FIG. 1: Tubifex is PowerCore's emulation of tube amps using th ubiquitous 12AX7 tube.
PowerCore Compact is the middle entrant in TC Electronic's suite of three hardware DSP devices. Since it's the most compact device of the three, it's ideal for laptop applications; and with two 150 MHz Motorola 56367 DSPs and a 266 MHz PowerPC processor, it has plenty of DSP power.
Unlike the original PowerCore DSP devices, which were PCI cards that needed to be installed inside your computer, PowerCore Compact 1.9.3 and its rackmountable big brother, PowerCore FireWire, plug in to your computer's FireWire port. That makes them more expensive, but also portable and much more convenient. (A PCI version, PowerCore Element, is still available.)
You don't need a tremendously powerful computer to run PowerCore Compact 1.9.3 — the whole point is to increase your processing power. Since it's FireWire based, however, it does require a fairly modern computer and operating system. For the Mac you'll need a G4 or G5 processor running at least OS X 10.2.8, and for the PC you'll need at least a 500 MHz Pentium III processor running Windows XP.
Boot Me Up
Installing PowerCore Compact 1.9.3 is easy, and once installed, the hardware is transparent (except when setting preferences). The first step is to install the PowerCore software driver on your computer; that's supplied on CD, but TC Electronic advises you to check for and download any updates from the company's Web site. Once the drivers are installed, just shut down your computer, connect the PowerCore to the computer with the provided FireWire cable, and restart your computer.
PowerCore Compact 1.9.3 comes with 12 DSP plug-ins, which are installed at the same time as the drivers. The plug-ins are in Steinberg's Virtual Studio Technology (VST) format on the Mac and the PC, but an Audio Units (AU) shell called TCAU makes them available to AU hosts on the Mac as well.
In addition to the included plug-ins, a fairly extensive collection of premium plug-ins is available from TC Electronic and third-party vendors. Although premium plug-ins are packaged with the CD, you need to go online to download and register them. Depending on Internet traffic, the process can be slower than necessary, but it does get the job done. For AU compatibility, you also need to run a portion of the PowerCore driver installer again, so it's good to keep it on your hard drive.
Something Old, Something New
Seven of the 12 plug-ins that come with PowerCore Compact 1.9.3 are from the original PCI PowerCore (version 1.5), which I reviewed in the April 2002 issue of EM. After a brief rundown of the original plug-ins, I'll concentrate on the new plug-ins and the three premium packages for this review.
The seven holdovers from version 1.5 include one synth — the mono PowerCore 01 — which is modeled after the famous Roland SH-101. The effects are the high-end MegaVerb reverb; Chorus/Delay for chorus, flanging, and echo effects; the 5-band equalizer EQSat; and three dynamics-processing plug-ins: PowerCore CL, VoiceStrip, and MasterX3.
CL is PowerCore's workhorse compressor-limiter. It features hard- and soft-knee compression, full-range limiting, and a soft-saturation stage. You can pack six mono or four stereo CLs on a single DSP. VoiceStrip is a compression, an EQ, and a de-essing channel strip designed especially for cleaning up vocals. MasterX3 is a 3-band expander-compressor-limiter best suited for mastering and finalizing applications.
In PowerCore Compact version 1.9.3, four plug-ins are emulations of classic hardware signal processors. While not all of them are intended to emulate the exact sound of the hardware unit, they do mimic its look and functionality.
Modeled after Lexicon-style digital reverbs, Classic Verb is simpler and easier to set up than MegaVerb. Surprisingly, it also uses slightly more DSP than MegaVerb. Classic Verb has 15 reverb types divided among halls, rooms, ambiences, and plates. An interactive graphic allows you to set pregain and predelay for initial reflections, delay time and initial gain for the decay phase, and the decay time. (Those parameters can be set numerically as well.)
A somewhat mysterious modulation section is provided for the decay phase of the reverb. Three types of modulation — named I, II, and III — are offered, each with width and depth controls, which set the rate and amount of modulation, respectively. What gets modulated is left to your imagination; the results are definitely subtle.
Down the Tubes
Tubifex is a guitar-amp emulator (see Fig. 1). It has three tube stages modeled after the 12AX7 vacuum tubes featured in Marshall and other classic guitar amps. Tubifex is unique in that it uses PowerCore and native processing to minimize latency, making it suitable for live performance.
Tubifex has separate controls for each of its three tube stages. In Simple mode, you set the gain for each stage (off is an option). In Expert mode, controls for Voltage, Character, Body, and Bright allow you to dial in the exact quality you're after. The output section has a 3-band equalizer and speaker presence, distortion, and axis controls.
Finally, a new compressor-limiter has been added. Called the 24/7C, it's intended to be your everyday dynamics tool. The 24/7C's control panel is identical to the classic Universal Audio 1176LN, and it definitely colors the sound as that unit did. You get input and output gain, attack and release time, and four compression-ratio buttons that can be used in combination.
One of the more innovative PowerCore plug-ins comes from Finnish software developer Noveltech. Character (see Fig. 2) combines filtering and compression to add character to the sound.
FIG. 2: Character is a simple but powerful spectral enhancer that analyzes incoming audio for frequency and dynamics and adapts its processing accordingly.
Character's Mode knob selects among its three modes of operation, which are optimized for percussion and vocals (mode 1), guitar and synth (mode 2), and bass and pads (mode 3). The large Character knob determines the amount of processing, and the smaller Target knob selects the frequency zone for processing. The Target knob's range and overall processing nature is based on frequency and dynamics analysis of the incoming signal.
Character is best described as an analyzer-enhancer that requires a minimum amount of human intervention. You can clearly hear dynamic and spectral enhancement and some degree of coloring. Web Clip 1 is an example of Character's effect on piano, bass, and percussion.
Filtroid is an update of the original Filtrator PowerCore plug-in. Its two resonant multimode filters can be placed in series or in parallel, and its filter modes include 12-, 18-, and 24-dB-per-octave highpass, bandpass, and lowpass. Drive (distortion) and damping (high-frequency attenuation) stages are placed after each filter. It is one of PowerCore's most interesting effects, but it is also a DSP hog, taking up more than half a DSP chip.
Filtroid's modulation section is what makes it special. Each filter has a dedicated multiwaveform and tempo-synchronized LFO that can be applied to the filter frequency and resonance as well as to the amount of drive and damping. In a useful twist, an envelope follower is supplied for controlling the LFO amounts, and the envelope follower can track the main signal or a side chain. Web Clip 2 illustrates what that can do to guitar, bass, and strings.
The Sincerest Flattery
Assimilator ($249), which is one of three premium PowerCore plug-ins covered in this review, is a phase-linear spectral-matching EQ. Assimilator analyzes two audio clips and calculates the equalization necessary to match one of their spectra, called the target, to the other, called the reference. The reference may come from a single track or a total mix, and the target would most likely (but not necessarily) be taken from similar material.
Assimilator takes the process of matching EQ to a new level by allowing you to morph between two pairs of settings. You may, for example, want to match targets from two parts of a song to reference curves from two mastering styles. You would use Assimilator's morphing feature to make a smooth transition between the two sections of the song matched to the different reference styles.
Intonator HS ($249) is a software version of TC Electronic's hardware pitch corrector, Intonator, and it does everything from minor touchup to radical pitch bending, with commensurately unnatural-sounding results.
Intonator HS is easy to set up. You choose a scale from the Scale/Mode menu, choose a root using an onscreen keyboard, and then set the range, in cents, within which correction will take place (notes outside of that range of scale notes are not corrected). Instead of using the scale-and-root method, you can create your own scale using the onscreen keyboard or in real time using MIDI input.
Intonator HS's other controls include a pitch wheel with a 6-semitone range, an amount control that determines what percentage of full correction is applied, and an attack control that determines how fast the correction is applied. Very fast attacks produce the Cher effect. Finally, there is an optional, adaptive low-cut filter on the output.
The MD3 Stereo Mastering bundle ($999) is at the high end of the premium offerings. Its two plug-ins, MD3 Multi-Band Dynamics and BrickWall Limiter, are software plug-in realizations of algorithms in TC Electronic's high-end System 6000 audio processing hardware.
FIG. 3: MD3 is a high-end mastering tool featuring multiband compression, expansion and normalizing, and parametric EQ for stereo, dual-mono, and midside material.
MD3 combines a 3-band compressor, an expander, a normalizer, a 4-band parametric EQ, and a limiter (see Fig. 3). It features 48-bit internal resolution and can operate in dual-mono, stereo, and midside configurations.
The BrickWall limiter is designed to mollify the effects of very hot maximized mixes when played by commercial CD players or processed by data-reduction encoders to produce, for example, MP3 or AAC format files. Both plug-ins give access to every conceivable setting and come loaded with useful presets.
PowerCore Compact 1.9.3 is a portable and cost-effective solution for taking some of the DSP load off of your computer, leaving more power for track playback and virtual-instrument processing. PowerCore FireWire has twice the DSP and several more plug-ins for less than twice the price of PowerCore Compact; however, for portable use, PowerCore Compact can't be beat.
The included plug-ins, although not terribly innovative, are high quality and cover all the standard DSP functions. Some of them are a little long in the tooth (which is most obvious in their control panels), but because they were high quality to start with, that's not a big issue. Perhaps the primary incentive to get PowerCore is the expanding array of plug-ins that are not available for, and probably could not be handled by, native processing. You'll find the full catalog of products at the TC Electronic Web site.
Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. Special thanks to Orren Merton for his account of PowerCore plug-ins history.
PowerCore Compact 1.9.3
hardware DSP device
OVERALL RATING (1 TO 5): 3
PROS: Compact package. FireWire interface. Included plug-ins cover all the standard DSP functions. Numerous premium plug-ins available at various price points.
CONS: Included plug-ins are standard fare and are showing their age. Processing power limited to two DSP chips.