Many musicians are all too aware of just how limited computer-based workstations really are. It seems that no matter how much RAM or processor speed you have, you still have to strike a compromise between processing options and sound quality. Here to alleviate at least a few of those issues is TC Works. Introduced last year, the TC Works TC PowerCore is a full-length PCI expansion card for Mac and PC that brings high-end processing and added digital signal processing (DSP) horsepower to native workstations.
Now sporting Version 1.5, the PowerCore ships with an impressive bundle of TC's world-famous plug-ins, including MegaReverb, Chorus/Delay, Vintage CL, VoiceStrip, EQSat and the Powercore 01 virtual analog synth. This bundle covers most user needs ranging from basic tracking and mixing chores to premastering. Also included is SparkLE (Mac only), a stripped-down version of Spark that handles basic sample and 2-track editing and mastering.
UP AND RUNNING?
The test unit was a Mac G4/450 MHz with 768 MB of RAM, running OS 9.0. I tested the PowerCore with Steinberg Cubase VST 5.0r2 and the included version of SparkLE. The setup was straightforward. Installing a PCI card is always a bit nerve-racking, but despite its size, the PowerCore slid right into place. After closing the lid and powering up, I installed the drivers and copied the PowerCore VST folder into a number of applications and got to work. My testing procedure consisted of opening current projects and simply swapping my native plug-ins with the appropriate TC counterparts. I began testing the PowerCore with Cubase 5.1 but ended up reverting to the more stable 5.0r2.
For the most part, the maximum number of plug-ins usable at a time is seven or eight, depending on what combination you're using. The stated limit is actually 28 instances of the Vintage CL in Mono mode. Eight plug-ins may not sound like a lot, but almost without exception, the included TC plug-ins do several things at once. (For example, the VoiceStrip has separate controls for EQ, dynamics, de-essing and gating.)
The quality of the plug-ins speaks for itself, but after testing the product and browsing several user groups, latency and overall stability seem to be touchy issues with regard to the PowerCore. In the race to up CPU performance and serial bus speed, PCI speed was overlooked by computer makers and is still chugging along at an annoyingly slow pace. Thus, any signal that gets bounced through the PowerCore is going to get slowed down by the PCI bottleneck. Both TC and most of the third-party developers have worked to alleviate those problems, and for the most part, they've succeeded. Unfortunately, some glitches still seem to exist.
For example, when using the PowerCore with Cubase, there are certain instances in which latency has to be manually accounted for. When used as an insert effect, the PowerCore works flawlessly and can even work within a signal chain consisting of other non-PowerCore effects. (In this instance, Cubase automatically accounts for the delay.) When used as a send, however, things get tricky. At this point, you have to either add the included TC Delay Compensator plug-in to each of your audio tracks that are not using the PowerCore or route them all though a group channel and add the Delay Compensator as an insert effect — a serious oversight. Hopefully, Steinberg will post an update that will deal with this issue.
I found some other little hiccups that were more aggravating than anything else. On several occasions, when activating PowerCore effects, the system froze or produced some ugly-sounding digital feedback. Re-installing the earlier version of Cubase fixed most of those problems, but the system still emitted about 30 seconds of digital feedback each time I activated a new PowerCore plug-in, and some other minor problems occurred with screen draws. Again, a quick glance at the Cubase user forum proved that I wasn't the only one running into the same snags. According to TC, Version 1.6 should fix those bugs.
With SparkLE, however, the PowerCore (using the same hardware and ASIO drives as before) didn't so much as cough. Within Spark are four master effect slots, so for test purposes, I dropped in four MasterX3s on a five-minute, 24-bit file. In that instance, the PowerCore performed like a champ. Obviously, the technology behind the PowerCore is sound; the performance issues are therefore something TC and its third-party developers need to tackle.
Once I got the PowerCore up and running, I was thoroughly impressed with both the sound and the user interface of each of the included plug-ins. The MegaReverb, possibly the best-sounding software reverb on the market, includes the kind of features you would expect on a higher-end outboard unit, not a plug-in. In addition to a number of extremely useful presets, users can tailor their sound with controls for room shape and size, wall diffusion, variable high-cut filter, frequency-selective decay, predelay, balance, tail balance, stereo width and wet/dry mix. It also has two sets of VU meters showing both input and output levels.
For users who cut their teeth on cheap, native digital audio workstations (DAWs) and keyboard workstations, the MegaReverb will be their first experience with a professional-sounding reverb. Longtime studio engineers will still bemoan the fact that it doesn't sound quite like their Lexicons, but, overall, the MegaReverb is a serious sound-shaping tool. And a little went a long way; I tried the MegaReverb on everything. On vocals and live bass, just a touch did the trick. On some synth-pad tracks, I decided to have some fun and began cranking up the wet/dry mix levels and twisting the other parameters around. The results sounded more like something I'd cooked in Native Instruments Absynth than anything else. Very cool.
The Chorus/Delay, just like the name implies, acts like two plug-ins in one (see Fig. 1). It includes separate controls for input and output levels, independent chorus and delay wet/dry mix controls, high-cut filter, and Insert and Send/Return modes. The plug-in also has controls for chorus speed, depth, delay, feedback (one for chorus and one for delay), LFO and an adjustable delay graph. This ranks with anything currently available; it certainly has a more transparent and pleasing sound than anything that ships with Cubase or Emagic Logic Audio.
On the compression side of things, the PowerCore bundle includes the Vintage CL compressor/limiter (see Fig. 2). Here, TC jettisoned the modern-looking sliders and scalable graphs of its other plug-ins in favor of a '60s-era faceplate with knobs, switches and virtual VU meters. The layout is straightforward, and it takes just seconds to dial up your sound. Everything I ran through this, from drum loops to live bass, picked up a warmer, richer sound that instantly helped it to cut through the mix.
The last of the tracking and mixing plug-ins is the VoiceStrip, which includes a compressor, an EQ, a de-esser, a gate and a low-cut filter (see Fig. 3). The VoiceStrip was my favorite. With this one plug-in, you can create anything from a crisp and pristine, professional-sounding vocal all the way to some bizarre lo-fi emulations, without the track sounding cheap and shrill.
In terms of mastering, the EQSat is a 5-band mastering EQ that combines a contemporary-styled interface (like the MegaReverb) with a sound that emulates some classic studio favorites (see Fig. 4). Working off of the presets alone, the EQSat can really help you get your mixes working; some of the settings, such as Killer Kick Drum, speak for themselves. Again, the sound was top-notch, but, in this instance, I wasn't totally sold on the interface. The mixing of a vertical EQ graph and horizontal boost/cut/shape controls felt kind of clunky. The Track and Index modes, however, offer users a little more variety.
The TC Works TC PowerCore is definitely a step in the right direction, and it's obviously a platform that's going to be supported in the foreseeable future. By the time you read this, Version 1.6 should be available, which will include a number of revisions and fixes. Some things to look for in the future include emulations of the Sony Oxford EQ and a future collaboration with Access (makers of the Virus keyboard series); the TC MasterX3 (the lite software version of the TC Finalizer) is already available. These products are slated to be shipped as optional plug-ins.
If you're a serious producer or engineer who can't justify the cost of a full-blown Digidesign Pro Tools TDM system or you simply need more horsepower for your existing rig, the TC PowerCore is a perfect solution: Theoretically, 10 TC PowerCore cards can be used in the same machine, and third-party support will continue to expand. This one is here to stay.
TC PowerCore 1.5
Pros: Excellent-sounding plug-ins. DSP expansion card frees up native processing power. Works with any VST-compatible software. Mac and PC support.
Cons: High price. Instability.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 4
MINIMUM SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS
MAC: G3; 128 MB RAM; OS 9.x; VST-compatible software; one open PCI slot
PC: Pentium III/500 MHz; 128 MB RAM; Windows 98/2000/ME/XP; VST-compatible software; main board compliant w/PCI 2.2 spec or 3.3V PCI bus