When a top hardware expert turns his attention to plug-in design, the results are a bit special.
Dave Hill is one of the most highly respected designers of professional audio recording equipment. His units sit comfortably in the world’s top studios, alongside the most revered outboard processors available (or not so available). Whether they are marketed under the long-standing Crane Song name or the more recent Dave Hill Designs brand, the highest possible sonic standards are assured. Furthermore, these designs are not simply beautifully made clones, as much high-end outboard can tend to be, but genuinely innovative pieces that often combine the best of analogue and digital technology. The HEDD two-channel converter, introduced in 1997, and the Spider eight-channel mixer and A-D converter feature digital ‘colour’ circuits, providing a form of tape emulation. In combination with superb conversion, this ability to add harmonic colour has made the units indispensable to those who have access to them.
In 2001 Dave released Phoenix, a tape emulation plug-in for the Pro Tools TDM platform, derived from the code in the HEDD. With Dave having designed the revered Aria electronics for ATR’s tape machines, and with the HEDD algorithm sounding so good, a lot was expected of Phoenix, and it did not disappoint. The plug-in has been heard on countless hit records since, and a search through the archives of SOS’s Inside Track articles reveals a long and distinguished list of advocates. One might be forgiven for asking “Well, back then there wasn’t much choice for getting analogue-style colour in the box, and while it might have been great at the time, is it really still relevant 13 years on?” When you have mixers with effectively limitless budgets using it on current projects, the answer is an emphatic “yes”.
While those original designs have maintained their reputation for sublime sonics, Dave has delivered new analogue designs, and has also ventured even further into the digital world. Phoenix has seen an update, becoming Phoenix II, the Dave Hill Designs RA plug-in offers a unique approach to second- and third-harmonic distortion, and the Crane Song Peacock plug-in represents Dave’s take on the characteristics of vinyl. All three involve digital implementation of harmonic distortion, and it’s worth mentioning that some of Dave’s current analogue designs, for example the Europa mic preamp, feature related (but not identical) processes operating purely in the analogue domain. Why is this important? Well, a common weakness in plug-ins that seek to create these sorts of distortions occurs when manufacturers are brilliant with code, but don’t fully understand the analogue circuits they’re trying to emulate. What we tend to see is that those who have the deepest understanding of analogue, and who have spent decades measuring analogue circuits on an oscilloscope, provide us with more analogue-like digital emulations — an obvious example being Universal Audio. There are few designers able to move as freely between these two worlds as Dave Hill, and it’s clear when we start to examine these plug-ins that they are the products of not only a brilliant mind, but a great deal of experience.
As the name suggests, Phoenix II is an updated version of the original Phoenix plug-in. It now uses 32-bit floating-point maths rather than the 48-bit fixed-point of the older Pro Tools TDM system. It has a lower noise floor, an updated GUI, and some functional enhancements in the form of an output trim and the collation of the five different process types into a single plug-in — the original Phoenix was actually a suite of five plug-ins.
So what exactly is Phoenix? Well, let’s start with what it isn’t. It isn’t one of those recreations of a specific tape machine or tape formula. There are no perfectly modelled dancing VU meters, no comfortingly worn-looking Bakelite knobs, and no gently spinning reels of tape to remind us what to hear. It was designed to give us the character of magnetic tape, to give us access to the colour, but not the noise or generally unwanted side-effects. It provides the sort of saturation, frequency response and compression that we normally associate with magnetic tape recording.
So if we don’t get variable wow, flutter and hiss, what do we get? Running from left to right there are knobs for Input Trim, Process, Output Trim, Brightness and Type. Input Trim is fairly self-explanatory, allowing the user to boost or attenuate the input signal by ±10dB. The Phoenix process is heavily dependent on the nature and level of the source, and this control allows for both use and abuse in terms of how hard you hit the virtual tape, but most of the time it can just be left at unity unless the source material is very hot. Next in line is the Process knob itself, which adjusts the amount of the distortion that is applied: the distortion can be thought of as a side-chain process which is then summed with the main, untouched audio. Immediately to the right of that is an Output Trim, offering ±6dB of adjustment to match the level of the processed audio with the original source. This is followed by a three-way Brightness switch. The centre Gold position has an approximately flat frequency response, with Opal being a little warmer and Sapphire a little brighter. Finally, and most importantly, the Type switch allows selection of each of the five algorithms. These are described as follows:
“Luminescent is the most neutral-sounding process of the five. Iridescent has a similar magnetic character, but with a fatter bottom and mid-range. This [process] is the most similar to the Tape knob on the HEDD-192. Radiant is characterised by a more aggressive compression curve. Dark Essence is even more aggressive — the effect is a colour with a wider frequency range. When used on a vocal Dark Essence can reduce sibilance problems by increasing the apparent loudness of the rest of the signal. Luster starts more gently than the other four processes, but becomes as aggressive as Dark Essence when the process is at full scale.”
The original Phoenix plug-in, while much lauded for its sound, was no looker, and Phoenix II is set to follow squarely in its footsteps in both respects. It does look more refined than its predecessor, but since that had a distinctly ‘clip art’ vibe about it, you should not expect the bleeding edge of graphic design. And I don’t care. I don’t care at all. Because for me, plug-in graphics are like band names. If the name is bad, but the band is good, you somehow come to love the name because of what it brings to mind. And this is much the same. All three of these plug-ins look frankly awful by modern standards, but when I see them pop up on my display, I feel a little jolt of excitement and pleasure, because that’s what I get from listening to them. I’m encouraged by the notion that more time and energy has gone into making them sound good, than making them look good. Anyway, I’m giving the game away now
In use, Phoenix II is the most straightforward of the three plug-ins. You wind in the Process control, switch between the process types and tweak the Brightness switch until you find something you like. And it’s the process types that really make this plug-in what it is. I found myself going to Iridescent by default for most things, but when you experiment with Radiant, Luster and Dark Essence you can really change the sound a great deal. While Luminescent is subtle, and Iridescent quite polite, the other three types begin to affect the character and colour of the mid-range and bottom end in increasingly obvious ways. You can really add guts in the low end with a good dose of Luster or Dark Essence. The frequency-response changes brought about by the Brightness control are beautifully judged. Opal just leans towards the low end and Sapphire the reverse, adding some sparkle and air without being too obvious. It’s the sort of thing that allows you to place sounds in a mix quickly and instinctively, darkening a synth or bass and lifting a snare or vocal. When you combine the changes in frequency response that the different process types introduce, there are a lot of combinations to play with here.
You can make Phoenix II distort, but it’s not really designed to do so in the way that, for example, SoundToys’ Decapitator is. If you are after obvious distortion, the input trim can be cranked all the way up to hit the processing as hard as possible, but be aware that while the 6dB of available output trim is more than enough to compensate for any gain introduced by the processing, it can’t compensate for all the gain that it’s possible to add if you maximise the Input Trim. The range of the output trim control may be adjusted in a future update to allow for that, but to be honest, smashing the input isn’t what this thing is all about.
This is a plug-in that brings up detail, saturates, thickens and increases apparent size. Although the controls are fairly simple, there are some different directions on offer here, and it’s easy to steer it where you want to go. I found myself able to use combinations of the Sapphire position (the brightest frequency response) and the Iridescent process to increase the presence and impact of vocals without introducing obvious distortion or darkening the sound in the way that many tape emulations do. Phoenix II retains the clarity of the source and this, I think, is one of the secrets of its success. It provides the life and size of tape, but it doesn’t veil or cloud the source in a way that may not suit some productions. In this respect it’s different from some of its competitors, and even though its primary development took place some years ago, sonically it’s arguably more modern by comparison. So should you take this to mean that it doesn’t really sound like tape? Well, there are those that would say that no plug-in sounds like tape, but let’s deftly sidestep that debate and just say that it doesn’t sound like other tape plug-ins, not being a ‘warts and all’ emulation of that medium. It’s capable of greater subtlety and could easily find its way onto every channel of a mix.
Peacock, the newest of the three plug-ins, is Dave Hill’s vinyl processor. And this is really quite an unusual one, because in the same way that Phoenix steers clear of wow, flutter and hiss, Peacock has none of the crackles or pops that we normally associate with vinyl emulations. So what does it do? Well, it replicates the RIAA equalisation curves, and provides frequency-dependent harmonic distortion, which is subject to time modulation, thus replicating tracing and tracking distortion. It may be helpful to briefly explain those concepts: the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) equalisation curve is a specification for the recording and playback of phonograph records, introduced in the 1950s. A high-frequency boost or ‘pre-emphasis’ is used when cutting to vinyl, and a corresponding cut or ‘de-emphasis’ is applied when playing it back, with the opposite happening at the low end. The goal was to maximise running times, reduce high-frequency noise and prevent large excursions of the cutter when vinyl masters were made. Since the audio as stored on a vinyl disc is so heavily equalised, the non-linearities introduced by the medium are strongly frequency-dependent. There are then two further factors to consider: tracing distortion, which occurs because the stylus and cutter have different shapes and thus sit differently within the groove, and tracking distortion, which results from the inherent misalignment of the replay stylus angle (mounted on a remotely pivoted arm) compared to that of the cutter, which moves tangentially. The replay stylus is only perfectly aligned to the groove at two points on the record, and this inaccuracy results in varying amounts of tracking distortion throughout the duration of the disc. Peacock emulates these effects as well as providing dither that’s described as being “the spectrum of record noise”.
Again, the controls are simple. From left to right, we have Harmonic, Dynamic, Output Trim (±6dB), Dither and Color. As with Phoenix there are five colour settings which introduce progressively more colour. Silver is the least coloured and the brightest, Gold the closest match to Dave’s test material (more on that in a moment), followed then by Rich, Fat and Deep. I’ll paraphrase Dave’s own descriptions of how these controls work:
“The Harmonic and Dynamic controls interact and control the level of the harmonic distortion. The Color switch changes the character and interaction of the controls, and sets the maximum amount of mid-range and low-frequency color, and the high-frequency compression characteristic. The Dynamic control time-modulates the distortion components which are very frequency dependent due to the RIAA curve. The amount of time modulation with the Dynamic control is level-dependent and has a maximum range. It is more of a matter of finding the control position that is optimum. The Dither control modulates some of the internal functions and adds dither to the audio path at a level for 16-bit dithering.”
Of course, that all sounds fantastic and complicated in a reassuring sort of way. Better still, these complexities remain very much ‘under the hood’ in actual use. This plug-in, and in fact all three plug-ins, are of the sort where you pretty much turn the knobs until your ears tell you to stop. And that’s another Dave Hill party trick: he has the ability to design the inside of his products with an engineer’s hat on, and the outside with a musician’s hat on. Perhaps the most obvious example of this was when he put note pitches instead of frequencies on the Ibis equaliser, and the principle of letting the music guide the settings rules here too. There are no meters, and the controls are simply scaled from 1 to 10. You can just keep your creative head on and think about the music. By and large, it’s hard to get into hot water, provided your sources start off at a sensible level.
It’s important to understand that because of the pre-emphasis of the RIAA curve, and because the cutter is limited in how much it can move at any given frequency, the vinyl medium can not accurately reproduce high frequencies at high levels. Initially, compression occurs, followed by distortion — and Peacock behaves in the same way. If you have a hot source with a lot of high-frequency content, like a sibilant vocal or a tambourine, and you set the Harmonic and Dynamic controls too high and/or use one of the more coloured Color settings, you’ll start to get some ugly distortion. You can back the controls off, or use the Silver setting, for example, which allows for more high-frequency level before the onset of compression and distortion.
So what does it sound like? Well, it’s amazing. While it’s capable of adding significant colour and harmonic content, it seems to me to be at its best at more subtle settings. It has the ability to make things sound more ‘real’. I know that’s infuriatingly non-specific, but I suppose it’s something to do with making the recorded sound closer in character to the way our brains process the sounds we hear in the real world. It just sounds better with it on. It can be almost inaudible, but it makes the sources in the mix hang together in a more natural way. It’s very hard to explain, but there are some sound files on the Crane Song web site which help to illustrate the effect. These files are of greater interest still because they include a comparison with a vinyl record. Dave has taken a mix and had it cut to vinyl, and then recaptured to digital, and provided a comparison between that and the original digital master processed with Peacock. He points out that the Gold colour setting is designed to be as close a match as possible to the record, and that it’s optimised for use at 96kHz, although it works perfectly well at other sample rates, both according to him and in my experience.
I’ve found this plug-in to be capable of doing quite extraordinary things both on individual sources, across buses and on the mix bus. It’s possible to thicken the mid-range, to alter the guts of the bottom end, and to soften the highs. You can add harmonics in such a way that you can change the perception of bass on smaller speakers, in a similar sort of way to Waves MaxxBass. It’s difficult to say how accurate an emulation of vinyl it is, because I have no way of setting up my own independent comparison. But whatever it’s doing, it’s very special, very subtle and works wonders in the context of a mix. I can also see how it could be a significant asset in digital mastering, although obviously being Pro Tools-only it may not be an easy bedfellow for mastering houses.
The final plug-in of the three, Dave Hill Designs RA, is described as a non-linear plug-in that can be thought of as an amplifier being overdriven, but with control over which part is being overdriven. It’s another unusual tool, with a unique set of controls. From left to right, the Drive control is followed by a section labelled Even Harmonics, comprising Top Peak and Bottom Peak rotary controls. Next comes Low Level, followed by a Peak Control section comprising Peak and Hardness controls, finishing off with the Output Trim control. On the right-hand side of the GUI there’s a graphic display showing input on the X axis and output on the Y. This provides a useful indicator of how the controls affect the audio path.
The three main processes — Low Level, Peak Control and Even Harmonics — affect the audio path in that order, rather than in the order in which the controls appear on the GUI, so it makes more sense to look at them accordingly. Low Level is a third-harmonic distortion process, affecting only the low-level portion of the signal, leaving the peaks untouched; it is, in effect, a ‘detail’ control. The Peak section also applies third-harmonic distortion, but this time only to the signal peaks. It acts by using distortion as a form of limiting, with the Peak control affecting the final output level, while the Hardness is rather like a compression knee. The Even Harmonics section allows harmonic content to be increased in the top and bottom part of the waveform shape independently. Dave explains:
“These controls are the most difficult to hear and describe, being that the second harmonic is an octave... but it does change the feel of things and can have a thickening effect. The Top control rounds off the top of the wave shape and the Bottom control rounds off the bottom of the wave shape. When used together it is possible to have the even-harmonic content cancel and have third-harmonic distortion left. Try one of these in conjunction with the Low Level control on an acoustic guitar, bass or kick drum.”
The Drive control can be thought of as an input trim affecting the level going into the plug-in. The process is very level-dependent, and this allows for fine-tuning if the source is recorded either very hot or at a low level. The Output Trim provides the usual ±6dB for balancing the processed signal with the original source.
I’ve owned RA for quite some time, and had a chance to use it on a good number of projects. The Low Level distortion is extremely useful: you can just bring up detail but without the obvious ‘action’ of parallel compression. It’s more like parallel distortion, but that tends to cause a build-up of mud which you don’t get here. The benefits are tangible on all sorts of sources, especially vocals and acoustic instruments, and while you can create a little ‘hair’ when you maximise the control, it’s mostly a subtle enhancement.
The Peak controls, meanwhile, are quite extraordinary. Somehow, you can apply limiting which is almost inaudible, to the point of being quite unnerving. If you overdo it your source just seems to lose its dynamics but you can’t identify any obvious compression artifacts. I have found it useful in high doses on bass and in smaller amounts across the drum bus. What, then, of the Even Harmonic controls? Well, I’m not going to pretend that I can quite make sense of exactly why the distortion of the top of the waveform sounds different to the distortion of the bottom, but this, again, is one of those situations in which you turn the knobs and see how they make you feel. I’ve often found myself adding a good amount of one or other. When adjusted in the context of the mix, rather than in solo, there’s often a sweet spot. This is another unusual and significant tool, capable of special results that can’t easily be achieved in other ways.
While I make no attempt to disguise my love of these plug-ins and my admiration for Dave Hill as a designer, there are a couple of things that some potential users will not prefer. Firstly, there’s the issue of cost. In a world where our email inboxes are filled to the brim with daily $99 deals, the price of admission is steep. I believe it’s worth every penny, and that quality (usually) costs, but some will choose to vote with their wallets (or not, as the case may be). It might be nice to see a bundle deal of some sort. It’s also bound to come as a disappointment to some that these plug-ins are Pro Tools-only. There have never been VST or AU versions, and there are no current plans to release any products in those formats.
The distribution of these plug-ins is also somewhat antiquated. They’re sold exclusively through Crane Song dealerships, and as such there is no direct online purchasing system. Demo licenses cannot be automatically obtained via the Crane Song or Dave Hill Designs web sites. Demos are available, but you have to email the relevant company to obtain a licence. This obviously takes longer than using an automated system and is inconvenient.
Individually, each of these plug-ins would represent a significant enhancement to any mixer’s palette. Together, they’re stunning. Where one may not quite hit the spot, another almost certainly will. The cumulative effect of this distillation of analogue character, this sometimes slightly crazy but always musical and intuitive collection of colours, is profound. These are tools that encourage you to mix with your ears and not with your eyes, the simplicity of the interfaces and unique nature of some of the controls preventing ‘mixing by numbers’. In some ways, life before the digital studio was hard: equipment was incredibly expensive to buy and maintain, and a great deal of skill and experience was required to use it to best effect. But in other ways it was easy: analogue recordings have a certain character, an easiness on the ear which could be achieved simply by competent use of the equipment. For those who now record and mix in the digital domain, that character must be actively fought for, and intelligently so. While so much of their competition can tend to sound clumsy and a little overblown, these three have the sort of subtle, understated quality that makes all the difference. I’m in.
Phoenix II is available in AAX 32- and 64-bit versions, Native and DSP, for Mac OS or Windows systems, and requires a version 2 iLok. It is a mono or multi-mono plug-in, with a stereo version to follow. It runs 79 mono instances per DSP chip at 48kHz. Natively, I found it extremely efficient, running hundreds of instances easily. Phoenix II introduces no latency.
Peacock is available in AAX 32- (on Pro Tools 10.3.5 or later) and 64-bit versions, Native and DSP (on the HDX card only), for Mac OS or Windows systems and requires a version 2 iLok. It is a mono or multi-channel plug-in. It runs 11 mono instances per DSP chip at 48kHz. Natively, it was the most CPU-hungry of the three, but I was still able to run large numbers; on a reasonably current system you could run it on every track of a decent-sized mix if required, although at higher sample rates you’d need a high-end machine. Peacock introduces seven samples of latency at standard sample rates, 13 at higher rates and 25 at 192kHz.
RA is available in AAX 32- and 64-bit versions, Native and DSP (on both HDX and TDM), for Mac OS or Windows systems, including PPC G5 machines running Pro Tools 7 or later. It requires a version 2 iLok. It is a mono or multi-mono plug-in, with a stereo version to follow. It runs 14 instances per DSP chip at 48kHz. Natively, I found it very efficient, and while not quite able to match Phoenix II for instance count, I was able to run hundreds of instances with moderate increase in CPU load. RA introduces no latency.
- Unique without being outlandish.
- Exemplary sonics.
- Encourage a musical rather than technical approach.
- Pro Tools only.
- Not cheap.
An outstanding set of tools for achieving analogue-style colour within Pro Tools. Highly recommended.
KMR Audio +44 (0)20 8445 2446
- Apple 2010 Mac Pro ‘Westmere’ dual 2.4GHz 8-core, with Avid HD Native card.
- Tested with Avid Pro Tools 11.