Soundtoys Decapitator (Mac/Win) Review

Are you ready for a plug-in that will rip your head off? SoundToys Decapitator ($179 native, $349 TDM) models the sound of five analog processors driven to the point of extreme distortion.
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SoundToys Decapitator emulates the saturation characteristics of five analog processors to produce both subtle and extreme effects.

Are you ready for a plug-in that will rip your head off? SoundToys Decapitator ($179 native, $349 TDM) models the sound of five analog processors driven to the point of extreme distortion. More than a one-trick pony, the plug-in can also add subtle richness, girth, texture, and warmth to your tracks using moderate settings.

You can buy Decapitator alone or as part of SoundToys'' Native Effects and TDM Effects bundles. The plug-in is available in TDM, RTAS, AU, AudioSuite, and VST formats for iLok. I tested Version 4.0.2 of the AU plug in MOTU Digital Performer 6.02, using an 8-core, 2.8GHz Mac Pro running OS X 10.5.4.

I got great sounds with Decapitator before even opening the succinct operating manual, but a perusal of the document improved my results.

Five Style buttons—labeled A, E, N, P, and T—switch Decapitator to different saturation algorithms, which are modeled after the 1950s-era Ampex 350 tape-recorder drive preamp, Chandler/EMI TG Channel (a combination mic pre, DI, and EQ), Neve 1057 input channel, and the Culture Vulture distortion device from Thermionic Culture. (Two Styles—P and T—emulate pentode and triode modes, respectively, for the latter unit.)

A Drive control increases gain and distortion for the chosen algorithm. Lower the Output control to keep post-saturation levels sane, or activate the Auto Gain switch. (You can still fine-tune output levels using the Output control.) The Punish button kicks in an extra 20dB of gain at the front of the signal chain for radical distortion. Blend processed and dry signals to your liking with the Mix control.

Three controls filter the signal before it''s saturated. These include a low-cut filter (continuously variable from 20Hz to 1kHz); a Thump switch, which boosts a few decibels at the low-cut filter''s corner frequency; and a Tone control. The latter simultaneously and progressively boosts low frequencies and attenuates highs when turned counterclockwise from the noon position; turn it clockwise, and highs are boosted while lows are cut.

If the processed sound is too fizzy or buzzy, use Decapitator''s high-cut filter (continuously variable from 1kHz to 20kHz) to roll off highs post-saturation. Engaging the Steep switch changes the filter''s slope from 6dB to 30dB per octave. That''s useful for approximating the timbre of a guitar amp''s speaker cabinet when Decapitator''s high-cut filter is set to around 4kHz or 5kHz.

Also provided are facilities for saving and recalling custom presets, a Compare function for your tweaks, and a nice selection of factory patches.

I love this plug-in. The A (Ampex) mode with a mild Drive setting was my overall favorite for adding subtle richness and girth to vocals, acoustic guitar, and bass. Activating the Thump switch on a spoken-word track lent a chesty, DJ-like timbre that sounded gorgeous. T mode was generally my favorite for processing trap drums. But chaining two instances of Decapitator in series—one instance in T mode and the other set to A—sounded terrific on top-miked snare drum, especially with a little high-cut filtering applied. The resulting bright, colorful, raspy tone sounded as if a bottom mic had also been placed on the drum (see Web Clip 1). Activating the Punish button on the plug that was set to T mode made the track sound like the drummer was banging on a thermo-nuclear-powered garbage can. Bombastic! P mode—with bassy Tone, high Drive, Thump and Punish settings—transformed a chorusy, atmospheric, stereo electric-guitar track into something like the over-the-top, distorted guitar on The Beatles'' “Revolution” (see Web Clip 2). I also liked N and E modes on electric guitar. Dialing in a moderate amount of Drive and preserving a little bit of dry signal produced a beautifully subtle edge to the track without throwing fidelity completely out the window. Boosting the Tone control fully clockwise, setting the high-cut filter almost completely counterclockwise, and activating the Steep switch gave the track the midrange emphasis I was looking for.

SoundToys was apparently careful to preserve phase coherence in the Mix control''s blending of processed and dry signals because the plug-in sounds very focused when used in this way. Such quality parallel processing enables you to produce beautifully rich tones. But make no mistake: SoundToys'' Decapitator can also transform tracks beyond recognition with brutal distortion. Yeah, baby!

Overall rating (1 through 5): 5