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MEDIA ASSISTANCE AUDIO PLUG-INS PACK 1 (WIN)

December 1, 2000
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High-quality effects plug-ins, but with a high price.Created by French programmer Vincent Burel, Audio Plug-ins Pack 1 from Media Assistance is a bundle of four high-quality plug-ins provided in both the DirectX and VST formats. This twin-format design means that you can run these plug-ins with just about any PC-based host application. Three of the plug-ins offer traditional processing functions: compression/limiting, equalization, and reverb. The fourth one lets you "chain" the other plug-ins together as you would when patching the signal from one hardware-based effects unit to another. All of the plug-ins are intuitive and easy to use, except perhaps the reverb, which offers an impressive array of parameters that makes it seem a bit overwhelming at first.

I tested Audio Plug-ins Pack 1 on a Pentium II/300 MHz machine with 64 MB of RAM and Windows 98SE. I tried the plug-ins with a variety of host applications, including Cakewalk's Pro Audio, Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge, and Steinberg's WaveLab. All four plug-ins performed without a hitch, and they were actually fun to work with.

IN COMMONLike many plug-ins, these resemble hardware-based units; to change parameter settings or modes of operation, you twiddle onscreen knobs and buttons. Fortunately, this isn't the only input method. By right-clicking on any adjustable parameter (usually a knob), you can open a menu that offers a number of other input options. For example, you can quickly set a parameter to its maximum or minimum value or to a number of other common values (shown as a list). Most important, you can enter a precise value directly from the computer keyboard.

The documentation for Audio Plug-ins Pack 1 is a 42-page, spiral-bound booklet that covers the software reasonably well (although the translation from German is filled with editing mistakes). The manual lacks tutorials, but it does provide a description of each plug-in along with all parameters, and it even includes the specifications for the different operational modes of the EQ and reverb modules. The documentation is also provided on the CD-ROM in PDF format. Unfortunately, no Help files are included with the software.

PATCHWORK QUILTFFX-16 is a plug-in manager and virtual patch bay/rack that lets you route the audio signal through a series of plug-ins and then save the "virtual-rack" setup as a preset. For example, you can chain together the limiter, EQ, and reverb plug-ins and listen to the audio being processed in real time. Moreover, FFX-16 works with any DirectX plug-ins, not just the ones included in Audio Plug-ins Pack 1.

Each of the rack's plug-ins includes a solo and mute button. You can change the position of a plug-in within the rack (which changes its location in the chain) by simply dragging and dropping the plug-in label with your mouse. You can also rapidly switch between different variations of your rack setup using the eight memory store and recall buttons.

As you add plug-ins to the rack, the corresponding editing windows appear onscreen. Arranging the windows is easy with buttons that tile, cascade, minimize vertically, minimize all, open all, and close all windows. Peak meters let you see the level of the signal coming into and going out of the rack. You can even create racks and add them to other racks for more complex setups. (By the time you read this, a free update should be available that lets you save presets of individual plug-ins apart from the rack or host program.)

THE EQUALIZEREQpro-G3 provides high-quality parametric equalization. Each of three bands provides adjustable filter type, frequency, Q, slope, and gain. (The presence of the Q, slope, and gain parameters depends on the filter type selected.) The six filter types include Lowpass, Highpass, Bandpass, Fully Parametric, Low Shelving, and High Shelving. The frequency range varies depending on the filter type, but the full 20 Hz to 20 kHz range is available overall.

In addition, EQpro-G3's frequency range depends on the current sampling rate, so the frequency range can actually be adjusted up to 40 kHz if you use a 96 kHz sampling rate. The Q (available for the Lowpass, Highpass, Bandpass, and Fully Parametric filters) is adjustable from 0.666 to 34.605, and the slope (available for the Low- and High-Shelving filters) is adjustable from 0.4 to 4. As with the frequency range, the gain varies depending on the filter type, but for the Fully Parametric filter, the gain can be adjusted between ñ36 dB.

In addition to the parameter controls, EQpro-G3 displays a graph that shows the overall shape of the combined filters. You can change the vertical scale of the graph from ñ6 dB to ñ60 dB, and you can view the horizontal scale logarithmically (from 10 Hz to 12 kHz) or in octaves (from 10 Hz to 20 kHz). Unfortunately, the graph is only for display purposes; you can't make adjustments by directly manipulating the graph with the mouse (as you can with many other plug-ins). That was a bit of a disappointment.

LIMITED COMPRESSIONNot much can be said about the C-Limiter plug-in. It's probably one of the simplest plug-ins you'll ever use. With only four adjustable parameters, C-Limiter provides basic compression and brickwall limiting. The compression ratio can range from 1:1 to 8:1, and the gain can be adjusted between ñ24 dB. The Velocity parameter controls how quickly the limiter reacts to the signal (1 to 100 ms), and the Limit parameter controls the highest level the signal can achieve through the output (0 to -12 dB).

C-Limiter provides no adjustments for attack or threshold, which makes it better suited to limiting than compression. It would be nice to have more control over the processing so the plug-in could be used for more advanced compression applications. That would certainly help justify the price of the package. On the other hand, you must also consider that C-Limiter's sound quality is excellent. Even with the compression ratio set at 8:1, the gain set at +24 dB, and the Limit parameter set to -0.1 dB, I experienced nary a hint of distortion in the signal.

VERBALICIOUSThe Aphro-V1 reverb plug-in is the most complex of the lot, but if you stick with the included 393 presets, it's quite easy to use. Just click on the LCD screen to open the Preset & Bank Interface window, select a preset, and you're off and running. You can also load and save preset banks from the right-click pop-up menu. Buttons on the main panel let you quickly compare presets, sequentially select presets and banks, and mute the plug-in. However, operating the plug-in becomes more complex when it comes to adjusting an existing preset or creating a new one from scratch.

For preset editing, Aphro-V1 provides three separate parameter panels, which you access through the PG, CP, and AC buttons in the main window. The PG button opens the Pre-delay & Gain Interface window, where you can adjust the amount of predelay (0 to 1,000 ms) and gain of the wet signal relative to the dry signal (-??? to +6 dB) for both channels. I especially like the fact that you can set the values independently for each channel, and you can reverse the phase of the wet or dry signals independently for each channel as well. That provides some very cool time-shifting and quasi-surround effects possibilities.

The Algorithm Control (AC) Interface window is even more impressive. It lets you specify up to three early reflections and a decay for each stereo channel independently or in sync. Each early reflection includes controls for delay (0 to 1,000 ms), feedback (number of successive echoes), and frequency response (for adjusting the amount of echo damping over time). The decay for each channel provides the same controls. What's more, each group of early reflections and each decay includes an LCD-style screen, which lets you view the reverberation time or the number of echoes as a response curve on a graph.

Finally, clicking the CP button opens the Color Panel window, which lets you manipulate the "color" of the reverb for both channels (individually or in sync). This provides a sophisticated type of filtering that you can control by selecting a mode of operation (Deadening, Tube effect, Resonance's Color, Metal effect, Chord effect, or General) and then dragging the mouse over a multicolored graph to change the filter's response curve. It's difficult to explain (the manual could use some help in this area); you really have to hear it to fully understand what it does. Nevertheless, this feature, combined with the other elements of Aphro-V1, provides an extraordinary degree of control, and the overall sound quality is excellent.

FINAL ECHOIn terms of performance and quality, Audio Plug-ins Pack 1 is a great product. The user interfaces are intuitive and the sound quality of each plug-in is top-notch. Aphro-V1 is one of the most flexible reverb plug-ins I've seen; it offers an extremely high degree of control over the sound of the reverb effect. Unlike the other plug-ins, Aphro-V1 uses a more hardware-based approach to handling presets and banks from its front-panel display. I wish all the plug-ins handled presets in a more consistent manner.

Each plug-in also rates well in terms of CPU load. As measured in Sound Forge, my computer came up with the following percentages for each plug-in: 5 percent for EQpro-G3, 5 percent for C-Limiter, and 18 percent for Aphro-V1. In addition, a "quick" version of Aphro-V1, which processes the signal using half the sampling rate, puts about half as much strain on the CPU. In general, the modest processing loads required by these plug-ins mean that you can use multiple effects, or even racks of effects nested in other racks, without overburdening most CPUs.

Of course, there are a few improvements that would make me happy. These include direct filter-graph manipulation in EQpro-G3, more compression features in C-Limiter, better documentation (especially in the Color Panel description), and online help.

However, my main concern is the price. Even with the superb quality and performance the plug-ins provide, $599 still seems a bit steep. For less money, you could purchase TC Works' DirectX TC Native Bundle, which also provides excellent sound quality but has a much larger palette of processing features, including compression, limiting, de-essing, ducking, graphic EQ, parametric EQ, and reverb.

Nonetheless, Audio Plug-ins Pack 1 is clearly a high-quality product. If you need an extremely flexible, great-sounding reverb, and you don't mind spending the money, this package is worth considering.

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