As DAWs grow bigger and more powerful, with huge soundbanks and generally requiring more processing power, computer-based producers are becoming more mix-savvy, using complex techniques such as sidechaining, parallel compression and other CPU-heavy effect combinations that used to concern only their more high-end counterparts. This trend leads to more plug-ins and samplers that bog down the system, and to make things worse, many still use their slower internal hard drives to produce on the go. So there's perhaps no better relief to a generation of DAW producers used to completely redlined systems than some offshore processing to provide a little breathing space.
A steady trickle of companies are releasing outboard DSP units designed to run custom plug-ins to help free the main processor from what can be arduous and process-intensive tasks. Often called a DSP “farm,” these devices have their roots in the original (and pricey) Pro Tools TDM systems that combined DSP with converters and computer interfaces and were for years the only available outboard DSP, helping the big expensive studios offer something the smaller studios couldn't. Now these “TDM killers” are offering the same concept but in a more flexible and less-expensive way; even laptop producers can get the complex mixes they want.
One of the bigger players in this field has been TC Electronic. Since the release of its first PowerCore PCI card in 2001, the company has created a number of PowerCore devices, eventually including FireWire to offer the concept to laptop producers with the PowerCore Compact in 2004. The newest version, dubbed the PowerCore X8, takes the previously top-of-the-line unit's four 150 MHz Motorola DSP chips and doubles it to eight for some serious muscle. It's certainly the most powerful DSP unit in its class in terms of raw number-crunching ability. TC's proprietary PowerCore plug-ins are pretty impressive as well, some of them coming directly off of TC's ultrapricey System 6000 effects unit (found in high-end surround and post studios). The rest of the 14 included plug-ins are just as powerful, and like the SSL and Universal Audio DSP units, there are also a number of optional plug-ins from TC and third-party developers included as demos, available for later purchase online. TC has also released the PowerCore X8 Sonnox Edition (1,599 Euros; approx. $2,543) that includes two of Sonnox's popular Oxford EQ and Oxford Dynamics plug-ins with the bundle.
CONSULT THE MAGIC 8-BALL
PowerCore X8 operates on the PowerCore 3.1 software, which was recently updated with several notable new features such as sidechaining for five of the plugs; the new Sidechainer plug-in lets you use highpass and lowpass filters on the send channel and create custom-named sidechain buses. Once a bus is assigned, you can choose it as a sidechain input via the destination plug-in. Also, the PowerCore 01 synth now has an assignable input that you can use to send audio through its filters and envelopes or mix with the synth tone itself for very cool results. Again, there is a special plug-in that you use to send a track's audio to the 01 for processing. Another great idea is the new liquid signal meter that appears on all 14 plugs; you can quickly “zoom” the input and output meters with just a click of the mouse for precise feedback at macro or micro levels with minimal effort.
Installation of the software was simple and painless; after the initial install, an online update made me completely current. I tested it on a MacBook Pro 2.25 GHz Dual-Core with 2 GB of RAM running OS 10.5 Leopard and both Apple Logic Pro 8 and Ableton Live 7. The installer placed the driver software, 14 plug-ins and optional plug-in demos in the appropriate places and left convenient uninstaller scripts — a thoughtful idea on the part of TC. The plug-ins are included in Audio Units and VST formats, and will work with Pro Tools using FXpansion's VST-to-RTAS Adapter 2.1 ($99; www.fxpansion.com). After connecting the unit, you have to register it at TC's Website by creating/logging into an account and then pressing a button while the unit is connected. The driver has options for plug-in loading to help balance CPU usage in different scenarios and a buffer multiplier for helping stop CPU spikes. It also offers a status list for all your optional plug-ins, showing which ones you own and which trials you are currently using.
There were no instructions on the order of FireWire devices within the accompanying printed material. I wasn't sure whether the PowerCore X8 should go before or after the FireWire audio interface in my daisy chain. Because Mac laptops only have a single FireWire 400 port and many audio interfaces are FireWire, that is a question I imagine would be on many users' minds. I connected mine to the second FireWire port on my M-Audio NRV-10 mixer, which was directly connected to the laptop. That seemed to work well. It turns out that because FireWire is a network protocol (unlike USB), it doesn't matter that much in what order you put devices. If one device needs FireWire bus power, then it has to connect directly to the computer. Other than that, the overall bandwidth of data going through the FireWire chain is more important than the device order. Still, it would be worthwhile for TC to include a short printed info sheet on that or include that information in the PowerCore X8 manual. Naturally, I tended to get better performance when connecting my hard drives (holding Live and Logic instrument banks) over USB 2 rather than putting the NRV-10, X8 and hard drives all on a FireWire port.
Having massive external DSP power is awesome, but because the device can run only the proprietary PowerCore plug-ins, the question comes down to whether or not you like the TC plug-ins. While they may lack the wow factor of Universal Audio's Helios, Fairchild or LA-3A emulations, the PowerCore plugs are nevertheless powerful, flexible and sound fantastically pristine. I'll touch on each of the included plug-ins, as well as some of the optional plugs I tried.
The first one that I just had to check out was the 24/7-C, a big and beefy-sounding Urei 1176 limiter emulation. Each of the eight DSP cores can run four stereo or six mono instances, and I thought it sounded as spot-on as the Bomb Factory version I used to use, except this one adds sidechaining and a killer Mix knob that uses parallel compression to balance the clean and compressed signals — something that used to be relatively complicated to achieve, especially with analog gear. The PowerCore CL also has a Mix knob and features Vintage and DBX compression modes, not to mention separate compression and limiting. Another of my favorites was Noveltech Character, an included third-party plug; it uses Intelligent Adaptive Filtering to analyze incoming audio and enhance its characteristics with only a few simple controls. One knob seems to surf the EQ spectrum, the other mixes the effected signal with the clean and a third chooses between three settings that sound like preset resonance amounts. The interface is simple, but the output is complex and very usable in a mix.
Some things TC has always done best are time-based effects such as mods, delays and reverbs. TC's System 5000 and System 6000 multichannel effects processors have been staples in high-end audio studios for years, thanks to their incredible power and dedication to the highest-quality algorithms. Thankfully, several of those programs make appearances as PowerCore plugs: The beautiful Mega Reverb offers the very same algorithms as the System 5000 and comes included; the Digital Vintage Reverb (DVR) and NonLin plugs (both optional) offer many of the presets directly off of the System 6000, as does the MD3 Stereo Mastering plug-in. All sound fantastic and definitely set the PowerCore system apart from the boutique competition. The included ClassicVerb is also very usable and warm with a great vintage plate emulation (although not as great as the DVR), and the optional Fabrik R is simply amazing, offering an incredibly unique and effective interface that creates richly complex reverb sounds and just begs to be manipulated with a touch screen.
Another TC studio classic, the Finalizer chimes in on PowerCore X8 in the form of Master X3, a 3-band version of the original complete with a Finalize button. It sounded marvelous, and it was easy to perform great-sounding multiband compression/expansion/limiting/spectral-enhancement quickly, which is what many people thought of the original hardware unit. An expanded version is offered as an optional plug-in: The Master X5 features five bands instead of three, more filter slopes, double-precision processing and optimized 48 kHz operation. Another of TC's classic hardware devices, the legendary 1210 Spatial Expander, is re-created with the Chorus-Delay plug. Offering mod effects and a cool graphic interface way beyond the original, the plug-in version also has bpm-synced operation and sounds clean and artifact-free.
Tubifex is a guitar amp modeler with models of three AX7 tubes and several speaker cabinets, and uses both DSP and host processing to offer low-latency monitoring for guitarists playing through Tubifex Live. While it sounds okay, I'd prefer the optional Softube Vintage Amp Room plug-in any day. The EQ Sat is a mastering EQ with a tube-saturation modeling circuit built in that sounds warm and precise. The punchy throwback PowerCore 01, a re-creation of the Roland SH-101 synthesizer that can also affect incoming audio, is a blast to use. If the 01's filters aren't enough for you, the PowerCore's resident sweeper is definitely Filtroid, a highly adjustable dual-filterbank that is clean and artifact-free. It sounded great on anything I tried, especially drum mixes and keyboards. VoiceStrip offers a convenient way to save DSP power by combining several elements into a single, user-friendly plug-in. Another of my favorites was the Dynamic EQ, a threshold/ratio-based equalizer that allows each band's gain to dynamically move with the music in a lilting kind of way; I've never heard anything quite like it. It was effective at adding subtle motion to stale loops, as well as adaptively balancing out inconsistent sources.
Of the optional plug-ins I tested, my favorites were the Fabrik C channel strip and Fabrik R for their awesome interfaces, and the NonLin and DVR reverbs for their classy tone. Also, the TC-Helicon plug-ins Intonator HS and Voice Modeler both sounded great and offered powerful options not available in the regular bundle. The awesome Assimilator lets you feed in audio to analyze and then applies those characteristics to your target audio; imagine stealing James Brown's drum sound or Radiohead's mastering tone. And what synth head wouldn't want to try the Virus|PowerCore, a full-featured synthesizer from Access based on its Virus Indigo synth that has multiple outputs and audio thru; it sounded great but was quite processor-intensive.
Over the course of testing, PowerCore X8 functioned quite well; a few times it panicked and I was forced to restart my system, but each time it worked nicely after that and it never happened unless I was really pushing the system's limits. Adding new instances during playback tended to be problematic, even in Live where it is supposed to work smoothly all the time and when the plug-in count was low. Overall, the issue of latency was omnipresent. There really is no way to use an external DSP unit without accepting a certain level of latency, so the concept works better in a mixing setting than a tracking one. Overall, however, there is no discounting the wide scope and extreme quality of the plug-in set and no missing the impressive might of the eight-core system. Together they make a great argument for adding the X8 to your arsenal of audio tools.
POWERCORE X8 > $1,749
Pros: More DSP power than ever. Rich set of 14 included plug-ins sounds great. Solid, reliable software.
Cons: No suggestions on daisy chain order included. Some basic inherent latency.
Mac: G4, G5 or Intel/1 GHz (2.5 GHz recommended); 2 GB RAM (4 GB recommended); OS 10.4 or later; Audio Units or VST host (RTAS operation via optional wrapper program)
PC: P4/2.5 GHz; 2 GB RAM (4 GB recommended); Windows XP/Vista; Audio Units or VST host (RTAS operation via optional wrapper program)