Formats: Mac & PC VST, PC Direct X
Although most major MIDI + Audio sequencing applications include bundled EQ, dynamics and reverb plug-ins, they don't always sound too great, so many users are on the lookout for alternatives. Wave Arts' first product was the impressive Masterverb DX, which I reviewed back in SOS February 2002, commenting on its smooth sound and low CPU overhead, and Mac/PC VST versions have since appeared. Their second is Trackplug, which combines EQ, compression and gating into one handy plug-in. The new Power Couple is a bundle containing both plug-ins at a reduced price.
Masterverb is now up to version 3.03, so here's a quick update on what's new. The most obvious improvements are the more refined graphics and stereo peak-reading output level meters, but the engine has also been enhanced with an additional Diffusion control. A 50 percent value gives identical results to previous releases, while lower values provide more discrete early reflections, and 100 percent gives an extremely smooth build-up. The Decay Time can now be extended to 60 seconds for special effects. The sound is still as smooth as silky as ever, the CPU overhead remains just as low (about 3 percent of my Pentium III 1GHz at 44.1kHz), but the new features definitely provide more versatility and polish.
Trackplug is supplied in both stereo in/out and mono in/out versions, and combines a 64-bit EQ with up to 10 click-and-draggable bands in its graphic window, and a comprehensively featured 32-bit compressor/gate. Each EQ band can be high-pass or low-pass, high-shelf or low-shelf (all with fixed slopes), band-pass or notch with variable bandwidth, or fully parametric. Even better, the EQ can be placed pre- or post-dynamics, and it's incredibly easy to use — just click and drag an existing point to change frequency or gain, shift-click to adjust bandwidth where applicable, and double-click to add more points. Knobs and buttons are also available for most functions if you prefer, and it sounds sweet, even at extreme settings.
The compressor/gate section starts with a common Peak/RMS detector for greater efficiency, along with an optional 1ms, 2ms or 5ms look-ahead delay to help catch transients. Next in the chain is the gate, and finally the compressor, each with its own Enable button. If either of these is active the input meter displays both minimum and maximum signal power, so you can monitor dynamic range. Each also has its own meter, displaying both minimum and maximum amounts of compression and gating using different colours. Taken together, the three meters show a surprising amount of useful information.
Both compressor and gate have their own Threshold, Ratio, Attack and Release controls, along with a selection of soft, medium and hard knee shapes, while there's also a Dynamics Input Gain for the incoming signal, and a manual make-up gain for the compressor, which can also be used in conjunction with the Auto Make-up Gain button to make level adjustments easier. Like the EQ, the dynamics section has its own graphic display with draggable points for compressor gain, along with both thresholds and ratios. At the end of the chain there's a further Output Gain control with a ±24dB range, and finally a stereo pair of peak-reading output level meters.
Trackplug provided smooth and transparent results with all the sounds I threw at it, including vocals, solo instruments, drum kits and complete mixes, and is far quicker and easier to set up and use than patching in separate plug-ins. It helps that 47 presets are included, ranging from suggested starting points for various instruments and styles through to extreme treatments, along with a range of useful EQ settings including noise filtering and special transformations like resonant comb filtering.
Like Masterverb, Trackplug is very economical with CPU power, and with my Pentium III 1GHz took just 1 percent with both compressor and gate in circuit, and about 0.3 percent for each EQ band. With all 10 bands, gate, and compressor activated, the grand total came to just 4 percent for the stereo version, and 2 percent for the mono one. These figures are low enough to mean you can patch Trackplug into plenty of channels without worrying. It sounds great, is extremely flexible, and together with Masterverb makes the perfect Power Couple. Martin Walker
Formats: PC VST, Mac RTAS, OS 9 & OS X VST
Liquid Bundle is another offering from Bernie Torelli's Nomad Factory stable, makers of the very impressive Blue Tubes Bundle (featured in the November 2002 issue of SOS). This bundle consists of five different effects: a delay, a compressor, a flanger, a chorus and a reverb. These, along with their siblings in the Blue Tubes Bundle, are now available for Windows, Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X, in both VST and RTAS formats, while Audio Unit ports are also planned for Mac OS X.
Like Blue Tubes Bundle, the plug-ins all benefit from well-designed user interfaces, which are both easy on the eye and simple and straightforward to use. Liquid Chorus is a no-nonsense stereo chorus, with LFO Rate and Depth controls for the main chorus effect, and independent rate and width controls for the Rotation section, which provides panning and rotary-speaker effects. Mix and Main Level controls are the only remaining parameters. I was immediately taken with the sound of Liquid Chorus, which has a distinctly warm and analogue character. It can be set slow and deep, or fast and nervy, but even at its most extreme settings it never becomes tiring or unusable.
Liquid Compressor is a flexible and easy-to-use compressor, with controls for Threshold, Ratio (adjustable independently for each stereo channel), Attack, Release and Main Level. It also has useful illuminated meters, which bounce up and down in response to the input signal, nicely illustrating how and when gain reduction is being applied. At subtler settings, the effect is natural and near-transparent, while extreme settings allow you to squash your signals more noticeably.
Liquid Delay is a stereo delay/echo, with independent delay time, feedback and gain controls for the left and right channels. There are also independent left and right Direct Gain controls, for balancing the wet/dry mix, and independent low-pass filters for both channels, to soften the delayed signal a little. It couldn't be much simpler to use, and it works as advertised.
Liquid Flanger is laid out much like Liquid Chorus, with LFO Rate, Depth and Feedback controls, and the same Rotation effect, plus width control (although the rotation rate is tied to the main LFO in this case, rather than being independent). Mix and Main Level controls make up the remaining parameters. Unsurprisingly, Liquid Flanger has a lot of the same character as Liquid Chorus, although the effect is more pronounced. With the feedback setting at full it can be a little overpowering, but subtler settings produce some excellent whooshing, swirling sounds, which can be fine-tuned via the width control to occupy as much or as little space in your mix as you like.
Finally, Liquidverb is a no-frills reverb, with Mix, Gain, P-Dly (pre-delay), Damp and Size settings, as well as High and Low EQ controls. There are also Stereo Width and Pan controls. Liquidverb seems best suited to large rooms and halls, with long, luxurious decays. The smaller room settings are usable, but sound a little more artificial to my ears. The High and Low EQ controls proved very useful both for brightening up some of the darker rooms, and for taking some low end off the larger hall sounds to help them sit in a mix more comfortably.
To sum up, if you're looking for jaw-dropping, mind-bending special effects, you're likely to be disappointed by Liquid Bundle. These plug-ins all seem to have been carefully designed not to make startling noises when you turn everything up to 10. While this may not sound like much fun, the net effect is that Liquid Bundle is extremely easy to use in the context of a mix. In other words, its very easy to dial up sounds that sit comfortably alongside other sounds — and very difficult to make outlandish, jarring noises that stick out like a sore thumb.
My only complaint is that the Chorus, Flanger and Delay plug-ins would all benefit from the option to sync their time parameters with the tempo of the host sequencer. Many plug-ins offer this option nowadays, and it seems an unfortunate omission from a bundle which, at $199, is not inexpensive. However, Nomad Factory tell me that they plan to incorporate this feature in a forthcoming, free update for registered users. Paul Sellars
Formats: PC VST, Mac OS 9 & OS X VST
Digitalfishphones have caused quite a stir with their freeware plug-ins, especially Dominion, which seems able to perform some of the magic that SPL built into their Transient Designer. DFP's latest offering is Fish Fillets, a suite of three dynamics plug-ins. Blockfish is a compressor, Floorfish an expander/gate, and Spitfish is a de-esser.
Software compressors are often very good at transparent gain reduction, but it's harder to find plug-ins that can colour the signal in the same appealing ways as classic analogue units. Blockfish, however, is very much designed as a 'character' compressor. It aims to model the sonic characteristics of both VCA and optical designs, and allows the user to dial in as much saturation and high-frequency 'air' as required. Flicking a virtual catch at the left-hand side of the window reveals a second screen, where you can play around with more obscure parameters such as the emphasis frequency of the saturation circuit. There's also a button marked Complex, which seems to switch Blockfish into a more CPU-intensive mode, and makes a substantial difference to the way it sounds.
In common with many classic analogue designs, the actual compressor controls are very simple. One knob controls the amount of compression applied, the other adjusts the Response from fast to slow. User feedback is also appropriately hazy, with none of the controls calibrated in meaningful units.
Although it can impose a lot of character, Blockfish is more than just a special effect. The features that are designed to colour the sound do so in quite a mild way unless you push the controls to their extremes, and the difference between the VCA and opto emulation modes is subtle but audible. Blockfish will find uses on a variety of sources: it can thicken vocals and beef up drum loops, and it gives a particuarly rich, rounded warmth to a bass guitar.
The other two plug-ins in the package are more utilitarian, but both worth having. Floorfish is handy for ducking spill on vocal or drum parts, although you need to be careful how you set it up, while Spitfish is pretty effective at removing sibilance. I'd be reluctant to use it or any other de-esser on a main vocal part, but this could be a life-saver on backing vocals or reverb feeds. As a package, Fish Fillets would be worth investigating even if it wasn't free. Since it is, I can't think of a single good reason not to own it! Sam Inglis
Formats: Mac VST, PC VST & Direct X
You might be forgiven for thinking that PSP84 was simply a stereo version of Professional Sound Projects' Lexicon PSP42 plug-in (as reviewed in SOS November 2002), which was itself modelled on Lexicon's classic PCM42 rackmounted digital stereo delay and phrase sampler. But you'd be wrong, as I found out when I installed it alongside and took it for a spin.
There are indeed two delay lines hard-wired to the left and right channels, and they have the same 10-second maximum capability (depending on sample rate), along with a handy new Link mode and cross-channel feedback options, but there are several completely new effect sections, plus a much more versatile set of routing options to patch everything together. The various sections can also be activated/deactivated by clicking on their front-panel names to save CPU resources.
The first new feature is a 12dB/octave resonant filter section, switchable between low-pass, band-pass, and high-pass modes, which replaces PSP42's simple 4kHz high-cut filter and is far more versatile. Its three-way routing switch lets you place it in the Input path to affect the entire signal, in the Feedback path for decaying or resonant effects, or only in the Effect path. You can whack up the resonance into self-oscillation for special effects, and the cutoff frequency can also be shifted by up to two octaves either way using the modulation section. This section has itself been beefed up, with frequency or tempo-related LFO rate, a choice of five waveforms rather than two, and a Phase control that operates on the right VCO only, to offset pitch-related effects between the stereo channels. The envelope follower is still available for modulation duties, but its sensitivity control now doubles as an optional Drive setting for the tape saturation section, based on PSP's mastering processors, to add anything from a little warmth to heavy overdrive to the delayed signals.
The other main addition is a vintage reverb section that can treat just the effect path or the entire output signal. This has just two controls for damping and amount, and a choice of two distinct types of classic mechanical reverb — the periodic reflections of a spring, or the brighter and denser reflections of a plate. The rationale behind this is that these two often fit into a mix better than full-blown reverbs, and provide more warmth and space. In practice, the smoothness of the plate's reverb tail proves far more useful for traditional treatments, while the spring is surprisingly useful for special effects.
Like PSP42, PSP84 is supplied in mono and stereo versions primarily for use in an insert slot, and you've only got to listen to the 60 presets to see how incredibly versatile it is, with effects ranging from a host of tempo-related delays, to pitch-twisting, auto-wah, rich flanging, inventive reverbs, sci-fi weirdness and ambient twitterings. Many of the results would be impossible to recreate using a chain of other plug-ins due to routing restrictions, even if you had the dedication, and as with all PSP plug-ins, audio quality is excellent, while special attention has been paid to the smooth changing of all parameters in real time and for VST or MIDI automation. Overall, PSP84 is much greater than the sum of its parts, and as far as I can see the only casualty from PSP42 is phrase sampling. There's a special offer for existing PSP42 users who want both plug-ins, and you can buy them both together as the Delaypack. Highly recommended. Martin Walker
PSP84 $149; PSP Delaypack (PSP42 and PSP84) $199.