Masterclass: Soundtoys Effect Rack

Combine your favourite effects in Soundtoys' ultimate package
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While it’s onlybeen a few years since Soundtoys 5 was introduced, the package has grown considerably and now encompasses 21 distinct processors. Fourteen of these effects can be found in its Effect Rack, which lets you mix and match devices and save the entire setup as a single multi-effect preset.

This product’s sonic authenticity is a big part of why producers such as Dave Pensado and Tom Holkenborg (a.k.a. Junkie XL) have so enthusiastically endorsed it. Soundtoys plug-ins sound and behave like actual analog gear, and over the years, ongoing refinements have made these plug-ins fairly considerate in terms of CPU usage.

With that in mind, several colleagues have urged me to take a closer look at the creative possibilities of this suite, which is capable of going well beyond basic hardware emulations. In fact, certain processor combinations yield results that are reminiscent of modular synth gear, specifically West Coast-style systems (e.g., Buchla and Serge), but with the ability to easily save and recall your patches.

TONE GENERATION

The attention to detail in Soundtoys’ circuit modeling allows it to re-create many behaviors that are generally the domain of proper analog circuitry. In fact, with a bit of forethought and experimentation, you can set up several of its devices “incorrectly” and use them as tone generators. Here are some starting points for inspiration.

Important: Before you get started, place a hard limiter after these effects and lower your monitoring volume to a level far below your usual preferences, especially if you are using headphones. It is very easy for these techniques to spiral out of control, which could destroy your monitors and even damage your hearing.

OSCILLATORS

Because both versions of the FilterFreak plugin are based on the Minimoog ladder topology, they will self-oscillate with a near perfect sine wave when the resonance is set to maximum, even if no signal is present. So rather than processing a track, just place the filter on an empty audio channel and set both filters (or one, if you’ve selected the single-channel device) to LPF mode. While 4-pole mode will certainly work, for a more pronounced resonance effect set the filter to 6- or 8-pole mode. To experiment, begin by lowering the filter gain to a reasonable -16 dB, because sweeping the cutoff can easily blow both your woofers and your tweeters (see Fig. 1). Next, increase the resonance to maximum. In less than a second, the filter will start oscillating. There’s a slight delay if there is no signal, but it is instant when you’re processing a track.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

At this point you can start tuning your pitch using the cutoff parameter. Depending on which FilterFreak plug-in you’ve applied, you’ll either have one or two voices. If you’re using two, switch them to parallel mode to create dual independent oscillator tones; otherwise, serial mode will process the first filter with the second.

Pro Tip: Clicking on the label of nearly every Soundtoys device parameter will toggle between the parameter name and its exact value in Hz, decibels, and so on. This is tremendously useful for precise tuning of filters, EQs, and delay times.

Middle C (at standard 440 tuning) has a frequency of roughly 261.6 Hz, so set the first filter cutoff to that value. The G above it is approximately 392 Hz, so if you want to create a perfect fifth, tune the second cutoff accordingly; or double the frequency to 523.2 Hz for an octave, which will yield more consistent results when you add processing. From there, you can flip the filter-link switch and the second pitch will track the frequency of the first as you adjust either cutoff.

Now, you’re ready to precisely modify the waveshape of your oscillator. For this experiment, turn the resonance down to zero on your second filter — if you’re using the dual-filter plug-in — or you may hear beating and detuning artifacts if their pitches aren’t exact.

Next, place the Decapitator effect after the filter (and again, lower its output volume to -16 dB for safety’s sake). While some people refer to this particular plug-in as distortion — and it can certainly be used as one — it is designed as a mic-preamp emulator that can also function as a saturator, which has far more nuance than a standard fuzz box. The five pre-amp modes are Ampex, EMI, Neve, and Culture Vulture’s Triode and Pentode circuits. There’s also the aptly named Punish button that overdrives the signal (see Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Applying Decapitator won’t generate any of the standard analog waveforms, which is why it is so unique in this context (see Fig. 3). In fact, these alternate waveforms have an undeniable West Coast modular vibe. By selecting a preamp, then finessing the drive and tone controls, you can create exotic new shapes that many synths don’t offer.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

It’s also worth noting that adding a Tremolator before Decapitator will apply an LFO to the volume of the signal before the waveshaping occurs. The effect is a bit like pulse-width modulation or wavetable morphing.

Pro Tip: If you create a waveform you like with this approach, you can now easily record it as an audio file and import it into your favorite sampler. With the pitch already tuned to C3, you won’t even have to fuss with key mapping or transposition.

COLORED NOISE

In addition to pitched tone generators, you can also produce a wide range of colored noise. The tool for this is Radiator, a re-creation of the Altec 1567A tube mixer/amplifier that is so authentic they added a Clean option, because some users didn’t appreciate the inclusion of this sonic detail (see Fig. 4).

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

Like the original, when you switch it to Noisy while in mic mode, and then max out the input gain, you’ll be greeted with a sea of noise. The onboard bass and treble controls let you adjust the noise color from within Radiator, but if you want added control over its tone, try putting FilterFreak or Decapitator after it. Again, it cannot be emphasized enough how important it is to maintain control over your output levels as you work with these unorthodox methods. That said, by exploiting the above techniques, you’ve got two of the essentials for analog synthesis in place, so it’s time to move on to a different kind of generative tool.

DELAY FEEDBACK

This final method for tone generation uses EchoBoy and is by far the most chaotic, with the potential to actually obliterate your monitoring system. So if you haven’t already, put a brickwall limiter at the end of your signal chain. And since we’re using the full Soundtoys Effect Rack, you might want to add a Devil-Loc immediately following EchoBoy for extra color and protection. Once you get a handle on this, you can back off a bit on these preventative measures.

Start by placing Radiator at the top of the rack, then turn its power switch off. Next, place an EchoBoy in the rack and from the default positions, set the Saturator Output to the minimum, -24dB. Then switch the Echo Time (synced) to 1/32 notes and the Feedback to 0.90 (see Fig. 5). Once you’ve confirmed that configuration, power on Radiator and slowly increase the Feedback until you hear something around 1.15, then back off immediately. Repeat that process until you get a feel for how the feedback parameter behaves.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

From there, experiment with varying synced echo times until you better understand the range. The essential concept for tuning the pitch of feedback delays is that longer delay times lower the pitch while shorter delay times raise it. Thus 1/64th notes will be tuned higher than 1/8th notes. Because we’ve selected a synced delay to get started, your DAW’s master tempo will also be a factor for these pitches.

The results of the above technique will evoke vintage sci-fi movies, reminiscent of the pioneering work of Bebe and Louis Barron. At this point, with the limiter on and monitors set low, you’re ready for more tonal exploration using the Saturation Style menu. Each of these options is quite colorful, and flipping through the factory presets, while experimenting with different delay times, will give you a surprising range of otherworldly textures, some with integrated modulation encompassing everything from tape wobble to chorusing and flanging.

Pro Tip: Once you thoroughly understand the dangers of high-feedback delays and can properly set monitoring levels, you can lower the feedback and switch the Echo mode to Time. Applying the delay-to-pitch correlation described above, try very short delay times — in the sub-50 millisecond range. Some of these can be piercing and shrill, but other saturation styles are capable of spooky voice-like textures. Binsonette and Cheap Tape are standouts in this regard. What’s more, you can also use EchoBoy as a static coloration and shaping tool by turning delay to zero and scrolling through these echo styles with the Saturation parameter at high values.

MODULATION AND SEQUENCING

Here’s where things veer into modular synthesis territory. We’ve covered three distinct tone generation tools that have convincing analog characteristics, so now it’s time to animate them. Several of the Soundtoys processors — FilterFreak, Tremolator, PhaseMistress, and PanMan — include modulation tools such as envelope followers and LFOs that are essential for their functionality. But if you dig a little deeper, they also have an option called Rhythm. This is the mode we’ll use for the next step.

The Rhythm tool is accessed in the modulation section of FilterFreak, PhaseMistress, and PanMan, which also includes the other aforementioned types. From there, complex editing is accessed through the Tweak button (see Fig. 6). Because Tremolator is LFO-centric, the Rhythm features are available in its Tweak panel.

Fig. 6

Fig. 6

Once inside the editor, you’ll quickly discover that it functions like a step-sequencer, with the ability to add or omit the waveshape for any given step. To quickly get a feel for how this works, select a few of the Shape presets in its dedicated menu (see Fig. 7). Many of these are quite complicated, because the Shape Editor allows you to set up a seemingly unlimited number of points for each Shape, a bit like the customizable LFOs in Serum or a graphic multi-stage envelope.

Fig. 7

Fig. 7

While these points can create stepped or angled shapes, there are no Bezier curves. Instead, this is handled globally by the Smoothing knob, which applies a continuously variable curve to the transitions of a shape, including linear, exponential, and several other modes. Functionally, this is like a modular lag generator.

Once you’ve designed a shape, switch to the Rhythm editor and assign it to one or more steps in a rhythm, with length, note values, and number of bars determined by selectors at the bottom of the panel. It may sound tricky here, but in practice it’s fairly intuitive (see Fig. 8).

Fig. 8

Fig. 8

With these four processors, it’s possible to come up with impossibly intricate patterns that include pitch, timbre, and volume. For example, since a self-oscillating FilterFreak is being used to generate the pitches, which are then waveshaped by Decapitator, you can use its Rhythm editor to create a pitched sequence. Traditional melodies are tricky, but if you’ve ever heard a step-sequencer on an analog modular, it’s obvious that equal temperament is merely one of numerous options in our tonal palette. For hard steps, start with a square wave and adjust its shape so that it is a flat line at maximum (100% duty cycle).

From there, you can then apply a second FilterFreak — after Decapitator — for filtering and give it an alternate rhythm, just like plugging an additional sequencer into a modular’s CV input for cutoff frequency. Resonance is also available as a destination. Or if you prefer multi-pole phase filters, use PhaseMistress instead (or in addition to it).

Not polyrhythmic enough? Add a Tremolator to sequence the amp volume. With Shape Editor, you can create sophisticated envelopes that are “triggered” according to its pattern (see Fig. 9).

Fig. 9

Fig. 9

Pro Tip: Tremolator is technically a tremolo effect, and its LFO includes the same Shape Editor as the others. So, you can quickly create sidechain pumping effects by selecting a triangle wave and applying the Smoothing features to customize it for EDM and Future effects (see Fig. 10). This also applies to PanMan, if stereo bouncing rhythms are your specialty.

Fig. 10

Fig. 10

Remember, while we’re currently co-opting these processors for modular synthesis tasks, they are still effects. So when you are done with your synth patching, you can then add delay, chorus, reverb, or any other effect at the end of your signal chain.

Even granular maniacs can get in on the action using the Crystallizer effect, which is based on the Eventide H3000 Crystal Echoes preset. It also includes gating/ducking functions tucked behind its Tweak editor.

Once you fully explore Soundtoys 5’s Effect Rack, its resemblance to a modular synth becomes undeniable. Best of all, in addition to authentic analog circuit emulations and the ability to save presets, your only limit to the number of processes you can use simultaneously is your CPU.

To hear some of these techniques in action, check out the free Soundtoys Outer Limits bank of presets, designed by Mitch Thomas (soundtoys.com/outer-limits).