Basic Effects Come Full Circle In These Imaginative Plug-Ins


Here, author Asher Fulero loops a standard drum beat and then runs it through the gauntlet of all the Sonalksis Creative Elements bundle TBK plug-ins. It shows how far you can get from the original sample with just a few knob turns .

Audio plug-ins generally fall into two categories. The first provides essential studio sounds and key audio operations that producers need to execute their ideas faithfully. Others, however, aim for loftier creative goals and can offer inspiration and new sounds. For producers who compose at the computer, such inspired plug-in choices can turn a good track into a great one. Conversely, choosing a plug-in with an overcomplicated interface or compatibility problems can create the opposite: lost time and lost creativity muddling around with drivers or too many controls.

While its well-known Essential Bundle offers tight dynamics control squarely in the first category of plugs, Sonalksis has ventured into the second area with its newest triad, the Creative Elements series of TBK plug-ins. TBK logically stands for “the big knob.” The three simple devices are designed to be intuitive and stimulating but still diverse in application and output. Their straightforward interfaces rock a single large knob and a few small switches. While no-brainers to begin with, each offers deep tweaking possibilities and a smooth user experience. I tested all three using Ableton Live 6 on an Apple MacBook Pro 2.33 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo machine and had no trouble whatsoever running the simple installer and opening each plug-in both as VST and Audio Units. Because I had downloaded the installer from the Website, all three plug-ins recognized authorization immediately with no need for inputting a code. Most people will have to leave a small registration file on their computers, which can be downloaded manually from the Sonalksis Website.


TBK1 Creative Filter is silky smooth and a lot of fun to use. Sonalksis' special “adaptive resonance” control saves a whole lot of fine-tuning time, essentially maintaining a constant feel in terms of saturation and resonance as you turn the big knob and helping to stop those explosions as the sweep passes though certain frequencies. The right-hand switches offer three filter types (highpass, bandpass or lowpass), four resonance settings (Low, Med, High and the raging Rude setting) and control over the intensity of the filter slope (12, 24 or 48 dB).

TBK1's big knob had impressively high resolution and was nearly artifact free; fast and slow sweeps alike were as slick as can be hoped for in a plug-in. Fortunately, TBK1 uses the same internal 64-bit floating-point precision as the rest of the trio, so the math underneath is very detailed. I was very impressed with how the adaptive resonance noticeably opened up sections of sweep that might otherwise disappear or be way too loud in normal filter use; at any of the resonance settings, the sweeping motion felt about the same throughout the sweep. Combining the right big knob placement and the bandpass filter made for a really nice way to notch-mix several channels, and the awesome Rude setting made just about anything sound aggressive and exciting. The High resonance setting was my favorite, with the Medium setting being great for subtlety. There is also a cool Step option that gently steps the big knob's rotation on chromatically tuned intervals for tuning the filter frequency to your music. With assigned MIDI controls, you can play the filter's Frequency settings for melodic filter motion.


TBK2 Digital GrimeBox is a distortion device that again is straightforward, yet efficient and powerful. The same interface — including an input slider, a big amount knob and three switches — makes it easy to dial in the desired effect while still making it simple to discover new sounds. Again, sweeping the big knob is so smooth and artifact-free that it really inspires when you assign to a physical MIDI knob and perform with it. Like the Creative Filter's adaptive resonance, the GrimeBox uses an “adaptive bias” that analyzes the input signal and maintains a balanced level of even-order tube coloration throughout the sweep of the knob, resulting in the ability to create a wider range of effect and a smooth glide from barely noticeable to total destruction. And, as with all three plug-ins, there is zero latency — no internal signal delay whatsoever.

The Clip switch boosts or cuts gain ±12 dB; a four-setting LPF switch turns a lowpass filter off or to 2, 6 or 12 kHz; and the Mode switch chooses between the four available types of sonic destruction: Crush, Smash, Grime and Downsampling. Each is a uniquely balanced hybrid model that uses blends of bit-crushing and downsampling to create a unique feel. The big knob is reversed here — as you turn it to the left, the distortion is increased, so when set at “0,” the distortion is at its maximum. The GrimeBox also has a Step button; this time, when enabled, the crushing uses whole-number (integer) values. When disabled, noninteger values may be used, creating a slightly different feel to the effect.

TBK2 sounded very musical overall and was easy to work with. Used gently, it added warmth, low end and extra excitement to its source. When used creatively, it traveled far from the original source quickly, easily making normal-sounding loops outlandish. Excellent at destroying samples, the adaptive bias control made even totally distorted sounds seem “mixable.”


Definitely the big brother of the triplets, TBK3 Über Compressor was just downright impressive. As capable of careful dynamics control as it is of using dynamics to fundamentally change a sample into something different, it kept surprising me with the breadth of things it could do. Once again, the simple interface both speeds the process and inspires creative uses. Sonalksis essentially has extended the realm of what compressors can do; using under-the-hood digital makeup gain, analog modeled algorithms and two-attack/two-release settings for uniquely responsive compression curves, TBK3 can maintain even levels of analog coloration at operational levels that would make an analog machine explode. As the manual states, you could use the Über Compressor to simply keep a track under control, but it's the “sonic abominations” that occur at the more extreme settings that really inspire. Combined with the other two TBK plug-ins, it becomes amazingly easy to turn ho-hum loops into inspirational ideas.

TBK3's switch options include four Timing Modes that adaptively control four attack/release settings, depending on the incoming signal (Instant, Pop, Slap and Pump). Being able to set those manually would be a great option, but the four adaptive modes work in a way that fixed settings never could. There are four Side-Chain Bias settings for subtly filtering which parts of the spectrum will trigger compression. And even though there is adaptive makeup gain happening underneath the GUI, the Output slider can be key for adjusting perceived volume at output. TBK3's big knob also features a red meter around the knob itself that actively displays the amount of compression — very helpful at finding the right setting without taking up any graphic space. The important Fierce button essentially cranks up the effect of the compression and is really the creative lynchpin of the whole plug-in. It's hard to say exactly what's happening, but it definitely changes things when enabled; sounds push and breathe as the amount of compression is cranked way up, but the gain is adaptively controlled for a smooth output. There is also a Noise button that toggles the analog coloration circuit, and a Clip indicator allows setting a hard-limiter ceiling for output.


While a sleek interface is great, the TBK series plug-ins thankfully feature a small Preferences panel with a Knob Motion setting that allows Circular or Linear input, depending on how you like to turn knobs with your mouse. An interesting MIDI Control mode allows external control either via MIDI notes or wheel input. The big knob readout may also be displayed in values or notes. All three plug-ins come in stereo and mono versions and can operate at sampling rates from 44.1 to 192 kHz, all with precise 64-bit Floating Point math and zero internal latency.

There are a ton of ideas packed into the Creative Elements bundle — not just in what they do, but how they do it. Sonalksis' has indeed paid off. All three TBKs are fast, effective, efficient and inspiring to use. It's a difficult proposition to make generally mundane sound-tasks seem exciting, and it's just as difficult to make complicated tasks seem easy and natural; Sonalksis has done both impressively.

For an exclusive Creative Elements audio demo, go



Pros: Efficient, intuitive, simple, flexible and powerful. Mono/stereo/MIDI versions included. Zero internal latency. Adaptive technology.

Cons: Many settings cannot be changed (attack/release times on TBK3; Crusher Models on TBK2). No manual resonance on TBK1.


Mac: G4/400 MHz; 64 MB RAM; OS 10.3.9 or later; Pro Tools 7 for RTAS; VST or Audio Units host

PC: P3/600 MHz; 64 MB RAM; Windows 2000/XP; Pro Tools 7 for RTAS; VST or Audio Units host