For the latest additions to their Native Effects bundle, Sound Toys have updated two vintage effects for the DAW age.
Sound Toys aren't the most prolific plug‑in developers on the planet, but when they do produce something new, we rightly expect it to be a bit special. Version 4 of their celebrated Native Effects bundle introduces two newcomers: PanMan and Decapitator. All the plug-ins that comprise the bundle are available individually, but you save a lot of money by opting for the full collection. The plug‑ins are authorised using an iLok key, as before, and all common plug‑in formats are now supported — including (hurrah!) VST.
It's immediately clear that both new plug‑ins embody the values Sound Toys users are familiar with from the other effects in the range. They boast a nicely organised, usefully named and great‑sounding selection of presets. The interfaces are simple and friendly, with any complexity beneath the surface neatly reduced to a handful of knobs and buttons. And they share some neat design touches with the other plug‑ins in the range, such as the ability to 'lock' individual controls so that they remain in their current position when a new preset is loaded.
One of the elements that makes Sound Toys favourites Filter Freak and Echo Boy so special is the output stage, which allows you to apply a variety of flavours of saturation and distortion to signals. I'm not sure what Sound Toys do differently from other plug‑in developers, but their saturation algorithms have always sounded fantastic, and I'm sure I'm not alone in having used Filter Freak as a distortion plug‑in, with the actual filter bypassed. You can probably imagine my reaction to the news that Sound Toys were adding a plug‑in devoted solely to analogue‑style saturation and distortion: joy!
Sound Toys make very clear that Decapitator is intended neither as a guitar amp simulator nor an emulation of tape saturation. Instead, it seems that they have (unofficially) taken their inspiration from a variety of devices that are widely used in professional circles to 'warm up' sounds at the recording or the mixing stage. Users have a choice of five algorithms. The first three are based around notoriously 'coloured' preamp stages from classic hardware: the preamp from an ancient Ampex reel‑to‑reel recorder, the Chandler/EMI TG Channel, and the Neve 1057, an early design that used germanium transistors. The last two algorithms are homages to the Thermionic Culture Culture Vulture, modelling its triode and pentode settings respectively.
One of the pitfalls with any distortion device is that changing the amount of distortion nearly always causes a massive jump or drop in output level, resulting in much twiddling of trim controls or channel faders, and making it hard to compare different settings fairly. Decapitator offers a neat solution to this problem. Next to the output level control is a toggle switch labelled Auto: activate this and the output level is automatically adjusted to compensate for the setting of the Drive control, so as you crank up the distortion, the overall signal stays at much the same level. This alone elevates Decapitator to planes of usefulness not occupied by many other distortion plug‑ins.
The rest of the signal chain is disarmingly simple. The input signal is first processed using a high‑pass filter, with an additional Thump switch adding an optional resonant hump at the cutoff frequency. It then passes through a Tone control, which allows you to skew its overall frequency response towards the bottom or top of the frequency spectrum. Next comes your choice of distortion algorithm, after which a low‑pass filter lets you trim away any fizzy frequencies. Another toggle switch drastically increases the filter slope, making the response more like that of a speaker cabinet — though Sound Toys make no claims of accurate modelling in this department.
I suspect that very few users will be able to restrain themselves from immediately hitting the inviting Punish button — which, according to the manual, adds 20dB to whatever amount of gain is being applied by the Drive dial. It's a quick, easy and very satisfying route towards the kind of distortion that makes you wonder whether something has actually caught fire in your equipment rack. But at the other end of the spectrum, low Drive settings don't sound obviously distorted at all; instead, they add the kind of subtle thickness and warmth that you'd expect from a colourful preamp.
Low to moderate settings work nicely on rock vocals; you can either apply a hint of warmth globally, or ramp up the Drive and use the Mix control to blend the clean sound with a more distorted, edgy version of itself. Decapitator is also more than handy as a drum processor. At one end of the dial, it can beef up a wimpy drum sound in a very natural and engaging way, while at the other, it will give you the kind of savage yet somehow inviting distortion beloved of bands like Flaming Lips.
Despite Sound Toys' caveats, I also thoroughly enjoyed playing guitar through Decapitator, especially with the Punish button active. From the Beatles' 'Revolution' to Led Zeppelin's 'Black Dog', plenty of classic guitar sounds have been achieved by DI'ing the instrument into an overdriven desk channel or rack processor, and there are plenty more to be had here. Hitting the 'Steep' switch on the low‑pass filter might not replicate exactly the complex sound of a speaker cabinet, but it's effective enough at eliminating fizz, and the way Decapitator's distortion algorithms respond to input dynamics makes it great fun to play with.
The killer application for Decapitator, though, has to be bass. Whether you drive it from an electric bass or a synth, there is all manner of rich, rounded goodness on offer. You can do almost anything, from warming up a harsh DI'd signal to warping it out of all recognition, and the results sound good in the mix as well as in solo.
Sound Toys have clearly taken some care to model what happens to their circuits at extreme levels of distortion, when weird instabilities make their presence felt, and hitting low notes hard can almost have a gating effect on the whole system. I spent a very happy hour toying with the 'Broken Speaker' preset, which really captures the blown‑out sound of a piece of kit that is not long for this world!
All in all, it's hard to find much to dislike about Decapitator. There are other plug‑ins that are more flexible, or offer more detailed models of specific hardware devices, but for me, this is a near‑perfect balance between versatility and ease of use.
When I reviewed the original Native Bundle, one of the few criticisms I could muster was that the auto‑pan functionality in Sound Toys' Tremolator tremolo plug‑in seemed a bit of an afterthought. After all, the only difference between tremolo and auto‑pan is an extra channel, so surely Sound Toys could have killed two birds with one stone?
It turns out that as far as Sound Toys are concerned, there are plenty of differences between the two effects. Not only that, but they have some very neat ideas about automated panning, which they've made concrete in their PanMan plug‑in. Once again, some of their ideas have been drawn from classic analogue auto‑panners, but others are wholly new.
Like all the plug‑ins in the bundle, PanMan presents a very simple interface, but there are a couple of extra 'tweak' buttons you can push to bring up additional controls. Visual feedback is courtesy of a very neat, horizontal LED‑style display, somewhat reminiscent of the talking car in Knight Rider. The LEDs fade slowly, so the motion of the panning is indicated by a trail of red. PanMan can also push the signal 'outside the speakers', and the extremes of the display illuminate yellow to indicate when this is taking place.
Basic auto‑panning uses an LFO to push a mono input signal first to one side, then the other, at a rate chosen to suit the material. As in Tremolator, Sound Toys take this idea and run a very long way with it. In PanMan, the LFO has its own envelope follower, which can be used to modulate the speed, width and Offset of the oscillation. In practical terms, this opens up a whole new world of panning effects. For instance, you can have each chord trigger panning that becomes progressively deeper and wider as the chord decays, or set the panning to get steadily slower as notes ring out. You can also set the LFO to work in one direction only. A global Smoothing control allows you to find the appropriate compromise between smooth movement and sudden jumps.
This already takes PanMan well out of the realm of utility plug‑ins and into the world of brilliant creative effects — and LFO mode is but one of six. Next on the list is Rhythm Step mode, which does what it says on the tin. You choose a rhythm — which can, of course, be sync'ed to host tempo — and a number of steps, and the signal is moved rhythmically around the stereo field. Neat. You can even apply 'rush' or 'drag' for a swung feel, and another pop‑up window allows you to create and modify rhythm patterns. Rhythm Shape mode combines the first two modes, in effect allowing you to apply very complex rhythmic LFO patterns, again with envelope‑following functionality. There's also a self‑explanatory Random mode.
In the last two modes, meanwhile, PanMan doesn't supply any rhythmic element of its own. Instead, the timing of each pan movement is controlled solely by the level of the input signal. Every time it exceeds a Threshold value, the pan position changes — either from one side to the other (Ping‑Pong mode) or randomly (Random Step mode). A further sub‑window allows you to filter the side‑chain to the level detector, and there's also a Divider control, which lets you move the pan position after multiple peaks instead of just one.
There is much more that could be said about the workings of PanMan, which is a surprisingly deep plug‑in for an application that superficially seems simple. But, of course, what matters is how it sounds, and PanMan made me realise how neglected auto‑panning as an effect has become in the DAW age. Before I tried it, I confess that I even wondered why anyone would need a plug‑in to do it, when we can automate mixer pan controls so easily. You don't have to play around with PanMan for long to realise what we've been missing. This plug-in has a remarkable ability to bring alive whatever you put through it, whether adding a subtle wobble or a violent lurching motion. It shines particularly strongly on instruments such as Rhodes piano or clean electric guitar, where it offers a great alternative to more obvious modulation effects, such as chorus. And if your host application permits, it makes possible all sorts of clever tricks in which the left and right outputs are routed to different effects or signal chains.
I was expecting Decapitator to be great, and it is. The wonderfulness of PanMan was more of a surprise, and if there was ever any doubt, it confirms that Sound Toys are still at the top of the heap as far as plug‑in development goes. I would go so far as to say that the Native Effects bundle is almost certainly the best collection of plug‑in effects you can buy, and that anyone who finds their existing effects packages unsatisfying should download the demo immediately.
There are vast numbers of distortion plug‑ins on the market. Two that arguably give Decapitator a run for its money are Ohm Force's Predatohm and Magix's AM_phibia, from their Analogue Modelling Suite. Predatohm is ridiculously flexible, and capable of unbelievably extreme effects, but is much more complex than Decapitator and harder to use. AM_phibia does a good job of subtle warming, but Decapitator is better for more obvious distortion.
As far as I'm aware, meanwhile, PanMan stands alone. There are a handful of simple auto‑pan plug‑ins out there, but nothing to touch this.