Formats: PC VST & RTAS; Mac AU, VST & RTAS
The first product by French developers Eliosound, Air EQ is, as you'd expect from the name, an equaliser plug-in. You'd probably also expect an EQ with that name to specialise in the ill-defined but important task of adding 'air', and Air EQ doesn't disappoint. As well as low and high-pass filters and five bands of parametric EQ, it provides a separate Air control, which introduces "a new type of filter that helps you to restore or to add brightness to the sound".
Air EQ is available in most of the major real-time plug-in formats, and is authorised to a Synchrosoft dongle. Cubase users will already have one of these; refreshingly, anyone who doesn't can order one along with Air EQ without paying extra. I had no problem authorising and running the plug-in, though I can't help wishing that manufacturers would settle on a single standard. As it is, I find myself owning two iLoks and two Synchrosoft dongles, and not nearly enough USB ports.
The Air EQ interface uses rotary knobs and switches set into a sheet of virtual brushed metal, and in its understated way, looks a bit like a piece of early '70s hi-fi equipment. It's compact enough to fit all the controls into a single page, without taking over your entire screen, and mercifully, you can click beneath each control to type precise numerical values if you find that easier. The Options menu enables you to fine-tune the interface in a number of imaginative ways, my favourite being the ability to display frequency as notes and bandwidth in octaves. Compared with the likes of Waves' Renaissance EQ or Sonalksis's SV517, though, I missed the option of viewing and editing EQ parameters in a graph. There is also nothing to warn when clipping occurs, which is a shame; Eliosound say they plan to add a clip warning in a new version.
Behind the retro styling lurks a new algorithm which Eliosound dub AMLT, for Analogue Matched Linear Transform. This, they say, enables Air EQ to reproduce the sought-after sonic qualities of analogue equalisers, while maintaining a low CPU load and zero processing delay. And whatever is going on under the hood works very nicely in practice. The option to display frequency as notes makes it simple to home in on a boomy note in a fingerpicked acoustic guitar part, though Air EQ isn't capable of the surgical precision you can achieve with something like Waves' Q10. Rather, it's the kind of EQ that enables you to make sweet-sounding tonal changes without introducing harshness or phasey artifacts. Its action is immediately audible with even a dB or two of gain or cut, and I always needed much smaller settings than in rival products to achieve the desired effect.
Air EQ is in the same league as Sonalksis's SV517 and URS's A- and N-series plug-ins when it comes to pricing, and I think its quality is comparable too. However, it has a different character from either: it doesn't have the smoothness and richness at the low end that Sonalksis's algorithm delivers, nor the aggressive bite that marks out URS's designs. Instead, Air EQ seems to combine a bell-like clarity with a hint of sweetness, which means it excels at adding brightness without making the source sound harsh. The Air control does exactly what you want in this respect, bringing congested vocal tracks to life without overly emphasising sibilance (though it can bring up other unwanted artifacts such as lip-smacking noises). I can easily imagine using Air EQ for mastering as well as mixing, and if you're in the market for a decent plug-in EQ, the demo should definitely be on your list of candidates to try out. Sam Inglis
$269 or 219 Euros.
Formats: PC VST; Mac AU Universal Binary
Audio Damage's Discord 2 is the latest version of their pitch-shifting delay plug-in, featuring a pitch section capable of ranging an octave up or down in increments of one cent, tempo-sync'able delay, and high- and low-pass filters. The most notable addition to this version is the ability to treat the left and right channels independently, with each also featuring its own LFO that can be set to modulate the pitch-shift amount, delay time, and both filters. Audio Damage have also made the plug-in very easy to tweak via a control surface or keyboard, with a MIDI-to-pitch facility and MIDI Learn function for all controls, though the precise implementation of the latter depends on which platform you are using.
Purportedly inspired by vintage harmoniser units, Discord 2 's pitch-shifting sounds decidedly 'old-school', exhibiting the artifacts you'd expect from relatively low-tech gear; it tends toward queasiness where harmonic ambiguities are present, and vocals get 'munchkin-ised' in the usual way. The pitch tracking of even very deliberate, clean guitar playing seemed to be rather hit-and-miss, at least for me, so it won't replace those octaver stomp-boxes. On the other hand, the plug-in performs reasonably well on stable, electronically generated sounds and does a decent job at 'chordifying' monophonic synth parts. Plain old harmonising does rather miss the main point, however, and as you might think given the product's name, Discord 2 shines at some rather less wholesomely tuneful fare.
For example, cranking up the delay feedback will send each subsequent repeat back through the pitch section, allowing each channel to spiral up or down. Depending on the amount of shift, this can lead to bizarre, chilling sort-of-melodies or fantastic, cataclysmic walls of sound. Perhaps my favourite application involved a stereo delay with maximum feedback, and the left and right channels set to shift just a few cents up and down respectively. Just a tap of a guitar string, or a click or glitch of any kind, builds up into an ominous rhythmic texture that can be made to evolve in interesting ways — particularly via interaction with the filters and feedback to tame the output level. It's an organic and fun way to generate sounds, and the results are nearly always worth sampling.
More measured approaches can yield some really evocative treatments: the pitch element, when used very subtly, does add an extra dimension to classic delay effects, and more extreme shifting can work well (and tunefully!) on the right material. Another option is that of 'playing' the pitch-shifting in real time, recording it as a MIDI part if necessary. Discord 2 also does a good job on some more vanilla duties, such as doubling and chorus, although it is more CPU-intensive than most plug-ins dedicated to those tasks.
Aside from a few inconveniences (the lack of numeric entry for parameter values springs to mind) there's not much to dislike here. Providing you're not expecting the kind of 'next-gen' formant-aware pitch-shifting capabilities found in products like Melodyne, Discord 2 provides a lot of creative possibilities for sound designers, particularly considering the very reasonable price of $49 (under 30 quid at the time of writing). Whilst there's no demo available, Audio Damage do offer a 30-day money back guarantee, and the MP3 demos on their web site are certainly worth checking out as limited examples of what it can do. Mike Bryant
Formats: PC & Mac VST
Crysonic certainly can't be accused of releasing a 'me too!' product with their Spectra'Q plug-in. Combining 10-band graphic EQ with powerful harmonics processing and loudness maximisation, Spectra'Q provides an interesting combination of processing options. Crysonic suggest that Spectra'Q can be used as a mastering processor, for advanced enhancer-style applications or for vintage EQ effects. Internal processing is at 64-bit and 24-bit/96kHz audio support is provided. Spectra'Q will work with most VST hosts or via a VST-Direct X wrapper. The one exception noted in the documentation appears to be Wavelab, and my own testing in Wavelab 5 suggested that the processing worked fine but presets could not be loaded or saved.
The 10-band graphic EQ dominates the top of the plug-in window. This offers ±12dB of gain per band and is straightforward in operation, although the EQ-Ratio setting (top left) provides a nice touch, changing the sensitivity of the controls to allow more subtle tweaking to be achieved. The bulk of the interface is dominated by the multi-band harmonics processing. For each of the 10 EQ bands, two even and two odd harmonics controls are provided. As described briefly in the documentation, adding even harmonics is thought to introduce warmth, while adding odd harmonics can increase perceived clarity. Given the range of controls provided, Spectra'Q ought to be able to do a good turn as an enhancer. The loudness maximiser is located at the bottom right, and is based on both look-ahead and transparent processing. Lowering the Threshold control increases the perceived loudness, while the Ceiling control can be used to lower the maximum output if required. The other key processing option is the ability to phase-shift the lower four EQ bands. This can produce some interesting results, but some care is needed to avoid creating bass frequency problems.
The electronic documentation provided with Spectra'Q doesn't really do any more than describe the controls. Given the complexity of the processing options (and how easy it is to destroy a mix with inappropriate mastering), it would perhaps be nice to see some tutorial material included. Thankfully, there are some useful presets to get new users started and these, plus a small amount of trial-and-error experimentation with a couple of my own mixes, soon demonstrated the potential of Spectra'Q. The loudness maximiser is easy to use and, if not overdone, can create a lot of extra level without killing the dynamics completely. However, the combination of the EQ and harmonics processing is where the real power of Spectra'Q lies. It is possible to dramatically change the spectral balance of a mix using this plug-in. Tasks such as adding some bottom-end power and warmth, cleaning up some mid-range or adding sizzle to the high frequencies can be easily achieved and, used with care, the results are really very good indeed.
As with any mastering task, regular bypassing of the processing for a reality check is an absolute must. That said, Crysonic have provided an interesting option for those looking to master their own material on a budget. While the documentation could perhaps offer a little more help for new users, at this price, Spectra'Q offers a lot of processing at a budget price. John Walden
£43.50 including VAT.
Formats: Mac VST & AU, PC VST.
It seems that the algorithmic reverb plug-in is making a comeback, with recent products like IK Multimedia's Classik Studio Reverb and the one under scrutiny here, from newcomers Arts Acoustic. This reverb is currently their one and only product, but it's an impressive one, with a sumptuous 'brushed aluminium' interface and silky smooth sound. Most parameters can be tweaked either by grabbing their knobs/sliders directly or moving the graphic counterparts in the time and frequency display windows, while for finer adjustments you can double-click any control to launch a separate window with Coarse, Normal and Fine thumbwheels.
In the Time Design section, the decay and pre-delay parameters are self-explanatory, but Attack and Spread are more unusual. Spread defines the time the diffuse reflections stay at their maximum level before starting to decay, so you can create big 'gated' sounds that don't swamp your material, while Attack controls the build-up of this spread section, and can be increased either to emphasise the early reflections or for special effects such as 'reverse' reverb.
The Room Design parameters offer seven distinct reverberation types (smooth, small, large, medium, strong, fast and open), each with its own early reflection and tail build-up algorithms. There's a Size slider that determines reflection spacing, while the Width control (from mono through to full stereo) is handy if you want to prevent a reverb dominating the mix. Diffusion seems to mean different things to different developers — in this case it controls the balance of early reflections to main reverb tail, while the Density control sets the number of reflections per second, from granular clusters to a very smooth build-up.
Next up are the damping and EQ controls, with an enhancement over most competitors in offering three damping bands with user-defined crossover points, as well as 12dB/octave low and high cut filters with variable cutoff frequency. Together, these controls let you create a vast array of reverb types, from more typical curtain/carpeted spaces to stone rooms, dull rumbles, warm rushes, and icy sizzles.
To add to this versatility, there's a dedicated Echo section that optionally adds a stereo tremolo to the tail. Far more useful than the bland name suggests, Echo can add subtle movement to longer reverb tails, or more extreme effects such as ping-pong delays. Finally, there's a Modulation knob that detunes the tails to add a soft blurred character, discourage metallic coloration, or at more extreme values add character to synthesized sources.
Overall, these controls give Arts Acoustic's Reverb incredible versatility, as the huge array of presets proves — there is the usual array of rooms, halls, churches and auditoriums, but also shorter ambiences, reverse and gated reverbs, springs, plates, speaker simulations, stereo echos, and metallic resonances (extremely effective on drum parts). There's also a huge range of presets specifically designed for use with drums, guitar, orchestra, piano, post-production effects, synths and vocals. You should always tailor any reverb to suit the material you're treating, but these nevertheless put you in the right ballpark for further tweaking.
I was impressed with its audio quality, judging Arts Acoustic Reverb smoother than Wave Arts Masterverb 5, PSP's Easyverb and Waves' Renaissance Reverb, and although its CPU overhead is higher than many algorithmic reverbs, it remains lower than convolution-based plug-ins. I especially liked the versatility of its unusual echo and modulation features, and the PDF manual is excellent, describing in detail how all the parameters relate to real spaces. Overall I consider this an excellent first product from Arts Acoustic at a reasonable price — download the demo and judge for yourself! Martin Walker
189 Euros or $189.