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Page 2: Quantica Modula: Exclusive SOS Preview

Modular Acustica Plug-in Controller
By Matt Houghton

DAW Integration

That Modula works alongside rather than within your DAW raises questions of workflow — what will you do in your DAW, and what in Modula? At the present stage of development, with various features yet to be implemented, those questions are particularly important. For example, there are limitations to how Modula plug-ins work with your DAW's automation; they'll respond to automation but cannot write it. The write facility is planned but won't be implemented for the initial release. Why? Well, the channel strips are essentially repackaged Acqua plug-ins, and this has long been a limitation for them because Acustica's impulse–based approach to their emulations, with mostly switched rather than continuous controls, doesn't really lend itself to automation. And, in any case, most controls aren't the sort of things you're likely to want to automate; it's not like we're dealing with instruments, or out-there delay effects and filter sweeps.

That said, people will undoubtedly hope to use Modula's faders for level automation — it would allow you to do more mixing jobs, such as refining level automation in multiple passes, without leaving Modula. So even if write-automation were implemented only for the channel strip faders in the first instance, I think it would be a significant improvement. That will come in time — but meanwhile Modula doesn't prevent you doing this side of things in your DAW, and it's one of the few things that I find touchscreens are good for in most DAWs.

Magenta 5, included with Modula, appears to be based on sampled Manley outboard, and this one includes preamp, EQ and dynamics sections.Magenta 5, included with Modula, appears to be based on sampled Manley outboard, and this one includes preamp, EQ and dynamics sections.Another important function your DAW must take care of is transport control, as there are currently no transport or marker facilities in Modula — if Modula is in focus, your DAW isn't, so your DAW's shortcut keys can't be used. It was never conceived as a DAW controller (each Modula channel corresponds not to a DAW channel but to an individual plug-in) but some global DAW-control facilities, particularly basic tape-style transport controls, would mean a lot less switching between Modula and your DAW. In the meantime, I'd consider using a second screen for your DAW, or using a small control surface (eg. an Avid Artist Transport or a PreSonus Faderport), or perhaps a tablet/smartphone-based MIDI controller, as a sidekick for Modula's touchscreen GUI. Alternatively, Cmd/Alt+tabbing between Modula and your DAW could become almost second-nature!

Modula Workflow

So, that's what Modula does and doesn't do, and how it relates to your DAW. But what of the experience of trying to mix with it? Despite this software being at such an early stage of its evolution, it's honestly a real pleasure. I enjoyed getting hands-on with the touchscreen in a way that I find I don't with DAWs (even those that claim to have been designed with touch in mind), and I found that the layout encouraged me to stay focused, avoid distractions and thus make decisions quickly. Apart from the obvious lack of tactile feedback, the experience is closer to that of using an analogue console than I've experienced with any other software or control surface. I can see so clearly what it is I'm tweaking, can hop from channel to channel without opening and closing windows, and I don't see all those tiny details in the DAW that can lure me down mixing 'rabbit holes'. As I mentioned earlier, I missed the ability to write fader automation and often wished for a touchscreen transport control, but I still managed to establish an efficient workflow.

The Modula prototype of Taupe, a  marvellous tube and tape saturation channel.The Modula prototype of Taupe, a marvellous tube and tape saturation channel.The prototype version of Water, for Modula, as seen inside the DAW with all three strips visible.The prototype version of Water, for Modula, as seen inside the DAW with all three strips visible.I had access not only to the Magenta 5 and Diamond Color EQ3 Modula Skins that will be included in the price, but also to prototypes of the wonderful Water and Taupe Skins, so I could experiment with different configurations in the mixer. For example, I could construct a mixer mostly out of Magenta (emulated Manley) channel strips, and have the project's master-bus signal flow through Diamond Color EQ3 and then into Taupe. Imagine what that mixer would cost in the real world, even if you could build it!

It took a little while to grow accustomed to having two separate 'strips' for the single master bus in this setup, and I found it helpful to visually separate the two master bus channels from others, either by placing an empty channel strip between the master section and other channels or by inserting the bundled M4Chan utility channel on a project's effects returns, and placing those between the master bus and other channels. Ideally I'd like the ability to 'dock' master channels on the right or left of the mixer so it can be seen irrespective of the bank that's selected — there are plans to develop some sort of master module in the future, but don't yet know if it will make this possible

I should note a couple of GUI quirks, which will hopefully be addressed soon. Much of the gear being sampled — and certainly the bundled strips — is stereo mastering-oriented gear, and there are separate polarity invert switches for the left and right channels. That makes good sense for mastering, of course, but if working on multitrack drums it's a little fiddly having to press two buttons to check for the best phase relationships between channels; a single-button polarity option would be welcome. I also noticed that some common functions, such as the dynamics on/off switch, were in different places for different Skins, which can slow you down a touch. (I'm not comparing the final Skin versions, though, and this sort of thing is easily fixed.)

My biggest challenge was to figure out precisely when I should turn to Modula, and when to use the DAW. Typically, I'll break mix projects into a few stages. First, I'll attend to housekeeping and 'problems' (eg. edits and comps, mutes, de-essing, breaths and pops, and 'cleaning' EQ). Then I'll try to build a 'faders up' mix without any major processing, other than a touch of compression where it's obviously needed to tame things, and basic pan settings. It's an attempt to establish a sense of which tracks need to sit where in the mix, and to provide a meaningful context for later mix decisions. From there, I'll move on to what I think of as 'real mixing', working more on the tonal shaping side of things. Typically that involves broad EQ moves, some use of compression and saturation, and sending various sources to effects. For this, I'll often work top-down from the stereo bus, through the group busses, and then to any individual sources which require further attention; I find I end up mixing quicker and with less processing this way. Finally, I'll move on to detailed level automation, often using a control surface to refine that automation over several passes.

The three 'strips' of Diamond Color EQ — note that the last is blank because this plug-in doesn't include a  dynamics processor.The three 'strips' of Diamond Color EQ — note that the last is blank because this plug-in doesn't include a dynamics processor.Modula already slots neatly into the 'real mixing' stage. I use my DAW essentially to prep a mix, tackling problems and using clip and channel gains to establish my faders-up mix, and rig up some delays and reverbs as send effects. Then I can spend plenty of time in Modula, massaging the sound and static levels, for which having access to all those EQs and compressors on a touchscreen GUI is a dream come true for me; I can work through things with refreshing speed. I'll have an M4Chan utility plug-in for each effects return and for some critical channels on which I don't want to use any Acustica plug-ins. Then, I'll return to the DAW to micro-manage the details of things like parallel distortion and level automation, before returning to Modula for final tweaks to the master bus processing. (I realise mixing isn't usually quite as linear a process as I've just described, but I do generally break it down into broad phases like that; hopefully you get the idea.)

Verdict?

It's the job of a reviewer to pass judgement, but you must bear in mind that I'm evaluating a prototype here — that there's plenty yet to come, in terms both of refinements and of new features. I look forward particularly to the prospect of DAW write-automation support, and hopefully some form of transport-control too; I suspect those two features alone could turn an already attractive product into a no-brainer for many people.

But the bottom line is that while Quantica Modula isn't yet perfect, it already works brilliantly in so many respects. It really can put the sound and workflow of a high-end analogue mixer at your fingertips. I have a feeling I'll be using it on every mix for the foreseeable future, and may very well consider adding a second touchscreen to put more channels at my fingertips...

I'd happily use Modula with the bundled Magenta, Diamond EQ and Gold 3 strips alone. (OK, maybe Taupe too!) But Skins are planned for all Acustica's Acqua range, raising the prospect of creating 'sampled' vintage Neve, API, SSL or Harrison consoles, or crazier setups you'd never find in the real world — an 80-channel GML or Sontec console anyone? The looming possibility of using additional computers as a DSP farm for your Acustica processors is also tantalising.

In terms of value for money, it's tricky to assess at this stage. But if you want accurate software emulations of analogue gear, I reckon Acustica are out there in front at the moment — certainly they're amongst the very best, as our reviews of their plug-ins testify. They're also prolific in terms of new releases and updates, and have a track record of providing free updates as the technology evolves. After the initial discounts, the asking price might be a stretch for the average home studio, but it's a professional tool with a 'wow factor', and if you're working commercially Modula could justify the investment, particularly given that Modula Skins will be more affordable than the Acqua equivalent. Well worth checking out!

Pricing & Bundled Plug-ins

The full price of Quantica Modula will be $999, but there will be substantial discounts when it's launched. You must own Modula to run the Modula 'Skin' plug-ins, though the following are included: Magenta 5 Red and Magenta 5 Black, which are both based on Manley gear, Diamond Color EQ3, based on Studio DMI engineer Luca Pretolesi's mix-bus chain, and Gold 3, based on a range of Neve gear. (To buy the Acqua version of those plug-ins would cost over $500.)

There's also an M4Chan utility plug-in included, which offers basic channel controls (eg. stereo width and level fader) but no processing. Other cost-option Modula plug-ins will become available over time, and will be less expensive than the equivalent Acqua versions. Acustica couldn't confirm which will be released when, but said that owners of the recent Gold 3 Acqua will get the Modula version free.

Pros

  • Touch-friendly mixer for the most convincing analogue emulations around!
  • Channel-strip approach makes lots of controls accessible simultaneously.
  • A couple of great channel strips are included in the price.
  • Drag-and-drop reordering of channels.
  • A huge list of new features in the pipeline.

Cons

  • Some may prefer to wait for new features.

Summary

A touchscreen-capable host for Acustica's excellent plug-ins with some truly wonderful processors included, Modula could well bring some of the old analogue joy back into mixing and mastering in the box.

Published January 2020