There's already a decent range of products providing digital emulations of vintage guitar amps, but iZotope's Direct X plug-in goes a lot further, offering no fewer than seven processing modules, and is intended to model every kind of distortion you'll ever need.
Ever more rapid advances in recording technology are bringing audiophile standards into even the home studio. However, there is no doubt that distortion is an essential creative tool to many contemporary musicians, from the very musical harmonics created by an overdriven, tube-based guitar amplifier to the digital crunch of a deliberately 'lo-fi' drum loop.
Of course, to get this grunge factor, all sorts of creative solutions have been developed, including the classic method of simply feeding a signal through a suitably cranked-up guitar amp and recording the result. Desktop amp modelling has made this approach even easier (and less likely to result in an eviction order!) but, for computer-based studios, software-based distortion offers maximum convenience. Most of the major sequencers now include some sort of distortion or overdrive plug-in, and if you are a fan of these effects then iZotope's Trash Direct X plug-in may well appeal.
SOS readers will be familiar with iZotope as the producers of the Ozone mastering suite (reviewed in SOS April 2002, with an update in January 2003). As a regular Ozone user, I was keen to hear what Trash had to offer. Like Ozone, the processing available in Trash is constructed from a series of 'modules'. The heart of the plug-in is contained in two of these, Trash and Box Model, with the former carrying out distortion/overdrive duties while the latter provides amp and speaker modelling.
Used with a suitable DI box, the Box Model module means Trash could be used as an alternative to a hardware amp modeller such as the Pod or V-Amp. However, Trash has broader applications than this: from tape simulation on a vocal through to complete mangling of a drum loop, Trash is intended to do everything you might require of a distortion unit.
Trash is available as either a 3MB download, or on CD. Additional sets of presets can also be downloaded, and cover guitar, drums, bass and keyboards. A demo version is also available, and mutes the output every 30 seconds or so but is otherwise fully functional. Once you've paid for it, iZotope provide user-specific registration details, and these need to be entered the first time the plug-in is used. On the review system, the whole installation/registration process took no more than a couple of minutes and Trash ran at the first time of asking in Cubase SX.
The Trash user interface shares many design features with Ozone, and while some may find it a little busy, the controls themselves are easy enough to use. The display includes large input/output meters, beneath which are the Bypass and Preset switches. The latter opens a sub-window where presets (either those supplied by iZotope or user-created ones) can be loaded, saved or managed.
Six large buttons are positioned along the bottom of the window — one for each of Trash's main processing modules. These are displayed in the same order as the default signal chain, although this chain can be customised if required. Pushing a button brings up the controls for that module in the remainder of the screen, while clicking on the small LED above each button will toggle the module on/off. All the internal processing of Trash through the various modules is 64-bit.
In the default signal chain, the Squash module is first up, and provides compression and noise gate functions. This module offers up to four bands, so there is plenty of control over the compression achieved (including, for example, the ability to tame the bass frequencies a little more than the highs). Next in line is the Pre-Filter module which, in essence, provides EQ prior to the Trash module. Three filters are available, and can be configured as low-pass, high-pass or band-pass types. To add to the creative possibilities, various filter sweep effects are also available. For example, the screen (right) shows settings that create an auto-wah effect, the depth of which is triggered by the Threshold control. Settings for 'talk-box' type effects are included and, overall, this module offers some excellent creative sound-shaping possibilities.
Of course, Trash wouldn't be Trash without the Trash module, and it is here that things can get truly mangled. Up to four bands are available and each band can have completely independent settings of distortion type and level. If this wasn't enough, using the First and Second tabs allows two different distortion types for each band, giving a maximum of eight different distortion types at any one time! Yes, it is possible to turn that pristine 24-bit audio into pure noise, but there are also innumerable more subtle possibilities. The distortion types modelled are grouped into four types: Distort, Drive, Faulty and Retro. The Drive group is where most of the guitar-friendly types, such as Blues Driver, reside, and between the four groups, everything from gentle analogue-style warming through to total digital destruction can be achieved. As an example of the latter, the Faulty group includes a type labelled Uncontrolled Static — use with care!
The following Post-Filter module is a relatively simple affair when used in single-band mode, but the high-pass and low-pass filters are great if you just need to clean up the bottom end or tame a bit of digital fizz at the top. In multi-band mode, more detailed EQ control is possible but, unlike the Pre-Filter module, no filter sweep processing is available.
The Box Model module adds amplifier and speaker modelling to the signal chain. Over 40 amp/speaker combinations are modelled and while the names listed don't reflect any real amplifier types, a handy hint appears at the bottom of the list as each is selected. In addition to the amp modelling, there are also some 'Device' and 'FX' models. Names like Plastic Box and Tin Gate give some idea as to what is on offer. Three different microphone models are provided and, with a stereo signal, the Separation and Spread controls can be used to enhance the stereo image as they simulate the effect of using two mics at different distances from the speaker cabinet.
Why the final module is called Buzz is a little baffling, as it actually provides delay effects. Tape, Analog and Digital delay types are all included and the usual set of controls over wet/dry balance, feedback and delay tempo are available. Low- and high-pass filters are also provided to shape the delayed output.
All this adds up to a lot of functionality, but how does Trash perform? Most users would have three key questions here. First, for the guitarists, how does Trash stand up as a software alternative to a Pod-a-like hardware amp modeller? Second, what applications might Trash have beyond straight guitar or bass processing? Third, how well does it perform within a typical sequencing environment?
The answer to the third question is straightforward: in testing with Cubase SX, Trash performed pretty much flawlessly used as either an insert or send effect. Perhaps the only concern here (and this is acknowledged by iZotope in the on-line documentation) is that Trash can get pretty processor-hungry when all the modules are in operation. For example, with a single mono audio track running on the test PC, engaging Trash with all modules active sent the CPU meter from about 2 percent up to about 20 percent, so you would probably not want to be using more than one instance of it at a time, though turning off unused modules can help reduce this CPU load.
The answer to the first question is less straightforward. Using a Line 6 Pod XT in 'bypass' mode to DI a guitar, via the low-latency Echo Mia in the test system it was perfectly possible to use Trash in real time. In stepping through the various guitar-based presets, some really effective and convincing results could be obtained. While Trash is a distortion plug-in, the amp modelling also provides some nice clean sounds. Tones with just a little bite, such as the Country Rock preset, also work well, and there is a whole host of overdriven, rock and 'special effect' presets that are all very useable ('Jimi with Wah', anyone?).
Although many of these presets sounded very good both in isolation and within a mix, however, I'm sure I'd turn to my Pod XT for my bread-and-butter recording rather than Trash. To my ears, at least, the hardware unit responds better to playing dynamics and also allows the character of the particular guitar (Strat vs Les Paul, for example) to come through more clearly. This comparison may seem a little unfair given the obvious price difference between Trash and the Pod XT, but for a guitarist whose top priority is amp modelling functions, this is exactly the competition Trash is up against, and the original Pod and Behringer's V-Amp are available at a price very close to Trash. This said, in situations where I didn't have access to my Pod XT, I'd be more than happy to use Trash. For example, I could easily imagine using Trash with a laptop system while recording on location.
Of course, Trash is more than a one-trick, amp-modelling, pony. And one particular additional trick that Trash makes very straightforward compared to a hardware unit is the ability to record a 'dry', unprocessed guitar performance while monitoring the processed signal. This provides excellent additional flexibility, as the performance can be captured but the exact guitar sound fine-tuned later. This worked really well within Cubase SX and Trash also proved very effective for additional processing and tone-shaping to guitar parts that had already been amp modelled by my Pod XT.
When used as a more generic audio processing tool for treating other types of sound sources, Trash certainly does excel. Yes, all that functionality takes a little time to master, and yes, it can be a little processor-hungry, but the end results are excellent, and the range of creative sound-mangling options available leaves your typical distortion plug-in looking pretty tame by comparison. For example, exposing even the most tired of drum loops to a little Trash gave them a whole new character and life, while a gentle harp sample was easily turned into a screaming, uncontrollable lead sound.
As a tool for recording guitar or bass, Trash has a lot to commend it. No, I'm not going to use it to replace my Pod XT as I like the hardware interface of the Line 6 unit and I think it has a distinct edge in terms of playing response (and I occasionally use it live instead of a real amp). However, I would happily use Trash if I was recording on the move with a laptop system, and the ability to alter the guitar tone so easily after the fact is really very useful.
But to consider Trash just as a Pod replacement is to underestimate its potential. This is a very impressive creative tool for use with any type of audio material and it can generate all the distortion or overdrive sounds that most people would ever need. At about £140, Trash is perhaps not a casual purchase but, if you have the processor grunt to cope, the demo version is well worth giving a trial. I'm now Trashing audio in my own projects on a regular basis, and it's nothing if not highly addictive!