Waves are the latest manufacturers to try to package the sound of large-format mixing consoles in plug-in form.
In recent years, a flood of distortion and saturation plug-ins has appeared, claiming to bring more "analogue sound” to your productions. The latest craze is to model the behaviour of vintage analogue mixing consoles. But what is it that's so special about mixing consoles? Well, many users claim that they add a certain richness, depth and harmonic complexity that tend to be beneficial in music production.
Waves asked three very well-known engineers to lend them their analogue mixing consoles, in order that their programmers could analyse each desk's non-linear behaviour and unique sound. Mark 'Spike' Stent has been using his SSL 4000G for more than 20 years and calls it 'The Magic Console', thanks to its special sound. Mike Hedges salvaged the pieces of an EMI TG12345 Mk IV from the garage of Abbey Road Studios and was able to put it back into working order (only two MkIV consoles were ever made, and both are still in use). Finally, Yoad Nevo took two classic Neve 5116s and had them custom-built into one very impressive console the length of a living room.
The Waves NLS suite ('non-linear summing') consists of the NLS Channel and the NLS Buss plug-ins, and is available for Mac OS and Windows, in TDM and all the usual native formats. To mimic the performance of a mixing console, NLS Channel is meant to be put on the last insert on each channel and NLS Buss on the first insert of the master bus. The NLS channel plug-in can also emulate the distortion created by sending a line-level signal through a console mic preamp and cranking the level — still a popular mixing trick — and in this scenario, the Channel plug-in should be put on the first insert.
The Channel interface is pretty self-explanatory, and the three consoles available are aptly named Spike, Mike and Nevo. A cool feature is that 32 different channels on each console have been measured and modelled to mimic the subtle channel variations on the consoles. By default, stereo channels consist of two channel variations to emulate setting up two hard-panned left and right mono channels on the console; however, purists can click the Dual Link button and use the same channel variation on both channels. The Drive knob adds harmonic distortion by increasing the input signal and decreasing the internal headroom; at lower Drive levels the distortion is quite subtle, but at higher levels the added distortion can get quite intense. The character of the added distortion differs quite a bit between the three console models, but more on this later. The Drive function has built-in gain compensation, and normal level-control duties are carried out by the Output fader. The Mic Mode button adds gain compensated distortion by emulating a 20dB gain-clipped console mic preamp, which, of course, sounds different in the three console models. True to the analogue consoles, noise is added by each channel, but can be removed by pushing the Noise button, while the Bypass button deactivates analogue harmonics, noise and frequency-response effects.
The NLS Channel plug-in can be controlled individually or by one of the eight available VCA groups. Grouping related signals such as drums, guitars, vocals and so on to different VCAs makes it a breeze to control the amount of Drive and level of each group. The VCA Group Console section can be accessed by clicking the VCA Tab button on any channel or by opening the section in the NSL Buss plug-in. The nice thing about the VCAs is that you can both raise and lower the Drive, as well as changing the console model for the whole VCA group, which makes it easy to change console model on the drums from, for example, Spike's SSL console to Mike's EMI console. It's also possible to automate the VCA Groups, effectively using them like VCAs on a real mixing console.
The two VU meters at the top of the interface give a fairly good level indication, and they are faster than a real VU meter, which I think is appropriate in a digital system. Introducing non-linearity in a DAW certainly makes it more important to keep track of the levels, because hot levels will increase harmonic distortion.
The Buss plug-in models the master section of each console, and changing the console model here will only change the master section, so it's possible to mix Neve channels with an SSL master section or vice versa. The Drive knob adds harmonic distortion on the whole mix — or whatever is sent to the Buss plug-in — and the Trim knob is essential to keep track of the output level. By using the VCA Group knob, the plug-in settings can be controlled by the VCA Group console, which is useful when several NLS Buss plug-ins are used at the same time. The Noise button here adds or removes the noise contributed by the master section but doesn't remove noise added by the channel plug-ins.
To get a grip on what the plug-ins and console models really sound like, I decided to try them on a couple of different instruments. First up were drums. To simulate a real mixing situation, I created a group track and added an NLS Channel plug-in in Mic Mode, so I could send some of the drum tracks to it for additive distortion. Starting with the SSL console model, I cranked up the Drive setting quite a lot just to hear what happened; the automatic gain compensation only helped a bit, and I needed to bring down the output about 3-4dB at full Drive to match the levels of the untreated tracks. On a rather thick and snappy kick drum, the effect was quite subtle, just cutting away some sub-bass and compacting the sound a little bit. Switching to the Mike console produced a very different result, boosting the low end by several decibels and at the same time softening the mid-range transients, resulting in a very respectable kick-drum sound indeed. The Nevo console pretty much kept the low end intact and added just a little bit of upper mid-range.
Changing to snare drum, the Spike console added some mid-range bite at the expense of some transient smearing, but the Drive setting was all the way up and a similar thing would probably happen in the analogue console as well. The same setting in the Mike console produced a rather grainy sound indicating less headroom; at a Drive setting of 9, the snare drum thickened up a little bit and got some mid-range graininess that sounded rather nice. Finally, the Nevo console beefed up the snare drum, enhanced the mid-range a little bit and subtly rolled off the high end.
The three console models certainly have their own specific sound: I'd say that the Mike console is the smoothest-sounding, the Nevo the most transparent-sounding, and the Spike console the one with the most bite. On these particular drums, I liked the Nevo console the best because it kept the original sound but slightly enhanced it.
On a fairly well-recorded bass guitar, the Mike console, of course, added some nice low-end, but when level-matched, it scooped out some mid-range as well. The Nevo console sounded pretty much the same as the unprocessed bass, while the Spike console cut out some sub-bass and squeezed the low end a little bit, gaining some extra headroom compared to the two other console models.
I'm rather picky about what kind of distortion I use, and how much, on vocals, because naturalness and intimacy tends to go out of the window with too much added distortion, especially digital distortion. With a healthy input level and just a bit of extra Drive, the Waves NLS plug-in sounded rather nice; the Spike model added some extra mid-range, while the Nevo opened up the upper mid-range. Each console model has 32 different channels modelled, and it's quite interesting using the two arrows at the top of the user interface to step through them. On vocals, the difference can be quite audible, especially on the Mike model, the oldest mixing console of the trio. If you commit to using NLS, it's definitely worth trying the various modelled channels within each mixer as well as simply swapping between the mixers.
Having tested the Waves NLS plug-in as a tonal shaping tool, it was time to use it in a mixing situation. Setting up a basic mix using the Spike model was fairly easy, and whenever I needed some extra mid-range bite, I'd crank up the Drive knob. Being able to distort everything at a turn of a knob initially made me do exactly that, just because I could, and the Drive knobs in the VCA Group console came in handy for backing off the Drive again. It's worth having some extra headroom compared to mixing straight in the box, because when the channel count adds up, and harmonic distortion as well, it's nice to be able to push some instruments without adding too much distortion.
One thing I noticed about the Spike model was that the low-end punch didn't come across the way I wanted, having worked on several SSL consoles, but I'd say the mid-range bite is spot on. The Mike model is definitely the odd one of the three and can be quite fun to work with, but also a bit cumbersome, thanks to the low-end boost it applies to everything. Personally, I like the Nevo console model the most, simply because it's the most transparent of the trio.
Although I don't have a large analogue mixing console directly comparable to the ones modelled in the Waves NLS plug-in, I still wanted to test how 'real' the plug-in could get in terms of emulating analogue summing, so I fired up my hybrid system, consisting of high-quality digital converters and an Inward Connections Mix690 20-channel summing box — a discrete design with large output transformers — and matched the levels. The Mix690 is, of course, a totally different beast in sound and design from any of those modelled by Waves, yet, like a good analogue desk, it provides a great way of 'glueing' a mix together.
Comparing the DAW mix to the analogue mix, I wasn't able to get quite the same 'sounds like a record' feeling with the Waves NLS plug-in. The sound was tight and up-front, but didn't gel in the same way as it did with the Mix690. Measuring the plug-in, I discovered that it doesn't seem to add any crosstalk — interaction between channels — whereas the Mix690 has a crosstalk of about -50dB between the left and right output channels. I believe that crosstalk is one of the factors that help glue a mix together, and it would be interesting to hear how the plug-in would sound with crosstalk modelled. Another difference is the way the mix bus breaks up when the output level is really pushed: an analogue mix bus with output transformers can saturate the low end, creating a humongous bass but at the same time squeezing the transients quite a bit. Pushing the NLS Buss plug-in hard produced a hairy kind of distortion somewhat lacking in warmth, so the outputs are best kept at a normal level.
I do think that Waves NLS brings something to the table, because it definitely makes mixing in the box more fun and more interesting. Most rewarding is the way the mid-range opens up, whether you're applying subtle or crunchier distortion. Working in a non-linear system makes it important to keep track of levels and decide how hot the signals should go; this approach might be new to laptop jockeys used to working in-the-box. Only you can decide whether or not it's suitable for you and beneficial to your productions; luckily, there is a seven-day demo available at the home page, and with the new Waves License Center, iLoks are no longer needed, so go grab yourself a digital analogue mixing console or three!
There are a few alternatives, Slate Digital VCC being the closest contender in terms of features and console models, and it even simulates crosstalk between bus channels. Compared to Waves NLS, my opinion is that Slate VCC performs better in the low-end department but has a tendency to narrow the stereo panorama just outside the phantom centre — then again, some might call that focusing of the centre signal. Another interesting plug-in that is definitely worth a try is Sonimus Satson, which, at $39, can glue a mix together almost as well as an analogue summing box. Sknote Stripbus, Airwindows Console2 and Nebula3 with its console libraries are other interesting plug-ins that can be put to the same use.