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Roundup – Next-Gen Plug-ins

May 23, 2012
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The goal of plug-ins used to be emulating “bread and butter” processors, or older or more expensive gear that would be difficult to obtain otherwise, then shoehorning them into computer-based recording programs. Over the years as computers became more powerful, companies started exploiting the things computers could really do—synths started creating sounds that never existed before, samplers ran circles around their hardware counterparts, and effects got deeper, richer, and more interesting. Modeling techniques became more detailed and sophisticated, and the standards for plugins themselves evolved to include features such as sidechaining. 64-bit computers allowed for pianos with gigabytes of samples (even when streaming from disk, you still need RAM to hold the attacks), and faster computers lowered latencies to the point where playing synthesizers as instruments, or running guitars through effects, became an enjoyable experience instead of an exercise in frustration.

In this roundup, you won’t find anything getting panned—we took a look at what’s out there, and picked the best of—well, a whole bunch of good stuff, most of which we don’t have the pages to cover. So we tended to give weight to plug-ins that followed the “why be normal?” ethos, whether that meant modeling something strangely esoteric, striking off in new directions, providing exceptional value, or just opening up a new type of sound altogether.

When you consider that it used to costs thousands of dollars to add a new synth to your studio, and at least hundreds of dollars for something to screw into your rack, the ability to find reasonably-priced super-plug-ins that you can insert into a project almost as many times as you’d like is intoxicating. So boot up your Mac or PC, make sure your interface is connected, and let’s get plugged in.

 
Eventide Omnipressor
$149 MSRP

 
If you like nasty drums, try this Eventide Omnipressor setting. You’d never know from this preset that you can also get some conventional, more subtle effects as well.
Why it was chosen: I used lots of Eventide gear back when Big Studios had the cool gear mere mortals could never afford. The Omnipressor dynamics processor was a favorite, and I wanted to see if Eventide could manage to translate its manic mojo to a plug-in.

Overview: Although many consider being able to do compression or expansion as the big deal, that’s no longer novel. The hardware version could perform extreme, crazed settings as well as be polite—it was like the gear equivalent of the office secretary who would work diligently during the week, but then down Red Bulls on Friday and go hardcore clubbing.

Specs and caveats: Plug-in formats are Win 7 VST/AAX, Win XP VST, Mac OS X 10.5 AU, Mac OS X 10.6 and 10.7 AAX/AU. You’ll also need an iLok2. It’s 32-bit only; use with 64-bit programs requires bridging, which may reduce stability. Sidechaining works only with AU/AAX, and oddly, presets don’t remember the Bass normal/cut setting.

Tweaktime: The controls are what you’d expect from a compressor, with two exceptions: The main Function control that goes from expansion to neutral to compression (and beyond that to overcompression), and the accurately-emulated— but arcane—method of optimizing input and output levels with two switches. These provide a total of three preset input and three preset output levels, although there are also trim controls that limit the amount of attenuation and gain. While using the Omnipressor is a bit less straightforward than a standard compressor, it’s easy enough to figure out (especially if you take the radical step of reading the manual). It’s also easy to come up with unintended but cool presets as you tweak, so save them before you forget how you got there.

The verdict: It’s not like we’re coping with the Great Compressor Plug-In shortage—but nothing does what the Omnipressor does. The “dynamic reversal” effect gives a sound like the Eric Prydz pumping drum sound, but without the need for sidechaining. The gating can be very musical (I realize that seems like an oxymoron, but it really can add a smoothly percussive quality) or abused into a form of dynamic distortion. Bring automation into play, and you can do serious sound warpage that I’ve never obtained with any other dynamics processor. And while subtlety is not the Omnipressor’s natural state, judicious use of the Gain Limit control can deliver it.

It may be hard to get excited about another compressor plug-in, but this is most definitely not “another compressor plug-in.” Fortunately, Eventide has priced it fairly, eschewing the “we have the algorithms and it’s vintage, so bend over” mentality—even if you weren’t around in the Omnipressor’s golden age, you can partake of its mojo in your DAW. I find it wonderful for dance, dubstep, grime, and anything else that celebrates sounds that go beyond the expected— although if you just want to add a subtle lift for vocals, you can do that too. It’s good stuff.

 
MOTU MachFive 3
$495 MSRP

 
MOTU MachFive 3’s interface packs a lot of information into an easy-to-parse format. The upper waveform is being sliced; the “synth programming” elements are along the bottom, and the various multitimbral parts are on the left.
Why it was chosen: I was talking with Steve Fortner from Keyboard magazine about soft samplers, and he was raving about MachFive 3. I said “Well, aren’t all samplers pretty much the same these days?” to which he replied, “You should really, really check it out.” So here we are.

Overview: MachFive stayed on version 2 for a long time, and version 3 shows why: It’s a complete, from-the-ground up redesign of the interface and underlying capabilities. MachFive has everything you’d expect, with robust importing, extensive editing, built-in effects including convolution reverb, lots of content (a 45GB library with some outstanding instruments), and yes, even scripting. But what make MachFive 3 more than “just another sampler” are the unique elements you won’t find elsewhere.

Specs and caveats: Plug-in formats are AU/ VST/RTAS (including 64-bit and stand-alone mode) for Windows Vista SP2/Windows 7 and Mac OS 10.5.8 or higher. As usual, more RAM is good, although MachFive 3 can stream from disk—check the MOTU site for full system requirements. Requires iLok 1 or 2 (not included).

Tweaktime: I was taken aback by how easy it was to find my way around; MachFive 3 seems to make finding features unusually obvious. The printed manual—both logical and clear—doesn’t hurt, either. But the “big feature” for me is MachFive 3’s dual synthesizer/sampler identity, with multiple synth engines (wavetable, virtual analog, FM, drum, and even granular synthesis, licensed from IRCAM from which they also licensed stretch algorithms). Not only are there a ton of filters, from standard to esoteric, but MachFive 3 bases 37 additional filters on the original Oberheim Xpander filter designs. As someone who often layers synth samples with acoustic sounds, being able to use modeled waveforms is wonderful. You could just treat this instrument as a synth and still be a happy camper.

User-accessible scripting isn’t new, but Mach- Five 3 delivers multiple instruments with advanced scripting. The guitar and bass are particularly impressive, but the other featured instruments— piano, drums, electric piano, and percussion— sound fabulous. Into loops? “Loop Lab” provides slicing and loop creation, exportable as audio slices with a MIDI sequence to trigger them.

And extra credit for the “Tree View”—a hierarchical way to see complex patch structures at a glance with routings, sends, parts, oscillators, etc. Why don’t all samplers do this?

The verdict: MachFive 3 isn’t cheap in theory, although pretty much anybody and their grandmother is eligible for the $295 competitive upgrade price. Note that if you’re expecting its import features to obviate needing anything else, MachFive 3 does indeed come close; I had very good luck with imports, even with ancient Akai and Ensoniq CD-ROMs—MachFive 3 is as open as technically possible. However while it recognizes Kontakt’s .nki format, if a Kontakt instrument’s WAV files are embedded in a proprietary library format, they’re inaccessible.

Overall, MachFive 3 is so much more than just a way to play back samples. The synthesis capabilities and sound design options are as good as it gets, with an interface that’s aesthetic, clean, and easy to navigate. Overall, this program makes me think “musical instrument” first, and “software program” a distant second: Even when hitting the rocket-science level, MachFive 3 makes it easy for you.

 
Kush Audio UBK-1
$199 MSRP

 
Kush Audio’s UBK-1 is set for a subtle life and widening on a mixed stereo track, but this quirky, unique plug-in can obtain a variety of unusual effects.
Why it was chosen:
The demo at AES was intriguing, because the UBK-1 didn’t seem to follow the usual “rules” for plug-ins, nor did it seem interested in photo-realistic renderings of vintage gear in an attempt to convince you that it’s a piece of vintage gear. What’s more, it was called a “movement-generating character compressor.” Who wouldn’t be intrigued?

Overview: This is actually a sort of multieffects with three engines designed to work together. The first is saturation, with a wet/dry control and headroom control to introduce clipping; the second offers compression (with five different compression types, and a balance control that selects between saturated+compressed sound and saturated only sound—an unusual variation on parallel compression); and the third is density, which seems to be a combination of light-to-medium saturation, dynamics, and the option to “add weight” to the mids or highs.

Specs and caveats: Plug-in formats are Win XP (or higher), RTAS for PT 7 or higher, and Mac OS X 10.5.8 or higher. It requires an iLok2, and is 32-bit only. AAX versions are said to be forthcoming.

Tweaktime: Don’t even try to predict what’s going to happen, as the three engines seem to interact to a great degree. You’ll eventually figure out how the controls affect the sound, but it takes some experimentation. For example, several settings clearly widened the stereo image, yet there’s no “widening” control. Furthermore, the output level changes quite a bit with various settings, making enable/bypass comparisons difficult until you use the master control to match levels. Once you figure things out, though, it’s not hard to make the UBK-1 do your bidding, and as a bonus, there are many opportunities for “happy accidents.” (Save those presets!)

The verdict: The easiest settings to obtain involve fat, crunchy sounds, with semi-aggressive compression and an analog character. This “personality” seems best with individual instruments (drums, baby!), as you can get away with more radical sounds than with program material.

Another unexpected use is applying subtle settings on stereo mixes. In some ways, this reminded me of Slate Digital’s VCC—UBK-1 can add a slight width and “sparkle” that increases definition, but even that slight increase in definition is noticeable and sweet.

I can’t recommend the UBK-1 without reservation, as it’s a fairly esoteric plug-in with a definite character that you may or may not like. (I suspect that analog fans will be the ones who download the trial, then BREAK out the credit card shortly thereafter.) Yet the more you use it, the more likely you’ll find particular “magic” settings that add life and, yes, “movement.” And don’t overlook the effect of subtle settings on program material; I haven’t used any other plug-in that gives quite the same effect. So, hats off for innovation—you may need to spend some time figuring the program out, but fortunately the 10-day free trial affords that opportunity.

 
Toontrack EZmix 2
$179 MSRP, Expansion packs $49

 
Toontrack’s EZmix 2’s browser makes it easier to find a suitable preset, although using the “wrong” preset sometimes produces useful results. Controls are at the bottom, and an effects display is on the right.
Why it was chosen: I reviewed the original EZmix, and while I’m not convinced “canned” presets can do the “one size fits all” thing (what if the preset was designed using a condenser mic, and you’re using a dynamic?), calling up presets often took me in original directions I hadn’t anticipated—so I wanted to see what EZmix 2 brings to the party.

Overview: EZmix 2 crafts a ton of effects into presets, and can move beginners off square one by letting them audition a bunch of presets in rapid-fire succession until one “clicks.” But even for experts, EZmix 2 offers up sounds you might not normally think of yourself, so it’s almost like collaborating with someone who has a “fresh set of ears.”

Specs and caveats: Plug-in formats are AU/VST/RTAS (including 64-bit and standalone mode) for Win XP SP3 or above and Mac OS 10.5 or higher.

Tweaktime: EZmix 2 has retained the “less is more” philosophy by offering two variable parameters per preset, supplemented by input and output level controls. The new reverbs are a major step up compared to the original, and guitar/bass amp sims are now included. I found the distorted guitar presets average, but they benefit considerably from adding a fixed notch filter around 8kHz at the output using your DAW’s EQ (although that defeats the “one plug to rule them all” goal). Also, the rotating speaker’s rate doesn’t go as fast as the real thing.

However, most of the other presets are not just usable, but keepers. Personal preference is a huge factor with presets, but as I ran through the presets I was struck by how often several of them would work for the same part. I found the vocals, bass, drums, percussion, and strings to be particularly useful; after opening up a song-in-progress to test this out, I ended up using the EZmix 2 presets for the vocals, bass, and drums.

The verdict: You can expand the presets with relatively inexpensive expansion packs, including ones from Chuck Ainlay and Mark Needham, although the core collection already expands on the original. EZmix 2 retains the cascadable browser to help you find specific presets even faster, and adds a graphic showing the effects used in the preset. A less obvious, but important consideration, is that consolidating multiple plug-ins in a “channel strip” simplifies the mixing setup and reduces CPU drain.

If you’re not a preset jockey, you’ll likely find EZmix 2 at least helpful, and very possibly indispensable. If you’re good at programming presets, you might think you don’t need EZmix 2 . . . but download the demo and give it a try. EZmix 2 is a clever, ingratiating program, and you might find that its ability to provide a source of inspiration is a bigger attraction than helping you meet the FedEx dropoff time.

 
Native Instruments Komplete 8
$559 Komplete 8 / $1,099 Komplete 8 Ultimate

 
Four of Native Instruments’Komplete 8 plug-ins (clockwise from upper left): Kontakt 5, Guitar Rig 5 Pro, FM8, and Reaktor 5.6 . . . this isn’t only the tip of the iceberg, it’s the tip of the iceberg’s tip.
Why it was chosen:
This “mother of all plug-ins” comes in two versions: Komplete 8 and Komplete 8 Ultimate. NI’s site has a comparison chart online, but in my opinion Komplete 8 has everything you need, while Ultimate has everything you might want—the difference isn’t between a light and standard version, but a standard and heavy version. Its quality and value are impressive, earning it a place in this roundup even though it’s not a single plug-in.

Overview: Both versions have the “biggies”— Kontakt 5, Reaktor 5.6, and Guitar Rig 5 Pro—as well as the same complement of eight synths (except the standard version lacks Razor, a tremendous synth for dance music). And both versions have plenty of processing tools so you can get anything from normal to truly crazed sounds. Of particular note: You can treat Kontakt as an “I just want to play music” playback engine for NI’s or other libraries, or open up the interface, roll up your sleeves, and get into some serious sound design, processing, and scripting. Either package is also browsable by the excellent Maschine controller.

Specs and caveats: Plug-in formats are VST/ AU/RTAS (PT9 or higher) using Windows 7, or Mac OS X 10.6 or higher (Intel only). You’ll need at least a dual-core processor, and while Kontakt can stream from disk, more RAM is always beneficial as sample attacks need to be stored in RAM. Installation is lengthy, but bulletproof.

Tweaktime: Given the large number of included instruments, there are of course some interface inconsistencies, but individual instruments are straightforward. Getting deep into Kontakt may make your head explode, but you can always retreat to “playback engine” mode until you’re ready. Also, Kontakt can open sound libraries that ship with the free Kontakt Player and in the process, open up a feast of editing options. By the way, don’t take the name “Guitar Rig” literally—it’s now positioned as more of a signal-processing rack. (Ultimate takes the best advantage of this by including some new studio processors.) The bottom line: Ultimate may seem expensive— until you divide what you pay by what you get (and the upgrade options seem unusually generous for owners of older versions). Then again, at about half the price the standard version delivers exceptional value too.

Komplete 8 is a no-brainer if you don’t already have a collection of favorite plug-ins: One installation, and you’re done—you have what you need to make pretty much any kind of music. If you have a lot of overlap with other plug-ins, it’s a tougher decision; however, Komplete (especially Ultimate) is equally about content, so also factor in what equivalent sample libraries would cost. For guitarists, each amp sim—like real amps—has its own personality, and Guitar Rig 5 Pro has much to offer that other sims don’t.

The icing on the cake is that Native Instruments is diligent about frequently updating the programs and content. I’ve never met a disappointed Komplete owner—and after using it extensively, I’m quite sure I know why.

 
iZotope Ozone
$249 standard ($99 upgrade from V4, $149 from V1-3), $999 advanced ($599 upgrade from V1-4, $799 from V5 standard)

 
iZotope Ozone5 Advanced’s main window, on the left, shows the Maximizer. Note the waveform along the top; the upper line shows gain reduction. The window on the right is the meter bridge. The spectrogram shows where the vocal (red) sits in the mixed output (green). Drums are yellow and tan.
Why it was chosen: Now over a decade old, Ozone has earned a reputation as the go-to, all-in-one software suite plug-in for in-the-box mastering. iZotope doesn’t update capriciously, so when they said Ozone 5 would be their biggest update yet, Ozone users—including me—paid attention.

Overview: Ozone now comes in standard and advanced versions. Check the iZotope site’s comparison chart for details, but basically the advanced version offers each component as a separate plug-in (e.g., you can use just the EQ on a track, just the Maximizer on another, etc.), a Meter Bridge analysis tool that even allows comparing individual track spectral contributions to overall output (as well as a “big view” Vectorscope, loudness metering, and more), and usually a few extra goodies for each processor. These include filter phase adjustments, Maximizer transient recovery, modeled tube transfer curves for the Exciter, etc. The user interface has been redone to great effect, but there are significant underlying changes as well.

Specs and caveats: Plug-in formats are RTAS/AudioSuite (Pro Tools 7.4 or higher), VST, MAS, Audio Unit, and DirectX; the program can run on Windows XP/Vista/7, or Mac 10.5.8 or higher (Intel only). Copy protection is your choice of iLok, online, or offline challenge/ response.

Tweaktime: Major changes include a totally revamped mastering reverb, and the Maximizer includes a new IRC III algorithm that dynamically changes the character of the algorithm based on the signal’s transients to minimize perceivable artifacts. But the biggest change is visual feedback. Yeah, I know, “don’t master with your eyes.” Well, I master with my ears—but I use my eyes to analyze what I hear. The feedback from two senses provides greater accuracy and efficiency.

The metering is enhanced in just about all respects, including nice touches like superimposing a history of Maximizer gain reduction above the waveform being processed, and a detailed Vectorscope in the Stereo Imaging module. The GUI is bigger, and while I normally complain about plug-ins that take over your screen, this change provides bigger, clearer visuals.

The verdict: Everything people like about Ozone 4 either remains intact or has been improved significantly—not to mention the additions. But is the advanced version worth it? That’s a tough call. For basic mastering, it’s probably overkill, but for those who do detailed mastering work, the extra features are welcome. Fortunately, you can download demo versions of each and make up your own mind. If you can swing the extra bucks, the upgrade could easily justify itself in time saved.

Arguably, you could pick and choose multiple third-party plug-ins, and take advantage of the diagnostic tools in programs like Wavelab, Sound Forge, and the like to achieve similar results. But you wouldn’t have the unified interface or internal cohesiveness, and you’d likely end up spending quite a bit more. There’s no question that this new version solidifies Ozone’s already stellar reputation.

 
XILS Lab Synthix
€169 MSRP (about $225)

 
XILS Synthix is set for guitar mode, where each string can drive two oscillators over its own channel, and each string can have its own sound.
Why it was chosen: Elka doesn’t have the name recognition of Moog, ARP, Sequential, Oberheim, etc., and the Synthex was a commercial failure. But Jean Michel Jarre, Geoff Downes, and Stevie Wonder all used it; these days, a Synthex in good condition is coveted, yet almost impossible to find . . . except for this virtual version.

Overview: On the surface, Synthix seems like your basic virtual analog synth—two oscillators, seven waveforms, pulse width modulation, noise, filters and envelopes, ring modulator, etc. However, XILS Lab has taken some liberties with the original design and added extensions that make it a better synth, not just a better Synthex. The most important element— the sound—delivers a full, rich, smooth analog emulation that stands on its own regardless of what it’s emulating. Another cool aspect is that Synthix offers a six-channel mode designed specifically for MIDI guitar, with up to two oscillators per channel.

Specs and caveats: Synthex does VST, RTAS (PT 7 or higher), and AU—but no stand-alone— running on Mac OS X 10.3.9 and later or Windows XP/Vista/7 (including 64 bits). Copy protection works with either an iLok or eLicenser.

Tweaktime: Being a model of analog technology, Synthix subscribes to the “one function, one control” philosophy but with one major exception: In addition to being a 16-voice synthesizer, Synthix can be arranged as eight layers, each with two oscillators. This is somewhat like multi-timbral operation in that you can trigger completely different sounds from each layer, but being within a single instance, they can all be subject to the same arpeggiation and modulation possibilities. When applied to Guitar mode, this also means each string can have a different sound.

What’s more, there are two “virtual keyboards” that can act as splits; voices can also be assigned to these independently so you have have different sounds for the splits.

If you know synth parameters, probably the only time you’ll need to check the manual is when you start working with the 128-step polyphonic sequencer or want to figure out what the heck a “Chaox” LFO is (it’s basically a way to add random modulation, but in a controlled, semi-predictable way). In terms of other synth parameters, the filter is a multimode type with drive. It emulates the Curtis 3320 filter chip, and provides six different responses (12 and 24dB lowpass, 6 and 12dB bandpass, and 12dB highpass). And yes, it can self-oscillate.

The verdict: Soft synths continue to evolve. The days of being content to sound like a Minimoog are way behind us, as companies explore more ways to take advantage of what computers can offer. Synthix is an interesting combination of tonally faithful virtual analog (the sound reminds me of Arturia’s analog emulations), some interesting extensions to the synthesizer being modeled, and to top it all off, new features like the Chaox LFO and unique way of dealing with MIDI guitar. It’s not a bargain, but it’s not overpriced, either . . . and it’s a satisfying instrument, from both a playing and listening standpoint.

 
Steinberg Padshop
$49.99 online shop (also included in the Cubase 6.5 and Cubase Artist 6.5 updates)

 
Steinberg’s granular synthesis-based Padshop produces unique, evocative, rich sounds yet features a surprisingly easy-to-understand interface.
Why it was chosen: I’d heard rumors about a Steinberg synth that took a different approach from the norm, and as I’ve generally liked Steinberg’s instruments, thought it was worth checking out. Padshop is included with Cubase 6.5, but you can buy the plug-in by itself for use with any VST3-compatible host.

Overview: If you’re not familiar with granular synthesis, it resembles sampling except instead of playing back the sample linearly, it’s broken down into short “grains.” These can play back randomly, jump around within a particular range of the sample, create a rhythmic pattern, and more; Padshop offers two “layers,” which are more like two different ranges within the same sample. The end result is animated, rich sounds with complexity and a certain degree of unpredictability that avoids the static sound of conventional sampling. The subjective impression of the sounds ranges from an almost DX7/wavetable type of clarity to warm, virtual analog-type sounds, but all with the character of the granular synthesis engine.

Specs and caveats: Plug-in format is VST3 (32- or 64-bit), and Padshop can run on Windows 7 or Mac OS X 10.6 or 10.7. Copy protection is via Steinberg’s USB eLicenser. Make sure your host supports VST3 before getting too excited— not all hosts do.

Tweaktime: Although Padshop might seem limited due to the name (and yes, it’s pretty much intended for evolving, pad-type sounds), the instrument itself has a deep implementation that offers a huge amount of potential for experimentation. The only area where you really need to learn some new skills is in programming the oscillators; the rest of the architecture—LFOs, filters (12 types), envelopes, matrix modulation (including step modulation for rhythmic sounds and support for Steinberg’s Note Expression), and onboard effects will be familiar to anyone versed in synthesis.

The one major limitation is that you can’t load your own samples—this is likely most important to sound designers, because the selection of available “ROM sounds” is quite comprehensive, and certainly enough to fulfill its intended function for users. However, users have been asking for this option, and Steinberg is good about listening, so we’ll see what happens in the future.

One very cool aspect of tweaking the sound is how easily you can create variations on a theme: Turn any of the oscillator-related controls, and 99% of the time something interesting happens.

The verdict: You get truly exceptional value for $50. Either Steinberg was trying to be hyperrealistic (“look, it pretty much does just one thing, even though it does it really well”) or they wanted to push a bunch out the door because this is a very appealing synth. Or maybe the people setting pricing were just in a good mood that day.

If you do any kind of soundtracks or chill, order it now; you won’t regret it (and if you haven’t upgraded to 6.5 yet, Padshop—along with the other additions—is quite the incentive). This is one of those rare instruments that fills a hole in the world of synthesis, doesn’t duplicate what you already have, and is inexpensive enough to qualify almost as an impulse buy. It’s easy to tweak (although if you’re not into tweaking, the 400-plus presets show it off well) and offers exceptional possibilities. What’s not to like?

 
Waves InPhase
$300 TDM, $200 Native

 
While intended for mastering, restoration, and fixing phase issues, Waves’ InPhase can be used as a special effect.
Why it was chosen: Actually, I couldn’t decide whether to review Waves’ NLS “analog mixer emulator” which is of universal interest, or InPhase, which is unique but more for tweakheads. The decision was made for me when InPhase was available before the deadline, and NLS wasn’t.

Overview: For most people, fixing the phase means flipping a console’s phase (or more properly, polarity) switch to throw one channel out of phase with respect to another. But phase anomalies can be more complex than that. For example, assume two mics on an acoustic guitar—it’s unlikely that one will be exactly 180 degrees out of phase; instead, different phase shifts will happen at different frequencies.

InPhase lets you delay one signal to another and flip phase, but also choose a specific frequency range and phase angle so that if, for example, part of the left channel is 90 degrees out of phase with the right channel in the midrange, you can work with that. In addition to correcting the phase relationship between a stereo pair’s left and right channels, you can also change the phase relationship between two mono tracks, or align a stereo track to a sidechain reference (but not in Apple Logic or Avid Pro Tools HD’s TDM mixer, due to timing and delay-compensation issues).

You also get InPhase LT, a simplified version with a single delay function and filter. If you want some really cool flanging effects, duplicate a track, throw an InPhase LT in one, and automate the delay. Whee!

Specs and caveats: Waves has super-thorough compatibility spreadsheets, so I won’t duplicate that info. InPhase works with Waves Version 8; in terms of OS, V8 works with Windows XP on up, and Mac 10.5.8 or higher, and InPhase is also part of the new Version 9 (64- bit support on Mac/Windows). Plug-in format is TDM/RTAS/AudioSuite/VST on both Mac and Windows, and AU on Mac. See Waves’ compatibility documentation for information on specific programs and versions.

Tweaktime: Put on your pocket protector mentality, as what appears to be standard filter controls tweak two allpass filters per channel (with stereo signals). You can choose between 90 degree or 180 degree phase shifts for a channel’s two filters, and set the frequency at which those precise phase shifts occur. You can also delay or advance a channel by up to 20ms, alter gain, and flip the phase 180 degrees. A correlation meter shows the end result of your tweaking. Although one obvious application is tuning out phase differences between miked and direct signals, you can tune out differences with two mics, or even work on leakage between otherwise dissimilar tracks.

The verdict: Many musicians would rather spend the money on a soft synth or other processor because due to direct recording, phase problems aren’t as common as they once were. But if you do multi-mic recordings, mastering, or restoration, InPhase is the quickest way to get from “phase problem” to “phase problem fixed.”

 
PSP Audioware oldTimerME/ oldTimer
$99

 
PSP Audioware’s oldTimerME includes two different compressors in one installation and delivers a true vintage compression sound, with a modern functionality update.
Why it was chosen: I thought I’d heard it all with plug-in compressors, and was planning to review PSP’s N2O. Then I visited PSP at a trade show, and they said I should really check out the oldTimerME. Sure, another compressor would be more fun to review than a freakazoid plug with matrix modulation, cool modulation sources, and processors from filters to pitch shifters to reverb. But then I tried the ME.

Overview: The oldTimerME installer comes with two versions—a simpler one designed for individual tracks, and the ME, with a more comprehensive feature set for mastering. We’ll concentrate on the ME, as the standard version is a subset.

This compressor’s stellar feature doesn’t show up on a spec sheet: A gorgeous, full, warm, analog sound quality. It is to compressors as Pultecs are to equalizers—forgiving, subtle, and smooth. That is, unless you really decide to pump it up, whereupon you can get that wheezing, groaning, old-school-style compression.

Specs and caveats: VST/RTAS (PT 8.0 or higher)/AU; Windows XP or higher, 32- or 64-bit; Mac OS X 10.5 or higher, except 10.4 or higher for RTAS. If you have an older operating system, support may be available— contact PSP for more information.

Tweaktime: Parallel compression is easy, as there are separate wet and dry controls, with an overall make-up level control. The compression ratio is stepped (see the screen shot), with automatic, program-dependent, or manual Attack and Release. The Compression control handles threshold. There’s an Off/Valve/Clear switch, with Valve adding a little crunch. It’s not really audible unless pushed, but the peaks are a little less prominent when “valved.” There are also two “trimpots,” one to set the sidechain highpass filter frequency (30–600Hz), and another to set the nominal reference level in Valve mode.

The processing mode switch is novel: You can choose Left, Right, Linked Stereo, Mid, or Side. For example, to process the left and right channels independently, put two MEs in series with one set to Left and one to Right. Or, choose M for one and S for the other to process mid and side signals separately.

The thing that impressed me the most was using ME on a hip-hop track with bone-crushing bass and major transients. The transients came through intact, and the bass was tamed into a full, sweet low end without crunching out—while the vocals got a nice little lift. It was as if someone had inflated the track a bit, then sanded it with emery cloth.

The verdict: If I was on a budget and could have only one native plug-in compressor, this would be it. You can do all the standard compression effects you’d want on drums, vocals, etc., then defer to the ME version for the great job it does on bus compression and mastering—you can dial in anything from subtle, sparkly, clean lifts to a more heavy-handed, vintage sound. PSP’s plug-ins could be the most underrated in the industry, but they always deliver the goods.

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