Formats: PC VST
While there is no shortage of budget plug-ins to be found on the Internet, there can be few with such a unique user interface as Bizune VST. No virtual rack or virtual synth format here — this GUI is built into a virtual motor and, as described below, includes one of the most bizarre control features I've ever seen in a software synth. Bizune VST is the brainchild of Zeus Issariotis of the musical duo Bizune. The plug-in was written for their own use but is available to others as a free download. Web site clips from the duo's music give a good guide to what to expect from Bizune VST — weird soundscapes melded with dance beats.
The design features four oscillators. Two of these have selectable waveform options for building the basis of a patch. These oscillators include FM synthesis controls and overall ADSR envelope controls. The third oscillator is a phase distortion oscillator and provides a 'dirty' element to the sound. The Waveform knob for this oscillator provides a selection from Saw, Pulse, Dbl Sine, Saw-Pulse and three Reso types, while the fourth oscillator features a waveform display and small controls for Phase, Pitch and Drive. Two filters, with various band settings and ADSR envelope controls, are included, while simple flanger and reverb effects round off the basic feature set. As stated in the short text file documentation provided, ears and instincts are required, as many of the controls are not properly labelled (although labels do appear when you hover the mouse over them).
An excellent collection of 128 preset patches is also provided. While these include some fairly straight bass or lead sounds, the majority would be more suitable for creating textures or beds. However, do not think 'subtle pad' — while Bizune VST can do that, there is plenty of attention-grabbing, speaker-flapping fun to be had here. Patch names such as 'Bone Scrapper', 'Nuclear Breeze' and 'Conan' suggest what to expect.
Unfortunately, movements of the on-screen controllers are not output by the plug-in and so cannot be recorded in the host sequencer. This includes 'The Head' controller — yes, you grab the head of the character top-centre with the mouse and wobble it about for some instant sound mangling. As far as I could work out, this acts like an X-Y controller, but the documentation doesn't give much away! The Head Trip Button just below the head makes the effect of this controller more extreme. Thankfully, the individual controls do seem to respond to MIDI CCs, although no controller numbers are provided, so some experimentation is required by the user. Other than that, the plug-in performed flawlessly during testing within Cubase SX3. These idiosyncrasies are, of course, excusable in a free plug-in and, if you like your software and your synth sounds to have a quirky edge to them then Bizune VST will be right up your street. Great fun and highly recommended. John Walden
Formats: Windows VST & Direct X, Mac OS X VST & AU, Mac OS 9 VST
Liverpool-based plug-in developers Sonalksis have been around for a little while now, and SV517 has already established itself as one of the best-regarded EQ plug-ins out there. Nevertheless, there are probably SOS readers who haven't come across this little gem yet — and if you haven't, it's definitely worth a look.
Sonalksis claim to have developed a proprietary technology known as 'State-space' in order to model the behaviour of analogue equalisers on a component level, and their graphic design also recalls classy analogue units from the likes of Focusrite. As with many plug-in designs, though, the overall frequency response is displayed in a graphical window, and the easiest way to edit the EQ curve is simply to pick up the centre points of each band with the mouse and drag them around.
Like the analogue equalisers it's designed to emulate, SV517 is intended mainly for 'broad brush' applications rather than as a surgical tool for notching out problem frequencies. Within its intended role, however, it's pretty versatile. You get low- and high-pass filters, with a range of slopes, plus four fully parametric bands, the outer two of which can be switched to shelving responses. You also get the option to switch between three different algorithms for the parametric bands, and two for the shelf EQs. These affect the overall shape of the response; the second parametric algorithm is particularly broad and smooth, whilst the third offers much steeper slopes, and the first is somewhere inbetween. Adjacent EQ bands can interact to produce resonant peaks and troughs in a similar fashion to Waves' Renaissance EQ.
The most important feature, though, is the sound. Running SV517 as an RTAS plug-in via FXpansion's invaluable VST To RTAS Adapter, I substituted it for the basic Pro Tools EQII on several channels in a rough mix I'd been working on. The effect was instant and impressive: what had been a OK-sounding mix suddenly began to sound smoother, warmer and generally classier. The difference was especially apparent where boost was concerned — whereas previously I'd strained to apply the required amount of gain without descending into harshess or phasiness, I could now achieve the desired result almost effortlessly. Like URS's impressive Classic Console EQ plug-ins, SV517 gives clearly audible results from even a slight cut or boost, but instead of the aggressive bite of those equalisers, it offers a smooth, polished tone. It's like comparing a luxury saloon to a vintage sports car — it doesn't offer quite as many thrills, but it's a lot more comfortable to drive! At £150, SV517 is well beyond the shareware price bracket, but in terms of quality, it's comparable to the best plug-in EQs around. Sam Inglis
£149.99 including VAT.
Sonalksis +44 (0)870 7660303.
+44 (0)870 2206151.
Formats: PC VST
New from Nusofting is Microrock Pro, a PC VST plug-in that provides a monophonic, physically modelled synthesizer with the emulation of string instruments very much its main target. Its combination of features is aimed at the kinds of lead lines, bass lines or riffs associated with electric guitars, and the built-in effects make it particularly suitable for the more experimental 'processed' sounds you might get out of a guitar once you apply a bunch of stompboxes to the sound.
Packed under the somewhat Reason-esque virtual hood of Microrock are two physically modelled oscillators. The Mode switch allows three options for their use; mode zero provides a single-note bass mode, mode two provides a single-note lead mode, while mode one provides two strings, separated by a fifth. In reference to the simple fifth chord on a guitar, this is called Power Chord mode. While the Mode controls the fundamental pitch of the patch, the String section contains the main controls for the oscillator. These feature the pick position and Pick Tone controls. The Exciter adjusts the amount of energy applied to the string, and the Velocity control also influences the velocity sensitivity. The Sub Osc adds additional bass frequencies, while the Modulation control adjusts the amount of noise modulation to pitch.
The Vibrato, Chorus, Overdrive, Wah (actually, an auto-wah with velocity sensitivity) and Distortion effects offer fairly limited control options but do the job pretty much as would be expected. The Delay effect is a little more sophisticated and includes tempo matching and a Damp control that progressively removes the high-frequency element of the repeats for a tape-like result, while the ADSR envelope includes a variable curvature control. The more unusually named Dynatone adjusts the filter's saturation and resonance and the Tonerama acts as a guitar pickup modeller.
The presets include some fairly straight bass guitar/synth sounds such as 'Soft Electric Bass' and guitar tones ('Sing Wah Pick'), but where Microrock really excels is the weird and wonderful. Presets such as 'Singer Guitar', 'Fired Lead' and 'Limp Lead' had even my limited keyboard skills trying out some ELP lead lines or going for a Suspiria-style soundtrack sound — very '70s. The various stompbox-style effects really add to the overall package and vintage vibe.
With a demo version available for download from the Nusofting web site and a price tag pretty much in the shareware range, Microrock is unlikely to do too much damage to anyone's piggy bank. On my 2.4GHz Pentium 4 test system, a single instance only caused a very modest dent in the SX CPU Performance meter. If you have a hankering for some weird lead and bass sounds with a hint of the '70s then the Microrock demo is certainly worth a download. While the plug-in is currently PC-only, Mac versions for VST and AU are due for release soon. John Walden
36.90 Euros (approximately £26).
Formats: Mac & PC UAD1
Given its current low price, the Universal Audio UAD1 DSP card is a very cost-effective way to upgrade your processing capabilities without straining your CPU, and it comes bundled with some exceptionally good plug-ins offering, amongst other things, emulation of respected vintage compressors and equalisers. The range of optional plug-ins is also growing all the time, and the latest to arrive on my desk is Precision Equalizer.
Rather than being an emulation of a specific piece of vintage gear, the stereo or dual-mono four-band Precision Equalizer seems to combine the attributes of several of the designer's favourite analogue equalisers and it is intended mainly for use with complete mixes, making it suitable for desktop mastering applications. According to Universal Audio, "The Precision Equalizer is modelled on the behaviour of real-world analogue mastering filters, and uses the classic parametric control arrangement." Audio processed by the Precision Equalizer plug-in is upsampled to 192kHz regardless of the project's sample rate so as to maintain optimum audio quality, with the aim of avoiding processing artifacts at very high frequencies.
Both channels offer four bands of filtering, arranged as two overlapping low-frequency pairs and two overlapping high-frequency pairs with frequency ranges where the overall frequency range is from 19Hz to 27kHz! In linked stereo mode, both channels respond to channel one's controls and a centrally located rotary switch allows several different 18dB per octave low-cut settings to be applied. The EQ range of ±8dB (shelving or peak/notch) may seem a little on the frugal side, but that's because Precision Equalizer responds more like an analogue equaliser, where you don't need to apply much cut or boost to hear a result. In any case, anything that needs more than 8dB of cut or boost at the mastering stage probably needs remixing first!
Each band offers 0.5dB stepped Frequency and Gain controls, but the Q value is stepped rather more coarsely, providing a choice of five preset Q settings or shelving operation. Each band also has its own bypass button, which saves on DSP power if that band isn't needed. Hardware mastering EQs often use switched settings for repeatability so Universal Audio seem to have tried to keep that same feel.
What first impressed me about Precision Equalizer was that when I applied heavy boost and then swept through the range in the usual way to find the 'bad spot' in the programme material that needed cutting, the equaliser still sounded sweet. Indeed, it was hard to make anything sound bad, whereas most equalisers seem to sound dreadful when used for heavy boost, no matter what the source sounds like. In normal use, only small amounts of cut or boost are needed to make a difference, usually no more than ±1.5dB, and the result sounded more analogue than I'd expected. You can warm up the bass end of a difficult track that would leave most digital EQs struggling or add a breath of air to the top of a congested mix.
The upsampling topography is probably part of the secret of this equaliser, but it's also clear that the frequency curves and phase responses of classic equalisers have been studied to come up with this musical-sounding hybrid. Whether you just want to sweeten your mix or add to your mastering armoury, the Universal Audio Precision Equalizer will do the job well and is a worthwhile addition for anyone with a UAD1 card. Paul White
Formats: PC VST, Mac OS X VST & AU
Fabfilter's first product was the simple but effective Fabfilter One soft synth. As the name suggests, much of the appeal of this simple single-oscillator subtractive synth came from its distinctive filter algorithm, which offered a lot of the warmth and character beloved of analogue synth devotees, and Fabfilter have used the same algorithm as the basis of their new effects plug-in. Volcano is similar in concept to Sound Toys' Filter Freak, reviewed in SOS January 2004, featuring two independent filters which can be placed in parallel or serial configuration. The cutoff frequency, resonance and pan position of each filter can be modulated using two LFOs and an envelope follower.
As well as the Fabfilter One design, a selection of other filter algorithms is available, comprising Smooth, Raw, Hard and Hollow. The names provide pretty fair descriptions of the sounds in each case, and both filters can be switched between low-pass, high-pass and band-pass operation, with a choice of 12, 24 or 48 dB/octave slopes. Whatever settings you use, Volcano 's filters are laudably free of zipper noise, aliasing or other unwanted artifacts, and what's more, they will happily and authentically self-oscillate at high resonance settings.
The clear panel layout and simple modulation matrix makes creating new patches in Volcano a piece of cake. You can click and drag the virtual knobs, but it's even easier to set filter cutoff and resonance by moving the two orange circles around in the graphical display. However, I do wish plug-in designers would calibrate their parameters in meaningful units — such as kilohertz and seconds, in this case — rather than using arbitrary numbering systems.
Even though the review version was supplied without any presets, it quickly became apparent that Volcano is a very versatile effect. House-style filter sweeps are a piece of cake, and the modulation possibilities make it easy to create extreme burbles and squelches. Volcano also has more subtle applications: for example, I was able to add rescue a 'basketball-y' bass drum sound by tuning the resonant filters to bring out the 'thump' and 'click' and eliminate mid frequencies. The ability to pan the filters independently meant that I could also create a convincing stereo spread from a mono guitar part.
In some ways, Volcano is more flexible than Filter Freak, but I did miss the latter's awesome Analog Mode, which provides the best-sounding saturation I've ever heard in a plug-in. You can't achieve the same evil bass or lead sounds using Volcano alone, but if your tastes run to cleaner fare, or if you have your own favourite distortion plug-in to team it with, this is a slick and full-sounding effect which will keep you busy for weeks. You won't regret trying this one out for yourself... Sam Inglis