There’s nothing worse then getting deep into the mixing stage of a project, only to run out of CPU resources for more plug-ins. What can you do? Render tracks with effects? Shuffle sample buffer settings to relieve the CPU strain? It’s a situation many of us have faced. One of the more appealing solutions is to employ a dedicated DSP device, which can be used to run proprietary plug-ins within your host. The net result is, you’re able to run way more software effects without taxing the main CPU. These DSP “helpers” are a boon for those of us with native-based music production studios.
TC Electronic virtually defined this market when they launched PowerCore PCI, a processing card (now called PowerCore Element) that featured Motorola DSPs and included a collection of high-quality effects. It wasn’t long before TC released an external version, PowerCore FireWire, which was rack-mountable — a big plus for recording engineers on the go. But 19” rackmount gear isn’t exactly the most ergonomic solution for those who like to travel light. So TC has added PowerCore Compact, which features a smaller, stylish, smooth-contoured form, which slips neatly into backpacks and soft-shell computer cases.
There’s less CPU horsepower onboard compared to other models. Compact has two 150MHz DSP chips and two 512kWord S-RAM modules — half that of the larger FireWire model. Fortunately, Compact uses the same 266MHz PowerPC processor as the rackmount unit. And if one PowerCore isn’t enough for you, you’re free to mix and match; you can mix and match up to four PCI units and two FireWire units on a single computer to create an extended DSP “farm.”
Back in December 2003 we reviewed PowerCore FireWire, along with its included effects. This time out, I’ll concentrate on Compact specifics, including the new Character plug-in, along with the recently released MD3 stereo mastering bundle, which TC was gracious enough to send me in time for review.
Installing Compact is simple and straightforward: Connect the power supply, then connect a FireWire cable from your computer to one of Compact’s three FW slots (the extra ports can be used for daisy-chaining other FireWire gear). Next, install the software, and that’s it.
When you’re finished, PowerCore’s12 plug-ins will appear along side any other effects within your VST host. For Audio Units hosts, PowerCore automatically “wraps” its VST plug-ins, so they’ll run as AUs. In Logic 7, all the PowerCore plugs showed up immediately after I installed them. However, adding optional plug-ins requires an extra step: After installation, you’ll need to re-run the PC installer, and choose an update option, which scans for any new plug-ins. Once this process is complete, the installer works its wrapping magic. When it’s finished, the plug-ins show up in AU hosts. This worked without a hitch when I installed the MD3 and Dynamic EQ plug-ins (the latter of which I hope to review in the near future).
STRESSING THE TESTS
So how much power can Compact bring to the table?
To find out, I performed a series of stress tests. In Logic Pro, I was able to run 12 24/7•C limiters and two 5-band EQs before using up my available DSP. That’s not a lot, when you consider you’d likely get way more native compressors and EQs from your host app. But according to TC, the 24/7•C is a detailed hardware emulation based on an 1176, and consequently requires more DSP power than your average host comp.
While there’s no reason you couldn’t, or shouldn’t, fill up an entire PowerCore with compressors, a more practical approach would be to pick and choose your effects on the basis of typical mix conditions. For example, I was able to run one instance each of Classic Verb, MegaReverb, and TC Chorus/Delay, two instances each of VoiceStrip and 24/7•C limiter, and an EQ Sat before hitting the wall.
The lesson is this: While Compact’s DSP might not afford you dozens of PowerCore effects, you can expect to run more than enough choice reverbs, along with, say, Master X multiband compression, and a few other useful processors during mixdown.
Developed by Noveltech, Character is the newest addition to the line-up of effects included with PowerCore Compact and FireWire. On a technical level, I’m not exactly clear just what Character does. The documentation suggests Character is related to conventional dynamics and EQ, but it doesn’t really fall into either camp. There are no attack, ratio, or threshold controls, nor are there frequency gain and bandwidth settings. What I do know is, with Character it’s possible to enhance and emphasize a particular frequency range. It works best on individual tracks, not full mixes, and to my ears, the results sound a bit like multiband compression based on predefined EQ curves.
I suspect there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, but on the surface, there are few controls, making it easy to dial in a pleasing tone. The Target parameter sets the relative frequency range where the processing is, um . . . targeted. This doesn’t represent an absolute frequency range, but rather, a relative range based on the input signal. Essentially, Character analyzes the input signal to determine the frequency range that Target will affect.
To help narrow your “characterization,” three modes are provided. Mode 1 is optimized for percussion and vocals, Mode 2 for guitars and synths, and Mode 3 for bass guitar and pads. Of course, you’re not required to adhere to these guidelines. I was able to significantly reshape the tone of guitar and vocal tracks by using “alternate” modes. It’s all about using your ears, not your eyes.
This is Character’s strength. Twist a couple of dials to focus on the frequency content you’d like to emphasize, then crank up the Character knob. It’s simple, and doesn’t overwhelm with parameter “option anxiety”, so you can get on with the mix.
MD3 STEREO MASTERING BUNDLE COOLNESS
First there was the Finalizer, a hardware “mastering” processor whose specialty was multiband compression and EQ. Then came Master X, a software incarnation of the Finalizer. More recently TC, rolled out the System 6000, a multichannel hardware processor that includes, reverb, multi-effects, and mastering-oriented tools. The MD3 Stereo Mastering for PowerCore is a port of two System 6000 algorithms — the multiband dynamics processor and full-range limiter. At $995 (the cost of Compact itself), the MD3 bundle isn’t exactly an impulse buy. But if you operate a well-heeled project studio or mastering facility, MD3 is well worth the price of admission.
TC’s claim is that the MD3 Multiband Dynamics (MD) and Brickwall Limiter (BL) are designed to protect against digital overs, which can sneak past most other dynamics plug-ins. Detailed AES papers of the danger in producing mastered tracks that cross the threshold of 0dBFS and why this frequently happens can be found online at TC’s website (www.tcelectronic.com). It’s worth checking out.
Brickwall Limiter uses upsampling to preserve sonic quality, and is guaranteed to eliminate signals that will distort on consumer players. Interface-wise, BL is uncluttered and simple to use. Release times are fixed, with “normal,” fast 1/2/3, and slow 1/2/3 — there’s no worrying over how many milliseconds of release time is necessary, and so on.
MD comprises a stereo 4-band EQ, 3-band compressor, limiter, soft clipper, and MS encoder/decoder, all within a single menu-tabbed interface. You can bypass each section, but the signal path is fixed; EQ > normalizer > compressor/expander > limiter.
The look and feel of MD and BL is quite different from other plug-ins in PowerCore’s stable. The UI is “flat,” clean, and 2-D, which is a nice break from the norm of hardware-looking software. It’s easier on the eyes, which is a good thing, as you’ll likely be spending a lot of time in front of these interfaces, especially MD’s.
My only complaint: Many of the multiband’s related parameters aren’t presented on the same menu page, so I found myself clicking around more than I’d like. For example, EQ frequency, gain, and type controls are separated, not available within a single page. Fortunately, it’s possible to group any six parameters from any page along the bottom of the screen, which helps minimize excessive clicking.
Any operational inconvenience is minor in significance compared to the sonic quality of MD3. Simply put, this is the most transparent and effective set of software mastering tools I’ve ever used. In particular, the EQ is capable of radical or microscopic gain changes without introducing any phasey artifacts. Even with extreme settings, my tracks never became lopsided or smeared, as can sometimes happen with lesser EQs.
The compressor never showed signs of heavy-handedness, either. In fact, using MD in combination with the brickwall limiter on full mixes, I was able to achieve much more perceived loudness, with remarkable definition in high-frequency material (shaker, acoustic guitar strumming, mallet percussion), smoother mid range without any scratchiness, and solid, contained lows. In short, these plug-ins rocks.
Some words of caution: These tools require practice. You won’t master them in a couple of days, or even a couple of weeks. That’s not to say you can’t get great results quickly. But the MD3 bundle is a serious set of tools that take time to learn. However, the time you take to experiment with them will be well spent, and no doubt, your mixes will be that much better.
If you’re hitting the limits of your CPU during mixdown, or you’re looking to beef up the processing power of your portable DAW rig, PowerCore Compact is a compelling option. It comes with a well-rounded set of software for creative and utilitarian needs, works with all major Mac- and PC-compatible hosts, and can be expanded by adding optional effects.
At just under $1000, Compact isn’t cheap, but it costs a lot less than what you’d pay to upgrade your entire machine, and you’ll be guaranteed a fixed amount of DSP for your projects. And besides, it just looks cool — how can you resist?