McDSP Project Studio (Mac/Win)

If you ask professionals who use Digidesign Pro Tools about their favorite effects plug-ins, chances are good that the name McDSP will be frequently mentioned.
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If you ask professionals who use Digidesign Pro Tools about their favorite effects plug-ins, chances are good that the name McDSP will be frequently mentioned. McDSP's products — particularly its compressors and EQs — are extremely well thought of in the Pro Tools world.

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FIG. 1: The EQ component of Project Studio is FilterBank LE. One of its configurations is E4, which offers high and low shelving filters, a parametric band, and a highpass filter.

In the past, McDSP has aimed its products (TDM, RTAS, and AudioSuite plug-ins) mainly at the pro audio market. But with the release of Project Studio, the developer has reached out to a wider universe of users without sacrificing sonic quality. It was able to do this by filling Project Studio with “LE” versions of its plug-ins in RTAS and AudioSuite format. The plug-ins have the same algorithms (and therefore the same quality) as their full-version siblings, but with fewer available configurations. Project Studio features seven plug-ins and is compatible with Mac OS X and Windows XP. You get CompressorBank LE 4.1, which offers emulations of a number of vintage compressors; FilterBank LE 4.1, which gives you several equalizer and filter configurations; Revolver LE 1.1, a convolution reverb; Chrome Tone LE 2.1, an amp simulator; and Synthesizer One LE 4.1, a 3-oscillator synth. Analog Channel LE 3.1, a tape simulator, and ML4000 LE, a mastering limiter, were recently added to the bundle. Those who bought Project Studio prior to July 2006 can add them for $95. The Mac versions of all the Project Studio plug-ins are now Universal Binary.

I installed Project Studio on my dual-processor 2 GHz Power Mac G5; the process was relatively painless. Project Studio employs iLok copy protection, which is simple to use. A snazzy-looking green iLok key is included in the box.

You Can Bank on It

FilterBank LE 4.1 gives you three of the ten EQ configurations that are in the full version. Although that might not sound like much, two of the three are versatile and full featured, and all three sound very good. The E4 configuration (see Fig. 1) offers a highpass filter, low and high shelving filters, and a fully parametric band. The highpass filter lets you select the center frequency and gives you a choice of two slopes: 6 dB per octave or 12 dB per octave.

In addition to frequency and gain controls, the low and high shelving filters have peak, slope, and dip controls rather than a conventional Q parameter. Those three parameters give you precise control over the shape of the shelf.

The P4 configuration is a versatile sound shaper. It offers four parametric bands, each with Gain, Frequency, and Q sliders. (FilterBank can be instantiated with a knob-based interface, should you so choose.) A pop-up switch gives you access to four different Q modes that can be selected globally for each instantiation of P4. You also get input- and output-level controls. The third configuration is F1, a lowpass filter.

Impressive Compressor

CompressorBank LE 4.1 (see Fig. 2) provides only one of the four configurations from its full version. However, the one that you get — CB4 — is a doozy. It offers emulations of classic compressors, including the dbx 165, the Fairchild 670, the Manley Variable-Mu, the Neve 2254E/33609, the Teletronix LA2A, and the UREI 1176LN.

Unlike other plug-in emulations of classic hardware, the CompressorBank models don't try to copy the look of the originals. Instead, they feature the green McDSP graphics.

Depending on which model you select, you get a different set of controls, which aren't always identical to those on the original units but offer similar functionality. All of the compressors have VU-style meters. Although these provide a more vintage look, they're a little harder to read than bar-graph-style meters if you're not used to them. You also get external key input and key listen features for all the compressor models in CB4, making it possible to trigger them from external sources.

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FIG. 2: CompressorBank LE gives you seven different models of vintage compressors to choose from. The compressors all have VU-style meters and McDSP''s signature green look.

When you instantiate CB4, you can choose from a list of the various models or from presets designed for specific instruments and applications. No matter which model a particular preset uses, a pop-up menu lets you switch models from within any of them.

The models in CB4 all sound excellent, and I found myself using them constantly. Not having a collection of vintage compressors to A/B with them, I can't provide direct comparisons. But I can say that each CompressorBank model has unique sonic characteristics and sounds quite good. I especially liked the tube compressor, which was great for fattening up drum sounds.

Channeling Tape Machines

Analog Channel LE 3.1 is designed to make your track sound like it was recorded on analog tape. The plug-in offers models of reel-to-reel units from such venerable manufacturers as Ampex, MCI, Otari, Studer, Sony, and Tascam. The full version offers variable parameters such as bias and release time, but in Analog Channel LE, those values are fixed. You can vary the input level (which makes the effect more pronounced) and the output level.

The primary use for this plug-in is to put it across the master bus. It adds a warm and subtle crunch to the sound. I've found that it's best to start your mix with Analog Channel LE inserted, because you may make EQ and dynamics decisions that are influenced by its effect.

On some occasions, I used it instead on individual tracks. For instance, I had success placing it on a snare drum, an electric guitar, and a mandolin. The snare got fatter, as did the guitar (which also got warmer), and the mandolin got warmer. Although the differences between the various tape-machine emulations are subtle, they're noticeable enough to give you a nice choice of sonic flavors.

Revolving Door

Revolver LE 1.1 is a good-sounding convolution reverb. It comes with a varied collection of impulse responses (IRs), which are the sampled spaces and devices that are the grist of convolution reverbs. You get everything from halls to plates to churches to the inside of a vacuum cleaner tube (see Web Clip 1).

Although Revolver LE doesn't include all the features offered by the full version, what you do get is roughly similar to what I've seen on many convolution reverbs. There is one major exception: you can't use outside impulse responses like you can with the full version and with most similar products, which for some users (especially those doing sound design) might be problematic. But if you're just looking for a versatile reverb, Revolver LE will suit you fine.

Most of Revolver LE's controls are on its main screen (see Fig. 3), and they update in real time. You get a knob for RT60 (reverb time), as well as sliders for wet and dry level, predelay, attack, and low- and high-frequency EQ. A second screen, called Levels, duplicates the wet and dry sliders and also has input- and output-level controls.

Clicking on the System tab in the display window brings up more controls, including settings for low-latency or medium-latency operation (the former uses more CPU). The Tail Cut control lets you save CPU resources by raising the amplitude threshold at which Revolver LE stops processing a given signal.

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FIG. 3: The main screen of Revolver LE, a good-sounding convolution reverb with a large library of impulse responses.

Amp It Up

Chrome Tone LE 2.1 is a guitar-amp and speaker simulator. It offers realistic-sounding amp tones but has fewer effects choices than the full version. When your guitar signal is routed into Chrome Tone LE, it first goes into the Pre section, which features five different settings for coloring the input signal, and a low-cut filter. Next up is the Noise Gate, which gives you Threshold, Attack, Hold, and Release controls.

After that comes the Compression section, which can be switched in or out of the signal. You get Threshold, Response (attack), Sustain, and Release controls, as well as a pop-up button offering three different ratio presets — 2:1, 4:1, and 8:1. Next is the Distortion section, which provides Drive, Freq, Amount, and Level controls, and a choice of nine different frequency curves that govern the signal feeding the distortion.

After Distortion comes EQ, which offers three bands: low shelf, parametric, and high shelf. The final stage is Output, featuring a reverb mix control, a cabinet selector pop-up, and an output-level control. You can choose from eight different cabinet simulations, ranging from 1 × 12 to 4 × 12 (each with “close” and “room” mic settings), as well as two “direct” settings. The cabinets sound quite realistic and offer a lot of tonal alternatives.

I was not impressed with Chrome Tone's reverb. You can't change the room size or reverb type, and the setting that is there (presumably a spring reverb emulation) has too short a decay to be useful most of the time. But overall, Chrome Tone LE gives you plenty of convincing amp sounds, from clean to heavily distorted (see Web Clip 2).

One for Synthesis

Synthesizer One LE 4.1 (see Fig. 4) offers the same sound engine as McDSP's Synthesizer One plug-in, but with a stripped-down user interface. It's essentially a synth preset player. You can't program sounds from scratch, but you can tweak the ones already there. The synth engine has three oscillators and two filters.

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FIG. 4: Synthesizer One LE offers the same sounds as the full version of the plug-in, but with less programmability.

Controls on the front panel's Main Page include Volume, Tune, Transpose, Bend Up, Bend Down, Velocity (you can choose from 3 curves or no curve), and Voices (choose up to 12 voices per instantiation). You also get controls for navigating the presets and pages, and a bank-and-patch display, which for some reason doesn't update when you select banks or patches from the RTAS Librarian menu. It changes only when you select sounds using its own navigation arrows. This can cause confusion when you have one sound selected from the RTAS menu but the display reads out a different patch.

The Voice edit page gives you Detune, Poly Mode (Poly or four different mono mode choices), Unison (how many layered voices per note), and a Glide control with adjustable range. You also get pages for editing the amplitude and filter envelopes and for controlling the arpeggiator.

There are nine categories of presets: Atmospheres, Basses, Brass, Comps, Leads, Pads, Sequences, Drums, and FX. The sound quality is good; I would describe it more as clean than fat. The presets run the gamut from good to mediocre.

I found myself wishing that I had control of the effects and could change waveform types to program my own sounds. Of all the plug-ins in Project Studio, this is the one that I most often wished were the full version.

The Outer Limits

ML4000 LE is a mastering limiter that offers one of the configurations (the ML1) of the full ML4000. You don't get the ML4 multiband dynamics processor.

The mastering limiter is extremely simple to use, with virtual knobs for all four parameters. You set the Ceiling for the maximum level, the Threshold to adjust the level at which the limiter will kick in, the Knee for soft or hard limiting (continuously variable from 0 to 100), and the Release for the time it takes the limiter to reset itself after squashing a peak. The Ceiling and Threshold parameters can also be adjusted with handy arrows that move up and down vertically along the meter display.

I tried out ML4000 LE on a rock mix (see Web Clip 3), and it made the track sound big and crunchy. I also tried it on other types of material and found it quite useful for upping the overall level. On a solo piano mix, which had a pretty wide dynamic range, it took a little more trial and error to find the right setting, but that would likely be the case with any limiter. I also had success using the plug-in on individual instruments, such as drums. McDSP provides presets for various limiting situations.

All Bundled Up

I tested the Project Studio plug-ins over a couple of months, and they quickly became mainstays in my Pro Tools LE arsenal. There's no question in my mind that Project Studio is a great value and gives Pro Tools users affordable access to the highly valued sound of McDSP.

The EM editors found Project Studio to be such a good value that it was a cowinner of a 2007 Editors' Choice Award. I can confidently state that this bundle will greatly enhance the plug-in collection of any Pro Tools LE user.

Mike Levine is an EM senior editor.


Project Studio

RTAS and AudioSuite plug-in bundle $495



PROS: Excellent value. Same algorithms as on full versions. CompressorBank LE gives you emulations of vintage processors. Good library of IRs with Revolver LE. Realistic amp and speaker modeling with Chrome Tone LE.

CONS: Reverb weak in Chrome Tone LE. Display doesn't update in Synthesizer One LE when you change patches with the RTAS Librarian menu. Revolver LE not capable of loading third-party IRs.