Fed up with Samplitude users crowing about how great its bundled plug-ins are? Now users of other Windows DAWs can get a piece of the action too.
Magix's Samplitude recording and mixing package is becoming ever more popular among Windows users, and one of the many reasons cited by converts is the quality of its bundled plug-ins. Like most DAWs, Samplitude ships with a pretty comprehensive selection of processors and effects, ranging from basic workhorses such as EQ, compression and reverb tto more exotic fare such as transient shapers and amp modellers. However, most Samplitude users will tell you that all bundled plug-ins are not created equal, and that those supplied by Magix knock spots off the equivalents in rival packages.
Until now, users of rival packages haven't been able to put this claim to the text, because like most DAW manufacturers, Magix have supplied their plug-ins in a 'closed' format which means they aren't available to other applications. Now, however, they've decided to put the quality of their plug-ins to the ultimate test by making conventional VST versions available for sale in their own right.
The range consists of three packages. The Analogue Modelling Suite was previously only available with the top-of-the-range Samplitude Pro, and contains the AM Track compressor and tape simulator, the AM Phibia preamp and amp emulator, and the AM Pulse transient shaper. Variverb Pro, as the name suggests, is a flexible algorithmic reverb, normally bundled with Samplitude Pro and Classic, while the third package, the Vintage Effects Suite, is shipped with all versions of Samplitude except the most basic SE, and includes the Corvex chorus/flanger, Ecox delay and Filtox filter.
A nice touch of class greets you on opening any of the boxes, in the shape of a printed manual, which is clearly written and goes into just the right amount of detail. It's rare to get any printed documentation with a plug-in, let alone something as helpful as this. The same manual covers all the packages, so you get spares if you buy more than one of them.
Once installed, the plug-ins have to be authorised at the Magix web site, which involves creating a user account for yourself and going through the usual challenge-and-response process. This worked fine, although when I copied them to create RTAS versions using the FXpansion wrapper, my VST originals lost their authorisations. Fortunately, Magix permit three authorisations all told, but it's annoying to have to go through the process twice just so that you can load the plug-ins into a different application.
All DAWs that I can think of come with bundled reverb plug-ins, but not all are equally well served. At one end of the spectrum, Logic Pro comes with the sophisticated Space Designer convolution reverb, while Cakewalk licensed Lexicon's classic reverb algorithms for the Pantheon plug-in that comes with Sonar. At the other, Digidesign's ageing D-Verb is best described as 'basic', and the various reverbs bundled with Cubase aren't an awful lot better.
Samplitude Pro includes both a convolution reverb and a more traditional algorithmic reverb, and it's the latter that has been spun off as an independent product. In its basic concept, Variverb Pro (left) is similar to many other hardware and software reverb generators. You choose one of the basic algorithms, which model various reverberant environments such as halls, rooms, plates and springs, and then shape the sound using various editable parameters. By default, Variverb Pro provides only Size, Decay and High Damp controls, but clicking on the Expert button reveals the full range. All of these will be familiar to anyone who's used a decent reverb before: the exact controls available vary with the algorithm, but in each case they present fairly conventional parameters such as pre-delay, early-reflections level, room size, decay time, high-frequency damping and stereo width. There are also high and low shelving EQs, with fixed frequencies of 8kHz and 150Hz respectively. The interface is dripping with well-thought-out features, including an informative graphical display, tool-tip help, and buttons that trigger sidestick, finger-snap and vocal samples for testing.
In practice, I found that the amount of control available was just right: not so restrictive that you can't get the sound you want, but not so extensive that you spend hours getting it. More importantly, Variverb Pro sounds good, too. The algorithms all have their own distinctive characters, and although they won't match a convolution reverb for realism, they can be shaped to work well for most purposes. Both in terms of variety and of the richness and density of its output, Variverb Pro is streets ahead of D-Verb or any of the Cubase reverbs. It's also a clear improvement over older third-party plug-ins such as Waves' Trueverb, and while it's not quite as individual as Nomad Factory's Blueverb, it's a lot more versatile. The only real point of criticism I can find is that the factory presets all seem to be set up to pass about the same amount of dry signal as reverb, when I imagine most people would find it more useful to have them set 100 percent wet.
The three processors included in the Analogue Modelling Suite are less often found in DAW plug-in bundles. True, every DAW has a compressor, but tape emulation is a little more unusual; and likewise, although Steinberg came up with a basic amp simulator and transient shaper for Cubase 4, there's a lot more to Magix's versions of these processors.
AM Phibia (what next, AM Dram? AM I Evil?) can do duty as a guitar-amp simulator, but it's far more versatile than that (see screenshot above). It's described as a 'tube preamp/channel strip', and many of the presets target more general-purpose territory, such as imitating the subtle thickness and substance that a valve preamp can add to vocal recordings, yet it can also handle other tasks, such as treble enhancement. There are four processing stages — an optical compressor/limiter, a 'pre' filter, a gain element and a 'post' filter — all designed to interact as they might in a well-designed analogue unit. For example, the compressor's feedback input is tapped after the 'pre' filter and gain element, and optionally after the 'post' filter too, so the compressor's response will be affected by the tone-shaping applied at the filter stages.
Again, there's a choice of algorithms, this time for the filters. In the case of the 'pre' filters, for example, you can choose from emulated active and passive EQs, plus algorithms modelled on the tone circuits in guitar or bass amps. The 'post' filter offers active and passive EQ, treble enhancement, and a small range of cabinet simulations. There are optional Expert controls here, too, manipulating such things as the 'memory effect' of the compressor's optical gain-control element and the clipping behaviour of the virtual valves.
If that makes AM Phibia sound like a pretty deep sort of a plug-in, that's because it is. There's an enormous range of sounds available, from barely audible vocal thickening to full-on metal guitar tones, and everything in between. It's no substitute for a dedicated amp simulator such as NI's Guitar Rig or IK's Amplitube, but AM Phibia 's biggest strength is a light touch that is missing from many 'analogue warmth'-type plug-ins. It's the sort of plug-in that you could use across every track in a mix, if you wanted to, and provides plenty of ways of adding substance to a thin or uninspiring source signal. With so many controls available, you'll need to invest a bit of time to get the best out of it, but it's well worth making the effort.
AM Track (see screen, top) likewise incorporates a compressor, which can be switched between 'vintage' and 'VCA' modes, but its main selling point is tape simulation. Again, there's an additional bank of controls available in Expert mode; these include Mix parameters for both the compressor and the tape simulator, allowing you to create parallel compression and parallel tape emulation, should you so desire. The basic sound-shaping options offered by the tape emulator are input level and bias, which together control the amount of saturation, and an 'EQ lo/hi' parameter, which applies a variable tilt to the entire frequency spectrum to mimic the effects of pre-emphasis and de-emphasis.
Now that analogue tape is widely regarded as some sort of magic formula, it's easy to forget that under many circumstances, overloading tape machines just sounds bad. AM Track certainly doesn't protect the user from this, and if you get too happy with the Input Level and Bias controls, you can easily end up with a brittle, crunchy mess. With more restraint, however, you can definitely do good things to drums, acoustic and electric guitars, vocals and other sources too. I'm not sure I like it quite as much as Cranesong's excellent Phoenix TDM plug-in, but then you don't need a TDM system to use AM Track, and it's definitely a lot more versatile than the likes of Steinberg's Magneto.
Last, but not least, of the three AM-series plug-ins is AM Pulse (left), which might just be the star of the show. Software versions of the transient-shaping process made popular by SPL's Transient Designer are still relatively uncommon, and this is one of the best I've heard. Although there's no Expert mode here, the control available goes beyond what you find in the likes of Cubase 4 's bundled Envelope Shaper or Digital Fishphones' Dominion. Magix's algorithm is capable of detecting two separate phases in the dynamic of an incoming sound: the initial transient, or attack, and the subsequent sustain phase. You can specify the duration and amount of any boost or cut that is applied when a transient or sustain phase is detected. Following the transient shaping, the signal passes to an enhancer and a saturation effect and, as with AM Track, there's a Mix control allowing you to set up parallel processing.
It doesn't have the clever multi-band option you get with Waves' Trans X, so it's not as flexible for rescue work, but AM Pulse is arguably the most musical transient shaper available in software. I suspect that parallel processing is a key factor in this, as it seems to make it possible to change the dynamics of an incoming signal without ending up in that situation where the note attacks sound 'stuck on' to the rest of the track. The enhancer is a nice addition, and can work with the transient-shaping algorithm to help pick out a certain part of the sound in a surprisingly natural way.
By a nose, AM Pulse is probably my pick of the AM Suite, but all three plug-ins are highly usable, and as a bundle they add a lot to the basic effects shipped with most DAWs. If there's a down side to this, it's that they are not simply set-and-forget processors, and you should expect to spend a little while learning what all the controls do before you can get the best from them.
And so to the Vintage Effects Suite. Unlike AM Pulse or AM Track, the three effects contained here are freely available in almost all DAWs; but like Variverb Pro, Magix's implementation of delay- and filter-based effects goes further than your typical bundled plug-ins.
Corvex (see screen on previous page) handles modulation effects such as flanging and chorus, and offers some unusual controls in addition to the standard Depth, Speed, Feedback and Delay Time parameters. As in many other such effects, you can use up to eight internal voices to create modulation effects, and a Span parameter allows you to vary the delay time across the voices, helping to avoid the resonant peaks that can build up in some circumstances. You can add further density to the sound using a Diffusion control, which seems to work in roughly the same way as diffusion does in a typical algorithmic reverb, to make individual echoes less distinctive, and a Complex button, which creates interdependency between the left and right channels in a stereo setup.
In action, I have to say that Corvex was the only one of these Magix plug-ins that slightly disappointed me. It's not a bad plug-in by any means, and the additional control makes it far more versatile and rich-sounding than your basic modulation effect. However, most of the presets just sound nasty to my ears and, unlike some of the Analogue Modelling Suite plug-ins, Corvex faces decent competition from bundled effects like the new Vintage Chorus in Cubase 4. In use, I found the immediacy of plug-ins like Vintage Chorus more valuable than the depth of Magix's design.
By contrast, I loved the other two components of the Vintage Effects Suite. Compared with some of the other Magix plug-ins, Ecox (see top screen, above) is a relatively simple and approachable delay unit, but it scores in its ability to recreate grungy tape echo effects. It's designed in such a way as to make internal clipping impossible, even at high feedback settings. Instead, repeats pile up on one another in a soft-saturated, tape-like manner, and although there are no more controls than you'd get on a typical DAW delay plug-in, Ecox has a lot more character than most.
Filtox, too, replicates an effect that is widely available elsewhere, but does so in a very classy fashion. It is, at heart, a stereo filter with overdrive and modulation options. There are some nice touches to the design, such as the way the filter response is continuously variable from low-pass, through band-pass and high-pass, to a notch shape, but most of all it's the way Filtox (above) sounds that marks it out as special. You can achieve a huge range of results, from filthy auto-wah to gentle spaciousness, and all with dollops of warmth. At one end of the spectrum, Filtox turned a simple electric piano riff into a monster synth bass line; at the other, in tandem with Ecox it turned a basic string pad into a rich and convincing Mellotron-like tone.
If Steinberg suggested we went out and paid money for Roomworks or VST Compressor, they'd be laughed out of town, so it shows a fair amount of confidence on Magix's part to put the Samplitude bundled plug-ins on the open market like this. Having tried them out, I'm happy to report that their confidence is justified. My only real concern is that the list price for Variverb Pro is on the high side, since it faces stiff competition from other third-party and shareware plug-ins. However, there's no doubting the quality of these processors, or the refreshing attention to detail that Magix have put into oft-neglected areas such as packaging and documentation. These are, for the most part, workhorse plug-ins that you'll be able to use in almost every project, but they're workhorses with a thoroughbred pedigree.
There are quite possibly hundreds of third-party reverbs available in VST plug-in format, and if you were looking for an alternative to Variverb Pro, the most obvious examples might include Wave Arts' Masterverb, Nomad Factory's Blueverb DRV2080, IK's Classik Studio Reverb, PSP's Easyverb, Spin Audio's Roomverb, Silverspike's Reverb.It and Cakewalk's Sonitus Reverb. You could assemble something roughly comparable to the Magix AM Suite from the Voxengo range of plug-ins, and if your general aim is to achieve some sort of unspecified 'analogue warmth', it would also be worth checking out PSP's Vintage Warmer and Tritone Audio's Colourtone Pro. Likewise, I don't know of any other plug-in bundle that exactly matches the VE Suite, but there are plenty of flangers, filters and delays out there; Ohm Force's idiosyncratic effects, in particular, are definitely worth investigating.
- All these plug-ins are highly usable in a wide range of musical contexts.
- Magix's plug-ins are more versatile and better-sounding than the effects bundled with most DAWs.
- You get a printed manual!
- Variverb Pro could be considered a little pricey.
- The depth and flexibility of the AM Suite comes with a bit of a learning curve.
Magix's processors and effects would be an excellent choice for anyone who feels they've outgrown the plug-ins bundled with their DAW and needs more serious alternatives.
Variverb Pro £125; AM Suite £125; VE Suite £75. Prices include VAT.
DACS Audio +44 (0)191 438 2500.
+44 (0)191 438 2511.