Every once in a while, something comes along and drastically redefines your concept of signal processing. FXpansion's Series One plug-in bundle is such a product, offering fresh effects that color your music in new ways. The plug-ins that make up this groundbreaking and original package have great sonic complexity and can radically shape a signal. Because of their depth of features, using them can be challenging, but the results are definitely worth it.
The bundle contains five plug-ins: PhatSync, AutopOle, Robotik Vocoder, Ring Modulator, and Midi Comb. (Note: since this review was written, FXpansion has added a sixth plug-in-a multitap delay called MTap.) The plug-ins run in Windows VST and DirectX host applications, including the latest versions of Steinberg's Cubase, Cakewalk's Pro Audio, Emagic's Logic Audio, and Sonic Foundry's Acid Pro and Vegas. They are available separately and bundled, as downloads and on CD-ROM.
PHRESHThe first plug-in I tested was PhatSync, a filtering effect for which both frequency cutoff points and resonance are variable. It sounds like a voice from a radio that's being tuned or an electric guitar being shifted through a phaser on extreme settings. Think of it as an extreme EQ with resonance for special effects on instrument and voice tracks. It's also great for fattening up synth-bass notes, enhancing low- frequency definition, and tweaking the midrange.
Instead of simply cutting or boosting a frequency, as an equalizer does, PhatSync reshapes the frequency content of the entire audio clip according to a user-selected frequency range and adds resonance. The result is a distinctly electronic-sounding prolongation and intensification of the sound that I can only describe as a sort of gliding, modulated electronic spit. The static settings alone are very cool, but you get even more impressive results-such as dynamic frequency shifting and gliding-when you modify the parameters in real time with MIDI.
PhatSync's main controls (a set of dials) are Base Cutoff (frequency cutoff), Base Resonance, Mode Mix, Glide, Mix (wet/dry), and Output Level. You also get two sets of 16-band sliders for fine-tuning the cutoff frequency and resonance. Altering Base Cutoff, Mode Mix, and Base Resonance had the greatest effect, turning the signal from a low and fat rasp into a high and tinny broadcastlike sound.
PhatSync also sports four user memories that store snapshots of the 16-band slider settings; you call up each memory simply by clicking on a button. This feature offers more than quick preset storage-you can arrange your four snapshots in a pattern and activate it with MIDI commands from your sequencer (see Fig. 1).
I tested PhatSync on different types of tracks, and in each case I was able to substantially alter the original signal. I was particularly impressed with the way that the plug-in fattened up lower synth notes without causing distortion or overload. It also worked well as a special effect on vocals, and it functioned almost like an amp simulator on electric guitar tracks.
THAT '70S SYNTHAutopOle is more than an effect-this plug-in has many of the controls that synthesizers use to process waveforms (see Fig. 2). AutopOle's envelope generators and LFOs make the audio sound as if it's been run through an old '70s synthesizer.
The main sliders adjust cutoff, resonance, LFO modulation, and EG modulation; and a number of filter buttons affect the overall frequency bias. AutopOle uses two envelope generators, each with its own multimode filters. This setup gives you a few signal-routing choices. The routing-switch feature lets you process the left and right channels separately, blend them together, or have one filter carry or process the other. Each configuration offers a distinct sound.
AutopOle can create a wide variety of effects. The results are a lot like what you'd get from using an analog-synth LFO to modulate sounds with variable resonance and frequency settings. Extreme settings completely changed the audio into wah-ing pulses or sci-fi sound effects. The software also generates a useful funky tremolo and wah effect. Apply this plug-in with caution, however-extreme settings can cause harsh clipping.
AutopOle allows you to make the modulation rate dependent on the audio data's amplitude. If you move the EG slider to the left, loud signals slow down the oscillation rate; if you move it to the right, loud signals increase the oscillation rate. The resultant signal is more expressive and variable than that produced by a typical chorus or tremolo effect.
MR. ROBOTOVocoders have a distinctive sound and are an especially effective treatment for sounds and music with a techno edge. They produce a sound best described as a hybrid of voice and synthesizer, but other combinations of instruments and sounds are possible. FXpansion's Robotik Vocoder gets its name from the disembodied, machinelike sound it can give the human voice. Some settings can also create other types of sounds, including ghost voices and deep, phaserlike effects.
Controls include Carrier Gain and Modulator Gain. The carrier and modulator signals require separate inputs. Slew Rate, and Q Factor. The plug-in also offers the LF Widen parameter, which widens or narrows the bandwidth of the low-frequency bands. A high LF Wide setting reduces boominess and softens ringy qualities in the low end. And two sliders control the nature of the noise that the plug-in generates when the modulator track is silent. The sound changed the most when I fiddled with Slew Rate and Q Factor; the former affected the modulation rate, the latter overall frequency response.
Robotik Vocoder's sound quality is good but not pristine. When I compared it with a hardware vocoder, I found that while the plug-in didn't sound quite as good, it handled dynamics better and was easier to control. Of course, a hardware unit costs 20 times as much as the plug-in, so clearly Robotik Vocoder is a great value.
I'd like to see the inclusion of some standard waveforms (saw, square, and so on) within the plug-in itself. They're in Ring Modulator (which I'll discuss next) but not in Robotik Vocoder. The addition would give you a number of carrier-wave choices that you could simply select and apply. As it stands, you must either feed in another audio source (possible only in VST) or use a single stereo track with the carrier and modulator signals on the left and right sides. Adjustable stock waveforms would make the process much easier and quicker; the separate-input option could be reserved for advanced users.
RING-A-DING-DINGRing Modulator was a real treat and is definitely one of the crown jewels of this bundle. Ring modulators work by using one signal's amplitude to modulate another signal, resulting in a clangorous, metallic sound. They're behind many of the stock sound effects used in film and television. Ring modulators can also create an atonal falling sound, as in Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky."
This plug-in has all the controls necessary to create just about any ring modulator sound you can imagine. Its four sections are Oscillator, LFO, Envelope Generator, and Mix (see Fig. 3). In the Oscillator and LFO sections you get a frequency slider and a choice of four basic waveforms: square, sine, saw, and triangle. You can also adjust the EG's attack and decay times. A wet/dry mix slider and gain slider complete the array of controls.
I compared Ring Modulator with a hardware ring modulator unit and found the plug-in better-sounding, easier to use, and infinitely more fun. I was able to create a number of significantly different effects, from crazy water sounds to dialogue from Battlestar Galactica. Ring Modulator will keep sci-fi types busy for hours and give musicians a handy special effects tool with endless variations.
MIDI MEOf all the Series One plug-ins, Midi Comb is the most difficult to use. Despite its title, it is not a MIDI- processing plug-in. Although it requires both audio and MIDI data to work, the effect processes only audio data. There are two ways to operate it: either apply existing MIDI data (notes and controllers) from a MIDI track to an audio track, or play MIDI data into the effect as it processes an audio track. The first option is available only in the DirectX version, and to make the process work you need to download and install Hubert Winkler's Hubi's Loopback Device or Propellerheads' MIDI Yoke (freeware utilities available at www.hitsquad.com).
The Comb in Midi Comb refers to the comb-filter sound that you create with flangers using deep modulation with short time settings. Midi Comb does more than a flanger; it uses MIDI note data to determine the effect's frequency. The result is a MIDI-controlled comb filter in which frequency mirrors the pitch of the note data played on the MIDI keyboard. Other MIDI messages perform different tasks. For example, Control Change 1 (modulation) works like a hard tremolo, opening and shutting the signal completely. In the DirectX version, you can also control Midi Comb's parameter settings in real time with a keyboard or other hardware MIDI controller.
The main controls are the Amp EG Attack slider, which changes the attack rate, and the Velocity slider, which adjusts the MIDI Velocity control of amplitude. The Highpass Filter and Lowpass Filter sliders control cutoff frequency, and the Feedback slider alters the effect's intensity. Other sliders are for determining the ratio of wet to dry signal, setting the output level, and modifying the effect of Velocity on other parameters.
The resulting sounds are interesting to say the least. Midi Comb is a combination of a metallic comb filter, a delay, a short reverb, and variable pitch. A unique feature of Midi Comb is its ability to alter the pitch of the affected signal. You can even play multiple notes to create a chord. The effect works well when applied correctly, but it isn't easy to use. To make it work in my DirectX host program, I had to temporarily disable the host software's MIDI input so that the plug-in could receive MIDI data.
CRUNCHY AND GUIThe FXpansion Series One bundle is truly different. The plug-ins offer good sound quality and a wide range of both conventional and unusual effects. Each user interface is well designed and graphically pleasing. Operation was smooth, and the software never crashed. I found the download and installation to be a breeze, and the price is very reasonable.
The bundle does have a few drawbacks. First, neither the DirectX nor the VST version has any presets, so new users will have a hard time understanding how to set the parameters and grasping the plug-ins' potential. FXpansion told me that the upcoming versions for both DirectX and VST (to be released in June or July) will include presets.
Second, MIDI control does not work in the VST plug-ins. Instead the VST versions rely on VST automation. However, any VST application that can read DirectX plug-ins can use the DirectX versions.
In another unusual quirk, the settings on some plug-ins randomly change on mouse-over. FXpansion is working on the problem. Last, although the plug-ins sound fairly clean, the output unexpectedly overloaded at low settings, creating unintended distortion.
Check out the plug-ins before you buy: screen shots and sound demos are available on the FXpansion Web site. These will give you a pretty good idea of how the plug-ins look and sound, so you can decide if they're right for you.
Overall the bundle offers a great deal of sonic-manipulation capabilities for a very reasonable cost. If you want to alter your sounds in funky and far-out ways, FXpansion Series One is just what you're looking for.
Phil Darg is an independent composer and producer. His latest work is the MP3.com single "Tough Guys Always Finish First."