A LITTLE TO GO >The PowerCore Compact brings the DSP expansion possibilities of the PowerCore line to the laptop recording and performance crowd with a travel-size FireWire-based product.
It's no secret that the laptop is quickly becoming the preferred performance tool and production notepad for many musicians and producers. With the increasing quality of soft synths and modeling technology, the desire to “keep it in the box” grows with every passing software revision. But laptops suffer from the same performance ceiling as their desktop counterparts (even more so in some cases). Thus, TC Electronic released the PowerCore FireWire, which for the first time allowed the laptop community to get in on the PowerCore platform without having to utilize secondary PCI expansion boxes. And though the PowerCore FireWire was (and is) a great product, an all-metal rackmount unit isn't exactly portable in that cute iPod sort of way — which brings TC to the latest addition to its PowerCore line, the PowerCore Compact.
Building upon the basic premise of the PowerCore line, the Compact allows users to augment their workstations with a suite of plug-ins that run independent of the host processor. The Compact connects via FireWire, and with some minor limitations, the various PowerCores can be used at the same time (hardware permitting). So, for instance, if you owned the original PCI PowerCore and a desktop computer as well as a laptop, you could seamlessly use the Compact with either setup.
The Compact is about the same size as most portable USB and FireWire audio interfaces, and unlike the PowerCore FireWire, the Compact is made out of a high-impact plastic that is both sturdy and surprisingly light. The unit sports a 5V power adapter and three FireWire ports.
Installing the Compact is an effort in simplicity. I simply visited the TC Website and pulled down the latest PowerCore driver. For simplicity's sake, there is only one PowerCore download for all three products. Once I un-Stuffed the file, the installer asked me to choose which PowerCore I was using, and after I checked the box for the Compact, everything installed without a hitch. I tested the unit on both a Mac G4/1GHz PowerBook with 768 MB of RAM and a Mac G5/dual 2.5GHz with 4 GB of RAM with Apple Logic Pro 7 and Ableton Live 4.04.
The PowerCore line, in addition to the hardware, ships with a tiered suite of plug-ins that correspond to each of the three products. The majority of the plug-ins haven't changed much since the first few incarnations of the product. And because those plug-ins have been reviewed extensively here and in other places, this review will focus on the latest offerings, specifically those that ship with the Compact. But just as a refresher, the plug-in bundle that ships with the Compact includes all of the standard offerings: ClassicVerb reverb, ChorusDelay, EQSat precision EQ, MasterX3 virtual finalizer, MegaReverb reverb, PowerCore 01 analog-modeled synth, Vintage CL compressor/limiter, Tubifex guitar modeler and VoiceStrip channel strip. The newer pieces are Character, a dynamic- and frequency-based sound-enhancement tool, and Filtroid, a dual analog-modeled filter effect. And though 24/7C is not as new as the others, this review will also take a closer look at this compressor/limiter plug-in that is modeled off of a well-known classic.
PLUG AWAY >The PowerCore Compact includes three FireWire ports, allowing it to integrate into most setups.
At some point, everyone has had to deal with, say, getting a weak kick drum or a less-than-inspired bass synth to stand out better in a mix. And, traditionally, some of the best tools to deal with issues like that have been traditional EQs, compressors and expanders — now, though, the PowerCore suite includes the new tool Character. Designed by a third-party developer, Noveltech, Character intelligently analyzes incoming audio and enables users to quickly zero in and enhance the meat of the signal. The plug-in is incredibly simple to use and has only a handful of controls. On the left side of the screen are simple input and output gain controls; down the center is the Character knob, which goes from 0 to 100 (the amount of character that you're adding to the signal). To the right of that resides the Target knob, which loosely corresponds to the desired frequency range. And, finally, on the top right sits the three-position Mode knob; each mode refers to a distinctive blend of dynamic- and frequency-specific processing.
I used Character on a variety of signals, and I was especially pleased with what it can do with drums. The plug-in includes a scant number of presets, ranging from vocal- and synth-specific tasks to kick and percussion settings. And working from the presets, it was a breeze to really bring out the presence and snap of any kick, snare or tom track that I ran through it. Beyond the sound itself, it really felt like the essence of the performances themselves came through in a more pleasing way. Although the included controls seem limited, they allow for a great breadth of sounds to be achieved. Overall, Character is an addictive plug-in that any producer would be thankful to have in his or her arsenal.
CUT AND DANCE
For some, synth filters are an obsession all to themselves, and it seems that the people at TC are as guilty as any in this department. Thus, they offer Filtroid, a dual analog-modeled filter bank. The two filters can be run serial (one feeds into the other) or parallel. There are highpass, lowpass and bandpass configurations with 12, 18 or 24dB slopes, and the phase of each filter can be reversed. The plug-in also includes one LFO per side and an envelope follower. The available LFO waveshapes include sine, triangle, saw, square and random — all of which will sync to host tempo at whatever beat division is specified (16/1 to 1/64). Also present is a sidechain modulation option, which enables another audio track to control the modulation of the filters.
I found the Filtroid to be one of the most versatile and aggressive-sounding software filters around. TC has always been greatly skilled at adding analog-style saturation to its products, and Filtroid is no exception. When set to some of the more extreme settings, the plug-in pushes into a convincing distorted sound that is just the trick for adding an aggressive, biting sound to synth bass and drum loops. I particularly enjoyed running already-distorted guitar through Filtroid and, with the LFOs, adding some overdriven and otherworldly bits of distorted goodness. The plug-in also does wonders on the more mild side of things; with an LFO setting that can cycle on every eight bars, it's easy to add a slow sweep to any sort of pad or breathy vocal.
The last of the newer plug-in additions is the 24/7C compressor/limiter. If you're a fan of some the 1176 emulations out there, you'll swear that you're seeing a ghost. With the 24/7C, TC takes this classic design and makes it its own. Overall, the plug-in is a stunning emulation of that classic analog-compression sound. The plug-in includes controls for input, output, attack, release; four ratio buttons (4:1, 8:1, 12:1 and 20:1, as well as an All Buttons preset); four metering buttons; and a collection of preset-management buttons. It was excellent at producing that “chewed and cooked” sound on drums that is synonymous with vintage compression. From a mastering standpoint, the 24/7C is a no-brainer if you are after a classic-sounding vibe — perfect for that dirty garage-rock sound.
AN EASY CHOICE
With both Logic 7 and Live 4, the suite performed beautifully. There were no Audio Units authorization issues with Logic, and TC Electronic even has an optimization procedure on its Website for Logic users. In terms of portability, the PowerCore Compact kills. With an optional plug-in such as the Access Virus PowerCore and an application like Live loaded on a laptop, you have an amazing-sounding and versatile performance tool for thousands of dollars less than the hardware equivalents. With myriad reverbs, compressors, guitar modeling and more, the PowerCore Compact brings a great deal to the table for a minimal entrance fee. I was hooked on the original PCI version of the PowerCore, and with the Compact, this product line has done nothing but improve by leaps and bounds.
POWERCORE COMPACT > $995
Pros: Durable, compact design. FireWire-based. Excellent-sounding suite of plug-ins. Numerous third-party developers providing continued expansion.
Cons: Potential bottleneck issues when running FireWire hard drives.
MAC: G4; 512 MB RAM; Mac OS 10.3 or later; VST or Audio Units host; factory-installed FireWire port
PC: Pentium 4; 512 MB RAM; Windows XP; VST host; available FireWire port