Overloud’s plug‑in suite has everything you need to equip a virtual vintage studio.
Italian developers Overloud are perhaps best known for their amp and cabinet simulations, but there’s plenty in their range to interest studio engineers. The Gem Studio collection is a series of plug‑ins that emulate classic pieces of studio hardware, including tape machines, mic preamps, EQs, dynamics processors, vintage delay units and more. With 13 plug‑ins currently available, the complete range represents a pretty comprehensive studio’s worth of modelled equipment.
The Gem plug‑ins support all the usual native plug‑in formats on Mac OS and Windows. Each has its own installer and is authorised using a separate serial number. This makes installing the whole collection a little tedious but, on the plus side, a single serial number lets you authorise a plug‑in on up to three machines, and it’s also possible to authorise a USB thumb drive as a portable key.
Certain design goals are shared throughout the collection. For example, all of the Gems are heavily optimised for low CPU load, and all offer multi‑level undo and redo. The user interfaces are ‘reliced’ but don’t attempt to closely mimic the originals, and Overloud have developed a neat ‘scribble strip’ system which allows you to make notes on pieces of virtual masking tape. That could be very handy when you come back to a project in three years’ time and wonder why on earth you were applying 12dB boost at 250Hz!
Many of the Gem Studio plug‑ins also offer additional features not found on the hardware originals. EQ84, for example, is a turbocharged emulation of the Neve 1084, which adds in an extra midrange peaking band and makes all the frequency settings continuous rather than stepped. Additional controls let you mimic the coloration added by the mic and line input transformers, from subtle warmth to noticeable grit.
EQ495 models a somewhat less well‑known equaliser, the Neumann 495. The plug‑in has a similar feature set to the original, with a single semi‑parametric mid band plus high and low shelving bands, but Overloud have added high‑ and low‑pass filters, plus input and output gain controls to optimise the amount of transformer saturation. Oddly, though, they’ve chosen to retain the stepped frequency and gain controls.
The third equaliser in the Gem Studio collection is a sort of hybrid between the API 550A and 550B, again adding input and output gain controls and continuously variable gain and frequency selection. Like the 550B, it has four bands, but it incorporates the 550A’s switchable filters. Each band also has the slightly random addition of a solo or Cue button.
As you’d hope, all three EQs sound different, in ways that reflect what you’d expect from the original hardware. EQ84 majors on high‑end sparkle, with a hard edge that becomes increasingly prominent as you crank the input gain. EQ495 is a touch ‘sharp’ sounding, with a clarity in the midrange that helps sources cut through a congested mix. My favourite, though, is EQ550, which simply changes the tone of the source in an authoritative yet natural way.
If any of us was asked to list the most famous hardware studio compressors, the first names on the list would almost certainly include the UREI 1176, Teletronix LA‑2A, Fairchild 670 and SSL G‑series bus compressor. No surprise, then, that these are the four models emulated in Overloud’s Gem Studio plug‑in suite.
Once again, the developers have added to the feature sets of the original hardware. Both Comp LA and Comp 76, for example, add Mid‑Sides operation, variable saturation and low‑frequency sensitivitiy, and a Parallel knob to blend dry signal in with the compressed audio. Comp LA can be optionally switched to ape the solid‑state LA‑3A as well as the valve LA‑2A, while Comp 76 emulates three different variants of the 1176. The attack and release time settings work the other way around from those of a real 1176 and most other plug‑in emulations, with 1 being the shortest and 7 the longest.
Comp G, meanwhile, builds on the classic SSL G‑series bus compressor design to incorporate fully variable ratio and a side‑chain high‑pass filter, as well as the Mid‑Sides and Parallel controls found on the other models. Finally, Comp 670 models three separate Fairchild units, again with extra features such as a side‑chain filter and Parallel control (Mid‑Sides or “lateral and vertical” operation is, of course, a feature of the original hardware in this case).
There are so many emulations of all of these compressors on the market that you could probably use a different one on each track in even the largest mix. Recreating all the vagaries of an LA‑2A or Fairchild is notoriously difficult, and there’s often a trade‑off to be made between accuracy and CPU load. I found Overloud’s LA‑2A a little bit flat‑sounding in comparison with rivals from IK Multimedia and Universal Audio, and while their Fairchild is serviceable, it probably won’t leave you thinking “Ah, so that’s why the originals cost £20,000!” The meter ballistics in both are also a little unnatural, which I always find rather offputting in a vintage compressor emulation. By contrast, I liked Comp 76 a lot more than most software 1176‑alikes, and Comp G is even better; in Overloud’s plug‑in form, both are really versatile all‑round compressors you can use on practically any source.
There’s no reverb among the Studio Gems, although Overloud’s range does contain the excellent Rematrix, as well as vintage‑themed reverbs called Breverb and Springage that would certainly fit in to this collection. There are, however, two Gem plug‑ins that emulate classic delays. In homage to Overloud’s Italian roots, Gem Echoson recreates the Binson magnetic drum echo that many people preferred to tape echoes back in the day. Once again, their emulation adds numerous extra features, including stereo operation, tempo sync and a couple of bands of parametric EQ.
I was surprised at how different Echoson is from the other Binson plug‑in I’m familiar with, Pulsar’s Echorec. They sound absolutely nothing like one another, to the point where it’s really only the graphics that let you know they’re emulating the same thing. Not having an original to compare, I can’t tell you which is the most authentic, but to my ears, Pulsar’s emulation has more character and sounds less like a generic delay.
The other delay among the Studio Gems is OTD‑1. This is based on the A/DA STD‑1, a vintage ‘bucket brigade’ device from the early ’80s. Again, there are several other plug‑in emulations of this unit, none of which I’m in any position to compare to the original, but I like OTD‑1 a lot. I found it particularly valuable for setting up those relatively understated, short delay effects that help to bed a vocal into the mix.
The Gem Studio collection is rounded off by an eclectic selection of special‑purpose processors. Sculptube is an emulation of the Thermionic Culture Vulture, a valve‑based processor designed to add warmth and colour. Depending on the position of the Overdrive switch, it will deliver either subtle thickness or obvious fuzz. The Bias control can be abused for some truly weird ‘rubber‑band’ effects on transient‑rich sources, though I would struggle to find a real‑world use for these.
For effects at the less obvious end of the scale, I found myself reaching more often for Gem Tapedesk. As the name suggests, this is a combined tape and console recreation. Three different ‘flavours’ of mixing console are available, with optional mic preamp emulation, while the virtual tape can be overdriven, overbiased and pushed into scary levels of wow and flutter if that floats your boat. As tape emulations go, it’s more heavy‑handed than some, but it’s often perfect for adding that midrange solidity and focus that helps to keep a vocal or guitar at the right subjective level in a mix.
Gem Dopamine may well fill a gap you didn’t know your plug‑in folder had.
Finally, an unexpected highlight of the suite is Gem Dopamine, a software recreation of the ‘Dolby A trick’. As tape noise is most noticeable in the high frequencies, noise‑reduction systems typically worked by selectively boosting and compressing upper frequency bands before the signal went to tape, and applying inverse settings on playback, thus enhancing the signal‑to‑noise ratio in the treble. Creative engineers noticed that the encoding process added a characteristic sheen and brightness that was appealing in its own right, and began to use it as an effect on sources such as group backing vocals, strings and so on.
While there are already endless 1176 and LA‑2A emulations on the market, Dolby A plug‑ins are thinner on the ground, and Gem Dopamine may well fill a gap you didn’t know your plug‑in folder had. It emulates two different Dolby encoder modules, and adds a wet/dry control as well as making the amount of compression variable. The name is well chosen, because the effect is seriously addictive, adding a high‑frequency gloss that’s obvious but never harsh, and very different from conventional EQ boost.
Many developers who produce a comparable suite of plug‑ins make them available on a subscription basis. Overloud don’t, and the cost of the full Gem Studio suite is substantial; by way of comparison, IK Multimedia’s T‑RackS 5 MAX bundle offers 22 plug‑ins for around half the price, including emulations of many of the same items that are featured here. One or two of the Gem plug‑ins also left me feeling that Overloud might have prioritised low CPU load over perfectly recreating the sound of the original unit, but in general the quality is high. I particularly like the fact that the developers haven’t felt obliged to slavishly copy original front‑panel designs or limited feature sets. They’ve freed us from the horrors of dual‑concentric controls, filled in the gaps between gain and frequency steps, and added genuinely useful extensions such as wet/dry mix controls where appropriate.
Given the cost of the full bundle, I suspect most people will want to pick a couple of favourites, at least to start with. For me, the stand‑outs are Dopamine and Tapedesk, but I’m sure others will find their mileage varies. Fortunately, all of the Gems are available as fully functional 15‑day demo versions, so if any of them take your fancy, it’s well worth giving them a spin.
The odd one out in the Gem Studio collection is Gem Voice, a sort of superpowered modular channel strip containing no fewer than nine processing modules, many of them derived from the other Gems. For example, the Mic Preamp and Tape Sim modules are obviously based on their counterparts in the full Gem Tapedesk, but with many of that plug‑in’s controls condensed into a few pop‑up preset profiles. These lie at the start of the signal chain, and deliver their output into an enhancer, a multiband processor (with ‘de‑box’ and ‘de‑ess’ options), a compressor and an EQ, all of which likewise offer half a dozen different character profiles. The EQ can be switched before or after the enhancer and multiband modules, but the signal chain is otherwise fixed. The lower row of modules comprises a stereo width enhancer, a delay and a limiter, along with a graphical display that can show the action of the EQ or the compressor.
The name Gem Voice suggests that this plug‑in is designed as a vocal processor, and with the exception of reverb, it can do pretty much everything you’d want to do to a lead vocal at the mix. But it is, of course, far more versatile than that. Most of the modules are usable on almost anything, and even vocal‑specific elements like the de‑esser can come in handy on other sources sometimes. It all adds up to a hugely powerful plug‑in, albeit one that represents overkill for simple jobs, and which might tempt you to use more processing than you really need.
- Well thought‑out, slick emulations of classic studio processors.
- Useful additional features and user‑interface enhancements.
- Low CPU load.
- Neat ‘scribble strip’ feature allows you to make notes.
- Includes one or two neglected classics alongside the 1176s and LA‑2As.
- Complete bundle is expensive and not available on a subscription plan.
- The more familiar Gems face a lot of competition.
Overloud are steadily building their library of classic hardware emulations. It’s a shame there isn’t a more affordable way to buy the full collection because, as the name suggests, it includes some real gems.
Gems Bundle £799. Tapedesk and Voice £157.99 each; others £111 each. Prices include VAT.
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