Platinum Notes 3 Review: The MP3 Strikes Back!

Platinum Notes 3 Review

‘Vinyl is the path to the dark side. Named must your fear be before banish it you can.’

If you’ve ever DJed in a club next to vinyl DJs, you’ll know that MP3s can sometimes sound flat, dull and muddy alongside the classic, warm quality of well-pressed vinyl. CDs too can often sound better than MP3s. In an environment where sound quality is everything, anything that can make your MP3s sing sweeter has to be welcomed. Platinum Notes 3 (US$98) is the latest version of a program designed to make MP3s sound better. It’s from the same people who make Mixed in Key (US$58), the harmonic mixing software that lets DJs easily create musically perfect mixes.

But does it work? And should you be subjecting your MP3s to a program that changes them in ways that – unless you’re a studio engineer – you’ll probably never fully understand? We put it to the test in order to find out.

Review: Platinum Notes 3

In 7 Easy Ways To Sound Better Than Other DJs, we looked at how to make the best of your DJ kit and a club’s PA to ensure things sound good. But Platinum Notes 3 is designed, to help you achieve this before you even get to the club. Let’s examine at how you’d use it and then describe what it does, why that’s potentially a good thing, and then assess the pluses and minuses of using such software.

First thing to note is that the software doesn’t seem particularly cheap, at US$98. That’s presumably because the developers have to pay a licence on some of the studio-quality processing software they’ve incorporated into it, and it also reflects who is likely to want to use this – professional or semi-pro DJs who regularly use decent-sized, well set-up sound systems where the differences it brings to your set are truly noticeable.

Platinum Notes 3 Review - File Analysis

Analysing your files in Platinum Notes 3.

How you’d typically use it
To use the software, you drag and drop files onto its main window, hit “analyse”, and it does its stuff, by default saving a new copy of the file next to the old one, marked _PN so you know it’s the changed version. Typically, you would run files through the software before adding them to iTunes or your DJ software, and you can change the output folder so the tracks are kept separately once they’ve been processed.

It’s all pretty simple, which belies the complexity going on under the hood. Indeed, you can dig in and start messing with the settings if you’re that way inclined. One obvious choice you have to make is whether to output as MP3 or WAV. 95% of readers here will be using the MP3 option, but it’s nice to know the choice its there if you are working with WAV files. By the way, it handles M4A and AIFF files, too.

What Platinum Notes 3 actually does

1. It adjusts track volume
This is the most simple correction. The software makes all tracks the same volume -as loud as posible without sounding bad. This is good for a number of reasons:

  1. It means you don’t ever have to ever rely on auto gain or auto volume in your software to ensure tracks are the same volume
  2. It makes visual audio waveforms more useful in DJ software, as louder waveforms are wider and show up better on the screen
  3. If you are even listening to your MP3s on equipment that doesn’t have volume correction, it ensures you won’t keep having to hit the volume up/down to keep things sweet, especially when listening to your collection on shuffle.

The downside (which can be levelled at all of the things Platinum Notes 3 does) is that the change is “destructive” – the software is changing your MP3 and you can’t reverse it. However, the pedigree of the company’s team (they are all DJs too so they “get high on their own supply”) and your own ears should comfort you here – I listened carefully to these results and my opinion is positive, as I’ll explain more later.

(Another thing to note is that you’ll want to turn off your “auto gain” or equivalent setting on your DJ software, as it’s not going to be needed after Platinum Notes 3 has done its thing.)

2. It fixes distortion
When a track is recorded a little too loudly, it can sound distorted or harsh. This is due technically to something called clipped peaks. Clipped peaks occur when something is recorded as an MP3 or WAV too loud. What happens is that the sound waves get to the highest allowed volume and have “nowhere else to go”, so you get squared off sections if you view them in digital audio software. the peaks in the music are literall “clipped”. This is unmusical, and loudspeakers turn the clipped peaks into distortion. It needs correcting.

It’s important to understand that no software can put back into a sound file what has been lost by recording it too loudly in this way, but Platinum Notes 3 levels off the abrupt non-musical nature of clipped peaks, instead. No substitute for getting a high-quality sound file in the first place, but still worth having and I can confirm it does audibly smooth out harshness in clipped files.

Platinum Notes 3 Review - Preferences

For those with a serious need to meddle, you can get under the bonnet and tweak the way it works.

3. It corrects musical pitch
This feature is fantastic for those DJs who use harmonic mixing to create musically in-key sets. I suspect many users of this software will also use Mixed in Key, which is the same company’s way of giving DJs the ability to easily mix in this manner.

The best way to explain what this does is to think of a guitar. A guitar is tuned in a certain way, and the bottom (and top) strings are always the musical note “E”. But what if you tighten the strings just a tiny bit – nowhere near enough to mean they go up a full note, but just enough to make the guitar’s tuning somewhere obviously between “E” and the next note up, “F”?

As long as the strings remain in tune relative to each other, the guitar will sound sweet, but it will sound awful played next to another guitar that’s tuned properly to “E”. It’s a bit like singling slightly out of tune. The same thing can happen with records. It is not going to be very frequent, because most electronic music is recorded using digital instruments that are “in tune” as they are, but anything in theory could happen to throw this off balance.

For instance, say you rip some vinyl to MP3 and the record deck is not exactly pitched to “0″. Here you’d have a situation where a recording is not actually in any existing musical key, but somewhere between two keys – and that makes it basically unmixable by key with any other record, just like the off-key guitar is unplayable with properly tunes guitars.

Platinum Notes 3 detects this and if need be, corrects the tune. Bingo! It will now mix in key with any other tune.

4. It gives added punch where needed
This is the clincher. This is why, if you’ve ever had the muddy MP3 feeling I spoke about at the beginning, you’ll recognise the value in Platinum Notes 3 immediately. Platinum Notes 3 can look at an MP3 and work out whether the loud bits are loud enough and the quiet bits are quiet enough. The technical word for this is a track’s “dynamics”, and by getting the dynamics right, tracks sound tighter and brighter.

Platinum Notes 3 Review

Choosing your output file type.

For instance, have you ever turned a dance track up on the radio in your car at the break, waiting for the kick drum to thud back in, only to feel disappointed when it does, because it sounds weedy, and everything else seems to get quieter at the same time?

That is because the track is “compressed” – the opposite of having wide dynamics. Radio stations do this because it sounds better at low volume, or when there’s lots of background noise (like in a car). However, MP3s can suffer from this too, and it’s one of the main reasons why they can sound bad next to records and CDs.

Platinum Notes 3 takes care of this, while also taking care of MP3s that are just badly made in the first place (usually by producers or mastering engineers who add too much compression in the first place). It’s a great thing to have MP3s that just sound good loud, and this will do it for you.

Also – and this is subjective, but I believe it to be true – I think Platinum Notes adds a bass boost, and a warmth to MP3s, maybe to try and put some of that vinyl feeling back. Whatever it’s doing, though, it works – you need to crank them up on a loud system, but they certainly sound better. It gives them their “mojo” back!

Conclusion

As Barack Obama once memorably said once: “You know, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” No software is going to correct awful-sounding music files. However, as long as your MP3s are there or thereabouts, Platinum Notes 3 will make sure they don’t let you down on the big stage. If you believe that recorded works, as presented to you, need to remain as they are – and there is a good argument to say that they do – then you simply won’t be interested in this.

Platinum Notes 3 review

Vinyl aficionados always say records sound better than MP3s – has Platinum Notes 3 changed all that?

But do you want your DJ sets to sound consistent – at a reliable volume, perfectly in key, with good dynamics, and never sounding harsh or distorted? Then in this case, you’ll be willing to sacrifice the changes that Platinum Notes makes to your files- even if in the odd case it doesn’t improve things – in order to get that consistency.

Excitingly, this is also something you, as a digital DJ, can do to music that vinyl and CD DJs can’t. They cannot key-match music that was recorded off-key, or correct over-compression on tracks mastered in a clumsy way, or make badly pressed tunes sound louder. With Platinum Notes 3, you can.

Learning to love your MP3s
Finally – and it’s something we’ve touched upon in Why Packing a Good Box of Tunes is More Important Than Ever and How To Organise Your Tunes While DJing, it is easy to be overwhelmed by digital music.

CDs and vinyl were different: You had these expensive items that you knew well, kept physically in one place, cleaned, took care of, selected for gigs – you could relate to them. All too often, with a hard drive full of music from all over the place, you can get detached from it all, to the detriment of your DJing.

But if you learn to value each individual MP3, by good tagging, smart playlists in iTunes, good crates in your DJ software, and bothering to polish it up with software like this, your consideration at all of these stages puts you back in touch with your music in a subtle but important way. To me, anything you do to your tunes before loading them onto a virtual deck in front of an audience that helps you to feel a connection with them will help your DJing.

Giving your tunes some TLC with Platinum Notes 3 may not only make them sound better, but may also help you to love and cherish them a bit more. And if you’re an ex-vinyl or ex-CD DJ, you’ll not only hear the difference, but you’ll also appreciate this feeling of being just a little bit more connected with your tunes – like old times, but better.

Buy Platinum Notes 3 online for $98.

Comments

  1. pepehouse says:

    This actually only works for WAVs. If you run an MP3 through PN and then convert it to MP3 again you are recompressing the thing and totally screwing its quality. I guess you always can set the output file to WAV and play it like that.

    • Phil Morse says:

      In our trials, high-quality MP3 to MP3 sounded fine, I think “totally screwed” is maybe unfair – admittedly there is going to be some data loss when working this way – but as ever, the proof is in the listening.

      The Platinum Notes team actually “recommend that people use the WAV output format if their hard drive space allows it”, but also say “we have many people who use this feature and it works fine for them”.

      As always, the best practice is to start with the highest quality files possible. Anything less than 320kbps is not going to give you optimum results if you’re doing MP3 to MP3.

  2. I think that having your music in wav is better than having it on mp3 and then converting it with platinium notes… The only thing im jealous about mp3 is all the tags you can add to them, and the album pic!!

    • Actually, if you’re a digital DJ there is a lot of options that are better than WAV and which works on most digital DJ software (Traktor, Serato etc.).

      FLAC or ALAC (Apple Lossless) are two examples of that. Both formats are lossless (same quality as a WAV), but they take up less space due to lossless compression (kinda like putting something in a ZIP or RAR-file, except specifically designed for Audio), and supports tags. Traktor plays both of those formats.

  3. I’ve read about this software before. I’m a bit skeptical about it, for a couple of reasons; re compressing MP3 files does seem like a bad idea. In addition, it _should_ be the case that an automated process can’t hope to improve on the work of a good mastering engineer.

    Unfortunately, a lot of current digital releases do suffer from over compression (loudness wars) and clipping, so perhaps it is worth looking at technologies like this. I’m not sure I’d want to run every track in my collection through it though.

    Its a bit depressing that it has come to this really. I actually took the trouble to write to a label recently to complain about a heavily clipped track I’d bought; the feedback from the guy who runs the label was encouraging, he said he would give the artist in question a kick in the backside!

    If you think music you buy is over compressed (lacking dynamics) I’d encourage you to write to the labels too. It would be great if we didn’t need to resort to software like this.

    • Phil Morse says:

      Interesting points… it is indeed sad if an automated pseudo-mastering technique is what’s needed to pull badly mastered originals into line.

      However, for pulling a set of disparate MP3s or WAVs into some kind of coherent collection that sound great together, with decent dynamics and bass “thump”, optimised for big systems, this software certainly delivers – I have been playing the sample tunes VERY loud together today here. Also, the key fine-tuning is undeniably useful – again, this is a DJ-friendly feature, not necessarily an audiophile one.

      I have to admit I was more skeptical about this before I actually used it, and now I am giving it a tentative thumbs up for blanket treatment of MP3s for DJing. I see no reason at all to run whole albums of home listening material through it, though.

  4. Hi Colin,

    The loudness wars are actually one of the main drivers behind Platinum Notes. Most commercial releases I get these days suffer from being over compressed. After listening to them for a few minutes at normal volume I can already feel my ears getting fatigued. That’s where PN really comes in for me – letting me listen to music at a normal volume without feeling like I’m being bombarded with noise.

  5. “I see no reason at all to run whole albums of home listening material through it, though.”

    I should have clarified – my home listening material is comprised almost entirely of DJ promos :)

    • Phil Morse says:

      To Chad: Lol fair play. I have to say I was more skeptical about PN than Mixed in Key, but I am loving the possibilities now I have a bouncy set for this coming weekend, which I know I can mix in key perfectly. I think I will be messing around with loops and FX a bit more than usual.

  6. Seb Forest says:

    Do you need to put every song of your library in the software one by one, or is there some way of getting all you itunes library in there at once? And after that, do you need to discard every original song one by one if you don’t feel the need to keep 2 copies of each song?

    • Phil Morse says:

      If you’re using iTunes, you can highlight the lot and drag them all in, telling the software to save them back to where they came from. Then sort the library by date, and delete all the originals – if you’re that brave!

      I have smart playlists in iTunes organised by venue, so I dragged the smart playlist into PN3, then did the above. Note that if you want to delete songs from an iTunes playlist, you have to hold down alt and hit delete, in order to make the program actually remove the file and not just take it out of that particular playlist.

      Listen first before you go deleting originals, though :)

      • i have a feeling that the converting of files and deleting of originals will make it nearly impossible to retain non-smart iTunes playlists. which would be a big fear of mine. did you find this to be the case?

      • and one more question – do the new files retain all original ID3 tags / metadata?

  7. Tried it out, seems to clean up the quality nicely, Another added benefit of this program is having a folder of HQ Wav’s ready and waiting for djing

  8. Some further thoughts as I drink my morning coffee…

    I think its important to understand that Platinum Notes is adding distortion.

    It may result in audio that is more pleasurable to listen to, but its still distortion. That’s why I encourage people to lobby producers and labels to avoid clipping and over-compression.

    Obviously Phil and others like the effect it has on their tracks, so its worth looking at to see if you like it too.

    To be fair, Phil did cover these points in the original article so I should probably stop banging on about it now!

    I feel strongly about the current trend of mastering tracks using excessive compression, as in my view, it is one of the only things that prevents digital audio from being better in every way than analogue.

    One of the few advantages of Vinyl was that there was a limit to how “hot” a record could be mastered; beyond a certain point, the needle would just jump out of the groove. There is effectively NO limit for how much compression can be added to digital releases.

    @Phat SwaZy – just remember that if your files started out as MP3′s, Platinum Notes can’t magically restore the information that was lost when they were compressed to MP3′s (this is not a weakness in PN – no software can do this).

  9. Phil Morse says:

    Hey, Colin. I think part of my argument (and I admit, we’re colouring the music here) is that PN adds “distortion” in the way that pressing a music file onto vinyl “adds distortion” – and what’s more, PN is adding the same distortion to all of your music. Hey presto! A set that holds together sonically better than before – albeit at the cost of a certain amount of purity.

  10. Funny all this discussion was going on while I was ranting about the poor sound quality typical Digital Djs abuse of.
    see;
    http://www.digitaldjtips.com/2010/10/interview-allen-heaths-andy-rigby-jones/comment-page-1/#comment-723

    Haven’t heard this software and as a general idea looks ok, since the way the mp3′s lack of sound quality as it is now, is just so terrible, that ANY improvement will be wellcomed by someone outhere.

    That said, the fastly evolving Clubs/Venues amplification sound quality, let alone the actual Dj mixer’s IMPRESIVE recent sound quality enhancement (from 85 dB to 105 dB Signal to Noise S/N in 3 years)… its already meaning that, depending what you plug into those systems, is going to mean HIGHLY different musical experiences in the dancefloor.

    Have you experienced the difference when after a vinyl or CD Dj a live act comes in (with 48 Khz and wise sound structure) and starts to sound up to whole different sound space? Have you experienced that atmosphere jump? Its like switching dimensions!

    Well that difference is going to (if is not already) be radical, between differently sourced Dj sets; say CDs vs mp3s, Vinyl vs Digital or vinyl vs mp3s…

    Will this processing software suffice? I doubt it. Most of the lost information from the convertion of WAVs into mp3s are spatial and positioning cues, along with lower harmonics. And though the harmonic coherence could be somwhat “restored” and the multiband presence equated. The product would sound plain and uniformly upfront unless… some extra spatialization complex algorhythms come in.
    And I don’t see this happening till a few years when the music spatialization really becomes relevant, going deeper on this is pbbly off-topic, I’d just say that nowadays the “getting rid of background noise” mission is nearly completed and the lowering distortion process into the gear chain has arrived to a new level.
    Sound Systems everywhere are now more REVEALING than mudding or coloring ones-
    Thus the SOURCE quality has become utterly relevant… and very importantly for Digital Djs; just talking about this software wont hide the bad rap that Digital Djs are grossly helping building up by playing out lower-than-WAVs bad sound quality music, namely mp3s in great numbers.

    What are YOU gonna do, Digital DJ Tips?

  11. Oops wrong link.
    I guess I’ve been too busy in this site the last hours. Great reading by the way, I’m thinking on becoming part of the family soon ;)

    My alluded above comment, is actually here:
    http://www.digitaldjtips.com/2010/07/djing-in-nightclubs-with-controllers-and-laptops/comment-page-1/#comment-7242

  12. alt + delete to delete file from library and playlist, Phil you have just saved me a ton of time :)

  13. I’ve been using Platinum Notes 2.0 (windows) for a while now and I’ve always been really impressed with it. But I just ran it on a new batch of WAV’s from beatport.com and in one of the tracks (Tony Gomez & Mikka – Running Balls Original Mix), I can hear a bit of digital distortion or artifacts in the quieter parts of the song, like the intro. It’s that real high pitched sort of digital sqeaking sound. I’ve also heard it in Ableton Live 8 when I use the wrong type of warp mode for a particular track. It’s subtle but it really makes my ears perk up when I’m listening with headphones. I’m wondering if Platinum Notes 3.0 will do the job better? I don’t want to spend $98 to have the same issue. More importantly, this little issue has now cast a cloud of suspicion over all the tracks I’ve processed already, and future tracks that I would normally process with PN. Anybody else run into this? I’d be glad to post the files somewhere so you can hear/experiment for yourself.
    Thanks all.

  14. Hi bluntobjekt,

    Sounds like it could be the pitch correction algorithm, I believe we license the same plug-in as Ableton. Platinum Notes never overwrites the original file, so I would recommend processing the file again with pitch correction turned off. Also, the 3.0 upgrade is free for all licensed users, so if you didn’t get it be sure to shoot an email to contact@mixedinkey.com and we’ll get you sorted out.

    Cheers,
    Chad P
    Mixed In Key

  15. Thanks Chad! So I just realized that part about the upgrade, not sure how I missed that. I just reprocessed it using PN3.0 with the default template and it sounds much better. I can’t hear the artifacts anymore. And that was with pitch correction enabled even. Platinum Notes’ reputation is clear in my book again! Now the question is do I want to open the can of worms and try to go back and reprocess older files. Just as a side note (and an indication of how much I trust PN), I actually delete the original wav’s after I process them (and give them a test listen of course). I always figured if I really needed to, I could whine to Beatport and ask them to let me redownload my purchases.

    Thanks again.

  16. Hi Phil, Hi all,

    While going through this review, I was wondering if you had any other alternatives to Platinum Notes for volume adjustment for MP3 files and more generally for digital music files. This would be worth a complete article I believe.
    Following another review (Mixtape software), I was playing with my tracks and was immediately facing this issue and there is no gain setup nor autogain feature in Mixtape.
    Traktor and other Dj softwares enables to adjust gain for each track or include autogain but I was wondering if somebody had a good hint on how to set an appropriate track volume for our entire itunes library or music collection…without going for Platinum Notes. Are you using replay gain for example?

    Thanks

  17. Thanks Phil,

    You are right, the main thing I want is equal volume across my library so that there are only small adjustments needed when mixing.
    I know MP3Gain however I am not so keen to use it as it is destructive and not working on any copy it seems; plus the mac version did not evolve since 2006 so … Are you using the Mac version with GUI or command lines? Do you know if you can only analyze tracks in MP3Gain before changing them?
    iVolume looks good but it seems it will only work with iTunes when the soundcheck option is enabled.

  18. Phil Morse says:

    MP3Gain is not destructive, that’s the whole point of it… it changes a volume flag, not the music data. I’d recommend backing up your library first though.

    No, I don’t use the Mac version, I used to use the PC version but I find Platinum Notes to be best for me, so no need to… I agree, the command line version is a bit scary!

  19. This is what I thought reading the MP3Gain infos until I saw this on the MacMP3Gain page :

    “MacMP3Gain modifies MP3 and unprotected AAC files with no provision provided to undo the changes. I would highly recommend a full backup of your MP3 library prior to running mp3gain on them”

    So it seems there is a difference between the PC and the Mac and I am in trouble now…

  20. Fred,

    What you’ve quoted is entirely consistent with what Phil said. mp3Gain creates new tags, and as a consequence modifies the file with new tag info. However, it is not destructive in the sense that the musical waveform is completely unchanged. Your DJ or playback software simply makes a volume adjustment based on the tags. So if you have other tag info used by an app, or even information about the song that is stored elsewhere in your DJ app that depends on the actual musical structure of the file, your app should read the file and not be disturbed by the new tag.

    This is quite different from how Platinum Notes works–a brand new musical waveform is created and output and the tags are copied over to it, but I imagine most DJ apps would treat this as a brand new file to be analyzed.

    The best way to see this for yourself is to take a handful of files, make a copy of them to work with for this experiment. Then analyze these copies in your DJ program, make some cue points or tweak it in some way, then run those copies through mp3gain, then rerun your DJ app and see how the app behaves with the newly tagged copies.

  21. John –

    You are correct that DJ software should treat Platinum Notes files as new files since the waveform has been changed. Keep in mind that the processing done by PN is way more complex than the simple gain adjustment that happens with MP3Gain. I would use MP3Gain for getting the songs on my iPod at the same levels, but PN for prepping tracks for club use.

  22. GB4double says:

    I won a copy a few months back and wanted to take some time to use it a little before saying a thing. A lot of you have been Djaying far longer than myself and in fact, I haven’t gotten there yet… however i’ve been listening to music all of my almost 38 years of living and it does exactly what they say it will. This including bringing out a poorly encoded MP3 and certainly giving you room to mix. It’s probably way more useful to me the novice than an experienced DJ, which is good for me. My ears are good enough to tell when PN has “taken” to much away and when that happens I simply use the orginal file… This is certainly going to cause me a duplicate file issue, but i’m not doing the whole collection right now so hey..

  23. GB4double says:

    It’s a strong piece of software.

  24. FYI: Mp3Gain and MacMp3Gain don’t re-encode the original audio track. They only add a volume adjustment tag. It seems that this tag belongs to APEv2 tags.

    When an mp3 track (pre-processed with Mp3Gain) is imported in iTunes, three different things can happen. Only one is good.

    -1 – iTunes was started with its Preferences -> “Adjust volume” checkbox unchecked.
    In this case the volume correction suggested by Mp3Gain is NOT applied. The track sounds as loud as it will be without any Mp3Gain pre-processing.

    -2 – iTunes was started with its Preferences -> “Adjust volume” checkbox checked. The mp3 track is then imported in iTunes. At this point iTunes rescans the track, writes its own volume adjustment tag and the Mp3Gain adjustment is completely lost.
    When playing you’ll hear some volume normalization. Unfortunately it’s NOT the one that was set by Mp3Gain.

    - 3 – As in -1 – (that is iTunes was started with its Preferences -> “Adjust volume” checkbox unchecked).
    Several tracks + 1 final “dummy track” are imported in iTunes.
    After the import has finished – and only now – check the “Adjust volume” in iTunes Preferences.
    Now iTunes rescans only the last track imported (your “dummy track”) and re-adjust its volume.
    Throw away the “dummy track”.
    Play now your (corrected) volume adjusted tracks on iTunes.
    If you like to hear now the same tracks without volume correction, just un-check “Adjust volume” in iTunes Preferences.

  25. I’m about to try both PN and MIK. I dj since ’86 and now I’ve taken up on digital djing, but I’m still using a mix of CDs and Algoriddim’s DJAY app on iPad2. I’ve got a load of old, new, digitalized-from-vinyl, Beatport, promo files of all kinds but mostly (98%) are 320kbps. I hope PN can “equalize” my library in a good way, ‘cos I play everything from small gigs to big clubs, festivals and radio too.

    But I know for a fact that even good pressed and masterized vinyl has its differences in sound. As Phil noted on the review, you can’t run a vinyl or CD on something like PN and I remember vividly having to compensate in some way (usually EQing on the mixer or something) for this. Not to mention volume and gain adjusts, I was always working those knobs all the time. And still am, since not all files are created equal.

    So if PN can improve my mp3s in ANY way to make it sound more pleasant and linear, I can take care of the rest with some smart mixing and tune selection, among other dj tricks.

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