I have to admit that when I was asked to look at Sound Toys' Echoboy plug-in, I was sceptical. After all, there are already some great delay-based plug-ins out there, including Line 6's Echo Farm, PSP's Lexicon PSP42, the Eventide emulations, and Sound Toys' own Sound Blender. Echoboy's advertising emphasises its modelling of classic echo effects, name-checking the Space Echo, TelRay, DM2, Echoplex, Memory Man and so on. The initial temptation is therefore to think of Echo Farm, and that does a very good job, so what does Echoboy offer that's different? Plenty, as I soon found out.
Echoboy's layout is straightforward: it's divided into three sections, with all the main controls you would use to tweak a sound on the left-hand side. Different sets of controls appear in this section, depending on the Mode you've chosen in the middle section. The basic Single Mode used for most of the vintage effects has familiar Echo Time, Feedback and Mix knobs. Echo Time can be entered in milliseconds or beat divisions, with options for dotted notes and triplets. These settings can reference a manually entered tempo value, or sync to the Session's tempo. There is also a Saturation knob, which controls the amount of the current distortion or tape-saturation effect — the type of Saturation effect is determined in the Style settings, of which more later. A High Cut knob rolls off the high frequencies of the wet signal and a switch labelled Prime Numbers is an ingenious addition, which subtly shifts the echoes so that they don't fall in phase with one another, reducing resonant feedback. Finally, there is a Tweak button that gives you access to some further controls.
Some plug-ins use multiple parameter pages, but Sound Toys' are the only ones I've seen that open up new floating windows, in this case when you click the Tweak or Style Edit buttons. The floating window is constrained within the boundaries of the main plug-in window, though, which rather spoils the idea, because although you can still access controls on the main panel, many of them get covered up. I think I'd prefer a larger plug-in window to accommodate all the controls, but I admire the attempt to come up with a different solution.
The Tweak window's controls vary with the Mode, but mostly control stereo width, balance and so on. Echoboy can create stereo effects from mono inputs in a number of ways. First, a left/right timing offset can be set in the Tweak window, creating a pseudo-stereo output. Second, there are Diffusion and Width settings in the Style Editor that create a reverb effect. The Tweak window's Accent knob probably deserves a full-time position in the centre section of the plug-in; it alters the level of every other echo, either on or off the beat, to add dynamic feel.
In the middle section of the plug-in, you can enter or tap a tempo, or choose MIDI to sync Echoboy to the tempo track. There are also two knobs for making subtle timing adjustments. Groove lets you introduce varying degrees of Shuffle or Swing to the echoes, while the Feel knob is labelled Rushin and Draggin at its two extremes, allowing you to shift the echoes earlier or later with respect to the input. This is really cool for creating different feels, and locking the delay into the groove of the track. The bottom knob in this section chooses between Echoboy's four main Modes: Single, Dual, Ping-Pong, and Rhythmic. Both Single and Dual modes are true-stereo effects when fed a stereo input, but Dual has separate controls for left and right. By contrast, Ping-Pong and Rhythmic sum stereo inputs to mono before applying the effect. Rhythmic mode is a multitap delay with 16 programmable steps. Sound Toys have done a really nice job here, adding a number of tools that make setting up multitap echoes much faster than usual. There are preset patterns (you can also save your own) and you can quickly choose from different numbers of repeats, pattern lengths and decay shapes. You can also manually draw repeats in the graph display. Because the overall multitap pattern is itself echoed, you can create repeating patterns, or even use very small delays to create flange effects while still maintaining independent echoes.
System requirements: Digidesign Pro Tools HD or LE for Mac OS X only.
Plug-in formats supported: TDM, RTAS, Audiosuite.
Installation: Installer provided on CD, but version 1.2 (available from Sound Toys' web site) is required for Pro Tools 7 compatibility.
Authorisation: An iLok is required, and authorisation is via the iLok card supplied with the package.
The final section contains input and output level controls, which (unusually) affect only the wet signal and behave in an 'analogue' way: Sound Toys encourage you to abuse these controls for extra saturation if you need it. Finally, we come to the Style selector and editor, which are the key sections for emulating or creating effects devices. The Style pop-up menu gives you a choice of 32 presets, some based on particular devices, others on generic type of delay unit. If you click the Style Edit button you can see what the parameters are that make up a Style. Firstly, there is a three-band EQ section, with low and high shelves and a sweepable mid with resonance control. By using the Frequency and Gain controls, you can set a basic tone or frequency response character for your patch. However, the key to creating dynamic, evolving effects lies with the Decay knobs for each EQ band. These set 'delta values', which work cumulatively on each repeat. For example, if you apply a cut to the high-frequency EQ's Decay knob, each echo will get more and more filtered off, allowing you to emulate the generation loss that is such a prominent characteristic of tape delays. You can also apply boosts to the decay, for creating nice resonant feedback.
The right side of the Style Editor features three sets of controls. The first two (Diffusion and Size) we've already looked at, while the last two select and control the type of Saturation used in the patch. The rest of the parameters control Echoboy's pitch modulation. This effect, labelled Wobble, can be used to simulate tape wow and flutter, which are characteristic of the sound of many vintage units. However, it can do quite a bit more than this. The Wobble varispeeds the effected portion of the signal, effectively altering the pitch and delay time simultaneously. This allows for rich chorus effects, as well as swept flanges. Furthermore, the modulation can follow various wave shapes other than sine, including square, random walk, and sample & hold. The modulation can be very deep and set to a wide range of speeds, meaning that many weird and wonderful effects are possible, reminiscent of the Sound Blender plug-ins and Eventide processors which are the Sound Toys team's legacy.
I started by running Echoboy on an aux return in a fairly standard rock mix, trying it out on vocals, bass, and guitars. There's no need to learn the complexities of the plug-in straight away, as there is a well organised and skilfully programmed preset library (although browsing through the presets can be a little frustrating because they don't load instantly). Running through a few vocal presets, I immediately began to sit up and take notice. These are mostly quite subtle slap tape delays, small ambience effects and vocal doublers, and immediately put you in mind of vintage and trusted mixing techniques. The thing is, though, that going through Echoboy also works some other magic. The vocals sat back comfortably into the mix, and took on the smooth analogue roundedness that Pro Tools mixers crave.
So, good start! Next I decided to play some instruments through the unit, so I put an instance of Echoboy on an Instrument track running the Sampletank plug-in. First I called up a clean guitar patch, disabled ST's internal effects, and started playing with the Guitar, Classic and Chorus preset folders. Once again, these generally sound delicious, and the emulations sound authentic. I also realised that calling this plug-in an echo unit really doesn't do it justice, given the range of effects possible. The chorus presets include an emulation of the prized Boss CE1, so I dug my old CE3 pedal out of the cupboard to compare them, and found that Echoboy captured the delicate and shiny flavour of the Boss chorus but with even more warmth and presence.
Next I tried playing some synth sounds through Echoboy, paying particular attention to the Solo presets folder. Some of these presets can transform your sounds. One, called DirtyFaderSolo, turned my simple hard-edged lead sound into a big smooth sound like a fat Oberheim string patch. I actually checked that I hadn't accidentally changed the Sampletank patch! There are many really nice spatial effects like this in Echoboy, which once again warm up your mix, and inspire different directions when playing through them.
Echoboy has a preset folder of Drum patches, which I tried out on a number of loops. Cleverly, these patches make particular use of all the extra things Echoboy can do besides echoes, so you have distortion, flanging, small chambers, nasty old reverbs, gated reflections and so on. These all tend toward the weird and messed-up end of things, and can turn loops into something completely different, although of course you can also use grungy dub echoes with decaying fidelity in true tape-echo style.
Finally, I decided to have a go at creating my own emulation patch, by modelling my CE3. I started with the factory CE1 patch, and tweaked all the EQ settings for general tone and decay character. I then adjusted the stereo width and the Wobble settings, and finally got an Echoboy patch that was almost identical to the pedal.
Unusually for a plug-in, Echoboy is one of those effects you develop a real fondness for. As well as being a really useful mixing tool for adding vintage effects and heaps of warmth, it's an addictive add-on to any instrument you play through Pro Tools. Paradoxically, as well as offering the best emulations of classic delay effects, it has its own character, and is destined to become a classic in its own right. You'll need a reasonably fast machine to get the best from it, but whether you mix or compose in Pro Tools, I highly recommend you try it.