let’s take a closer look 🙂
Table of Contents
- Exciter Plug-in Buying Guide
- The Best Exciter Plug-in – Software Overview
- Final thoughts – Which to Get?
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Exciter Plug-in Buying Guide
What is an Exciter?
An exciter is a hardware device or software plug-in that enhances an audio signal via any number of processes. Among the methods typically used by exciter circuits are dynamic equalization and phase manipulation.
Some devices also use high frequency harmonic synthesis, while others incorporate harmonic distortion into the signal.
Exciters are also often referred to as harmonic exciters or aural exciters.
The earliest exciters were hardware devices with tube circuitry. Most modern hardware exciters utilize digital signal processing (DSP) in emulating early analog/tube exciters. But they now also come in plug-in form for use in a software-based audio production environment.
What are Exciters Used For?
If the above definition went over your head, don’t worry about it…
… what’s more important is what an exciter plugin can do for you, and why you should use it when necessary.
Some useful applications in live and studio settings:
- Restoring the ‘brightness’ or high frequency content of analog tape recordings
- Brightening up old tape or vinyl recordings (eg. by digitizing vinyl using a turntable) by simulating spectral content
- Enhancing the output of media players, both hardware and software
- Enhancing the signal of electric guitars or other instruments
Features to Look For in an Exciter Plug-in
A good amount of control is always nice to have in a plug-in, and it is especially important for exciters.
With sufficient control over the amount of the harmonic excitation and the mix between the “excited” and original signals (like the wet/dry mix of a reverb plugin), you will be better able to brighten up your audio without undue harshness or brittleness.
Some of the more fully featured exciter plug-ins come with several configurable modes. This is also a good thing to have, as different modes tend to affect the signal in different ways.
Some plug-ins even have models of tube circuitry or specific hardware exciters, giving you a good range of options with which to treat audio signals.
How to Choose the Best Exciter Plug-in
At the end of the day, what matters most is the sound.
While transparency and neutrality are always good qualities in audio processing tools, there are instances where a bit of grit or character is just the thing to get the perfect mix.
Although you should definitely consider the availability of controls and features when choosing an exciter plug-in, it is equally important that you choose one based on how much you like its basic tone.
The Best Exciter Plug-in Software
Part of the hugely-popular Ozone mastering suite, iZotope’s Exciter packs a whole lot of features and functionalities in a cool and very customizable interface.
The exciter circuitry adds a lot of character and brilliance to audio with its multiple saturation modes. Along with the triode and dual triode options, there are also tube, retro, and tape modes that sound just as good as their analog counterparts.
If you have been disappointed with the sterile and brittle quality imparted by many exciter plug-ins, the iZotope Exciter definitely deserves a close look.
Specs and useful features
- Four configurable saturation bands
- Triode and dual-triode modes
- “Retro”, “tape”, “warm”, and “tube” settings
- Multiband and mid/side processing
- Saturation spectrum display
- Post filter for sculpting frequency output
- Peak saturation
Many users laude the Exciter’s ability to enable sounds to cut through the mix without the need to increase the gain. The plug-in also gets praise for its flexibility, which is attributed to the ability to specify algorithms for each of the four saturation bands.
The iZotope Exciter is one of the most fully featured exciter plug-ins available today. It does cost a lot more than other exciters, but only because it is part of a comprehensive suite of audio tools that perform a lot more functions as well. Offering a high degree of user customization and a modern, intuitive interface, it could very well handle all your audio exciter needs.
Softube Abbey Road Brilliance Pack
This is inspired by the revolutionary mix tools used in the legendary studio of the same name. The Abbey Road Studios Brilliance Pack is a set of three specialized equalizers that work well on individual tracks, stems, and even entire mixes.
Focusing primarily on the high frequencies, the suite is comprised of two RS127s (one with and without built-in transformer), and the RS135. With these three distinct-sounding EQs, mix engineers have a broad range of tools to liven up even the dullest tracks.
Specs and useful features
- Three treble equalizers modeled from Abbey Road original hardware units
- RS127 – Up to 10 dB of boost or cut at 2.1, 3.5 and 10 kHz
- RS127 – Adds transformer to original RS127 circuit
- RS135 – Fixed boost at 8 kHz
- Low CPU usage
Many user reviews of the Abbey Road Brilliance Pack cite the absolutely beautiful sounds that this suite produce, a sentiment that I also share. A common thread is the ability to enhance source audio and make it sweeter, without introducing any harsh qualities to the signal.
Most users tend to use these plug-ins for processing vocal tracks, although they have been used to great effect on individual instruments and stems with plenty of high frequency content as well.
Criticisms of the Abbey Road Brilliance Pack typically revolve around the relative lack of control over certain parameter settings.
The Abbey Road Brilliance Pack is a great set of exciter plug-ins that covers most any conceivable studio applications. While the somewhat unusual workflow may take some getting used to, there is no denying its ‘magic.’ Even with its somewhat steep price tag, the Brilliance Pack has a really unique sound that many salivate over, and considerable functionality in a versatile package.
Valve Exciter by AudioThing
Also modeling tube circuitry is the Valve Exciter by AudioThing, which is billed as a “Harmonic Enhancer plug-in”.
The exciter section has a series of filters that have been tuned meticulously by hand, allowing you to sweep the crucial center frequencies with absolute control. The valve section itself gives you all the rich analog flavors you could need to add subtle brilliance to your tracks.
It even has a bias control for the tube section, so you can hone in on the precise frequencies you want.
Specs and useful features
- Bass and treble with Harmonics sweep
- Valve emulation with drive control
- Low CPU usage
- Preset system with randomizer control
Like many other exciter plug-ins, the Valve Exciter has garnered praise for its ability to improve clarity and enhance brightness when used subtly. The key to its effective use is proper gain staging, as the input is especially sensitive to signal levels. Some users have in fact mentioned difficulty in fine tuning the levels, although this was effectively dealt with after familiarization with the controls.
You learn about gain staging from or article on understanding gain structure.
More problematic was the idiosyncratic valve response, which seemed to be a highly subjective quality. While some users had no problem with the compression artifacts produced by the plug-in, others felt that these effects made the plug-in unusable for critical applications
The Valve Exciter is a pretty flexible exciter plug-in that has an attractive price tag. However, the compression artifacts induced is very much an acquired taste. Few users will likely settle on this as their sole exciter plug-in, although it may have some use for ‘character’ sounds. Those looking for more transparency would probably be better off considering other options.
Waves Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter
The name “Aphex” should be familiar to anyone who has worked extensively in pro audio. With the Waves Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter, the venerable tube-driven circuitry now has an equivalent in software form. The software version closely models the sound, vibe, and even appearance of the original, with a bunch of features that would make it fit right into any modern studio. It even comes with an analog section that allows you to dial in just the right amount of grit to individual tracks, stems, and entire mixes.
Specs and useful features
- Modeled after tube-powered original
- Enhances brightness, depth, and vibrancy
- Increases presence without increasing levels
- Suitable for vocals and instruments
- Mix and AX modes
- Useable as insert or send
- Mono and stereo capability
- 24bit/192kHz resolution
One of the most common praises about the Waves Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter is its ability to liven up a mix when used sparingly. Although this implies that it is easy to overuse the plug-in to the detriment of the sound, it is easy enough to simply add as much of the effect as needed to improve the source audio without ‘overcooking’ it.
Some users also appreciated the high-end ‘grit’ that it added to the signal, while others praised its ability to make muffled vocal tracks clearer and more intelligible.
The Waves Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter carries with it the formidable Aphex pedigree, but more discriminating users might bemoan the lack of classic features and reduced flexibility. Those looking for more functionality than that which their native EQs provide might have some use for this. Otherwise, there are better options for the money, particularly for master buss usage.
Waves OneKnob Brighter
The Waves OneKnob Brighter is about as simple as exciters come.
This little plugin offers only a single control knob, and packs a surprising amount of functionality in a simple and straightforward package.
Of course, the sound is what matters the most, and you may find that the OneKnob Brighter works perfectly on the mid-high frequencies of your guitar and vocal tracks, making them cut through the mix without being too shrill or overbearing.
Specs and useful features
- Full range of mix processing
- All-in-one sound-shaping capability
- Mono, stereo, and mono-stereo capability
- Single-parameter interface
- Suitable for studio and live applications
For many users, the Waves OneKnob Brighter is about as easy to use as they come. Adding brightness to the mid-high frequency range of audio signals, it helps tracks cut through the mix without the need for extensive tweaking.
If you are happy with the sound that the OneKnob Brighter gives to your audio, this could be a pretty cool exciter plug-in for your needs. However, some users feel that it understandably provides limited functionality in the context of a full mix, and that the price warrants more control.
The Waves OneKnob Brighter could be sufficient for your needs, if you like the base sound and don’t have a need for more intensive tonal shaping. For most users however, the single control can be too restricting, and the price might make it seem like less of a bargain.
Final thoughts – Which to Get?
The clear winner in this roundup is the iZotope Exciter. It has a level of control that no other exciter plug-ins can come close to, this one combines rich sound with modern features and functionalities that deliver outstanding results every time.
It comes as part of the Ozone suite of mastering plug-ins, which might give it an unfair advantage over the other standalone exciters in this roundup. Nevertheless, there is no denying the control and precision that the iZotope Exciter offers, and it would be just as impressive even when judged on its own merits.
Speaking of impressive, the Abbey Road Brilliance Pack packs quite a solid punch as well. Vintage flavors are the stocks-in-trade of this trio of exciter plug-ins, but it can more than hold its own with other more modern-oriented offerings.
If you like the rich, brilliant flavors heard on countless classic recordings since the 1960s, the Abbey Road Brilliance Pack will make a great addition to your set of studio tools.
The Waves OneKnob Brighter might seem like a bit of a one-trick pony to some, but it’s pretty hard to beat if simplicity is high on your list of priorities.
As for the Valve Exciter by AudioThing and the Waves Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter, these could very well find a place in your studio toolbox. Keep in mind though that the artifacts they impart to the sound at more extreme settings might make them better suited to more specialized tasks or as alternatives to your more transparent exciter plug-ins.