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Spin Audio Roomverb M2 • AAS Lounge Lizard 2 • BGTech Dynamics Pack • Izotope Spectron By Various
Published October 2003

Plug-in Folder

Spin Audio Roomverb M2

Formats: PC VST & Direct X

Spin Audio's Roomverb M2 is purported to deliver top-quality reverberation for native PC platforms. It is available in both VST and DX formats, and I tested the VST version. A glance at the interface immediately suggests that Roomverb M2 offers an exceptional degree of control over not only the usual reverb parameters, but also some unusual ones.

The Virtual Room section offers control over the width, depth and height of the room by way of three linkable sliders. The placement of the sound source and listener, in relation to each other and to the walls and corners of the virtual room, can be defined, as can the sound source height, listener height, distance between source and listener, distance between left and right microphones, and wall absorption. A hard or soft bounce can be selected independently for the walls, floor and ceiling. A slider provides control over diffusion, with a switch for mono or stereo mode (mono mode means that the diffusion setting does not affect the stereo image).

The Early Reflections section has controls for the number of reflections, pre-delay time and decay type (Natural, Exponential 1&2, Linear 1&2, or flat), and decay can be reversed. In the Late Reflections section, controls are provided for density, pre-delay, offset and shape, while the Modulation subsection offers control over left/right modulation. The available parameters here are type (harmonic 1 to 5, random 1 to 5 and mixed 1 to 5), depth, rate, and stereo width.

The section in the middle of the window allows EQ'ing of the early and late reflections, with the EQ curves cleverly superimposed in the top graph, and frequency-dependent control over the absorption characteristics of the air and room materials (with a preset list of 35 materials including 'brickwork', 'solid wood panels', 'heavy drapes' and so on). The materials can even be blended or stacked. The Air and Material absorption curves are superimposed in the bottom graph. Decay time is also set in this section.

The input, wet/dry mix, early reflections and late reflections levels can be set using faders, and monitored individually using mute and solo buttons. Separate pan, shift, crossover and stereo width pots are available for the early and late reflections, and an adjustable gate can be applied to the early or late reflections, or both. Some sections or individual features that may not be required can be disabled individually to save CPU cycles. Two edit buffers (A and B) are used in parallel for easy comparisons. Extensive facilities are provided for preset management, and skins are supported.

The level of control afforded by Roomverb M2 is staggering. But, more importantly, it sounds excellent, comparing favourably with both hardware and software reverbs costing several times its price, from revered manufacturers. The presets are useful, tailoring a custom program is easy, and the result will sound effortlessly natural... though if you want 'off-the-wall', you can have that too. Spin Audio may not be one of the established names that spring to mind when discussing reverb, but Roomverb M2 could change this. So do yourself a favour, and download the demo. You will be impressed.

For those who want Roomverb M2 quality at an entry-level price, Roomverb M1 uses the same reverb engine, wrapped in a simpler interface. While it does not offer the same degree of control as Roomverb M2, it costs just under half the price — which is a bargain. However, I feel the extra features of the M2 version fully justify its higher price. Vincent Chenais

Roomverb M2 $125; Roomverb M1 $60.

AAS Lounge Lizard 2

Formats: Mac OS 9 & OS X stand-alone, VST & RTAS; PC stand-alone, VST & Direct X

Canadian developers Applied Acoustic Systems had a big hit with their Lounge Lizard electric piano emulation, which was reviewed in SOS October 2002. Because it used physical models of the instrument's component parts, rather than samples, Lounge Lizard offered a highly editable sound and a continuously variable response to playing dynamics, and could cover the full spectrum of EP sounds, from silvery Suitcases to plummy Wurlis, crystalline bell tones to filthy growls.

AAS Lounge Lizard 2 plug-in.

Lounge Lizard was already more versatile than any piano emulation had any right to be, but AAS are not the sort of company to rest on their laurels, and they've expanded its scope still further in the new version 2. There's extra compatibility, in the shape of OS X and RTAS support; there's better integration, in the shape of a new preset browser, support for MIDI Program Change and the ability to sync appropriate parameters to host tempo; and there's greater efficiency, as AAS claim to have optimised the DSP engine for "three times greater CPU performance". Most importantly, there are two new elements to the sound of Lounge Lizard in version 2, which are claimed to make it both more realistic and more flexible.

The first of these is a new Release section in the interface, which models the characteristic 'clunk' that some electromechanical pianos produce when you take your finger off a key. I imagine many Rhodes players were only too glad to see the back of this, but it does add to the authentic feel of the thing, and, with precise playing, can bring a useful additional rhythmic element into some keyboard parts.

The second new feature is a second pickup model, which apparently uses measurements taken from a different set of pianos. The original Lounge Lizard sound-generating algorithm tended towards a thick, dark sound, and the new one seems designed to complement it by providing a brighter sound with a 'plinkier', almost marimba-like tone. Like the original model, however, this one is still flexible enough to cover Stage and Suitcase Rhodes sounds as well as Wurlis, and in addition to the version 1 presets, several new sets are provided which take advantage of the additional pickup algorithm and the release model.

The new pickup model is definitely worth having, but I have to say that I don't like it as much as the original. This may be a matter of taste — when it comes to electric pianos, I'm a sucker for a rich, fat sound on the edge of distortion — but I found the new model a little thin and lifeless by comparison. (This, of course, could make it more manageable in a busy mix.) A lot of the new presets use both the new model and, to my ears, too much of the release element, ending up with something that sounds like a xylophone with a lot of slapback echo. If you try out the demo, be sure to listen to some of the presets in the Version 1 folder too! I actually found that the release model worked rather better with the original pickup model than the new one.

On the subject of presets, the new browser system is a great improvement, and makes auditioning patches a pleasure rather than a chore. The ability to sync the wah, phaser, tremolo and delay effects to host tempo within a sequencer is also very handy, although I remain slightly underwhelmed by the sound of the phaser.

The Lounge Lizard 2 upgrade for existing users (except those who bought after June 1st this year, who get it free) is £65 in the UK, but only $49 by download, and is one you'll have to go for if you're planning to migrate to OS X. Otherwise, the new version offers plenty of worthwhile improvements, but perhaps no single killer new feature that would make it an essential upgrade. If you don't already own it, however, version 2 provides yet more reasons to give in to temptation... Sam Inglis

£125; update from version 1 £65 including VAT.

SCV London +44 (0)20 8418 0778.

BGTech Dynamics Pack

Formats: PC VST

Plug-in FolderThe BGTech Dynamics Pack is a bundle of five VST plug-ins for the PC comprising noise gate, compressor, limiter, compressor/gate combo and a multi-mode variant of the latter, with the facility to patch in side-chains from one of up to 32 separate key triggers. Noise Gate and Compressor are quite straightforward in operation, with all the usual controls working as one would expect. Metering is the area where BGTech have tried to add something new, with a scrolling wave display that updates in real time to show the impact of the processing on original input signal. The wave display is indeed quite useful in setting the threshold level, and although a little small to be really precise, it is certainly a worthwhile addition. The ear tends to become accustomed to the sound of compression after a while, so some visual cue is helpful as a reminder should you be inadvertently squashing all the dynamics out of the material.

Noise Gate is really quite simple and lacks some of the configurability of, say, the Auto Gate in Steinberg's VST Dynamics plug-in. It does, however, provide an Inverse setting, attenuating everything above the threshold as opposed to below it, which can produce some wonderfully weird and unpredictable results with drum loops and other transient material.

Plug-in Folder Maxi Limiter is designed to subtly reduce dynamic range, by keeping in check the very loudest peaks or, alternatively, to hammer everything against a brick wall in the manner so popular in today's music. It works pretty well — that is to say you can't really hear it working except at high settings, and again, the wave display is helpful in setting the threshold appropriately. The main drawback — and it's quite a big one — is that there doesn't appear to be any look-ahead capability, and therefore no guarantee that digital clipping won't occur on some material. BGTech recommend that the gain should always be set at least 1dB below the threshold setting in order that clipping be avoided, but I found this was not sufficient to prevent the odd rogue transient creeping through and setting off the red light.

The Sidechain Dynamics processor has four distinct modes. Simple mode is functionally identical to the compressor/gate and doesn't require any external input. Level sets SCD to act as a side-chain key for another instance of the plug-in, with threshold, attack, and release settings to define the transient characteristics of the trigger signal. The final two modes are the side-chain-controlled compressor and gate, with the key input selected from a matrix of 32 channel buttons. Only one mode can be used at a time, so it's not possible to, say, compress a drum part whilst using it to trigger gating on another track, and it can get a little confusing trying to remember which instance of the plug-in is on which side-chain channel, particularly as one key signal can work with multiple slaves, but not the other way round.

In terms of sound quality I thought the BGTech compressor and limiter stood up rather well in comparison to their TC Native Bundle 3.0 equivalents, although they weren't as efficient where CPU usage was concerned. They both sounded fairly transparent to me, and I'd be more than happy to use them in my mixes. I won't venture into all the wide and varied uses for side-chaining, but suffice to say that they range from de-essing vocal tracks to sorting out dodgy timing on bass lines by slaving them to the drums. On top of practical applications there's a menagerie of interesting creative possibilities; great fun can had from the tight rhythmic gating and ducking effects on offer, with the right choice of key signal.

There is a little room for improvement with a few aspects of the BGTech plug-ins. They felt less than perfectly polished in use; switching modes in SCD caused the odd audio dropout, and I experienced some flickery graphical strangeness on occasion. Aside from these rather trivial observations, I think Compressor and Maxi Limiter would both benefit from the addition of an automatic make-up gain function, as they will probably be most often used to boost overall loudness, and it's a bit of a pain having to adjust the output gain every time you alter the threshold. I would also have found a conventional gain reduction meter useful in addition to the compression/expansion graph, and an integral bypass switch on the plug-ins themselves would have aided automation in some instances.

Overall, I think the Dynamics Pack represents pretty good value at $169, and Side-chain Dynamics is particularly well priced individually at $99, considering the creative potential and flexibility it offers. Although quite a few plug-ins equipped with side-chain facilities are available nowadays, none, to my knowledge, present the opportunity to use so many separate key triggers simultaneously. If you haven't yet delved into the assortment of possibilities on offer with side-chain gating and compression, demo versions of the BGTech dynamics plug-ins can be downloaded from their web site for a 15-day trial. Mike Bryant

Dynamics Pack $169;
Side-chain Dynamics $99;
Noise Gate $59;
Compressor $59;
Compressor & Gate $69;
Maxi Limiter $50.

iZotope Spectron

Formats: PC Direct X

I think it's fair to say that iZotope, makers of Direct X weird-machine Spectron, are hyping a wee bit in claiming to have invented "a new class of audio transformations". Spectron employs the same core concept as Native Instruments' Spektral Delay — individually processing many hundreds of discrete frequency bands — and that's been around a couple of years now. But blimey, who cares if it's conceptually original when it's this much fun! We're really dealing with five individually configurable effectors here, comprising Morph, Filter, Pan, Delay and Smear. All make use of the band-splitting 'Spectron engine' with the exception of Smear, which is just a plain old bundle of four separate analogue-style modulating delays for creating those traditional flanging and phasing effects.

isotope Spectron.

Each of the spectral modules is based around a common interface, consisting of four nodes superimposed upon a real-time frequency-spectrum display. Moving nodes vertically adjusts the level of the key parameter in each module, and positioning them in the horizontal plane determines the frequency response of the spectral processing. Each node can be finely tailored with Shape and Bandwidth controls, and separate spectral curves can be set up for the left and right channels independently. In a nutshell, this allows you to morph, filter, pan, or delay precise frequency ranges, or composite curves made up of several nodes combined. This system is not as flexible as Native Instruments' approach, where up to 160 separate frequency bands can be independently adjusted, but it's intuitive and quite accommodating once you learn some of the tricks on offer.

The Morph module is certainly the least conventional of the four spectral effects provided here, allowing you to load a separate 'target' audio file against which to modulate the frequency response of the input signal. The target file can either be in WAV or MP3 format, and loops continuously when Play is activated on the host program. The vertical position of the four nodes sets the degree to which each of the spectral bands is adjusted to match the level of the corresponding band in the target signal, and you can set the threshold on both to cut out unwanted noise from the process. As you might expect, Morph is rather suggestive of a vocoder, though very subtle and distinctive effects can be generated if you use the right source of target audio file, and limit the morphing to carefully chosen frequency bands. Conversely, you can completely mangle the incoming audio beyond all recognition, which is particularly effective for turning drum loops into rhythmic, burbling drones.

The Filter and Pan modules do exactly what they say on the tin, serving as powerful sound-shaping tools given the flexibility provided by the Spectron engine. The Delay module is more complicated, with separate curves for the delay-time and feedback parameters, and a snapping facility to lock the delay time to tempo-based intervals. There's an impressive degree of control on offer here, and thus far I haven't even mentioned one of Spectron's most exciting features: the modulation capabilities available to each of the four nodes in all four spectral effects. Nodes are either stationary or can modulate to a separate 'destination node' via either an LFO or an envelope. The LFO is extensively configurable, with tap tempo and snap-to-tempo functions, and seven different wave shapes to choose from. There's even an Advanced Settings tab, wherein you can set up an additional modulator for the LFO itself, and adjust such things as resolution and the pulse width of the square wave. The envelope is rather simpler, with 'only' attack, hold, release, and trigger threshold controls, but it's evident that iZotope have spared no effort in jamming oodles of configurability into this plug-in.

The non-spectral Smear module, too, has lots to play with, and can be very powerful even on its own. Each of the four identical echo delays has a variable wave-shape LFO, along with parameters for rate, depth, phase and feedback. The delay time range can be set between 1 and 10 ms, so long sweeping flange sounds are easy to achieve, along with the more subtle, phasey variety with shorter periods. Combining all four echo delays, each with subtly different settings, can produce incredibly rich, retro effects.

When you add all this up there is a vast range of possibilities on offer, from the truly transformative to the surgically precise. Indeed, Spectron excels at delving into sounds in a manner that's difficult to achieve using more conventional tools. You can, for example, take a drum loop and add delay, a sweeping filter, and auto-pan to just the frequencies that make up the body of the snare drum, leaving the kick and cymbals untouched. Alternately, with four LFOs going on in each spectral module, plus a thumbful of Smear, things can get very unsubtle indeed, and there always seems to be another way to add complexity and movement to the sound. You can even process just the harmonics of a frequency band whilst muting the unprocessed signal, resulting in organic, hollow, ghost-like timbres. It would be hard to exhaust the sonic potential of this plug-in.

So what are the drawbacks? As you might have guessed by now, all this complex processing doesn't come for nothing, and with all modules activated Spectron is enormously CPU-intensive. I found that complex patches consumed up to around 27 percent of a Pentium 4-M 1.6GHz processor, and that was without making use of the Direct X automation capabilities. The maximum 2048-band setting really put a strain on my PC, and made increasing the audio interface latency pretty much mandatory, to avoid glitching. Even those with up-to-the-minute DAWs probably won't be able to use this plug-in unsparingly in a real-time multitrack context. Spectron also introduces a hefty processing delay — I measured about 50ms at 44.1kHz — and there are some complications regarding latency compensation at mixdown which may involve manually offsetting channels to avoid problems. It's worth noting that the heavy CPU consumption can be mitigated somewhat by turning off the meters and spectral display, and there's also an output limiter which can be deactivated, saving a not-insignificant amount of power. Be warned, though: unholy alliances of feedback and filters can produce terrifying noises, and on more than one occasion I came close to doing irreversible damage to both tweeters and ears.

All told, Spectron is a terrific product and a steal at $99 (about £63 at the time of writing) for the downloadable version. This is a deep and complex plug-in that takes a while to become truly familiar with, but provides a great range of both corrective and creative applications. There's enough here to keep enthusiastic sound designers happy for a long time, and musicians possessing of a decent PC and Direct X-compatible audio programs should rush to download the demo and give it a try. Mike Bryant