By Greg Rule
Once upon a time, there was a shortage of filter plug-ins for Pro Tools, but those days are long gone . . . hurrah! The latest in a growing line of new-breed filters to hit our studio is FilterFreak from SoundToys — the company formerly known as Wave Mechanics. “We’re a bunch of audio geeks who thirst for new ways to manipulate and mangle sound,” says a SoundToys spokesman. The SoundToys engineering braintrust is responsible for developing such landmark products as Eventide’s H-3000 and DSP-4000, and Wave Mechanics’ popular UltraTools plug-ins.
FilterFreak is the first in a new line of virtual audio tools from SoundToys. It’s as inviting and friendly a plug-in as you’ll find. It pops up onscreen looking like a familiar piece of vintage hardware, complete with faux wood endbells, old-school knobs, and rack screws.
Its look also reflects its sound, as FilterFreak can do a mean impersonation of classic analog filters (more on that below). Even though FilterFreak’s user interface appears somewhat sparse, hidden power is available in the guise of pop-up menus, such as the Rhythmic Pattern Editor shown in the zoom-in photo.
FilterFreak is actually a suite of two filters: single-band and dual-band, as shown in the screenshots. The dual-band filter can be routed in series or parallel. Parameters can be moused manually, automated, or in some cases, step-programmed. A list of key specs can be found at page left, so let’s get right to the nitty-gritty — the sound.
FilterFreak looks good on paper (and on screen), but how does it perform? Here’s what I discovered during my Pro Tools HD sessions.
Let there be no doubt — this plug-in more than lives up to its name. FilterFreak can squeal, honk, spit, and snarl; it can self-oscillate, and pump out a wide range of extreme and expressive effects. Check out the Sample &Hold preset, for example, which beautifully demonstrates how FilterFreak’s limits can be pushed and harnessed into musically useful patterns. Experiment with the Rhythmic Pattern Editor, and you’ll have some truly bizarre pulsating grooves in no time. The onscreen frequency plot gives you a visual display of what’s going on,
and even animates to show what (if any) modulation you’ve programmed. I used FilterFreak to gnarl up some clean guitar parts, to add drama to breakdowns and song-segues (nothing like an automated lowpass sweep), to saturate vocals, and even as a sound-design tool (chopping and mangling mixes in ways that rendered the source material utterly unrecognizable).
FilterFreak is more than just a wild child. It’s capable of dunking your audio in butter as well. I found its sweeps to be smooth, with no artifacts or stair-steps. Thickening up and even deep-frying my tracks was a quick and easy matter of switching the onscreen toggle from Digital to Analog, and choosing the bake type (clean, fat, squash, dirt, crunch, shred, pump) and amount. Best of all, when I overdrove the input, it didn’t clip digitally, but rather saturated like a honest-to-goodness analog filter, with results that were musically useful and pleasing.
Let’s talk about the competition for a moment. Spec for spec, FilterFreak is less equipped than Antares’ Filter plug-in, to name one. (Filter was reviewed in our January ’04 issue). Filter is loaded with four stereo filters, four companion delays, two rhythm generators, two function generators,
a 12-channel mod matrix, and more. FilterFreak, on the other hand, tops out at two filters per instance, and offers no delay or multi-channel mod matrixing. “It would be fairly easy for us to add loads of new features to FilterFreak,” says SoundToys, “but we’ve made a conscious decision to focus on high sound quality and a relatively easy-to-use interface.” No doubt about it, FilterFreak is a more extreme- and analog-sounding beast than Filter (which won’t self-oscillate). If you want to raise the roof — and possibly shatter some windows in the process — FilterFreak has the power to do it, so drive carefully. As Soundtoys aptly warns in their manual: “Extreme settings of the Resonance controls can create very high signal levels — enough to fry your tweeters and blow out your woofers if the volume is way up.” Experimentalists will surely applaud this.
One note of caution related to running FilterFreak on Pro Tools 6: It can introduce a fair amount of latency when running under HTDM, and can even crash if too many plug-ins are instantiated simultaneously. “Latency is inherent to the [current] HTDM format,” SoundToys defends, “and affects all plug-ins running in HTDM format. LE users won’t experience the latency, nor will TDM users running FilterFreak in RTAS format. The HTDM version of the FilterFreak is only needed for TDM systems running FilterFreak on an aux channel, or after a TDM plug in the channel insert list. In this case, the low-latency version of StreamManager will reduce the plug-in latency from 1024 samples to 256 samples — about 5 milliseconds at 48kHz.” If you’re running the latest version of Pro Tools (6.2.2), no need to worry, as the StreamManager bug has been exterminated. If, however, you’re running an older version and are experiencing problems, SoundToys recommends downloading the updated version of StreamManager (check the Digidesign website).
If you’re looking for the most feature-laden or affordable filter plug-in on the market, FilterFreak probably isn’t for you. It’s well equipped, for sure, but not as spec-packed as some other competing filter plug-ins. But if you’re looking for hair-raising sonic results that range from buttery analog to glass-breaking extremes, FilterFreak is a winner. Simply put, it sounds great — and its analog saturation feature is a key reason.
The most significant strike against FilterFreak is that it’s a Pro Tools/Mac-only party. Anyone using AU or VST host apps is out of luck, although a PC version is reportedly in the works for Pro Tools. And more good news, direct from the manufacturer’s mouth: “We are actively working on TDM and AudioUnits support. The upgrade to TDM support will be free to registered FilterFreak owners.”
Soundtoys is said to be cooking up many more plug-ins. If FilterFreak is any indication of what’s to come, Pro Tools plug-in fanatics are going to have one heckuva plug-in bumper crop this year.