Formats: PC VST
Z3TA+ was Cakewalk's first commercial soft-synth hit. It was coded by Rene Ceballos of RCG, but Cakewalk liked it so much that they acquired RGC and brought in Rene to work up their next generation of synths. Z3TA+ was reviewed in this magazine in October 2005, and you can find an overview of its features in that review: /sos/oct05/articles/pluginfolder.htm. Though it's now a little long in the tooth, several point upgrades have kept Z3TA+ a dance-genre favourite, as attested to by all the free patches, banks and skins available for it on the Web.
Z3TA+ 2 doesn't muck up what made the original a solid choice. Each of the six oscillators per patch can feed into the next one for hard sync, ring, phase and analogue FM modulation, while the modulation matrix provides almost a modular-synth level of control. It comes with only 60 waveforms, rather than a horde of samples, and uses waveshaping to transform these oscillator wave shapes in a fashion that's a bit like pulse-width modulation on steroids: you alter the basic waveform itself, using 16 different tools and in real time. Z3TA+ 2 not only allows you to map each of these transformers to a MIDI Continuous Controller, as in the original, but also has them as destinations in its modulation matrix, so you can use an envelope, sync'ed LFO or just about any other control source within Z3TA+ 2 to continually alter the wave shape. Static wave, begone! This is the most fundamental difference in Z3TA+ 2, and can produce all manner of sonic mayhem, from rhythmically changing oscillator shapes to PPG-like wavetable sounds. Other than the new transformer destinations, the modulation matrix remains much the same as in the earlier incarnation: in other words, deep. It includes both the source and destination, of course, but also a range for the overall amount of effect applied, types of curves, so the modulation ramps up (or down) over time, and a slot to insert the mod wheel or other continuous controller.
Although the modulation matrix hasn't changed that much, other programming and performance aspects of the synth have. First, the window itself is larger — just a bit, but the workspace feels less cramped. The X-Y pad and Transformer pages are now integral to Z3TA+ 2's main page, instead of being 'pop-ups' wandering around the screen. The control bars for the various Transformer amounts are actually smaller in Z3TA+ 2, but big enough for programming or assigning to MIDI hardware for live performance. The filter, EG and LFOs have also had their original sliders replaced by graphical read-outs and knobs, which are easier to read at a glance and easier to adjust. And Z3TA+ 2 has an honest-to-goodness browser, sorted by type of instrument. The old browser was a rather haphazard affair, and frustrating to use, since one had to dig through different banks looking for some randomly placed patch. You can still load in the old 700-plus presets from their own banks, where they are now neatly organised into instruments as well as alphabetised, just like the 1000 new patches. A final nod to user friendliness is the drag-and-drop rack effect routing, making it easier to see what is going where. One of the features missing from Z3TA+ is that the effects section no longer works as a VST effect in your DAW. However, installing the new Z3TA+ doesn't overwrite the older version, so existing users will still be able to employ the original as an effect processor.
When Z3TA+ 2.0 was released, it was also missing alternate tunings, which I thought was strange (all of Cakewalk's later synths include Scala tunings, so they obviously know how to do it). Lo and behold, before SOS went to press, Cakewalk released the Z3TA+ 2.1 update, which restores alternate tunings. So now Z3TA+ 2.1 works and sounds like its earlier incarnation, except for the separated effects section. And its classic sound remains unaltered: Z3TA+ 2.1 just makes it easier to program that sound. Alan Tubbs
£69; upgrade from v1 £35. Prices include VAT.
Roland UK +44 (0)1792 702701.
$99; upgrade from v1 $49.
Cakewalk +1 617 423 9004.
Formats: Mac AU & VST, Windows VST
Dance production team Dada Life cheerfully admit that they like to make their mixes as loud as possible. To that end, they've teamed up with Tailored Noise to develop the Sausage Fattener plug-in — so-called because when used on the master bus, it produces mix waveforms that look like sausages! (Even if the very idea makes you shudder with horror, do check out the hilarious video introduction to the plug-in on their web site.)
Sausage Fattener is simplicity itself to use, with two large chicken-head knobs labelled Fatness and Colour. Visual feedback comes from an animated sausage, which blows up its cheeks in response to your settings. The developers have also grudgingly provided a knob labelled Gain, which is so minuscule it doesn't look like the sort of thing you're really expected to use.
They say that if people knew what went into sausages, they'd never eat them, and on the whole I'm quite content to feel the same way about Sausage Fattener. It is, among other things, a brick-wall limiter: put it on your master bus and no peaks will escape, no matter how violently you abuse the Fatness and Gain knobs (the latter seems to control input rather than output level). But it's also much more than that. The Fatness dial also seems to introduce fairly obvious compression, and a very obvious gain boost that brings about some pretty crunchy digital distortion when you start hitting the limiter too hard.
The Colour dial is intriguing, and seems to introduce some sort of parallel filtering effect. As you turn it to the right, different areas of the mid-range are boosted, while the overall level of the track remains more or less unchanged. There's a distinctive, somewhat lo-fi character to the resulting sound, which struck me as one of this plug-in's most appealing features.
Perhaps I'm just staid and conservative, but I can't help being a bit nervous about the idea of using a mastering limiter that has no metering, no threshold setting and no level-matched way to A/B the processed and unprocessed signals! I'm sure others will feel differently, and if you're looking for a mastering processor that adds a huge amount of flavour — or, as Dada Life would have it, 'greasiness' — to your sound, rather than remaining as transparent as possible, Sausage Fattener could be just the thing. It also has considerable potential as an insert processor for tracks and buses. The limited control set tends to bring a large element of pot luck to proceedings, but at $29, it's a gamble that most people can afford to take. Sam Inglis
Formats: Mac AU, Mac & PC VST & RTAS
Regular readers of SOS will recall our May 2011 interview with Abbey Road's Chief Engineer Peter Cobbin about the score for Oscar-winning drama The King's Speech. On a visit to the EMI archive in Hayes, Cobbin had uncovered microphones that the company had built specially for the monarchs of the '20s and '30s. Abbey Road technician Lester Smith was able to bring three of these extraordinary devices back to life, and they ended up being used extensively on the soundtrack. So impressed was director Tom Hooper that he and Cobbin even had relevant pieces of dialogue reprocessed by 're-amping' them through these microphones.
With a certain inevitability, The King's Speech has now yielded The King's Microphones, a plug-in that aims to bring the distinctive character of these unique microphones to a wider audience. Created by Waves in partnership with Abbey Road, it models the three working microphones that Cobbin used as a Decca Tree to record the soundtrack. These are a carbon-granule microphone built for King George V in the '20s, and moving-coil mics created for George VI and Elizabeth the Queen Mother in the following decade.
Operating the plug-in is simplicity itself. A 3x3 matrix of buttons allows you to select one of the three microphones and one of three miking distances: close, ambient (40cm away) and 'natural', which "emulates the basic response of the microphone, without any proximity effect or artifacts”. There's also an input gain control and a neat Trim option, which automatically inspects the incoming signal to see how much headroom it leaves you; hitting the Trim button then adjusts the gain control to compensate for the last measured amount of headroom.
There are plenty of 'oldifying' plug-ins on the market, but I haven't heard any quite like The King's Microphones. The thing that all three microphone models do is place the focus squarely on the mid-range, and in particular, on any vocals in the mix. Yes, they have a limited frequency response and introduce distortion, but they're not 'lo-fi' in a distracting or two-dimensional way. In fact, it was the most 'lo-fi' of the three, the King George V microphone, that I found myself returning to most often. It has a crisp, forward presence that doesn't only work as an obvious effect: it's also useful in more subtle applications, such as on an aux send to add a bit of bite to an otherwise straight-sounding vocal. The George VI microphone has a somewhat more natural frequency response, though still clearly curtailed at both ends, while I found the Elizabeth model the least useful, with a tendency towards honkiness in the low-mids.
With only three basic sounds on offer, The King's Microphones isn't the most versatile effect you'll ever hear, and it's unlikely to find a place in every track. But when you do want that 'instant vintage' quality that colours the sound without obliterating it, there's every chance it'll give you what you need. And even when you don't need 80-year-old audio in your mix, it can provide a very useful monitoring reference when placed over the master bus, to show exactly which parts of your mix will survive the transition to a small, highly coloured replay system. Sam Inglis
£84 including VAT.
Sonic Distribution +44 (0)845 500 2500.