A seven-pack of flexible DirectX/VST effects plug-ins.
Sonitus:fx 2a is a group of seven DirectX/VST plug-ins from Norwegian software developer Ultrafunk. Each effect is named after the function it provides: equalizer, modulator, phase, reverb, compressor, wah-wah, and surround. The plug-ins have an uncluttered, intuitive interface and offer an assortment of parameters that you can adjust both numerically (from the keyboard) and graphically (with the mouse). They are available for purchase only online, either separately or as a package, and each comes with a short but informative Help file that doubles as the manual.
I tested the Sonitus:fx 2a package on a Pentium III/700 MHz with 256 MB of RAM and Windows 98SE using Cakewalk's Pro Audio, Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge, Steinberg's Cubase 5.0, and a few other host applications. All of the plug-ins performed without problems and were fun and easy to work with.
EQUALIZATIONThe Fx:equalizer plug-in (see Fig. 1) provides six bands of parametric equalization. Controls for each band include filter type, center frequency, Q, and gain. You can choose from five different filter types: Lowpass, Highpass, Peak/Dip, Shelving Low, and Shelving High. The center frequency can be set at up to half the sample rate, with the width of the band controlled by the Q value. The gain of each band can be boosted or attenuated by 18 dB, and you can use the master output gain to normalize the amplitude of the signal after a filter has been applied.
I particularly like the filter graph in Fx:equalizer. The six bands are represented by numbered yellow dots. Dragging the dots changes the frequency and gain parameters; double-clicking on a dot toggles its band on and off. You can select multiple dots to modify the parameters in different bands simultaneously while still retaining their original ratios - very nice! Fx:equalizer also lets you modify the Q settings by holding down the Shift key while dragging a dot, an unusual but useful function. The amplitude range of the graph can be set to 5, 10, 20, or 40 dB for displaying subtle, precise modulations or drastic EQ effects. The Flat button provides a quick way to reset all the gain parameters to zero.
MODULATIONFx:modulator can produce various delay-related effects, such as flanging, phasing, chorusing, and doubling. It uses three modes of operation: Flanger mode mixes in one delay line per channel of the stereo signal; Ensemble mode uses three nonsynchronized modulating delays for fatter and more diffuse effects; and String Phaser re-creates the "sound of analog sweeping synth-strings" by modulating the signal's phase instead of delaying it.
The plug-in provides a wide range of adjustable parameters, which are Phase, Depth, Delay, Feedback, Mix, Cross Mix, and LFO Rate. You can also set the LFO waveform to Triangle, Sine, Peak, Peak with inverted second half, Twin Peaks, or Peak/Dip. Just as with Fx:equalizer, a master gain enables you to normalize the amplitude of your output signal. A simple EQ feature offers Low Cut or High Cut and a single control, which is used to specify its cutoff frequency.
Fx:modulator provides added flexibility by letting you invert the feedback and the mixed (wet) signals either separately or together. Inverted feedback tends to produce a more "hollow" effect, and the inverted wet signal can produce a variety of sounds depending on the source material. In addition, Fx:modulator offers a Tape feature that emulates the sound of an analog tape flanger.
COMPRESSORFx:compressor provides variable-knee compression with built-in peak limiting (see Fig. 2). The controls include Attack (0 to 400 ms), Release (1 to 4,000 ms), Ratio (0.4:1 to 30:1), Knee (1 to 30 dB), Threshold (-60 to 0 dB), and Gain (-30 to +30 dB). You can adjust the controls by dragging with the mouse or by directly entering numbers. Depending on your settings, the Compression Curve Graph displays the signal level, compression ratio, and knee values over a 60 dB range. The graph also lets you alter the Ratio and Knee values with your mouse. Click anywhere within the graph and drag left or right to change the Knee; drag up or down to change the Ratio.
Fx:compressor includes a built-in peak limiting algorithm as well as a Transient Controlled Release algorithm that automatically adjusts the release time to eliminate fast compression changes that can cause "pumping." The most notable aspect of Fx:compressor is its two modes of operation: Normal and Vintage. In Normal mode, Fx:compressor acts as you would expect, attenuating the gain above the threshold level using the ratio setting. In Vintage mode, however, the compression ratio is gradually reduced to a value of 1:1 as the signal goes above the threshold. This allows the loudest parts of the signal to pass without being compressed as much as the rest of the signal, giving it more warmth and punch, as you would find with a vintage compressor.
WAH-WAHFx:wahwah emulates classic wah-wah stomp-box guitar effects. The plug-in operates in three modes: Manual, Automatic, and Triggered. In Manual mode, you control the behavior of the wah envelope with the Wah slider. You can also control the spectrum characteristics of the effect at the high and low points of the wah with the High and Low Filters; both have parameters for Frequency, Q, and Gain. A master gain control is also included.
Automatic mode adds a Tempo control to the features listed previously. The Tempo control sets the wah modulation speed in bpm.
Triggered mode has the same controls as Manual mode and adds Attack, Release, and Threshold settings. In this mode, the wah effect is only applied when the signal reaches the specified Threshold; the Attack and Release parameters control the time it takes to reach the High and Low filter settings respectively. In addition, the Wah slider works differently in this mode. Instead of providing direct control over the wah envelope, it simply determines the range between High and Low Filter settings. If set low, the difference between the settings is smaller; if set high, the difference is larger. You have to hear it to really understand how it works, but it offers great control over the effect.
JUST A PHASEFx:phase is the simplest plug-in of the bunch, with only three adjustable parameters, four modes of operation, and a master output gain control. The Phase slider controls the degree of signal shift (180 degrees), and the selected operation mode determines the way in which the phased signal is mixed into the stereo output. Left/Right mode changes the phase between the left and right stereo channels. In Mid/Side mode, the middle (mono) information is phased in relation to the side (stereo difference) signals. Center/Surround encodes center information in the left channel and surround information in the right channel for use in surround mixes. Surround/Center mode does the opposite, with center information on the right and surround information on the left. The two surround modes automatically apply a phase shift of 90 degrees, which is the optimum setting to avoid phase cancellation when panning in surround sound.
The Width slider determines the size of the stereo image after phase shift is applied: from 0 percent (mono) to 100 percent (stereo) to 200 percent (double the level of side information). The Meter lets you monitor the phase difference between the two channels before (Pre) or after (Post) processing. And the Filter Cycle button lets you choose between an Infinite Impulse Response filter (which is fast and introduces a constant phase shift to the signal) or a Finite Impulse Response filter (which is slower but provides greater accuracy for high frequencies). This plug-in can be used to alter the phase content of your audio signal for a variety of purposes: as an effect, to avoid inverted phase problems, or even to create a pseudostereo signal from a mono input.
SURROUND SOUNDIn contrast to Fx:phase, the Fx:surround plug-in (see Fig. 3) is the most complex of the effects and offers the most unusual features. This plug-in lets you position your signal anywhere within the sound field, even behind the listener. It achieves this by creating a stereo signal that contains encoded surround and center channel information. You need a surround-sound-capable decoder and speaker setup to hear the full effect of the Surround plug-in, but even with a plain set of stereo speakers, the effect is noticeable.
The plug-in's Panning Area allows you to set the position of your signal in the sound field. Drag the signal indicator left or right to pan the signal as such or drag the indicator up and down to move the signal front to back. A Joystick option lets you use a gaming joystick to manipulate the signal position - pretty cool. The Panning Area can be zoomed to three different levels, which allows you to place the signal "outside" the actual speaker boundaries. You can also choose from four input types: Mono, Stereo, Left, and Right.
Fx:surround lets you define a Focal Point within the sound field, which is similar to specifying the location of a virtual listener. When used with different Attenuation and Doppler effects, that can make the surround-sound experience more realistic.
The plug-in's best feature, however, is the Path. The Path function lets you draw a path in the Panning Area along which your signal will move. This allows you to animate your signal in the sound field. For example, if you had a helicopter sound in your audio project, you could make it move all around the sound field by drawing a flight path for it in the Panning Area. You can create some very convincing sound effects with the Focal Point, Attenuation, and Doppler features. I had a lot of fun playing with Fx:surround.
REVERBERATIONLike Fx:surround, the Fx:reverb plug-in (see Fig. 4) offers complexity as well as flexibility. Output volume is determined by setting the Input level along with the levels for Early Reflections, Reverb, and Dry signals. Each of the four controls can be muted, so you can monitor the early reflections and the reverb decay as well as the reverb or dry audio.
Like most reverb effects, this plug-in includes settings for Predelay and Diffusion. However, it adds versatility by allowing you to adjust a number of delay and EQ parameters. Room Size scales the internal delay lines and can be used with the Decay Time control to produce a wide range of virtual rooms, chambers, and halls.
You can modify the frequency characteristics of the simulated space by using the Low Cut (20 to 3,000 Hz) and High Cut (0.5 to 22 kHz) filters. A High Dampening parameter (0.5 to 20 kHz) attenuates the higher frequency content of the reverb over time. In addition, the Bass Multiplier boosts or cuts low frequencies in the reverb by controlling the decay time of signals that fall below the adjustable Crossover frequency. Using the EQ settings judiciously, you can simulate small bright spaces or big, warm, boomy rooms. Of course, most of the parameter values can be set numerically or graphically.
Finally, you can specify whether Fx:reverb produces mono or stereo output and whether to include the tail of the reverb in the output signal. This feature, controlled by the Tail button, is great for extending the duration of short samples or automatically creating extra data after the end of the input signal to avoid clipping off the end of the reverb.
PLUG TESTI put the Sonitus:fx plug-ins through their paces using a variety of host software. My first foray was with the dry tracks from an old Cakewalk Pro Audio project, which included drums, bass, guitar, and horns. To tighten up the bass track's amplitude, I applied Fx:compressor. I used the Teletronix LA2A preset as the basis for my compression settings. With a few minor adjustments to the threshold, gain, attack, and release, I had the bass track really booming. The compressor plug-in's Vintage mode truly does make a difference.
Because I gave the bass track a vintage touch, I needed to alter the electric guitar track so it would complement the mix better. Fx:wahwah came in handy here. I tried the plug-in's Auto mode, but it didn't give me enough control over the sound. With the Triggered mode, though, I adjusted the Threshold parameter so that the effect wasn't applied to the entire track. This gave it more of a live performance feel.
The Fx:wahwah plug-in made the guitar sound a bit thin, so I also applied Fx:equalizer to the guitar track. A 6 dB boost at 92, 351, and 2,890 Hz filled in the sound. I came across one annoyance while working with the EQ plug-in, though. When I accidentally hit the Flat button, all of my EQ settings disappeared - an undo feature would have been useful at that point.
Next I used Fx:modulator to make the horns sound a bit bigger. The Flanger and String Phaser modes didn't get me what I wanted, but the Ensemble mode worked perfectly. It's more effective than a regular chorus effect because it uses three nonsynchronized modulating delays.
Finally, I added some reverb to the entire mix with Fx:reverb. I was looking for a tight, warm room, and though none of the presets provided the settings I needed, I had no trouble getting the right sound. The multitude of parameters that this plug-in provides was somewhat overwhelming at first, but after a bit of use, I felt right at home. For versatility, Fx:reverb is one of my favorite plug-ins, and it sounds excellent.
To test the plug-ins' parameter automation (available only with a VST host), I gave the effects a try under Cubase 5.0. Fx:surround benefits in particular when used under VST: even though the plug-in's Path feature lets you create automated trajectories for sound positioning, you get more precise results using automation. You're also not limited to 25 control points, which is the limit when the plug-in is used in a DirectX host.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to test the capabilities of the surround plug-in fully because I don't have a surround setup in my studio. But even with only two speakers, I heard changes in the audio. In particular, I noted the signal's phase being changed, which made the sound appear "outside" the speakers. The effect worked best with both high and band-limited sounds. I also tested the plug-in with sound effects. Using a footsteps sample, I created an automated path that gave the impression of someone walking around in the stereo field.
I didn't really find much use for the phase plug-in, though it would come in handy for changing a signal's phase to avoid cancellation.
END PROCESSINGIt's hard to find fault with this package. All seven plug-ins have excellent user interfaces and go beyond the call of duty in flexibility and processor efficiency. The overall sound quality is excellent, especially considering that the Sonitus:fx 2a plug-ins cost less than half as much as some high-end bundles.
Moreover, the plug-ins have extremely low latency, and when I tested their effect on my computer's CPU load (with Sound Forge), they each showed a drain of only about 2 or 3 percent. That's pretty unbelievable for plug-ins of this caliber.
In addition, the Preset Manager used by all of the plug-ins lets you save and load your own effects presets. Unlike most other plug-ins, the presets you create are available within any host application, not just the application in which they were created.
My only criticism is that the documentation could be expanded to include more details about how the settings work. Tutorial examples demonstrating how to use the plug-ins would also help. In general, though, the Sonitus:fx 2a suite of plug-ins is a great package and a great value. If you want a collection of flexible and efficient plug-ins with superb sound, get funky with Sonitus:fx 2a.