Review: McDSP SA-2 Dialog Processor

Based on hardware originally conceived by top re-recording mixer Mike Minkler, this new plug-in promises to improve the sound of recorded speech, but how well does it do the job? Mike Aiton takes a look…

Dialogue is a key part of any movie, television show, documentary, or for that matter any creative media production involving the spoken word. Add to the mix a sweeping musical score, dozens of Foley effects, and plenty more and it becomes clear the job of dialogue mixing is a tall order. After all, if you can’t hear what the actors are saying, you lose the flow of the narrative and the story telling is broken.

Veteran Academy Award-winning Hollywood re-recording mixer Mike Minkler has a successful blend of skills that he brings to the table in a film mix. Often, to tell the story, a film mixer has to push dialogue and help it cut through. Boosting high upper mid/HF is one of the starting points, but this can lead to harshness and sibilance if over pushed. To combat this, Mike had an engineer friend of his build a custom hardware box that he would strap across his dialogue bus on the final mix to catch any of these frequent peaks. This box has travelled to many mix stages and was in danger of becoming fragile, so a software solution was required. Genius Welsh mix tech Ceri Thomas, who was working with Mike, suggested that the chaps at McDSP would be the right guys to successfully achieve this, so after much clever hard work, the SA-2 Dialogue Processor has now been born.

The SA-2 Dialog Processor is made up of five bands of strategic active equalisation configurable in a variety of modes. Each band has a threshold control to determine at what signal level the active equaliser begins to affect the signal. There are also enable buttons for each band to quickly audition the effect of any given band (a band on and off switch). There are two mode selectors: one for controlling the timebase ballistics of the active equalisation (from gentle to severe), and a second for adjusting the width of the five bands in the frequency spectrum, from narrow, via normal, to wide. Finally, there are input and output gain controls for overall adjustment.

Being McDSP, it is available in AAX Native and AAX DSP formats – vital for the film and TV post world – as well as AU and VST.

In Use

I was curious as to what the band frequencies chosen were, so I put some pink noise into the plug-in and analysed the output by turning on the various bands. The five bands would seem to be 3kHz, 5kHz, 7kHz, 9kHz and 11kHz. I then strapped the SA-2 across my dialogue bus in a feature mix. The location dialogue for this film is very problematic, as it was shot in central London with a fast turnaround and a low budget. I have had to use considerable Cedar DNS One processing to salvage the dialogue. The dialogue tracks have had considerable LF and LMF processing to remove traffic and construction sounds, and this can lead to slightly spiky and strident dialogue, as the frequency balance is uneven. Once I had dialled in a reasonable threshold, I tried the SA-2 on the Gentle (timebase) and Narrow (freq) with all bands in. Wow! It’s not often this old timer’s jaw hits the floor, but my dialogue all of a sudden had no ‘premix inconsistencies’ and any of my dialogue premix excesses were deftly handled. The dialogue had a roundness and smoothness to it. I have also used this on some documentary voiceover recordings, where there were some broadband HF peaks – the SA-2 tamed them beautifully.

To view the SA-2 as a de-esser is to slightly miss the point. It can de-ess, but it is not a broadband de-esser, in that it does not kill the HF. Nor is it a surgical tool as indeed some de-essers claim to be. The SA-2 is designed to improve the overall sound of recorded speech and is a broad stroke tool that to my mind beautifully suits being a ‘bus tamer’. It achieves this job that would otherwise require quite a few de-essers very carefully set indeed.

But the SA-2 is not just for dialogue. It’s equally useful for vocals, and is a great tool for adjusting the timbre of any track; I have also had success using it on my Foley bus to tame spiky presence peaks where the Foley is not as ambient as I would like and doesn’t have a room acoustic to ‘smooth the frequency response’.

I started reviewing this plug-in with a slightly cynical and marginally pessimistic outlook and came away knowing it will now be a template stalwart. I was so impressed that I am now off piste exploring other McDSP plug-ins, which somehow I seem to have passed by in my mixing travels.

The plug-in is Stereo or Mono only. It would be nice to have a multichannel version, as centre channel dialogue is just an opening gambit – the gloves are off regarding dialogue placement in multichannel (even LFE use) these days. A colleague of mine, Alan Sallabank, wondered if the reason why it is not multichannel might be because using it on a bus master or group wouldn’t be any use for object-based mixing, such as Dolby Atmos. This is a very good point indeed, but I still think it would be a very nice option to have a surround version.

Key Features

  • Unique signal reduction metering
  • Double precision processing
  • Ultra low latency
  • Mono and stereo versions

$149 (Native) or $249 (HD)

Mike Aiton was weaned at the BBC, but after breaking free nearly 25 years ago and becoming one of London’s busiest freelance dubbing mixers, he can now mostly be found in his Twickenham dubbing suite, mikerophonics.