FIG. 1: EchoBoy is the most extensive and powerful of the SoundToys Native Effects bundle.
As computer processing power escalates, it's becoming more feasible to have every aspect of a professional recording studio inside the box. SoundToys gives desktop engineers another means toward that end by providing them with a number of top-notch effects processors, the likes of which historically were only in the hands of people working at high-end facilities.
The SoundToys Native Effects bundle comes with six plug-ins: EchoBoy, Crystallizer, PhaseMistress, FilterFreak, Tremolator, and Speed. All but Speed come in both RTAS and AU versions. Speed, like most other pitch- and time-manipulation plug-ins, can function only in a non-real-time fashion, so it is available as an AudioSuite plug-in for Digidesign Pro Tools only.
Out of One Box and into Another
Installation was remarkably easy on my dual 2 GHz Macintosh G5 with 4 GB of RAM. The boxed version comes with a CD installer as well as a “license card,” which is a little chip that you insert into your iLok dongle to upload your authorization. This is mighty convenient for users who don't have Internet access on their DAW machines. Both the AU and RTAS versions loaded without incident, and I was able to start using the SoundToys plug-ins right away in both Pro Tools LE 7.3.1 and MOTU Digital Performer 5.0.
The only thing worth remarking about the installation is that when Pro Tools is starting up, it pauses for a second while loading each SoundToys plug-in, indicating the amount of code each effect contains. As for CPU usage, I could easily load 32 instances of all the effects except EchoBoy, which maxed out my CPU at around 24 instances (your mileage may vary). If you're working on a slower computer, you can always bounce the SoundToys plug-ins as AudioSuite effects to save processing power.
All in the Family
Aside from Speed, which has a completely unique design and control set, the Native Effects bundle has a number of consistencies between the various individual plug-ins. First, the graphical user interface for each plug-in has the same white-on-black minimalist elegance, emulating the real knobs and buttons of a hardware unit — even the numerical and menu boxes look like hardware LED displays. Second, all of the effects have separate Input and Output controls, which are designed to work like analog units in that you can drive the input and back off the output to change the harmonic characteristics of your sound. This is most useful in the Analog mode found in Tremolator, PhaseMistress, and FilterFreak. (EchoBoy has certain settings that simulate analog distortion as well.) Analog mode takes more processing power but saturates in a fuzzy, analog way, as opposed to the nasty distortion caused by digital clipping.
All of the real-time effects have time-based or rhythmic components that can either be synced to the current bpm of the session via MIDI or set by using the Tap Tempo function. Tap Tempo allows you to click your mouse on a button in time with the music. Tap is very responsive and quite helpful if you are dealing with music that wasn't played to a click.
FIG. 2: Tremolator takes tremolo to a whole new level.
All of the RTAS/AU SoundToys plug-ins also have the Tweak button in common. This button calls up a page with a few extra parameters pertaining to whatever set of controls it is nested near. These parameters differ greatly from plug-in to plug-in (and from mode to mode on each plug-in). The controls in a given Tweak page are usually what I'd call “above-and-beyond” controls, akin to “modding” in the hardware domain. For example, a Tweak page in Crystallizer allows you to vary the offset between the left and right channels of three different parameters, and a page in Tremolator lets you trigger rate and depth modulations of the tremolo effect from the envelope of the incoming signal.
Speaking of modulation, all of the plug-ins except EchoBoy and Speed have some sort of modulation that is capable of being triggered by the envelope of the signal itself. The Threshold knob in each of these cases determines the point at which the modulation occurs, and a ring of LEDs around the knob shows you where the signal level is at any given moment, so setting this control is remarkably easy. (It kind of makes me wonder why all software threshold controls don't have such a display; maybe someday they will.)
Before I start describing each of the plug-ins, let me make it clear that I'm only scratching the surface of the power and control of these effects. To fully describe the whole bundle, this entire magazine issue would have to be devoted to this review. I'll try to give a general idea of the capabilities and strengths of each plug-in.
The flagship effect of the SoundToys bundle is EchoBoy, the “Ultimate Echo Machine.” This plug-in has all the controls you'd expect from a delay generator, and then some (see Fig. 1). And then some more. And then even some more. There are four Echo modes: Single, Dual, Ping-Pong, and Rhythm, and each has a completely unique set of Tweak parameters. You can get quite complex with the multitap patterns for your delays, using Feel and Groove controls to make the pattern fit the song. You can choose from one of 31 Echo Styles, such as Space Echo, TelRay, and Memory Man, which emulate the effect of classic delay boxes, or create your own Echo Style with a 3-band EQ and parameters such as Wobble, Saturation, and Diffusion. Getting the picture? This is no one-trick pony, but if EchoBoy's guts are too much for you to handle, there are bountiful presets that make getting good sounds easy for the timid. (Speaking of presets, the SoundToys plug-ins contain a unique and very handy feature worth mentioning: when scrolling through presets, you can disable any parameter from changing by Control-Option-clicking on it. See Web Clips 1 through 3.)
It's no surprise that some of the engineers who developed the SoundToys line of products were part of the team that created the Eventide H3000 Harmonizer. Crystallizer is a direct descendant of that legendary hardware box, based in part on the popular Crystal Echoes preset. The subtitle of the plug-in is “Granular Echo Synthesizer,” which belies the fact that it's an instrument almost as much as an effects processor. At its most extreme, Crystallizer can obscure the sound of its input source to the point of annihilation, and used more subtly, it can add harmonics and texture to any signal. In essence, it slices up the incoming signal into little bits and uses a combination of pitch-shifting and delay to spit those little slices back out in interesting and very musical ways (see Web Clips 4 through 7).
Vintage analog phase-shifting pedals are highly sought-after for the unique textures they create. PhaseMistress re-creates a number of these vintage sounds, but of course, because it's a SoundToys plug-in, there are lots of added features that make it more widely useful than your average pedal. My favorite of the bonus features is the Envelope Modulation mode, which ends up sounding halfway between a phaser and an envelope filter (see Web Clips 8 and 9).
FilterFreak finds its roots in the sound and behavior of the analog filters found on classic synthesizers. There are four filter shapes: Lowpass, Bandpass, Highpass, and Band Reject (Notch). In addition to common filtering controls like Resonance and Frequency, FilterFreak allows you to dynamically change the corner frequency (as well as the resonance and level) of the filter based on either the envelope of the input signal, an LFO, or a number of other triggers. FilterFreak 2 (also included in the bundle) lets you gang up two filters in an interactive fashion, and you can even have the modulation source trigger opposite movements in each of the two filters. From subtle to sci-fi, this is a really fun plug-in. The Bandpass filter in conjunction with overdriving one of the many Analog mode choices gave me an extremely cool lo-fi telephone sound on a vocal (see Web Clips 10 and 11).
FIG. 3: Speed allows you to change the pitch and tempo of a sound independently.
Another highly versatile take on a commonplace effect, Tremolator takes simple tremolo and turns it on its ear (see Fig. 2). Not only can you create your own waveform shape for the tremolo, but you can also use any waveform to build a custom tremolo rhythm up to four bars in length, with resolution down to a 64th-note triplet. Other controls, like Groove and Accent, allow you to customize the feel of the tremolo even further. Suffice it to say, this is the most powerful and unique tremolo plug-in I've used, by far (see Web Clips 12 and 13).
Available only as an AudioSuite (Pro Tools) plug-in, Speed changes the pitch of your audio, the speed, or both. There are multiple interfaces available, giving a truly impressive amount of control over these tasks (see Fig. 3). The Simple and Calculator control panels let you change the speed based on either Tempo (expressed in bpm values or percentages) or Length (expressed in seconds, samples, or percentages), and also allow you to independently change the pitch, based on Key (expressed in semitones, cents, or percentages) or Tuning (expressed in hertz). The Graphical control panel takes it a few steps further, enabling you to actually draw in breakpoint curves (similar to penciling in automation moves) to variably change the speed and pitch, again totally independently. For example, you can have a sound slow down over time while also steadily increasing in pitch, the opposite of what you'd get from tape manipulation. Sound tweakers, take heed: this is a very cool plug-in (see Web Clip 14).
All in all, with SoundToys Native Effects you have a ridiculous amount of control over six excellent-sounding plug-ins. I especially love the fact that you can get cool sounds with minimal hassle, but if you're willing to put in the time, you can get ultradeep into the nitty-gritty. The street price of around $400 would arguably be a fair price for EchoBoy alone, but add in five other killer effects, and this is truly one screaming deal.
Eli Crews plays well with others at New, Improved Recording (www.newimprovedrecording.com), his recording studio in Oakland, California.
Native Effects 3.0
FEATURES5EASE OF USE4Audio QUALITY5VALUE5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Incredibly versatile and powerful plug-in set. Presets are extensive and highly useful, and new preset packs are available for free download on a regular basis. Interface is sleek and stark. Excellent documentation. Shockingly low price point.
CONS: CPU requirements may be too heavy for pre-G5 machines.