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.
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:
- 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
- It makes visual audio waveforms more useful in DJ software, as louder waveforms are wider and show up better on the screen
- 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.