Focusrite Scarlett ($99 street)

You want plug-ins that go beyond the freebies included in your DAW, but don’t want to bust your budget—meet Scarlett (VST/AU/RTAS). You get dynamics, EQ, reverb, and gating for cheap, and you can’t argue with the Focusrite pedigree: It’s the same brand behind the ISA console modules, the Red hardware range, and the Forté Suite of plug-ins.
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0.00Compressor

This cost-effective software suite offers four groovy plug-ins.

 You want plug-ins that go beyond the freebies included in your DAW, but don’t want to bust your budget—meet Scarlett (VST/AU/RTAS). You get dynamics, EQ, reverb, and gating for cheap, and you can’t argue with the Focusrite pedigree: It’s the same brand behind the ISA console modules, the Red hardware range, and the Forté Suite of plug-ins.

EQ

With the EQ, Focusrite has ripped off itself—specifically, the Red 2 and ISA EQs. There are two parametric mids (100Hz–3.2kHz and 2–12 kHz), and high and low bands. These have two responses, shelving and cut (e.g., low cut filter on the low band). In addition to each band having a frequency control (40–320Hz low, 6–18kHz high), another knob controls shelf boost/cut for the band, or the cut filter slope.

The EQ does have a sort of “hardware” vibe—no brittleness in the high end, a smooth low end, and a “warm” character. Although I have plenty of EQ plug-ins, this has a distinctive character that’s a useful alternative to the average EQ bundled with DAWs.

DYNAMICS

The dynamics plug-in is designed to emulate the vintage 1960s “opto” sound. When pushed, it does have a recognizable vintage sound that’s good for “sucking” effects; it also handles being pushed more elegantly than many other compressors I’ve used. However, you can also apply a much lighter touch, and add pretty much transparent dynamics processing. It has all the usual controls: threshold, ratio, attack, release, input/output gain, and metering.

0.00Gate

GATE

The outstanding feature here is multiple modes. Both channels can trigger themselves (like a standard noise gate), or one channel can trigger the other. Furthermore, with the latter, you can listen to the triggered signal just by itself, or with the “trigger” channel too. However, it doesn’t do this by sidechaining; you need to have separate left and right mono channels, then load the Gate into this stereo track.

Aside from the mode options, Gate offers gain reduction amount, threshold, and attack/hold/release times.

REVERB

0.00Reverb

The control set is limited, but effective. There’s no choice of algorithms, but you can change size and there’s a dry/wet mix. The Pre-Filter control is very useful, as it can emphasize (via lowpass or highpass filtering) which part of the frequency spectrum gets the most reverb. An “Air” parameter controls damping.

While not very versatile, Reverb is a good match for certain sounds—particularly drums and voice. I had less luck with guitar, where the periodicity is more obvious.

CONCLUSIONS

Given the price, there’s no disputing the value. There’s also no disputing that the Dynamics and EQ offer a worthy, useful character that even those with lots of plug-ins might want for a “vintage” type sound; they certainly complement more “clinical” plug-ins very well. The different Gate modes are also interesting, although being restricted to using only mono sources for these gating effects is a limitation compared to VST3-style sidechaining. But of course, it also does the usual gating functions very well. And while I wouldn’t buy Scarlett just for the reverb, it never hurts to have more reverb options. Overall, Scarlett provides exceptional value for money.

TIP: THE OUT-OF-TUNE GUITAR

If there’s a track with an out-of-tune guitar, as a workaround add some chorusing. This detunes the guitar in a controlled way, which might make the “out-of-tuneness” less obvious.

TIP: EMULATE THE “LISTENING IN THE CAR” EXPERIENCE

Many people don’t think a mix is truly complete until they’ve heard it in the car, because the road noise masks lower-level audio, thus making it very clear which instruments stand out and which ones don’t. But, you can save on gas by injecting pink noise into your mix as you set levels. Set the noise level fairly high, and you’ll be able to tell which instruments cut through.