Does EastWest's new collection of impulse responses take reverb to the final frontier?
In some quarters, convolution reverb is written off as being flat and sterile, and there are those who say that the engaging qualities of an acoustic space or plate can never be fully recreated by an impulse response. EastWest's original Spaces plug-in, released back in 2011, sought to counter this perception through a new approach to 'sampling' rooms. Rather than capture his impulses using measurement mics through an ultra-transparent input chain, engineer Nick Phoenix employed high-class vintage studio gear bristling with valves and transformers. Spaces also pioneered what EastWest call 'instrument specific' impulse responses, whereby speakers are carefully positioned to reflect the typical positioning and firing pattern of different instruments within a hall, thus yielding very particular settings for violins, trumpets, woodwind and so on.
I reviewed the original Spaces reverb back in SOS June 2011, and found that Phoenix's approach brought obvious sonic benefits, especially when the goal was to make sampled instruments 'sit' within a realistic concert hall environment. At the same time, however, the original Spaces plug-in was little more than a basic convolver, with variable pre-delay being the only way to shape the sound; and although the 'instrument specific reverb' concept worked very well, presets that actually used it were in a minority, with just one hall having been captured in this fashion.
Wide Open Spaces
Nearly eight years on, a sequel arrives with considerable fanfare. Spaces II is part of EastWest's Play system, meaning it can run within the stand-alone Play engine as well as in any Windows or Mac program supporting VST, AU or AAX plug-ins. Like other elements of this system, it's installed using EW's Installation Center utility and authorised using the iLok system. You can buy a licence or rent it with a subscription to EastWest's Composer Cloud.
Spaces II includes all of the impulse responses and presets from Spaces I, albeit organised rather differently; DAW projects that include instances of Spaces I won't automatically load Spaces II in its place, so existing users will want to retain the original plug-in for backwards compatibility. Features-wise, Spaces II is slightly less Spartan than its ancestor, thanks to the addition of high- and low-pass filters and the ability to vary the decay time of the impulse response between 0 and 100 percent of its original duration. There's also a very welcome 'use as a send effect by default' option that globally mutes the dry signal path for any preset loaded. Look and feel have also changed, with the old 'expensive hi-fi' GUI ditched in favour of something cleaner and more functional.
Although all of these are worthwhile improvements, Spaces II still offers only very limited control over the sound in comparison with products like Audio Ease's Altiverb, HOFA's IQ-Reverb or Liquidsonics' Reverberate 2. However, that was never the point of the original, and it's not the real focus of this upgrade, either. Ultimately, most convolution reverbs stand or fall not on their sound-shaping features but on the quality of the supplied impulse responses, and the main thing that separates Spaces II from its antecedent is a hugely enhanced preset library.
There are now 18 separate preset categories, most of which are fairly self-explanatory, plus an additional 'Instrument Specific Tour' folder that reproduces those presets specifically designed for a particular instrument type. Within each category there is usually a folder structure a layer or two deep: so, for example, clicking on the top-level Concert Halls folder reveals a list of 13 folders representing different venues, each with its own collection of impulse responses or subfolders within.
This is straightforward enough, but given that preset selection represents about nine-tenths of the user's interaction with Spaces II, one could wish for some more sophisticated means of finding what you're after. Many other reverbs with large preset libraries include search functions with keywords and metadata, for instance; and although loading a Spaces II preset from a venue brings up a nice photo of that venue, this is no more than a pretty picture. For the instrument-specific presets, it would be neat to have an interactive visual overview of the stage layout where you could identify and select the instrument for which you want an appropriate reverb. In these days of huge computer monitors, it also feels a bit retro that the interface can't be resized; and, given that EastWest have catered for surround use by capturing 'front' and 'rear' impulse responses in many venues, it's a shame that the plug-in itself only comes in stereo and mono-to-stereo versions. If you do want surround reverb, you'll have to load two stereo instances on separate tracks, and there's no way to link these.
The obvious highlights of the new library are the additional venues that have received the 'instrument specific' treatment. The original So Cal Orchestral Hall is now joined by Angels Cathedral, St Dominic's Cathedral, Sacred Heart Church, Grace Church, St Patrick's Church, Abravanel Hall, Davies Hall, Reynolds Hall and War Memorial Opera House. The number of different presets varies quite a bit: for instance, some of the churches just offer 'brass', 'solo' and 'strings/winds' presets, while Abravanel Hall offers no fewer than 15 different types of instrument-specific preset.
Most of these venues are unfamiliar to me, but if these impulse responses are anything to go by, then they would be great places to hear orchestral or choral music! Abravanel Hall is rich and deep, Reynolds Hall beautifully balanced, Davies Hall huge yet controlled, but my favourite, if I had to choose, might be the War Memorial Opera House, which is just one of those spaces that seems to add class to almost any source. Choosing a different instrument-specific preset can make a surprising difference both to the timbre and the prominence of the reverberation, but the choice is always between different flavours of 'right'.
And in case you were thinking that Spaces II would be useful only to people working with orchestral samples, let me hasten to add that this absolutely isn't the case. Many of these concert spaces work just as well with other sources too, and the library also includes a large number of impulse responses designed precisely for rock and pop production. For example, there's a new category of Solo Vocal presets that seems to be based around combinations of delay, plate and chamber reverb, and which work very well especially on downtempo material. Also new is a superb collection of LA Studio Drum Rooms, which includes a number of stunning short ambiences that are perfect for adding subtle air or meat to a recorded drum kit, or for placing a sampled kit in a lifelike space.
All in all, then, if EastWest have chosen to put the effort into producing great content rather than into the plug-in that packages that content, the results amply justify this decision. Spaces II has been a long time coming, but it's worth the wait.
There are other convolution reverbs that allow you to position sources within a space, most notably Vienna MIR Pro and Audio Ease's Altiverb, both of which are also available with surround options. However, these are both much more complex products than the 'set and forget' Spaces II.
- A superb libary of impulse responses which sees EastWest's 'instrument specific reverb' concept extended to numerous new halls and spaces.
- Equally valuable in rock/pop production and with sampled orchestral instruments.
- Very easy to use.
- Preset browser and sound-shaping features are quite basic.
- Although many of the IRs are designed for surround use, there's no surround version of the plug-in.
EastWest's Spaces II plug-in is a no-frills front end for a huge library of impulse responses, nearly all of them of very high quality.
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$399; Composer Cloud subscription from $24.99 per month