Pluggo is a collection of more than 100 instrument, effects and 'modulation' plug-ins, all of which are accessible via the VST, Audio Units and RTAS protocols under Windows XP and Mac OS X. It's produced by Cycling 74, whose Max/MSP programming environment has long been a mainstay of experimentally minded computer musicians, and in fact all of the Pluggo plug-ins have been created with Max/MSP. The boxed Pluggo package includes installation CDs for both Windows and Mac OS, although full installers can also be downloaded from the Cycling 74 web site. In either case the software will run in 'demo mode', emitting an annoying buzz every minute or so, until the software has been authorised.
Pluggo uses a Pace copy-protection system which allows you either to store your authorisation on an iLok hardware dongle (not supplied), or to authorise your computer's hard drive by completing a challenge-and-response process on-line. Cycling 74 aim to respond to authorisation requests submitted via their web site 'within a day or so', and I received my authorisation within about three hours of submitting a request.
The Pluggo installer installs not only the plug-ins and associated files, but also some very good documentation, in PDF format. Printed versions are sadly absent, but the PDFs are nonetheless well-written and helpful.
Pluggo presents an unusual problem for a reviewer: it contains so many different plug-ins that even to write the most perfunctory review of every one would would be impossible in the space available. Instead I'll limit myself to some general comments about the bundle, and highlight a few favourites of my own. A complete list of the Pluggo plug-ins (with a brief description of each) is provided in the 'Plug-ins By Category' box.
There are several features common to all or most of the Pluggo plug-ins. The first and most obvious is the generic user interface (as sported by Phone Filter, above). All the plug-ins use the same basic set of graphical sliders, menus, buttons and so on, which are basic but perfectly functional. Most of the plug-ins feature a 'View' pop-up menu at the top of the editor window, which can be used to choose between displaying the plug-in's custom graphical user interface, if it has one, or its parameters presented as one or more pages of generic controls, and one or more Info pages.
The generic interface contains a useful feature whereby right-clicking (Ctrl-clicking on a Mac) on any slider opens a contextual menu, from which various handy functions can be selected. Depending on the plug-in, these can include Touch Parameters (which sends automation messages to the host application describing the current position of the controls), the self-explanatory Undo Last Change and Randomize All, and Evolve All, which nudges each parameter randomly up or down by up to five percent. Individual parameters may also be Randomized or Evolved.
Another handy feature of the Pluggo's generic interface is a hint box at the bottom of the editor window, in which a brief but useful explanation of a parameter's function can be displayed when the mouse pointer is held over the relevant slider or other control. Some plug-ins also provide a simple level meter, which can switched to show either input or output signal level.
Many of the plug-ins in the Pluggo bundle support tempo synchronisation with the host application, either via the standard VST or Audio Unit implementations, or via Pluggo's own Pluggo Sync plug-in (left). Pluggo Sync generates synchronisation data in one of two ways: either by 'listening to' and following an audio click track that you supply, or by running its own internal clock. Both methods work well enough, although the former requires a good, loud, unambiguous click to be reliable. A number of Pluggo plug-ins are Pluggo Sync-aware and can have time-based parameters controlled in this way.
A dozen or so of Pluggo's plug-ins neither process nor generate any sound at all. These are the 'modulator' plug-ins, which use a variety of different methods to produce varying control signals which may be used to modulate other plug-ins' parameters in a number of different ways. Modulator plug-ins typically pass audio signals straight through unaltered, so they can be inserted just about anywhere your host application allows. You can then choose to assign their control signal outputs to any modulatable parameters in any other Pluggo plug-ins that happen to be open. For example, you might patch the LFO modulator plug-in to control Chamberverb's Filter Cutoff parameter, or you could use Step Sequencer (below) to drive the FF Mod Freq parameter in Generic Effect.
Experimenting with combinations of modulation and effect plug-ins allows you to create some some extremely complicated processing chains, and some correspondingly unpredictable sounds. The possibilities are quite mind-boggling!
Another powerful feature of the Pluggo bundle is the 'Pluggo Buss', a virtual audio buss supporting eight independent channels, which provides a powerful and convenient way to send audio signals between Pluggo plug-ins. Signals are sent to the Pluggo Buss, surprisingly enough, via a plug-in called PluggoBus Send. This is straightforward enough. There are sliders to control the input gain, and you can choose whether or not you want to echo the input signal to the plug-in's outputs as well as on to the Pluggo Buss. You can also choose to delay the signal by a number of samples, which can be useful for compensating for any delays introduced by other plug-ins elsewhere in the chain.
Once audio is on the Pluggo Buss, it can be retrieved either by using the similarly straightforward PluggoBus Rcv plug-in, or by selecting any of the Pluggo plug-ins that are Pluggo 'Buss-aware'. The Vocoder plug-ins, for example, both allow you to use a Pluggo Buss signal as their carrier signal. Likewise the Convolver cross-synthesis effect can accept input from the Pluggo Buss.
Feedback Network is, to my mind, almost the perfect example of the kind of thing Pluggo excels at. It features a dozen or so sliders, half of which move randomly of their own accord. It has a large Randomize button, which doesn't do quite what you expect it to, and no amount of familiarity with conventional effects processors will give you the faintest idea what to expect when you pass a signal through it. With the dry level slider turned down, in fact, the input signal is almost irrelevant, as you won't hear much resembling it in Feedback Network's output. Instead, what you get is a largely unpredictable, slowly evolving textural mass of feedback and associated noise, suggestive of old science-fiction movie soundtracks and half-remembered nightmares.
The Pluggo reference manual sheds a bit of light on the inner workings of the plug-in, but not too much. It seems to involve five feedback delay lines, each with a band-pass filter, and all capable of feeding into one another in different configurations; the Randomize button shuffles how they're interconnected. Knowing how Feedback Network works is not really the point, in any case. This is not a plug-in you want to be able to control. It's a plug-in you can feed just about any old sound into and begin to get something interesting out of after a mouse click or two. Used on its own, it provides an almost inexhaustible source of enjoyably abstract sounds. Used in conjunction with one or more of Pluggo's other effects, the possibilities are well-nigh endless.
To The Max
All the Pluggo plug-ins began life the same way: as patches created in Cycling 74's Max/MSP visual programming environment. Why, then, would you want to buy Pluggo? Couldn't you just buy Max/MSP, and make your own plug-ins instead? The short answer is 'yes, you could', although it may not be quite as simple as it first appears.
Max/MSP is an enormously powerful, flexible and rather complex system, which requires a significant investment of time and effort to master. While its interface is reasonably user-friendly, with a visual 'patch cord' system reminiscent of some software synthesis applications, Max/MSP is a lot more than a modular synth. It might be more appropriate to think of Max/MSP as a special kind of programming language, and of patches as programs written in that language. While Max/MSP is a lot less intimidating and a lot easier to pick up than a general-purpose programming language like C++, it nevertheless has its own 'grammar' and programming conventions, which you'll need to learn before you can really get the best out of it. What's more, many of the Pluggo plug-ins embody clever and sophisticated designs, which would not be trivial to recreate! You can be sure that Pluggo hasn't just been thrown together: plenty of hard work has gone into developing these effects and instruments.
That said, if you're curious about using Max/MSP, a demo version is available from the Cycling 74 web site, along with some good introductory documentation. Give it a whirl, and see how you get on. You might also want to investigate Pd (Max/MSP's free, open-source cousin), which can be found on the Web at www-crca.ucsd.edu/~msp/software.html. Max/MSP presents the patient user with almost endless possibilities, allowing the most outlandish experiments with audio, MIDI and even (via the additional Jitter objects) video. You can do a lot more than just make plug-ins with Max/MSP! (See www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug03/articles/cyclingradial.htm for another example of what's possible.)
Squirrel Parade is designed to "turn any input into a parade of squirrels".
I have never reviewed a squirrel parade-generating plug-in before, but squirrel parading apparently consists of a complicated process of frequency-modulated granular synthesis, wherein the frequency of one 'grain' of the incoming signal can modulate the frequency of other grains. A modulation matrix controls exactly what affects what. A wide variety of strange chirping, chattering, wobbling and burbling sounds can be produced, and there's an optional internal test-tone generator which can be used to produce great storms of sample-and-hold synth noise.
When processing external signals the effects are harder to predict, and more atonal. Sometimes, with the right kind of input, and your eyes half-closed, that chirping, chattering noise really does conjure images of rodents... scores of rodents, all marching in a line...
The Pluggo download page is home not only to the complete Pluggo installer, but also to Pluggo Junior, a set of 12 fully working plug-ins taken from the Pluggo collection and available free of charge. Included are Average Injector, Chamberverb, Feedback Network, Filter Taps, Generic Effect, HF Ring Mod, Jet, Limi, Nebula, Resonation, Resosweep, and Spectral Filter. This is a generous move on Cycling 74's part, and I'd encourage anyone who's at all curious about Pluggo to download Pluggo Junior. It provides a fairly representative sample of the complete bundle, and a good opportunity to try out Pluggo plug-ins in some real-world situations (and your preferred host applications). At the time of writing, Pluggo Junior is available for Windows only, although a Mac version is promised 'soon'.
Space Echo was apparently inspired by Roland's classic RE201 tape echo, and accordingly provides reverb and delay effects, with a couple of parameters thrown in to mimic some of the more endearing idiosyncrasies of machines of that vintage. Warble Speed, Warble Amount and Tape Inertia all allow you to interfere with the virtual 'tape speed', while Clip can be used to introduce some distortion into the proceedings. High-pass and low-pass filters can be used to to imitate the limited frequency response of well-worn tape.
Used subtly, Space Echo is capable of producing some very convincing 'vintage' sounds. Push these parameters to their extremes and the sound moves beyond the boundaries of authenticity, and into newer and noisier territories! It's a relatively simple effect, but one with plenty of character, and certainly one of my favourites.
Harmonic Dreamz is a simple, easy-to-use additive synthesizer, with 16 sliders for adjusting the relative amplitudes of the first 16 harmonics in the sound. It has a straightforward ADSR envelope generator, and a random Detune effect to introduce a little unpredictability into the sound. It also has an LFO patched to amplitude, suitable for creating nice, fluttery tremolo effects. Unusually, the LFO can also be switched to a high-frequency mode, to produce some interesting amplitude-modulation sounds.
Harmonic Dreamz is not the most complex or flexible synthesizer you'll ever come across, but its simplicity is arguably its strength. You can quickly and easily dial up some very pleasant drawbar organ-type sounds, and even some quite nice pseudo-Rhodes pianos. Equally, tweaking the envelope generator for slow attack and long decay transforms Harmonic Dreamz into a nice little ambient pad synth, capable of a very respectable range of different tones and timbres.
Plug-ins By Category
Center Channel: subtracts one of its input channels from the other.
PluggoBus Rcv: accepts audio input from the Pluggo Buss and sends it to its outputs.
PluggoBus Send: sends its audio input signal(s) to the Pluggo Buss so that they can be sent to other plug-ins that are 'Pluggo Buss aware'.
Chorus X2: chorusing and short delay effects.
Comber: modulated comb filters.
Flange-o-tron: a flanger driven by two step sequencers.
Generic Effect: a modulated comb filter, suitable for vibrato, chorus, flange and other 'standard' effects.
Jet: 'vintage' flanging effects.
Long Stereo Delay: long stereo delay, with vibrato and filter effects.
Space Echo: see main text.
Tap Net: a flexible four-tap, tempo-sync'ed delay.
Tapped Delay: delay line with 16 equally spaced output taps.
Very Long Delay: a 30-second delay, with vibrato and resonant filters.
Average Injector: modulates the delay time and amplitude of its input based on an average of the signal's amplitude.
Degrader: reduces the effective sampling rate and bit depth of its input.
Feedback Network: see main text.
Fragulator: chops the input signal into fragments, and loops each fragment either forwards or backwards at varying speeds.
HF Ring Mod: flexible ring modulator.
Mangle Filter: affects amplitude and delay time based on the average amplitude of its input.
Monstercrunch: amplification followed by clipping (distortion) and low-pass filtering.
Noyzckippr: multiplies the input signal by band-pass-filtered white noise.
Pluggo Fuzz: a fuzzy distortion effect.
Ring Modulator: ring modulation.
Waveshaper: waveshaping distortion with a mouse-editable transfer curve.
Cyclotron: a step-sequencer controlled band-pass or low-pass filter.
Harmonic Filter: 25 band-pass filters, controlled by a 'cellular automata algorithm'.
Moving Filters: LFO-controlled parallel band-pass filters.
Multi-Filter: a linkable pair of multi-mode resonant filters.
Phase Shifter: a straightforward phasing effect.
Phone Filter: a very convincing 'telephone' distortion effect.
Swish: four filters and two LFOs to create complex sweeping effects.
Vocoder: analogue vocoder emulation (10- and 16-band versions).
Waste Band: splits each stereo channel into three frequency ranges and allows you to mute, pass or overdrive each band individually.
Filter Taps: a six-tap delay line with independent band-pass filters, plus control over gain and pan positions.
Plug Loop: an audio looping and sampling tool.
Raindrops: a network of band-pass filters, each one offering "a tiny peek into the frequency spectrum".
Resonation: 12 parallel band-pass filters, tuned in semitone intervals, each followed by a delay.
Resosweep: six independent resonant filters, plus short delays.
Sizzle Delays: a stereo delay line, with high-pass filters in the feedback loop.
Granular-to-Go: a granular synthesis effect.
Pendulum: a four-tap delay with two taps per channel where delay times are controlled by a ramp wave oscillator.
Rye: another granular synthesis effect.
Shuffler: records incoming audio into a loop, then plays back slices of that loop in real time.
Slice-n-Dice: continuously records its input signal and slices it into 32 pieces of equal length, while playing back one or more of the previously recorded 32 slices.
Squirrel Parade: see main text.
Stutterer: plays back fragments of its input signal in various different ways.
Wheat: a granular synthesis effect with a pitch envelope for grains.
Audio2Control: creates a control signal by sampling an incoming audio signal.
Breakpoints: generates a 12-point breakpoint envelope, which can be applied to an audio signal or sent as modulation data to other plug-in parameters.
Control2Audio: generates a 'control voltage' audio signal from a control signal.
Env Follower: generates a control signal by tracking the amplitude of the incoming signal.
Key Triggers: allows certain keys on the QWERTY keyboard to send control signals to other plug-ins.
Knave Stories: uses the Navier-Stokes equation (apparently) to generate pseudo-random modulation sources.
LFO: a low-frequency oscillator, outputting a control signal.
M2M: converts MIDI data into modulation data.
Mouse Mod: generates modulation data from mouse movements.
Plug Logic: shapes and alters control signals.
Randomizer: generates random control signals for other plug-ins' parameters.
Step Sequencer: generates control signals with a step sequencer.
Audio Rate Pan: can create complex effects by modulating the relative amplitudes of the incoming channels.
Nebula: amplitude and phase-inversion changes, to create a swirling stereo illusion.
One By Eight: a one-input, eight-output matrix mixer.
Stereo Adjuster: adjusts the width of a stereo signal.
Stereo Faker: uses comb filters to create a 'fake' stereo image from a mono signal.
Swirl: delay-based 'panning' and similar 'motion' effects.
Tremellow: a stereo panning effect.
Xformer: rhythmically mutes and accents incoming audio.
Frequency Shift: frequency (not pitch) shifting.
Speed Shifter: like running your signal through two tape loops, each running at a different speed with a different length of tape, feeding back into each other.
Vibrato Cauldron: a pair of all-pass filters modulated by a 'smoothed random process'.
Warble: changes the playback speed of the incoming signal.
Warpoon: an 'ambient' chorus effect.
Chamberverb: a reverb with a bit of character.
Rough Reverb: a harsh-sounding reverb.
Dynamical: compression, expansion, gating and more.
Limi: a general-purpose limiter.
Convolver: a real-time cross-synthesis (convolution) effect.
Spectral Filter: a 253-band graphic EQ, with a curve that can be drawn in.
Pluggo Sync: generates synchronisation control signals for other plug-ins.
FM 4-op is a four-operator frequency-modulation synthesizer, vaguely reminiscent of Yamaha's four-operator FM synths like the TX81Z and DX100. Unlike either of these, however, FM 4-op provides an easy-to-use point-and-click graphical user interface, which makes programming new sounds easy and intuitive. You don't need to be an FM expert to use this plug-in — in fact it could be a useful tool for anybody wanting to learn a bit about the mysterious world of frequency modulation.
The standard eight 'algorithms' are all there, complete with feedback for operator number four. Envelopes are edited by simply clicking and dragging, and operator waveforms can be switched from a drop-down menu at the top corner of each display. A good selection of presets is included to demonstrate the kind of sounds that are possible, but the real fun comes when you start programming your own. All kinds of strange twanging, clanging, cold, metallic noises are there for the taking!
Synthesis Plug-insAdditive Heaven: see main text.
Analog Drums: an analogue drum machine emulation.
Analogue Percussion: an analogue-style percussion synthesizer.
Bass Line: a bass synth vaguely reminiscent of the Roland TB303.
Big Ben Bell: an FM-based bell sound synthesizer.
Deep Bass: an analogue-style monosynth, with integrated cutoff and pitch sequencers.
Easy Sampler: a basic sample-playback plug-in.
Filtered Drums: an eight-channel sampled drum sound module.
Flying Waves: a mouse-controlled Theremin emulation.
FM 4-op: see main text.
Harmonic Dreamz: see main text.
Laverne: a basic subtractive synth.
Lo-fi Drums: a drum machine using gritty eight-bit sampled sounds.
Moving Waves: an unusual 'crossfading synth'.
PGS1: a comprehensive analogue monosynth emulation.
QSynth: a simple but effective synthesizer.
Quick Drums: a simple drum machine that's easy on the CPU.
Shape Synth: a waveshaping synthesizer.
Shepard Tones: generates the aural illusion of constantly falling or rising pitch.
Sine Bank: an unusual synthesizer, generating up to 32 simultaneous sine wave tones.
Wavy Waves: a wave-sequencing synthesizer.
White Grains: a neat granular synthesizer.
Xmod Synth: an analogue synth emulation, with a nice 'modulation matrix'.
Beat N: a tempo/delay calculator plug-in.
D-Meter: a mastering meter.
Light Organ: a visual toy that responds to audio input.
Phase Scope: a utility to check the phase alignment of a stereo signal.
For the most part, I found working with Pluggo quite trouble-free, encountering no crashes or serious glitches in the course of my testing. That said, I did find that at least some of the Pluggo plug-ins could be a little bit on the 'slow' side. By 'slow', I don't mean that their performance as audio processors was in any way lacking. On the contrary, most of them seemed to be quite economical with CPU resources.
However, on my system at least, several of the plug-ins were really quite slow to load, with a delay of perhaps three or four seconds between selecting the plug-in the host application, and having it become available to use. I contacted Cycling 74 about this, who told me that this is a known issue which seems to affect a minority of Windows users. Imminent Pluggo upgrades are expected to bring improvements in this respect. I also found that one or two of the custom graphical user interfaces on some of the plug-ins could be a bit sluggish and unresponsive, even with a relatively low CPU load. Switching to the default parameter view solved this problem, so it was hardly a major inconvenience.
Minor quibbles aside, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reviewing Pluggo. While the bundle as a whole is impressive, in my opinion its greatest strengths are its more unconventional effects. What Pluggo offers — and what many commercial plug-in bundles don't — are unusual, original and often inspiring tools for twisting audio signals into new and unexpected shapes. It's a bit different from the useful but ubiquitous software recreations of conventional studio hardware devices.
Combining the effects, the modulation plug-ins and the Pluggo Buss, Pluggo operates as a flexible modular system capable of routing, wrangling and mangling audio signals in some outlandish ways that would be quite impossible with conventional host applications and plug-ins. Pluggo's instruments range from the very usable, through the quite interesting to the 'novel', but all are worth having, and add value to the bundle as a whole. With more than 100 different plug-ins included, I'm very aware that I haven't mentioned some deserving candidates. Fragulator and Degrader, for example, both appealed to me enormously. Wheat and Rye also proved capable of a range of interesting, textural noises.