Next-Generation Plug-Ins

SPEND LESS TIME PROGRAMMING AND MORE TIME PLAYING
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What do you do for an encore after you''ve produced compressor, EQ, delay, reverb, and other “bread-and-butter” plug-ins? Easy: Get creative, and pay attention to all the musicians out there clamoring for a simpler, faster, more streamlined workflow.

For most of these plug-ins, the key words are simpler, faster, better. Sure, some buck the trend—for example, Universal Audio''s emulations become more sophisticated with every new project. But compared to the original hardware behemoth, even their plug-in is definitely simpler and faster (and you don''t have to comb eBay to find the original, or pay eBay prices).

Waves has reduced some plug-ins to a single knob that morphs among settings, while Toontrack gives you a ton of presets and a limited number of controls so you can get sounds fast. Native Instruments has transformed Guitar Rig into a general-purpose processor that loads unique components, like their trio of cost-effective, vintage compressors—with some “unvintage” features to up the ante. Softube bundles a simple, easy to use junior version of their TSAR-1 reverb if you''re in a hurry and don''t want to navigate the big brother''s interface, while Slate Digital has reduced the incredibly complex task of getting an analog console sound in a digital world to a set of two, easy-to-adjust plug-ins.

Want to play more than program, but don''t want to sacrifice sound? Read on.

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From top to bottom: The VC 76, VC 2A, and VC 160, each with their expansion panels open, showing the sidechain and wet/dry level controls.

NATIVE INSTRUMENTS VINTAGE COMPRESSORS
A trio of effects covers a wide range of applications

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The Backstory
Vintage Compressors represents a continuing evolution for Guitar Rig. Introduced originally as an amp/effects sim for guitarists, GR version 4.2 has been transformed into a general-purpose host for processors beyond those geared solely toward guitar—like these three compressors, designed by Softube.

The concept goes one step further with the Guitar Rig 4 Player, a free (yes, free) subset of Guitar Rig that can host NI''s new processors, so you needn''t buy anything else to use them. And you get some cool free effects: one amp/cab combo and 13 processors, the full roster of Guitar Rig modifiers (LFO, Envelope, Step Sequencer, Analog Sequencer, and Envelope Follower), and two “tools” I''ve always found highly valuable—a split module for creating parallel effects, and a crossover that works similarly but creates parallel paths based on frequency.

Note that Vintage Compressors are not standard VST/AU/RTAS plug-ins, but “Guitar Rig plug-ins.” However, Guitar Rig supports VST/AU/RTAS, as well as 32- and 64-bit systems natively.

The Plug(s)
The VC 76, VC 2A, and VC 160 emulate the UA 1176, LA-2A, and dbx 160 respectively. Overkill? Not necessarily, although you can buy each one individually. Like the originals, the emulations have different characters—from the 2A''s smoother sound; to the 76''s more clinical, clean vibe; to the 160''s versatile, drum-friendly, occasionally over-the-top options. All three have wet/dry controls for parallel compression (a welcome feature, as you don''t need to set up your host for parallel paths) and sidechain inputs. The 2A and 160 also include a low-cut parameter for the detector, so you can keep lower frequencies from triggering compression; the VC 2A has a limit/compress switch.

The Verdict
The VC 160 offers extremely low thresholds and high amounts of compression, so you can do truly heavy-duty squashing as well as more subtle effects. The VC 76 incorporates the famous “all buttons” ratio for drastic sounds, while the VC 2A is the smoothest and in some ways, the most “normal” of the three—it''s great for bass and vocals.

Sure, there are plenty of compressor plug-ins, including some pretty outstanding emulations. But the sidechain option and dry/wet control add desirable elements that go beyond a standard emulation, the dbx 160 is a little-emulated but way-cool compressor, and when bundled, the three models really do cover all your bases—with excellent sound quality—for about $77 each.

Undecided? Download the Guitar Rig 4 Player (which you want anyway!), then the compressor demos, and check out some excellent dynamics control for yourself.

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The user interface encompasses a lot of parameters, but they''re all laid out in a logical fashion.

SOFTUBE TSAR-1
True stereo algorithmic reverb with outstanding smoothness

The Backstory
There are two types of reverb: a real acoustic space . . . and everything else, which is what most studios use. The two “in the box” options are convolution reverb, which loads an impulse of an acoustic space (think sampler), and algorithmic, which models an acoustic space (think synthesizer). Convolution reverbs are more like a photo and are optimized to work with dry sounds, while algorithmic reverbs are more like a painting and can supplement or complement existing ambience in the material being processed.

To carry the analogy further, if some algorithmic reverbs use fingerpaints and crayons, then the TSAR-1 offers watercolors, fine oils, charcoal, or gouache. I tend to use algorithmic reverbs because I prefer to tailor the space to my specs, rather than work with a relatively fixed space—so I was definitely listening to the TSAR-1 with a critical ear.

The Plug
To me, the four most important reverb characteristics are smoothness (no “flutter” or periodicity to the sound, unless you want it), realistic early reflections (easier said than done), diffusion that can go from “marbles-bouncing-on-steel-plate” to ultra-lush, and tone controls for manipulating the bright/dark character. TSAR-1 scores extremely high on all four points. I was particularly impressed with the ability to control early reflections and add room ambience to normally sterile sound sources, like analog electronic drums.

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The user interface, which is comprehensive yet invites experimentation thanks to its ease of use, deserves props. But if you don''t like tweaking, the presets are excellent. In fact overall, TSAR-1 is a class act—it handles mono or stereo from 44.1 to 192kHz, does true stereo, and even comes bundled with the “little brother” TSAR-1R reverb. (This uses the same engine, but is designed to get sounds fast and has only three controls—predelay, color/tone, and time, a macro that controls multiple parameters.) Even the documentation equals the rest of the package''s standards.

The Verdict
Diaphanous, lush, smooth, transparent—it''s as if there''s some gnome inside the reverb who sands and polishes the reverb tail before it goes out into the world. The only complaint I could imagine someone having is that it''s almost too perfect, like those airbrushed pictures of models that make them look like goddesses instead of humans. But I like goddesses, and this is one seriously gorgeous reverb.

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In honor of the geek spirit that would spend a year emulating a classic reverb from 1978, this screenshot shows the “top panel” opened up, where you can see additional controls.

UNIVERSAL AUDIO LEXICON 224
Classic hardware reverb emulation for the UAD-2 platform

The Backstory
The Lexicon 224 was born 33 years ago. Although digital audio was in its infancy, designer Dave Griesinger squeezed out every possible ounce of performance—and created a trademark sound for ''80s music. Although contemporary digital reverbs tended toward “roughness,” Griesinger used multiple techniques to generate a beautiful reverb that nonetheless mixed in a touch of street-wise character.

I''ve been using Universal Audio''s powered plug-ins for years, and have been consistently impressed with their analog modeling chops. But lately they''ve been concentrating on ever-more-ambitious emulations, like the Manley Massive Passive and Studer A800. For the 224, UA claim to use the same algorithms and basic processor codes as the original hardware, and emulate the complete signal chain—down to the input transformers and 12-bit gain-stepping converters. Having worked in several 224-equipped studios, its sound has been burned into my brain—so how does the 224 compare?

The Plug
Short-form, it''s a 224—warts, lush tails, great algorithms, funky pushbutton controls, and all. Any differences relate mostly to eliminating aspects that make no sense today (i.e., with hosts and plug-ins storing presets, the original, cumbersome preset management method was redundant).

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The emulation is remarkable, down to the options for adding inherent system noise and reverting the “software” from the final version to a previous version with sound-affecting bugs. But really, those are details that just indicate the engineers at UA are, well, insane. What matters is the sound, and when I close my eyes, I''m taken back to tweaking a track''s reverb in a big studio. There''s that “digital vibe,” yet done so appealingly you can understand why the 224 had such a devoted following. But that''s enough details, because you can download a demo and evaluate the 224 for yourself (assuming you have UAD-2 hardware).

The Verdict
Reviewing this plug-in while simultaneously checking out the Softube TSAR-1 was surreal—they''re totally different, yet both make distinctive, personality-laden reverbs. I''d characterize the 224 as conjuring up deep, rich, evocative sounds with a digital edge—yet with a body that approaches analog. I hate to get into cork-sniffing, but the 224 almost demands it: It covers a range from subtle to brash, from smooth to rough, and provides a bridge between the best of what vintage had to offer, filtered through today''s skillful software emulation—so you''re not just getting a 224, you''re getting a perfect 224. And that just about says it all.

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EZmix has sorted the presets based on finding those in Chuck Ainlay''s expansion pack. Note the three sliders on the right, and the informational display above them.

TOONTRACK EZMIX
Preset-based minimalist plug-in for quick, fast, easy mixes
The Backstory
Maybe you''re a newbie and don''t know how to get pro sounds from a bunch of different plug-ins . . . or you''re a pro who has to finish that audio-for-video project tonight, a songwriter who wants to play and not program, or a veteran looking for some fresh sounds to break out of a rut. One word: EZmix.

The EZmix plug-in incorporates multiple effects—compressor, limiter, highpass filter, lowpass filter, “overloud” (combined compressor, EQ, and harmonic generation), 5-band parametric EQ, bit crusher (lo-fi), delay, transient shaper, tape simulator, gate, chorus, reverse reverb, hall reverb, tape delay, filter delay (i.e., the delay timbre can vary), and distortion. These are arranged into presets that typically have three slider controls: Shape (alters some strategic aspect of the sound, often modifying several parameters like a macro), Blend (sometimes like a wet/dry mix, but more often another macro control), and Level. Want more control? Then you''re not the target market.

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The Plug
The clean user interface offers a preset list, the three sliders, a “display” that lists the modules in the preset and what the sliders control, a tab for showing “favorites” presets (including user variations based on slider edits), and a search box for filtering specific criteria—instruments, authors, genres, etc. Several columns list preset type, intended instrument, and the like; you can customize which fields are shown, and sort within given fields.

Although you can''t perform significant editing on the 205 included presets, the architecture allows for inexpensive expansion packs—including ones from veteran engineers Chuck Ainlay and Mark Needham.

The Verdict
Presets load instantly, facilitating the audition process. The reverb isn''t world-class, but overall the effects deliver major DSP bang for the buck, and are versatile enough to offer a wide, satisfying range of sounds. However, developing a list of favorites is crucial (particularly if you have expansion packs), as there are lots of presets—and some are quite over the top. While they have their uses, you probably wouldn''t want to have to step through them every time you look for presets.

EZmix is a major advocate of the trend toward simplification. Although I like tweaking my own presets, EZmix makes it really easy to dial in a sound—some of these I later replaced with custom presets, but many I just kept “as is.” Overall, EZmix offers a unique, valid take on nailing sounds fast, and is nowhere near as limiting as you might think from a superficial look.

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The Virtual Channel “sidecar” shows grouping, where the group controls affect all grouped modules simultaneously. The Virtual MixBuss plug-in is toward the left.

SLATE DIGITAL VIRTUAL CONSOLE COLLECTION
Emulations for “in the box” mixing

The Backstory
There''s a lot of controversy about mixing in the box, digital summing, and whether analog consoles give a mix more “life.” Actually, there''s nothing wrong with digital summing; it''s accurate and predictable. But analog consoles have idiosyncrasies and nonlinearities that digital doesn''t . . . but which digital can theoretically reproduce, given the right algorithms.

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The Plugs
VCC includes two plug-ins, the Virtual Channel for insertion into individual channels, and the Virtual MixBuss for buses. Each offers four different console models (SSL 4000G, Neve 8048, API, and Trident 80B). The only editable parameters (aside from some global settings in Preferences, like “drift”) are Input and Drive on the channels, and Drive on the bus. Note this has nothing to do with console processors like EQ or dynamics; VCC is solely about emulating a mixer''s quantifiable analog characteristics.

VCC has two extremely cool features. With channel grouping (eight groups total), adjusting one channel makes the same adjustment in other channels. Also, you can “decouple” the modules, so you could have a drum group going through the SSL and background vocals through the Trident—or mix and match bus/channel characteristics.

Do the models sound like the consoles they emulate? Haul them into my studio, give me three months, and I''ll get back to you. The real questions are, can they give your mixes more life, or make it easier to get a good mix.

For any given channel, the effect is subtle, and the differences among models are subtle as well. VCC comes into its own cumulatively, as you add Virtual Channels to multiple tracks. I loaded VCC into a Sonar X1 project because it has a global effects bypass control; being able to do this kind of A/B test definitely highlighted the differences, which are very much like what analog fans claim—a better soundstage, more definition, and an undefinable “sweeter” sound.

The Verdict
I approached VCC with skepticism, because I''ve been able to get good mixes with analog and digital gear—I don''t have an analog fetish, nor do I think that digital is perfect. But after extensive listening tests, there''s no doubt that Slate is on to something. The difference isn''t earth-shattering, but VCC gives that extra 7% that can push a mix up to the next level—perhaps more importantly, it does so effortlessly. You can wrestle vaguely similar results with a fistful of conventional processors, but VCC makes the process painless—and the price is right.

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This collage shows the entire OneKnob line; despite the plug-in''s simplicity, each knob does more than just adjust a single parameter.

WAVES ONEKNOB SERIES
Simple—yet not simplistic—plug-ins with extreme ease of use

The Backstory
Waves has taken the “simple is good” trend to its minimalist conclusion with the OneKnob series of seven plug-ins, each with a dedicated function. However, the one knob actually controls several parameters “under the hood”—so rather than just doing “more” of something, you''re morphing among multiple, valid settings.

The Plugs
Driver''s knob goes through multiple overdrive/distortion variations—every knob position is a useful morph. It''s extremely versatile, although the level drops off a bit with the really distorted settings. I predict we''ll hear this on many drum tracks.

For dynamics, Louder is a very sweet maximizer. It''s great for giving a lift to individual tracks; try it instead of compression with vocals, as well as on buses and individual instruments. Pressure seems more like parallel compression at lighter settings, evolving into a more contemporary, “pumping” sound at higher settings. A switch gives three different characters, presumably by altering how hard the input gets “hit.”

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Three OneKnobs are oriented toward tone. Phatter seems to boost mostly in the 80–300Hz range—higher than low bass, but lower than “muddy.” As such, it''s quite effective when you want instant old school drums, an “FM DJ” voice, or to give some authority to bass. Its mirror image, Brighter, does add brightness; but in the middle of the travel the sound seems more like a swept peak, with a shelving-like boost at the high end. In any event, it does more than just a simple treble boost. Filter sounds like a synth lowpass filter, but also adds a switch with four resonance settings.

Finally, Wetter gives reverb, with higher settings increasing decay time and pre-delay.

The Verdict
Wetter does what it claims, but I think reverb needs serious tweaking for particular applications, which one knob can''t do. Filter is essential if you lack a virtual synth that lets you access its lowpass filter as an effect; otherwise, it''s redundant. My faves—which are great by any standard—are Driver, for its versatility and distortion quality; Louder, because it''s effective yet transparent; and Pressure, due to its uncanny ability to deliver compression from subtle to dance music madness. Phatter and Brighter can be simulated with EQ to some degree, but they offer a useful and different mojo that goes beyond mere EQ.

Simple? Yes. Simplistic? No—thanks to some clever designs, you can get a lot of mileage out of a single knob.

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Behind this deceptively simple interface lies a wild pack of turbulent filth monsters.

DADA LIFE SAUSAGE FATTENER
Squash, distort, compress, and grease your audio

The Backstory
If you''re into railing against brickwall limiters that destroy all dynamics and turn waveforms into sausages, skip ahead—we''re dealing with a plug-in intended to go beyond dynamic range control, and add both hardcore sausaging and distortion. Think of it as riddling your waveform with the audio equivalent of body piercings.

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However, you don''t have to max it. When applied more subtly (yes, I recognize the irony), you can do tricks like add serious grease to a bus carrying, for example, bass and drums. Sausaging can also work on individual tracks too, like kick drum or electric bass.

The Plug
The three controls are Fatness, Color, and Gain (trims the output level). However, the sausage gets an angry expression when you turn things way up, so while that may not qualify as a control, it does qualify as . . . well, a graphic of an angry sausage. The UI is huge—it takes over your screen—and while amusing, between the distraction of the knobs vibrating when audio passes through the plug (clearly, too much caffeine) and the huge yellow window, it''s quite the attention whore.

Mr. Sausage wants to be hit hard. With a suitably strong input signal, zero fatness is roughly unity gain; turning it up to about 20% gives reasonably clean compression. At 30%, there''s definite nastiness, so you can only imagine what happens when you kick it up to 100%. Meanwhile, Color makes the sound somewhat brighter as you turn it up, but this isn''t conventional tone-control brightness—it''s more like a weird wah with no resonance. Nice: All three parameters support VST automation.

The Verdict
This is not about clean, brickwall dynamics control. What''s extremely cool about the Sausage Fattener is that it celebrates the act of sausaging, and revels in killing the dynamics in as ruthless, gleeful, and distorted a manner as possible.

If you want some serious sausage grease in your music, you can try to turn a brickwall limiter into a bad boy, or you can simply start off with a bad boy and take it from there. Like a real sausage, you probably don''t want to know what''s inside this plug-in. But go ahead and use it . . . I promise I won''t tell, as long as you don''t tell anyone I''m using it, too.