The inventive spirit of one of the industry's true individuals lives on in Intelligent Devices' unique effects plug‑ins.
There have been many colourful characters in the world of studio equipment design, but perhaps few more colourful than Stephen St Croix. In his relatively short life — he was only 58 at his death in May 2006 — he patented dozens of inventions, and was equally at home designing analogue and digital gear. For the last 10 years of his life, he was a partner in Intelligent Devices, who produce advanced tools for forensic audio analysis, as well as plug‑ins for music mixing and mastering. The former are only available to authorised government agencies, which rules most of us out, but, thankfully, anyone can get their hands on the three audio effects in the current Intelligent Devices range.
The first of these is a software emulation of Stephen St Croix's most famous analogue design, the Marshall Time Modulator. By the time the original was launched in the mid‑'70s, the idea of using delay lines and LFOs to mimic the flanging sound that was first created using tape machines was not new. However, few pieces of studio hardware had taken it as far as in the Time Modulator; with its exceptional audio quality and remarkably long (for the time) delay times, it could produce a range of effects that went far beyond basic phasing, chorus and flanging.
Refreshingly, although Intelligent Devices have gone to some lengths to recreate the sound and feature set of the original device — this is much more than just a generic modulated digital delay — they haven't felt compelled to package it in a photo‑realistic rackmount front panel. Instead, the controls are laid out along the bottom in an easily digestible fashion, while the upper two‑thirds of the screen provides a schematic signal flow diagram, with the controls duplicated in appropriate places.
As on the original, there are two modulated delay lines, called 'A' and 'B', which are tied together in such a way that the 'B' delay is always twice or four times the 'A' delay. The delay times are set using a large Time Delay knob, which is graduated from 0 to 100, and the actual range of this knob is chosen by selecting one of six presets. The three shorter presets are designed for flanging, phasing and similar effects, while at the other end of the spectrum, the longest delay available is 400ms, so the three longer presets can generate interesting pseudo‑reverb effects, as well as vibrato and the like.
The delay time is, in turn modulated by an LFO with a decent range of waveforms, including a proprietary 'SSC' (for the unit's designer) shape. The 'A' and 'B' delay lines can be independently panned and polarity‑inverted, and there's a global Feedback control.
It sounds relatively simple by today's standards, and in many ways, it is. Yet what you don't learn from the modest feature set is how the Marshall Time Modulator sounds — and it sounds lovely! Used as a flanger, it somehow manages to provide a chunky, substantial sound that is nevertheless controlled, with no massive volume spikes or metallic resonances. There's a sort of airy, almost hi‑fi quality to the flanging that makes an interesting contrast to typical stomp boxes or tape emulations, and whether you're after drums that go 'whoosh' or subtle movement to add interest to clean guitars, you'll find it here.
It's certainly not limited to flanging, either. Time Modulator is one of the few devices I've encountered that can make vibrato sound good, especially on guitars and Rhodes piano, while it also does a nice line in slapback delays and so forth. In these applications, it has a distinctive, rich sound that is not coloured like a spring reverb or tape delay, yet is warmer and more pleasant than a typical plug‑in. Intelligent Devices have resisted the temptation to add features that weren't on the original, so there is, for example, no way to sync delay time to host tempo, but I didn't find myself wanting to do so very often. More annoying is the lack of support for the mono‑to‑stereo version in some hosts (see 'Installation & Routing' box), though that's not Intelligent Devices' fault!
The two other plug‑ins in the Intelligent Devices range are completely new, and both work on the principle of packaging complex processing in an intuitive and fairly simple interface. Conceptually, Mega Delay Mass has similarities to the early reflections algorithms in some digital reverbs, but applies a healthy degree of lateral thinking to create an effect that is pretty much unique.
It is, at heart, a digital delay with up to 100 separate delay taps, and most of its cleverness lies in the way these are controlled. Each tap has its own delay time, pan, polarity and amplitude, but the user has no access to the parameters for individual taps — which is a good thing, as setting up a 100‑tap delay would take a very long time! Instead, what you get is a number of global controls that apply different curves and patterns across the parameters of individual taps.
It's easier to understand by doing than by reading, but let's take the example of pan. The Pan Start and Pan End sliders set the pan positions of the first and last tap respectively. Pan positions for the intervening taps then fall on a line between these two positions. The shape of the line can be altered using another slider, you can add a degree of randomisation to the pan positions, and there's also a Ping‑Pong button that inverts the pan position for every other tap. So, for example, you can easily set up a delay that starts on the left and sweeps across to the right, or one which gets progressively wider or narrower. The relative delay times and levels of each tap are controlled using similar sets of parameters, so although, for example, you can't decide the delay time for any individual tap, you can skew the whole set so that most of the delays are bunched up towards the start or end of the global delay time. As you'd expect with a 100‑tap delay, this sort of shaping and the ability to add random variation are very useful if you want to avoid build‑up of metallic resonances. There is also global pre‑delay, and a global feedback section with delay, level and polarity controls.
A simple yet very clear display shows the rough dispersion of the taps in time (X-axis) and in the stereo field (Y-axis); the relative level of each tap is indicated by the brightness of the relevant dot. Given the number of separate delays that are being managed, the sheer usability of this plug‑in is highly impressive. I've seen delays with two taps that were far more complex!
The range of effects available is interesting. At one end of the scale, you can produce something resembling a conventional ambience or early reflections effect, although the results are not usually naturalistic. And at the other... well, at the other end of the scale lies a new world of sonic mayhem. The output does bear an obvious resemblance to the input, yet at the same time, it takes on a life of its own, flowing from speaker to speaker, rushing headlong into walls or decaying gracefully. You perhaps wouldn't want to use these more extreme settings as bread‑and‑butter effects, but they're brilliant when you want to add interest to a guitar solo, or turn a vocal phrase into something altogether more alien. Many of the effects seem almost naturally to 'bubble up' at the end of phrases, and as an alternative to a conventional ducking delay, there's a lot of potential here.
I was hoping that it might be possible to automate the parameters for even more weirdness, but as with most plug‑in delays, you tend to run into zipper noise when doing so. I also missed having even a simple filter section, as found on most delays. Even so, I think it will be a while before anyone gets tired of this plug‑in, which is highly distinctive, easy to use and, most of all, fun.
Slip‑n‑Slide is another plug‑in that has few obvious comparisons. Again, there's a lot going on under the hood that is transparent to the user, but it can be thought of as a combination of two effects. The first is something that Intelligent Devices call 'sample and hold', and what I would call a granular delay. Conceptually it's a bit like Sound Toys' Crystallizer plug‑in (and its forerunner, the 'Crystal Echoes' algorithm in Eventide's H3000), in that it periodically 'freezes' the spectral characteristics of the incoming audio to create sustained tones. This can be operated in two modes: in Hold mode, the effect is gated so that you get bursts of dry audio intercut with bursts of 'frozen' sound. In Slide mode, by contrast, the transition between the two is fluid. The user can control the duration of the 'grains', which can be up to half a second long, and the gaps between them. Both parameters can be randomised, for extra weirdness, and an animated display provides visual feedback on what's happening.
The second effect is called Thin, and is an interesting form of resynthesis. According to the position of the Thin slider, the input signal is carved up into between two and 256 bands and then put back together. The fewer bands you choose, the more your signal is, in a harmonic sense, 'thinned'.
It takes some time to get your head around what this plug‑in is capable of, but there's plenty of fun to be had in moving the controls at random, and when you do begin to get it, the range of effects on offer is remarkable. Slide mode gives you a wealth of fantastic backwards reverbs at the click of a mouse. Both Slide and Hold modes are perfect for generating bizarre vocal effects that somehow retain the intelligibility of singing or speech. The gating allows you to create amazing variants on the idea of a tremolo, where your instruments are intercut with metallic, resonant versions of themselves. And there's no end to the misery you can inflict on a poor drum loop. With this in mind, it's a shame that there is no option to sync to host tempo, although in practice, interesting results are often obtained when the effect drifts in and out of time with the source.
With these effects, Intelligent Devices are furthering the inventiveness that characterised so much of Stephen St Croix's work. I'm sure there are many studio veterans who will welcome the faithful recreation of the Time Modulator, but the other two plug‑ins are even more distinctive. Mega Delay Mass might sound like yet another delay‑based effect, but what comes out is both original and highly usable. With enough work, you could perhaps recreate what it does in other plug‑ins, but that would be missing the point: it's the intuitive and instant way you can control 100 delay lines at once that makes this plug‑in special.
Slip‑n‑Slide does involve some fairly state‑of‑the‑art audio manipulation, but again, it's the interface that is the key to its brilliance. There are only half a dozen sliders to play with, yet these open up a broad range of possibilities, giving you instant access to weird and wonderful effects that might otherwise require a day's work in Reaktor to come up with. Both it and Mega Delay Mass are also very reasonably priced.
Down sides are few: none of the plug‑ins is particularly light on CPU cycles, but then these are not generic effects, and you're unlikely to want to run more than a couple of instances in any given project. I would have liked to see more than a handful of presets included, but Intelligent Devices are already addressing this by making new banks available for download. Finally, there are a couple of features I'd like to see added, such as simple filtering in Mega Delay Mass and tempo sync in Slip‑n‑Slide, but beyond that it would be a shame to compromise the simplicity and usability of these plug‑ins by loading them down with extra knobs and sliders. I love them just the way they are!
The most obvious rival to the Marshall Time Modulator would perhaps be Sound Toys' Phase Mistress plug‑in, except that this is not available in VST format at the time of writing. Conceptually, Slip‑n‑Slide has elements in common with both Sound Toys' Crystallizer and 'spectral delays' such as NI's Spektral Delay or Virsyn's FDelay, but in practice, it's pretty much unique. Likewise, I'm not aware of any other delay plug‑in that behaves remotely like Mega Delay Mass.
All three Intelligent Devices plug‑ins are currently available only in VST format on Mac and PC, though RTAS and AU versions are planned. They are authorised using an iLok key, and installed by the time‑honoured method of dragging the DLL files into your DAW's plug‑ins folder. Each one populates your plug‑in list with three versions of itself: mono‑to‑mono, mono‑to‑stereo and stereo‑to‑stereo. However, the mixer windows in some host applications, such as Cubase, don't support mono‑to‑stereo plug‑ins, so if you want to create a stereo effect from a mono source, you'll need to insert the stereo‑to‑stereo version on a stereo FX channel and route the mono signal to that.
- It's great to have the Marshall Time Modulator's distinctive arsenal of flanging, vibrato and ADT effects in plug‑in form.
- Both Mega Delay Mass and Slip‑n‑Slide make it easy to create genuinely new effects.
- It would be nice if Slip‑n‑Slide synchronised to host tempo.
Even in plug‑in form, the Marshall Time Modulator is still the flanger par excellence, while if you're looking to add fresh and original effects to your music, Mega Delay Mass and Slip‑n‑Slide fit the bill perfectly.
- Dell XPS 1710 laptop with 3GB RAM, running Windows XP Service Pack 2.