If you're the kind of person who likes to accentuate the transients in their pitch-shifted recordings, before vocoding them and auto-doubling the results, Waves have the perfect plug-in bundle for you...
I'm always a bit bewildered by Waves' product catalogue, which looks more like an exercise in set theory than a sales tool. Small plug-in bundles appear inside bigger plug-in bundles, usually named after increasingly rare metals; and while some of the smaller collections, like the Masters Bundle and Restoration Suite, have natural themes, others are less obvious. There's definitely something contrived about the Transform Bundle, for instance, which brings together four tools that are designed "for anyone looking to push the envelope in sound transformation".
Beyond this slightly nebulous concept, the four plug-ins don't have much in common. There's a pitch-shifting and time-stretching tool, a vocoder, a transient processor, and the Doubler effect last seen in Waves' Musicians Bundle I, which is designed to mimic some of those classic Eventide Harmonizer doubling and thickening tricks. Since I described Doubler in detail in that SOS August 2004 review, I won't cover it any further here except to say it's a surprisingly useful and versatile plug-in that has few direct equivalents in software. The other plug-ins are only available here, or in the super-comprehensive Diamond Bundle.
As usual, the Transform Bundle is available in TDM and all popular native formats, although the time-stretching and off-line pitch-shifting aren't supported in VST, MAS or Audio Units hosts. The plug-ins are accessed through Waves' Waveshell system, which has its own preset saving and loading system, and also allows you to do A/B comparisons between different sets of settings. Copy protection is via challenge and response, or you can authorise the plug-ins to your iLok key. Waves' iLok implementation is typically unconventional: it doesn't support transfer and auditing of authorisations via iLok.com, and Waves recommend using a separate iLok key for their plug-ins, although I didn't follow this advice and didn't run into any problems.
How often have you found yourself sculpting the perfect kick drum or bass guitar sound with the track soloed, only to find that it vanishes without trace in the depths of the mix? If the answer is 'too often' then TransX might just be the plug-in you're looking for. It's designed to reproduce a process that has been available on a few hardware devices, most notably SPL's Transient Designer, whereby the attack phase of a sound can be emphasised or toned down by comparison with its sustained portion. And it works beautifully.
Waves have actually gone further than the hardware manufacturers by including two versions, TransX Wide and TransX Multi. The former applies the transient detection and emphasis across the full range of the audio spectrum, whilst the latter divides the input signal into four user-selectable frequency bands and processes each of them independently. As you might expect, the wide-band version is most useful for dealing with relatively simple sources such as individual drum tracks or bass guitar, whilst the main applications for TransX Multi involve busier signals such as drum submixes and sampled loops.
Like most Waves plug-ins, TransX is simplicity itself to use. There are four basic controls: Duration and Sens[itivity] tell TransX how fast and how high a peak should be in order to be treated as a transient, Range specifies a maximum amount of gain boost to be applied, and Release is the time taken for the gain to return to zero after each transient. Anyone with a functioning pair of ears will have no difficulty finding suitable settings for their chosen source, even if they've not used this type of processor before, and once you've tried it you might wonder how you ever did without it. If you need to tighten up a flabby kick drum or make a bass punch through the mix, TransX will do it with a minimum of fuss and no audible side-effects. If you're ever faced with imperfectly recorded drum, bass or guitar tracks at the mix — and let's face it, who isn't? — this is a potential lifesaver with few obvious competitors. SPL's own software version of the Transient Designer is only available for the Creamware SCOPE platform, and the only other plug-in designs I'm aware of are Sony's Transient Modulator and Digital Fish Phones' Dominion. The latter has the advantage of being freeware, but TransX is much more usable and effective.
As far as I know, moreover, the multi-band version is unique in software or hardware. It provides a graphical interface similar to that of many multi-band compressors, where you can set the crossover points and the Range of each band by clicking and dragging, whilst the sensitivity of each band is set using a separate control at the bottom, and a single Release control deals with all the bands simultaneously. It takes a little more getting used to than the wide-band version, and on some source material the effects are quite subtle. When it works, however, it can achieve results that might be impossible any other way. You can, for instance, bring out the impact of a kick drum or a bass guitar in a mix, without boosting the overall level of the bass, and without obvious side-effects. Similarly, you can enhance the punch of the snare or push a hi-hat back into the mix, without affecting the balance of the other instruments. Obviously, it's better to tackle these sort of problems at an earlier stage, but if you do a lot of work with pre-recorded loops, this could be a real help, and it might even help mastering engineers restore life to over-compressed mixes.
Pitch-shift and time-stretch will be more familiar processes to most users, and Waves' Sound Shifter implements them in an impressively thorough way, with a few neat surprises in store too. You get two off-line plug-ins, Sound Shifter Parametric and Sound Shifter Graphic, both of which can manipulate pitch and time together. These are supported in Pro Tools and Nuendo 2/3, plus Cool Edit Pro 2.1 and Sound Forge 6 on the PC; in OS X versions of Pro Tools after 6.1, Sound Shifter can be set as the default TC/E engine and integrated into the Time Trimmer tool, which is pretty neat. The pitch-shifting is also available in real-time thanks to the Sound Shifter Pitch native plug-in, which does work in VST (Windows and OS X), MAS and Audio Units formats. There's no TDM version of this, and as you'd expect, it's a pretty CPU-hungry beast.
Sound Shifter Parametric is basically a souped-up version of the off-line time and pitch manipulation algorithms found in most DAWs. On the left are the time-stretching parameters, which report the length of the selected section of audio in every conceivable format — time, bars + beats, samples, SMPTE frames and feet + frames. If you know the tempo and meter of your audio you can also pass that information along to SSP, and the time-stretch amount is specified by setting a final length in any of these formats, or using a Ratio slider.
To the right of the plug-in window are the pitch-shifting parameters, which allow you to specify a pitch-shift in semitones and cents, a musical interval such as a minor third, using a Ratio slider, or, alternatively, by telling SSP what destination a specific source frequency should be mapped to. (The most obvious use for this is resampling 44.1kHz files at 48kHz, or similar.) You can 'link' the pitch-shifting to the time-stretching and vice versa, whereupon the linked part becomes greyed out, and simply follows the other (ie. the pitch drops when you expand a piece of audio, and so on).
There are four different processing modes, which are optimised for different situations and source material. Sync is designed to prioritise timing above all, and it does a great job. I tested it by pitch-shifting a six-minute kick drum part, and the results showed no discernible timing drift against the original at any point. By contrast, the same file processed with Digidesign's default Pitch-Shift plug-in was flamming before the 30 second mark.
Where absolute timing precision isn't so vital, however, you're better off choosing one of the other modes, especially if you have to make a large change. These offer progressively better preservation of transients during the stretching or pitching process, from Smooth, which is intended for relatively transient-free material such as vocals, wind instruments or violin, through Transient, for the likes of guitar, bass and piano, to Punchy, which is designed to preserve the impact of drums and percussion. In a critical situation it's usually worth trying out more than one of these modes, because they can all deliver excellent results. The quality of the pitch-shifting and especially the time-stretching is impressive, and is comparable to other dedicated products such as Serato's Pitch 'n Time and Wave Mechanics' Speed — it certainly knocks spots off the default tools supplied with most DAWs.
The precision and flexibility of Sound Shifter Parametric make it a very powerful tool, and the ability to specify time-stretches in terms of feet + frames or SMPTE frames could make it invaluable when you have to make your music or effects fit a new edit of a film. When it comes to "pushing the envelope in sound transformation", however, Sound Shifter Graphic leaves it in the dust. To use SSG, you have to select some audio in the Pro Tools Edit window, then click the plug-in's Load Waveform button. After a short period of analysis, this now appears in a graphical window, which can be switched to edit Pitch or Time. Initially, these both appear as horizontal lines along the centre of the waveform, to which changes in pitch or time are added by creating and moving breakpoints. The display can be zoomed horizontally and vertically, and two rulers beneath the waveform mark out the length of the unprocessed audio in whatever time units you select, and show how those ruler markings will look when your chosen time-stretch has been carried out.
The beauty of this interface (which is similar to that of Pitch 'n Time) is, of course, that you can make sliding pitch and tempo changes as well as sudden ones. The uses of this are legion, from introducing a rallentando into a song you've already recorded to creating fake dive-bombs in a guitar part or turning a sustained note into a series of legato notes on different pitches. You could even introduce designer vibrato. All of the same processing modes are available as in SSP, and once again, what could have been a complex and intimidating plug-in has been made very straightforward to use. The one anomaly I encountered was that whatever time scale I set it to, SSG never seemed able to pick up the correct start time for the piece of audio I had selected in Pro Tools. This wasn't a problem in practice, but it did get me thinking about what might be possible if SSG could be integrated even more closely with the host program. If it could access Pro Tools ' tempo map, for instance, it could be used to make a pre-existing 'straight' recording conform to a variable tempo. I suspect that this level of integration isn't possible with current plug-in protocols, but we can dream.
The final ingredient of the Transform Bundle is a well-specified vocoder. There's no mention of how many filter bands are used, and no way to alter this, but there's enough user control in other areas to provide plenty of sonic possibilities. There's a built-in synth which offers no editable parameters, just a choice of 10 harmonic-rich patches for you to modulate if you don't have a suitable carrier source, or your sequencer doesn't support side-chaining (alternatively, in some hosts you can use the left and right channels of a stereo pair as mono carrier and modulator). The frequency contour derived from the modulator signal can be shifted up or down with the Formant control, and three further controls labelled Pressure, Smoothing and Release control the dynamic response of the modulation. A five-band EQ shapes the results, and four sliders set the output balance between vocoded signal, modulated noise (which is used, as in most vocoder designs, to reproduce sibilants and transients in the modulator), carrier and modulator.
I had some trouble getting the best from Morphoder in my ageing Pro Tools Mix system: the TDM version requires an HD or Accel rig, while the RTAS version (like any RTAS plug-in running in on a TDM rig) can't receive external key inputs. Moreover, the internal synth did not show up as a MIDI destination in Pro Tools (apparently it does so in the OS X version 5 of Morphoder), so I could only get sound out of it by clicking on the plug-in's built-in keyboard. According to the manual, this actually seems to be Waves' preferred way of doing things, and you can use your sequencer's automation facilities to record your 'playing', but it's fiddly to say the least — and, of course, you need to do multiple passes if you want to play chords.
Sound-wise, though, I've no complaints. With some vocoders, you can spend hours just finding a setting that produces any output at all, and it's a bonus if it sounds even vaguely speech-like. The intelligibility of Morphoder 's output, by contrast, is exceptionally clear — if you want it to be. As with all Waves processors, it's very easy to use, and although some of the controls may be unfamiliar, their effect on the sound is obvious. Increasing the Pressure sounds roughly akin to heavily compressing the modulator before it acts on the carrier, Smoothing allows you to blur sharp transitions in the modulating signal, creating smoothness at the expense of intelligibility, and Release determines how long the vocoded signal takes to die away when the input level of the modulator drops. High Release values sound a bit like applying reverb, while an infinite Release sustains the output for as long as there's a carrier signal.
Products like Waves' Transform Bundle remind us that there is still a difference between the many excellent freeware and shareware plug-ins out there, and tools designed for a professional market and price point. All of the included plug-ins ooze class, and do their job with a minimum of fuss. Their ease of use suggests that a lot of thought has gone into Waves' interface design, and their sound confirms that Waves know a hell of a lot about digital signal processing! The inability to use Sound Shifter Graphic and Parametric will make the bundle less attractive to those who aren't running Pro Tools or Nuendo, but it's hardly Waves' fault if other DAWs don't provide a suitable format for third-party off-line plug-ins.
My only real reservation about the Transform Bundle is that it does pull together four very different tools, and few potential buyers will be equally interested in all of them. For instance, Sound Shifter 's high-quality time-stretching and flexible sync options make it ideal for film post-production, but I can't imagine too many dubbing mixers having a real need for a transient modulator. Similarly, I rarely use vocoders, but wouldn't be without TransX. It's a shame that these plug-ins aren't available separately, but they are all top-quality tools, and in the case of TransX and Doubler, have few obvious software-based competitors.