If you want a good example of value, look no further than Pluggo. This collection of more than 100 plug-ins operates under VST, MAS and RTAS environments. Among an almost endless supply of plug-ins, you'll find basic audio processors, sick sound blenders, simple soft synths and deep new possibilities for modulation and interactive control. At less than $2 per plug-in, you might think Pluggo would contain mostly filler, making up in quantity what it lacked in quality. On the contrary, Pluggo can do things that most people associate with university computer labs. Not only does Pluggo sound good and provide a huge range of sonic-manipulation and synthesis tools, it lets you modulate your existing VST plug-ins with complex control signals.
Pluggo's depth and experimental leanings make sense when you consider its pedigree. It's actually a software wrapper that hosts patches created in MAX MSP, a graphic programming environment for music whose heritage goes back to IRCAM, the computer music center in Paris. David Zicarelli, the guy responsible for porting MAX to the Macintosh, founded Cycling '74, a small and friendly company making some affordable and powerful tools for the Macintosh.
I was already using version 2 of Pluggo when I received the version 3 review copy. My setup — a pair of old beige G3 Macs accelerated to 500 MHz, running OS 9.0.4 — is hardly state-of-the-art. One system uses a MOTU 2408 interface, the other uses an RME Hammerfall, and both systems run Cubase VST/32 5.1. I also tested Pluggo briefly with MOTU Digital Performer and TC Works Spark. The upgrade installation went smoothly. The Pluggo installer asked me to select which application would host Pluggo (in my case, Cubase), and it placed the necessary files in Cubase's VST Plug-ins folder. It also installed a Pluggo folder with an authorization file and online manuals. (A well-written 100-page Getting Started manual also came in paper form.) When I opened Cubase, I received a message to authorize my copy of Pluggo. So, I ran the Authorize Pluggo application, entered the code that came with the packaging, restarted Cubase and got to work. Pluggo allowed me to install copies onto multiple computers, and I added it to multiple host applications simply by copying the appropriate files. My hat's off to Cycling '74 for trusting its users and for pricing Pluggo so fairly that people (hopefully) won't want to bootleg it.
Pluggo installed so many new plug-ins into Cubase that I had trouble sorting through them. I created some subfolders to help organize this newfound wealth. I then installed a dozen more third-party modules from the Pluggo CD-ROM, which included some extremely interesting and bizarre sound manglers written at Columbia University. With this many new plug-ins, I can't possibly describe each one. I can only introduce a few personal favorites. Pluggo is more than just a towering pile of plug-ins; it resembles a modular synthesizer in disguise, with its own patching and control scheme, free-running modulators, tempo extractors and more.
Given that the old version of Pluggo was powerful, what's new in version 3? For starters, Pluggo now works as an RTAS plug-in within Digidesign Pro Tools. In fact, the Pluggo disc includes three versions of the host shell, which will let you run the Pluggo suite within VST 2.0, MAS and RTAS environments. The MAS version will also let you import third-party VST plug-ins for use within Digital Performer. That function alone makes Pluggo valuable for MOTU users. (Digidesign asked Cycling '74 to omit this importation feature from the RTAS version.) Also new in Pluggo 3 are a wealth of soft synths that range from basic to quirky and powerful. Version 3 seems far more stable than earlier versions, even on my ancient G3s, although I still crashed Cubase a few times. Most of the plug-ins put only a light load on the processor, and even complex patches with DSP-hungry effects and cross-modulation showed decent, not perfect, crash resistance. Pluggo can work with as great as 32-bit, 96kHz files, though high sampling rates will obviously hit the processor harder and possibly sacrifice some stability.
I counted a full 21 different MIDI-controlled synths in the new Pluggo. Their sounds range from fair to excellent, but all suffer from rather high latency. Slow response plagues many VST soft synths, not just Pluggo, and it makes rhythmic programming a challenge when relying only on internal sounds. I prefer recording the parts with an outboard synth for timing and then reassigning the sounds to Pluggo as needed. I categorize Pluggo's synths into five basic groups: drum machines (four), other samplers (three), subtractive (six), additive (two) and miscellaneous digital (six).
Three of Pluggo's drum machines share a similar look, but each includes different features. The simplest, Quick Drums, has eight triggers with preassigned MIDI-note-map, pan and volume controls. You can load new sounds for each trigger. Filtered Drums adds a multimode resonant filter with distortion and pitch control. You can select Filtered or Unfiltered mode for each drum. LoFi Drum keeps the filter and adds a knob for bit decimation to increase the grunge factor. Lastly, Analog Drum models older analog drum machines, with synth controls for kick, snare, hi-hat and three toms.
The simplest among Pluggo's sample players, Easy Sampler lets you open a loop from your hard disk and play it with MIDI, providing volume envelope and selectable root pitch. Flying Waves acts like a mouse-driven theremin as you move the cursor across a pitch/volume grid. It provides a selection of internal waveforms, or you can import a sampled loop of your choice. Vocalese allows you to trigger vocal fragments, including vowels, plosives and consonants. Different fragments are selected via MIDI like a drum machine, and pitch bend modulates the playback speed. Vocalese makes interesting speechlike noises, but I couldn't get it to talk.
Pluggo provides several bare-bones subtractive (analog-modeling) synth models, as well as a few fancy ones. Simpler synths include Bassline, a 303-like offering; Deep Bass, with tempo-synched control of two 16-step sequencers — one applied to pitch, the other to filter cutoff; and Laverne, a simple two-oscillator, eight-voice synth. Fancier models include PGS-1, a monophonic, Minimoog-style synth with three oscillators, two filters, two LFOs, two ADSR envelopes, overdrive and delay. Xmod Synth adds sample and hold, ring modulation, noise source and lots of modulation options. Although monophonic, Xmod can hog the CPU with audio cross-modulation, but it sounds great. Qsynth is a unique polyphonic synth with one oscillator routed through three resonant bandpass filters and is capable of odd chirping sounds, swooshy wind noises and buzzy aggressive lead lines.
Pluggo's two additive synths excel at making organ tones but lack envelopes for each overtone, limiting their synthesis potential. (You can use Pluggo's modulation tools to add motion to these overtone parameters.) Additive Heaven provides stereo polyphony, using eight continuously variable overtones, amplitude and pan controls. Harmonic Dreamz gives you 16 fixed harmonics, random detuning and a tremolo that can oscillate to produce bell-like effects.
Pluggo's most unusual tone generators include various digital models. On the simpler side, BigBen Bell gives you a physical model of a struck bell, with envelope and harmonic control. FM 4-op emulates a Yamaha TX81Z, but it's hungry on the CPU. ShapeSynth provides two detunable oscillators that pass through a variable waveshaper and lowpass filter. You can modulate the shaping function with an LFO and MIDI mod wheel to create dynamically shifting, fuzzy timbres. Moving Waves emulates a polyphonic vector synth like the Prophet VS with two asynchronous LFOs modulating the mix between four oscillators, selected among 32 waveforms, before passing through a multimode filter. Wavy Waves creates some beautifully synchronized cutting lead lines, with tempo-synched, 16-step stereo wave sequences (selected among 32 waveforms), lowpass filter and portamento. Lastly, White Grains is a monophonic granular synthesizer that is good for metallic swooshes, radio whistlers, atonal clouds and other extreme “digital” textures. It provides envelopes for amplitude, pitch and grain size; a choice of waveforms for the grain source; global envelope scaling; and pitch bandwidth. This and other granular synthesis tools definitely set Pluggo apart and make it especially useful for adventurous musicians with an edgy, dissonant vocabulary.
Most of the processing plug-ins in Pluggo 3 appeared in version 2, so I'll mention just a few favorites. Some could prove useful to remixers and dance-music folks; some are just plain deranged. (That's a compliment.) Any one of these manglers could be worth the price of the whole package.
Xformer has an interface that looks much like a drum machine, but, in fact, it's a rhythmic chopper. It takes tempo from the host application or from within Pluggo and assigns the beats to 16 steps of cycling stereo dynamics and gates. Xformer immediately “rhythmatizes” anything you pass through it.
Cyclotron resembles Xformer and also synchs to the host tempo, but instead of modifying dynamics, it filters the audio with a sequenced lowpass or bandpass filter. With a maximum of 16 steps, you can set the loop point anywhere to create polyrhythmic filter patterns.
Filter Taps provides six independent delays, each attached to a bandpass filter with its own frequency, gain and pan. Global controls adjust delay times, frequencies, filter resonance, delay feedback and global feedback time. Use this to create bouncing rubber echoes or to transform a rhythmic input into gonglike drones. Mysterious or silly sounds can emerge from this process.
Spectral Filter provides an arbitrary function filter (253 bands, 1,024-point FFT analysis/resynthesis in real time). Any curve you draw with the mouse becomes a filter curve. For extreme effects, click on a few high points above a zero line to create sharp resonant peaks or comb filters. You can morph between radically different filter frames by using your sequencer's automation.
Harmonic Filter is brilliant and puzzling. Twenty-five filter bands react to the motions of their neighbors, based on the rules of cellular automata. As the filters' frequencies rise and fall, they emphasize different resonances in the input sound. Controls give you access to global relationships within this activity.
Pluggo impressed me with several granular-synthesis modules. The strangest is called Squirrel Parade. This four-way matrix granulator can render any input into a squiggly mass of sonic gelatin. I love it. Granular to Go provides a simple user interface with variable random modulation, an easy way to mangle sounds into bleeps, blurs and splats.
Along with these more extreme examples of sonic perversity, Pluggo provides a multitude of filters, panners, long looping delays, compressors, convolvers, tone modulators and mysterious extraterrestrial wobulators. Although I probably wouldn't use Pluggo during a mastering session, I can't think of many processing functions that it cannot do.
Perhaps Pluggo's most powerful feature hides behind the face of these quirky and inspiring plug-ins. Pluggo provides numerous modules that don't actually make or process sound, but create control signals that you can route to any Pluggo module through PluggoBus. PluggoBus is a background of connections between modulators and destinations. Simply activate a Pluggo modulator on any channel, and the modulator will provide a pull-down list of every tweakable parameter in every plug-in currently open within the Pluggo shell: That's the PluggoBus. As soon as you select a destination, you can see the selected parameter dancing to the modulator's control within the other plug-in. You can use PluggoBus to apply modulation to any third-party VST plug-in opened within the Pluggo shell (except in Pro Tools, which doesn't support the import feature).
Some of Pluggo's modulators wibble away in solitary bliss, creating bizarre chaotic functions that you can apply to any parameter. Other modulators can extract parameters from MIDI, keyboard or mouse movements, which you can then assign to a plug-in that would normally ignore the outside world.
Another module, PluggoSync, provides a solution for a Pro Tools shortcoming that doesn't send tempo data to its plug-ins. PluggoSync extracts tempo from an audio click, which you can place on an unused track. When you insert PluggoSync onto that track, it will extract tempo from the click. You then select PluggoSync as the tempo source within Pluggo modules that support host sync. The click doesn't have to have a regular rhythm or fall on bar lines, so you can use PluggoSync to send complex rhythmic information to multiple processors.
With PluggoBus and PluggoSync, you can overcome some of the automation limitations within host software, you can add complex modulation to third-party VST plug-ins, and you can synchronize different sonic events to the same gestures. This is powerful stuff, and it can put a load on your CPU. Pluggo's creators admit that the modulation shell can cause instability with complex third-party plug-ins such as Steinberg's Halion and some native Emagic Logic Audio synths. PluggoBus caused Cubase to crash fairly often on my antiquated G3, especially when I chose certain fast and chaotic modulation settings. For this reason, fancy Pluggo patches may prove safer on faster machines and in the confines of the studio rather than onstage with a laptop, when you can least afford an untimely hiccup.
Pluggo's usefulness and originality dwarf any minor quibbles I have. It's a shame that Digidesign prevented Cycling '74 from including the VST importation feature into Pluggo's RTAS shell. Such a feature would have opened up an immense new territory for Pro Tools users. Luckily, Pluggo's own depth makes up for the shortfall. Although Pluggo's soft synths respond a bit slowly and a few of its modules can hog the CPU, it provides an unmatched collection of creative sound-bending tools.
I can't think of another plug-in collection this powerful and this affordable with modules spanning granular synthesis, long looping delays, drum machines and analog-synth models, cellular-automata waveshapers, rhythmic choppers and sequenced filters, patchable modulators and routing tools, a VST wrapper for MAS host applications, and a friendly installer that lets you run multiple instances on multiple computers. I only wish I had more time to memorize what each of Pluggo's 100-plus modules can do so that I'll remember which one to open next time I need inspiration.
Pluggo has something for almost anyone who uses a Mac to make music, especially electronic or experimental music. If you like to explore new sonic territory, Pluggo is brilliant.
Pros: Excellent value and sound quality. Diverse, bizarre collection of soft synths and signal processors.
Cons: Some modules CPU-intensive. PluggoBus promotes instability when taxed.
Overall Rating: 4.5