According to the manual, Audeon's UFO soft synth was born out of the designers' frustration with existing synthesis types. Audeon apparently feel that sample-based synths are too restrictive, that virtual analogue is tired and over-used, and that other techniques such as FM and additive synthesis are either too unpredictable or too difficult to use. There's much to agree with in this assessment, so I was interested to see how their 'Transmodal Synthesis' would overcome these problems.
The Transmodal concept appears to be to combine the best elements of all these methods to create a versatile sound engine, and to control it using just a few vector-style parameters with descriptive rather than technical names. It's a bold idea, and UFO is certainly less intimidating to use than your average additive or FM synth. The basic synthesis elements on offer are two oscillators and four filters, but these work rather differently from their counterparts on a typical analogue synth.
The main control for each of these six components is something that looks like an ancient television. The edges of the screen represent different qualities of sound, such as Mellow or Bright, and you move a white dot around to create a balance between these. The position of each dot can be modulated by the usual sources, including two envelopes, two LFOs and various keyboard parameters. Each of these shows up as a coloured arrow on the television screens, and you can click and drag to define the limit of the modulation. By assigning the same envelope to multiple parameters, it's easy to create patches that morph from one sound to another.
The oscillators can be switched between 'K-Osc' and 'V-Osc' modes. The latter is like a conventional VCO, except that it allows you to smoothly blend saw, pulse and square waveforms by moving the dot on screen. K-Osc mode is more intriguing. Audeon describe it as a 'chaotic oscillator model', and there are two screens' worth of controls available in this mode. The sound moves from Chaotic to Bright to Mellow in one, and between Even and Odd Harmonics, Noise and Periodic in the other. You can also adjust the 'duration of the onset transient'.
Two of the four filters are akin to the multi-mode resonant designs you find on some synths, except that the response is smoothly variable between low-pass and high-pass, rather than switched. The other two are formant filters, though they don't give you the option to draw in the formant shape as you can on some additive soft synths. The television display runs from Bass to Treble in one direction, and Formant to Anti-formant in the other, with a slider controlling the width of the formant. Routing between the oscillators and filters is controlled by clicking on animated electrical sparks, which is pretty but not perhaps as intuitive as it might be. Other parameters, such as effects and envelopes, are edited in the large multi-function screen at the bottom centre of the window.
In action, UFO's design certainly makes you think differently compared with a typical soft synth. Most of the parameters are well named and predictable in operation, and having such a small number of parameters compared to your average subtractive synth makes sound editing pretty fast, though I wasn't always sure what the 'Periodic' quality in the K-Osc oscillator was doing. The television screen displays work well, but I do feel that this sort of vector-based interface benefits from the kind of flexible multi-stage envelopes you get in some additive synthesizers.
Sound-wise, it has plenty to offer, though none of it is likely to make you think 'Wow, I must be listening to a radically new type of synthesis!' The basic sound is agreeably warm, without the weediness of some virtual analogues or the glassy quality that can make additive and FM patches hard to use in a mix. As you'd expect, one of UFO's strengths is creating evolving sounds, and it's easy to come up with something that has enough movement to keep your interest during a sustained chord. The presets include some nice basses and leads, too, but I found I sometimes struggled to get a punchy attack into patches I programmed myself. Another niggle is that it's very easy to clip the output, and lots of the factory presets do just that if you play them hard.
There are a few other synths that seek to combine the best of analogue and digital techniques in similar fashion, and Virsyn's Tera is a more versatile and arguably slicker alternative. However, Tera is nearly three times as expensive as UFO, and although it offers more control, that inevitably comes at the expense of greater complexity. If you want to get sounds fast, without tangling with a million parameters, UFO is an affordable and engaging soft synth that's well worth a try. There's a demo at Audeon's web site, plus the even more affordable UFO Lite and a public beta of the forthcoming Mac OS X version. Sam Inglis
Regardless of your view on whether turntables can be considered a musical instrument, there is no doubt that, tastefully used, they can create all sorts of rhythmically interesting effects. For those who have honed their skills, nothing is going to replace the genuine article. For the rest of us — pre-recorded sample loops aside — there is now Vinyl Boy. This PC-only VST plug-in is available from Musicrow and, priced at about £10, is not going to burn a big hole in anyone's pocket. The modest little plug-in attempts to emulate the kind of scratching effects that can be created using a turntable. With only four controls, all of which are pretty much of the 'set and forget' variety, it is also simple to use.
Vinyl Boy can be purchased direct from the Musicrow web site, and the small download includes both the plug-in and a four-page PDF manual. Installing the plug-in is simply a matter of placing the file in your VST plug-in folder. To use the plug-in, an instance of Vinyl Boy is inserted on the audio track that you wish to process. Once this is done, a MIDI track can be used to send mod wheel data to the plug-in — Vinyl Boy appears as an output option in the MIDI track destination setting within Cubase. This all worked a treat on my test PC, and I soon had the plug-in working in Cubase 4.
Aside from the turntable graphic, the user interface includes three knobs and one switch. According to the manual, the Smooth knob changes the smoothness of the scratching sound, with higher values less likely to generate pitch stepping, while the Amount knob acts like a sensitivity control to fine-tune the response of your mod wheel. The Out knob simply controls the output level from the plug-in. The Stream button toggles between two modes of operation. With it switched on, the track being processed is heard all the time, but with the Stream button off, the track is only heard when you raise the pitch-bend control. In both modes, 'scratching' is performed by moving the mod wheel on your MIDI keyboard.
In essence, as the mod-wheel value is increased, audio playback of the track is slowed down, while reducing the mod wheel value speeds up playback. In use, I found lower Amount settings made the scratching effects easier to control and, with a little practice (far less than that required with a real turntable I'm sure!), I was able to create some reasonably convincing turntable effects. I was easily able to add scratching effects in my own tracks, and the plug-in worked a treat to disguise the occasional explicit phrase in a lyric to create a 'clean' version of a vocal part. While I'm sure Vinyl Boy wouldn't satisfy the turntable purist, it is a very convenient alternative for occasional use. It is also simple to use and a lot of fun. John Walden
Unique Recording Software have made something of a name for themselves with high-quality plug-ins that model various sought-after pieces of vintage gear. Since we last covered their products, they've broadened their appeal by offering VST and Audio Units versions, allowing non-Pro Tools users to get in on the action, but they continue to develop for the TDM platform as well. As usual, the TDM licence covers all other platforms too, but URS don't have a single installer for all versions, so if you want the VST as well, you'll have to download and install it separately. Authorisation is to an iLok key.
The Classic Compressors bundle consists of two plug-ins called 1970 Compressor and 1980 Compressor, which are also available separately. The hardware units that inspired them aren't named, and the graphics adopt a generic vintage look rather than aping a real front panel, but it seems fairly clear that these are based on classic Neve and SSL buss-compressor designs respectively. Each of them actually comes in two versions: the CLS version includes an additional, non-vintage brick-wall limiter and side-chain filtering, while the 'C' version just has the compressor, but takes less processing power to run as a result. External side-chain input is available, but in the TDM version only, which is a shame.
Both 1970 and 1980 have the same controls, laid out in the same way, and the ranges of the controls appear to be identical. For example, compressor Attack is variable between 0.1ms and 100ms in both cases, while Release runs from 10ms to two seconds. The two plug-ins even come with the same selection of presets. Not being lucky enough to own a vintage Neve or SSL desk, I can't say for certain that these plug-ins are indistinguishable from the real thing, but their respective characters call to mind the right sort of adjectives. That is, 1970 Compressor tends towards the warm and rounded, with a ballsy quality that should suit some styles of rock particularly well, while the 1980 model has a snappier feel and a brighter, more aggressive sound. That said, the difference between the two wasn't quite as great as I expected, and in real-world applications I didn't often notice a radical change when I swapped one out for the other. Thanks to the wide range of the controls and the addition of the limiter, though, both are much more flexible than typical vintage emulations, and these plug-ins are eminently usable on individual instruments, subgroups or entire mixes. Sam Inglis
Few plug-ins survive eight years in the hostile and rapidly changing world of digital audio, but Voice Tweaker is one. We first reviewed it in October 1999, and since then it's gone through three major updates. These have added a welter of new features and a completely redesigned interface, as well as support for Mac OS X and the VST plug-in standard, and Voice Tweaker is now sold under the Xponaut banner. At heart, though, it's still the same product. Voice Tweaker is intended as an affordable alternative to the likes of Auto-Tune, offering both pitch correction of monophonic signals, and a range of more creative effects such as formant shifting and harmony generation.
A forthcoming Pro version will introduce an equivalent of Auto-Tune's Graphical Mode for the first time, allowing the user to 'draw in' their desired pitch curves. In the current version, however, pitch correction is handled automatically, and it's very easy to set up. You choose a scale to correct to, either from a preset list, by clicking notes on an on-screen keyboard or writing them into a MIDI part in your sequencer. Then it's simply a matter of adjusting the Correction control. This equates to the Retune Speed control in Auto-Tune, with fast settings providing a more obvious and mechanical sound, and slow settings a more natural result. If you want to use Voice Tweaker for basic pitch correction, you'll also need to reset the Output Mix control to fully wet. Further parameters for fine-tuning the detection algorithm are buried in an Options menu.
The quality of the basic pitch correction is not bad, though as with any completely automated process, you would have difficulty applying it to an entire lead vocal without it being obvious in places, and you'll probably benefit from automating the Correction control to tone down some artifacts. The results don't have the same transparency as you can get in, say, Melodyne, but provided the original vocal isn't too far off, I'd expect to get something usable. However, the heavily stylised interface compromises ease of use a little, and in particular, the weird dartboard-style display that shows how far the original pitch is out is next to useless. I assume the Pro version will be better in this respect.
Where Voice Tweaker does shine is in the creative effects that it makes possible. The Scale Offset parameter makes it easy to create vocal harmonies, though you'll need to use multiple copies of the plug-in on separate tracks if you want to create multiple harmonies. In small amounts, the formant shifting can make an intriguing and subtle change to the timbre of a voice, and in large amounts, it can make things sound plain silly. There's also an Auto Vibrato control that allows you to introduce additional vibrato on sustained notes, but the fun really starts with Voice Tweaker's modulation matrix. This features four slots where you can assign sources (LFO, input signal amplitude, note pitch, MIDI note pitch and MIDI velocity) to destinations such as pitch, formant, mix and the slightly puzzling Hold Waveform. According to the manual, this last "allows you to hold the last waveform of the input signal indefinitely, but it is still output at the pace which the input signal dictates". I never quite got a handle on what this option does, or how to use it, but the others offer plenty of fun ways to muck about with the sound. For instance, you can set it up so that higher notes have more vibrato added, or louder notes are corrected faster than quiet ones, or assign LFO to formant shift for weird pulsating effects.
At $99 or 77 Euros, Voice Tweaker won't bankrupt you, and it's an intriguing alternative to the big names. Given the option, it probably wouldn't be my first choice for pitch correction on an exposed vocal, but I'm not convinced that any fully automated plug-in can generate completely transparent results in any case, and Voice Tweaker definitely offers some new and interesting ways to create off-the-wall vocal effects. Sam Inglis