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Review: McDSP Emerald Pack 3.0 (Mac/Win)

12/1/2008

McDSP, which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary as a plug-in developer, enjoys a stellar reputation among Digidesign Pro Tools users. All 12 of its popular plug-ins can be purchased in a single bundle, Emerald Pack 3.0, which is available in both native and TDM versions for Mac and Windows. The bundle comes smartly packaged with excellent printed manuals, its own iLok dongle, and a groovy pair of holographic glasses.

The McDSP Philosophy

The developers at McDSP made a few policy decisions that set the company apart from many other plug-in manufacturers. They chose to simulate the sounds of vintage processors by analyzing their output and writing algorithms to mimic what they''re hearing, rather than trying to create a digital physical model of the unit''s analog components.

Believing that you mix with your ears, not your eyes, McDSP''s graphics do not mimic the faceplate of the units they''re simulating. Instead, they have their own unified look and feel across the product line. One benefit to this approach is the ability for a single plug-in to offer emulations of many different pieces of outboard gear. Finally, and perhaps most refreshingly, McDSP has not charged customers for plug-in upgrades in more than a decade. This policy ensures happy customers and repeat business.

In a Nutshell

I'll look at the Emerald Pack plug-ins one by one, starting with FilterBank and CompressorBank, perhaps McDSP's most renowned processors.

FilterBank

This EQ plug-in started the ball rolling for McDSP back in 1998. It's a testament to the product's quality and design that it's still the preferred EQ for many engineers. FilterBank comprises ten different configurations that run the gamut from simple (highpass and lowpass filtering) to complex (two parametric bands, two shelving bands, and highpass and lowpass filters), with a whole lot in between. The parametric bands have the standard gain, frequency, and Q parameters, but the shelving filters add Peak, Slope, and Dip controls, allowing you to mimic the spectral characteristics of many vintage equalizers.

CompressorBank

McDSP's single-band compressor comes in four variations: CB1, a basic compressor; CB2, which adds a prefilter; CB3, which includes a band of parametric EQ; and CB4, which has a series of specific algorithms to more closely emulate the behavior of some famous vintage compressors. CompressorBank has the familiar Threshold, Ratio, Attack, Release, and (makeup) Gain functions but also provides a few notable controls to fine-tune the compressor's behavior. The Knee parameter tailors behavior around the threshold point, while Bite allows a certain amount of high-frequency, short-transient material through before compression begins. A secondary release control allows for complex 2-stage release curves. Included presets mimic famous compressors such as the 1176, LA-2A, Neve 33609, and Fairchild 670.

FIG. 1: Channel G is a full-featured channel strip designed to emulate the sound of Neve, SSL, and API mixing boards.

FIG. 1: Channel G is a full-featured channel strip designed to emulate the sound of Neve, SSL, and API mixing boards.

Channel G

This is a full-featured channel strip (see Fig. 1) that uses different EQ and dynamics algorithms than FilterBank and CompressorBank. It offers separate Expander/Gate and Compressor/Limiter sections, a slick signal-chain diagram, compression and spectral-curve diagrams, and an all-in-one, plasma-style metering bar. The EQ section lets you select from a series of spectral-curve modes: Music, Post (very steep shelving for surgical EQ), SSL Types E and G, Neve (a hybrid of AMEK 9098 and older Neve modules), and API. That's an awful lot of flavor for one plug-in. Channel G also includes a 5.1 surround compressor/limiter.

MC2000

This plug-in provides three configurations (2-band, 3-band, or 4-band) of multiband compression. You can adjust the width of each compressor's frequency band, and the Link function allows each compressor to operate in tandem or separately. Each band has its own compression characteristics, so you can dial up a hybrid multiband made up of emulations of an LA-2A for the lows, a 33609 for the mids, and an 1176 for the highs.

ML4000

FIG. 2: The ML4000 mastering limiter comes in two configurations: the ML1 limiter and the ML4 (pictured here), which adds a multiband dynamics processor in front of the limiter.

FIG. 2: The ML4000 mastering limiter comes in two configurations: the ML1 limiter and the ML4 (pictured here), which adds a multiband dynamics processor in front of the limiter.

This mastering limiter comes in two flavors: the ML1, which consists of a limiter circuit; and the ML4 (see Fig. 2), which adds four dynamics-processing channels before the limiter. The ML1's volume-maximizing function is similar to that of Waves L1 or Digidesign Maxim in that it is a digital brickwall limiter used to adjust the overall loudness of a track. These products can be used to fine-tune the average levels of songs or to make them as loud as possible. But the ML1 throws in an extra couple of tricks: an adjustable knee control, just like on McDSP's other compressors, and a character mode button, which selects among six different limiter algorithms, from Clean to Crush. Four multiband dynamics channels each contain an expander, compressor, and gate. Each band can be linked or operated separately, and the crossover points are adjustable. I loved the fine level of control and sound quality that the ML4 gave me.

Analog Channel

McDSP's take on bringing an analog vibe to digital tracks, Analog Channel is composed of two distinct plug-ins. AC1 emulates the analog distortion and saturation characteristics of the line-input amplifiers on high-end analog recording consoles. AC2 is a tape emulator that simulates the head-bump curves of several of the great (and not-so-great) tape machines. You can specify tape formulation, IEC equalization curves, playback speed, and bias amount. I found AC1 to be quite subtle, and AC2 much less so. Though I've never heard a tape-emulation plug-in that sounds like my Ampex MM1200 2-inch machine, AC2 brought a big smile to my face, and I enjoyed the beefy character it added to my tracks (see Web Clips 1a and 1b).

DE555

This de-esser plug-in offers a number of nifty features. The key filter has a Focus Shape control for fine-tuning of de-essing behavior around the key frequency. The filter can be set to either highpass or bandpass, and a Listen mode solos the key filter for easy identification of the problem frequency. EQ and compression graphs are included to help you visualize the process, and basic presets for most de-essing situations are available to get you started. I particularly liked the efficient presets for male vocals and acoustic-guitar finger squeaks.

NF575

Designed for surgical removal of noise and unwanted frequencies, NF575 is a 5-band set of notch filters that also includes highpass and lowpass filters. It's useful for removal of rumble, hiss, 60-cycle hum, and other audio headaches. The notch filters can be set to extremely sharp filter slopes. Filters can be linked together and automatically set to harmonic intervals of each other, so upper partials of harmonic noise can be removed along with the fundamental. Used in conjunction with a highpass or lowpass filter if needed, this noise-reduction system is quite effective for removal of steady-state, pitched noises.

FutzBox

This convolution-like filter and distortion/decimation/noise-generation package is ideal for postproduction voice-processing and sound-design applications. Utilizing McDSP's Synthetic Impulse Models (SIMs), FutzBox offers highly realistic emulations of nearly every type of radio, telephone, earphone, and loudspeaker you could want. Additional processing includes filtering and EQ, a lo-fi bit-decimation circuit, distortion, a gate, and noise generation. FutzBox is a natural for any postproduction facility.

Chrome Tone

Four separate plug-ins are available in the Chrome Tone guitar-effects processor: Wah, Tremolo, Amp, and Chorus. These are also all integrated into the Chrome Stack plug-in. Each plug-in consists of a series of subsections and provides enough controls to satisfy the most hard-core knob twiddler. The amp simulator has prefilter, Noise Gate, EQ, Compression, Distortion, Reverb, and speaker-simulation sections. The Distortion section alone offers nine EQ curves that feed the signal to the distortion emulator, which has six distortion types. The Wah plug-in gives you both auto-wah and MIDI-triggerable wah, as well as some tasty phaser sounds. Tremolo is great for classic tremolo, autopan, and Leslie simulation, and it even has some transient-shaping capabilities that sound cool on drums. Chorus offers a variety of rich chorusing and flanging effects.

Revolver

This is a highly programmable convolution reverb with two delay lines, a 3-band parametric EQ, a crossover network, and control over Diffusion, Attack Time, and signal flow. Tools are included to allow you to create your own impulse responses. Revolver sounds great (see Web Clips 2a and 2b) and has excellent programming depth, but it has a maximum sampling rate of 48 kHz. For those working at 96 kHz (like myself), this is a real limitation. Large portions of the included impulse responses are samples from other manufacturers' reverb units. I wish the library had a larger collection of uniquely recorded IRs.

Synthesizer One

FIG. 3: Synthesizer One is the only instrument in the bundle. If offers a wide range of sounds, including emulations of a number of vintage synths.

FIG. 3: Synthesizer One is the only instrument in the bundle. If offers a wide range of sounds, including emulations of a number of vintage synths.

This soft-synth plug-in (see Fig. 3) is McDSP's lone foray into sound generation. It features three oscillators, three LFOs, two VCFs, and two envelopes. Two of the oscillators are of the wavetable type. Their waveforms can be generated through line drawing, mixing together combinations of up to three existing shapes, or by extracting audio data from Pro Tools regions. You can map MIDI controls to virtually any parameter through the Matrix Modulation page, and a sophisticated event sequencer/arpeggiator is included as well. Synthesizer One has a high degree of flexibility and programmability and can mimic many vintage analog synths. Dozens of presets let you explore its many facets.

All You Need?

To put it plainly, the Emerald Pack rocks. The processors sound great and can really make your mixes sing. What makes these plug-ins so appealing is their chameleon-like breadth. Once you learn the interface for Channel G, for example, it's great fun to see how the Neve, API, and SSL G EQ simulations handle the same EQ curves differently.

After you dig into the presets, you realize just how much ground is covered. Great-sounding reverb, an enormous variety of EQ and compression, guitar-amp and effects simulations, de-essing, noise filtering, a synthesizer, and simulations of consoles and analog tape are all offered, among other effects. Aside from more delay-based effects and pitch-shifting, it's hard to imagine what's missing here.

The Emerald Pack is worth a close examination by those shopping for a high-quality, comprehensive plug-in solution for Pro Tools. McDSP offers 14-day free trial downloads of all its products from its Web site. Efficient, well-thought-out plug-ins, excellent customer service, and a free-upgrade policy are solid proof that McDSP is doing things right.


Nick Peck is a composer, keyboardist, and sound designer in San Mateo, California. His latest album, Fire Trucks I Have Known, is available through CD Baby.

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