FANTASTIC FOUR >The Elemental Audio Systems Max Bundle includes the Neodynium compressor, the Firium mastering EQ (pictured), the Eqium multiband EQ and the Finis limiter. EQ
While many plug-in manufacturers out there are holding firmly to the analog tradition of virtual knobs and sliders, Elemental Audio Systems fully embraces what many already know: that most of what you interact with in home studios these days is a computer and an assortment of graphical user interfaces. EAS takes the familiar operations of dynamics and equalization; combines them with the inherent strengths of visual computer-based recording; and, in the process, creates a whole new way of thinking about audio processing. In doing so, the company goes where no hardware can tread. Elemental Audio Systems' flagship plug-in suite is the Max Bundle, which includes all of the EAS plug-ins to date. To say that Neodynium is a compressor, Firium is a mastering EQ, Eqium is a multiband EQ and Finis is a limiter would be missing the larger view of what these plug-ins are all about.
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Installation is as progressive as the plug-in designs themselves. First of all, Elemental Audio uses an electronic distribution method wherein all plug-ins are obtained through the Internet. After navigating to the EAS online store and purchasing the Max Bundle, you'll receive an e-mail with a serial number, a download ID number and a download Web link. Then, double-click on the installer, copy the information from the e-mail, and you're all set. This is a welcome new trend in plug-in distribution that helps keep the cost very low ($349 total for the bundle).
The installer works the same for Mac and Windows, and it installs all plug-in formats on your system. I primarily tested the Max Bundle on a Digidesign Pro Tools LE 6.4 system on a Mac G5/dual 1.8GHz running Mac OS 10.3, but I also gave the Audio Units version a whirl on Apple Logic Express and Final Cut Pro. All systems worked flawlessly, and with the exception of some performance lags with Firium (more on this later), I was able to get great performance while running multiple instances of all EAS plug-ins. The suite also works with VST-compatible hosts on both the Mac and PC.
In its simplest form, Neodynium is a standard compressor; it has controls for attack, ratio and release settings as well as a form of threshold and makeup gain. You could certainly use Neodynium in this basic sense, but what makes it unusual is its graphical nature, which allows you to visualize what's happening on the input stage, how the ratio setting affects the squeezing of the signal and how makeup gain affects the output. What's more, it accomplishes this at four independent volume areas called Zones. Neodynium lets you separate out different loudness sections of a track and process each Zone's attack, release, ratio and gain adjustment setting individually. It's similar to the way multiband compression works, except rather than compressing individual frequency bands, it compresses different volume regions.
Seeing the plug-in interface will give a better sense of what's going on. The centrally located I/O Map is your threshold area, or Zones area. There, you visually select and adjust from one to four dynamic ranges. You set input ranges and watch how ratio settings alter the output dynamics and then adjust the makeup gain. Finally, there is a limiter section to control any overs. One of the really cool things about this plug-in is being able to see what ratios do to overall levels rather than leaving it up to guesswork. When you adjust the compression ratio, the Map's graph funnels the range down toward the output section to reveal the squeezed output. For example, setting a first Zone between 0 and -12 dB to 2:1 places the output dynamic range from -6 to -12 dB. Setting a second Zone of -12 to -20 dB to 5:1 squeezes that range to an output of about -20 to -19.5 dB or so while also pulling down the overall level of the two Zones combined to a compressed range of -20 to -12 dB. Confused? It actually makes perfect sense once you see and use it.
The nice thing about all of this visual information is that you can also grab it and move it around. The input and output tabs on the I/O Map are particularly handy. I often used the output tab (aka Max Out) to control overall apparent loudness on a master fader. Automating the Max Out setting is very smooth and makes for a nice overall loudness control for a track, aux channel or master output. Neodynium also features a Key Input stage for filtering incoming signals, as well as a wealth of metering options. Neodynium sounds remarkably smooth and adds a nice color to anything you throw at it while also offering a kind of Zone-based “compression mixing” approach that works very well. It would be nice to be able to somehow toggle or mute the different Zones on and off, and I'd love to see what creative approach EAS would take if Neodynium added multiband compression. But this plug-in is ambitious enough as it is.
Firium is a stereo finite impulse response (FIR) linear-phase equalizer. While standard infinite impulse response (IIR) filters introduce phase distortion that colors a signal, FIR filters are geared toward boosting or cutting frequencies without coloring the audio. At its most basic, Firium is a mastering linear-phase EQ. But as with other Max Bundle plug-ins, Firium goes quite a bit further. To start, it includes a colorful real-time spectrum analyzer (RTA), which shows a graphic depiction of a signal's frequency characteristics. You can see an input curve, an output (post-effect) curve and separate left and right displays all in one space. This is a welcome design in a mastering plug-in, allowing you to take one last look at your dry as well as your final mastered track. In addition to the spectrum analyzer, Firium is complemented by two intriguing features: EQ States and Spectral Matching.
Basically, EQ States allows you to store as many as 50 custom EQ curves for later recall. But you can also “morph” among these various curves using Firium's Fill command. Once automated, an audio signal moves through the programmed States to change the sound over time. Although the States morphing feature is great fun, it also reveals a weakness: its automation implementation. Firium has only two automation controls: Bypass and States. The States automation works at a particular Firium-determined resolution rather than the resolution inherent in the host application. This means that Firium's morphing is always stepped rather than smooth. To be fair, it's quite an accomplishment to enable such intuitive changes in FIR-based equalization, and there aren't any jarring shifts in transitions. But if there were more automation options to choose from — say, in frequency break-points, stereo imaging and volume — you could go even further with the plug-in. The second feature, Spectral Matching, is an entirely different operation that also gets its own subsection of the Firium interface. Here, Firium will “learn” the frequency characteristics of your source audio and apply them to another “target” audio track, a vital addition for generating continuity in mastering. Unfortunately, I had little luck getting the automatic matching to yield decent results. To make sure I wasn't losing my mind, I imported two songs off of Radiohead's OK Computer (Capitol, 1997). The two spectral analyses looked similar, but once I attempted a match, I was given an EQ curve that was way off. Still, the source-target analysis itself is very useful. Based on this visual information, I simply drew my own curve manually.
Even with these creative options, Firium is at heart a fairly straightforward mastering EQ. First, you analyze the source audio's frequency curve for peaks and offending frequencies; then, you draw your EQ graph to compensate and even out the spectrum. If needed, you can adjust its 50 positions along the spectrum and, using different “coupling” (bandwidth) modes, determine how each position affects the rest of the curve. You can also smooth out your curve and even view and alter separate left and right channels (but, alas, not mute or solo them). I tried Firium on a multitrack live recording that comprised various miked and direct sources. There was some low and low-mid boom going on that I was already aware of, but the RTA helped pinpoint exactly where the offending frequencies were. I drew a few EQ curves until I got something I liked, did a bit of fine editing and smoothed it out. Once I was happy with the result, toggling the bypass on and off was like night and day. With Firium off, the source recording sounded muddy and muffled. With Firium back on, the difference was stunning.
Because FIR plug-ins require a lot of calculations and therefore a lot of DSP, this is a heavy-duty chunk of software. It not only occasionally incurs as much as a half-second lag in playback and stop but also results in a very noticeable latency. Although this isn't an issue in mastering, Firium has such an unusual approach that I also found it useful when working with multiple audio loops and multitrack sequences — namely, morphing between States. The latency there was painful. The good news is that you get a sample readout of the amount of delay that is introduced, which can then be dealt with using apps that support automatic delay compensation. In Pro Tools LE, an app that unfortunately has no auto compensation, you have to manually nudge the audio. The problem was that there were discrepancies between the delay indications. Firium's delay read 3,072 samples while PT's read 3,040. To test which software was more accurate, I bounced versions to disk and lined up waveforms. It turns out that Firium's 3,072 was the right calculation. So according to my experiments, you can feel comfortable trusting Firium's delay data.
Eqium may be the first infinite equalizer. Rather than offering 1-band or 7-band or even parametric subcategories of the same software, EAS gives you total control of the entire audible frequency spectrum through unlimited bands of EQ. Just to give you an example, if you so desired, you could have 14 individual bands of parametric EQ all dipped at individual volume levels and bandwidth settings, a highpass filter, high shelving, a nice 2kHz presence bump, an 800Hz cut, and you could also kill that 60-cycle hum — all in a single plug-in interface.
All major categories of EQ are at your disposal: parametric, lowpass, highpass, bandpass, notch, two different low-shelf types and two high-shelf types, and fourth and eighth harmonic filters. Eqium works by layering one filter type after another in a linear fashion. The plug-in launches with a parametric and a low and high shelf to get you started. But you can add to them or delete them as you go. I don't know how many EQ instances you can get in one plug-in, but I finally gave up at 50. To make sense of it all, a browser window (called the Created Filters Area) organizes all your filters in a list. The Filters Area is handy for navigating through a complex set of EQ types. You can easily sort your filters in ascending order according to number, channel type (mono or stereo), active or inactive status, frequency, gain level, filter type or Filter Handler (explained in next paragraph) simply by clicking on each of those column headings. Because you get a visible list of your filters, you can always go back and readjust what you did before.
Naturally, it would be impossible to offer automation for such infinite parameters, so Eqium provides an interesting work-around. A Filter Handler section allows you to map 10 filters to the 10 available spaces labeled A through J. Each of these 10 filters can then be automated for frequency, gain and shape. For example, say you have 22 filters but only wish to automate one of your bandpass types; you would set the bandpass filter to letter A, go into the automation select and add all of the automation parameters for filter A. It's an odd way of handling automation, but the grouping scheme actually makes it quite easy to remember what you've automated. In fact, Eqium is one of the most inspiring EQ plug-ins I've ever used for creating filter sweeps.
Compared with the rest of the Max Bundle family, Finis seems downright normal. This brick-wall limiter and loudness maximizer is the latest addition to the EAS family. Finis features your standard Input (-25 to +25 dB), Release (2 ms to 2 seconds) and Ceiling sliders, as well as a subtle Reaction slider. Metering is fairly comprehensive with input, output, instantaneous peak, peak hold, RMS and attenuation metering. There's also a variable peak Hold button and three limiting types available.
Given the visual theme in all EAS offerings, the twist with Finis is the I/O Crest Factor meter, which functions almost as a psychoacoustic meter. It indicates the average increase in apparent loudness based on the difference between the input and output signals. It may sound like audio voodoo, but it actually works in giving you an overall visual sense of how the limiter is affecting apparent loudness and resulting dynamic range of the material. It's a bit slow to react, but it settles into position once it has a sense of the overall processing effect. You can adjust other parameters and watch to see how they affect your signal.
With loudness maximizers, it's fun to crank things way up to hear what kind of effect extreme settings introduce to an audio source. On sources like piano, I found that heavy processing tended to ride the harmonics pretty heavily regardless of the release setting. On drum sounds and percussion loops, the result was intense, giving that whoompf effect that you'd expect. It squashed the hell out of it without any discernible harm beyond the obvious loss in dynamic range and made things very, very loud. On all audio sources I tried, it delivered some serious punishment to the dynamics when taken to extremes, but it never got to the point of ugly. On more moderate, general settings, Finis sounded clean and punchy on the master bus. In fact, clean was a word that kept coming to mind across all the EAS Max Bundle plug-ins.
All plug-ins in the Max Bundle suite have some common features for consistent operation. Each offers two separate work spaces so that you can A/B two setting types, as well as Load and Save buttons to store your work. All plug-ins also come with a nice set of basic presets to get you started, but you'll need to read the manual to fully understand this idiosyncratic world. Another aspect worth highlighting is that the unique approach to all EAS plug-ins makes them ideally suited to mixed sources — for example, a 2-track recording, a drum loop or mixed-instrument samples. Because Neodynium offers multivolume compression, you can isolate different volume levels within a single audio track and apply different compression settings to those levels, which is pretty handy if you want to bring out particular sounds in your stereo drum loop. And all Max Bundle plug-ins except Finis let you split a stereo source so you can process each channel independently. All of these aspects make the Max Bundle quite useful for people who deal heavily in loops. The whole bundle is available for $349 — not bad at all for an incredible quartet of processing tools.
ELEMENTAL AUDIO SYSTEMS
MAX BUNDLE > $349 (DOWNLOAD ONLY)
Pros: Killer sound. Truly unique approach. Visual feedback. Low cost. Firium's morphing and analysis. Neodynium's Zone-based processing.
Cons: Idiosyncratic feature naming. Advanced features require significant time commitment. Unreliable spectral matching.
Mac: G4; 256 MB RAM; Mac OS 10.1; VST-, RTAS- or AU-compatible host
PC: Pentium III; 256 MB RAM; Windows 98/2000/ME/XP; VST- or RTAS-compatible host