Daniel Weiss' hardware helped convert mastering engineers to the joys of digital processing. Is it still equally desirable in plug-in format?
On any list of classic digital mastering equipment, the name Weiss has to be very near the top. When the Weiss Gambit series of mastering processors first went into production in 1998, the EQ equaliser and DS compressor were regarded by many mastering engineers as the pinnacle of digital processing. Weiss developed them further over the next decade, and they are still made today. My mastering facility at Philosopher's Barn bought a Weiss EQ‑MK2 15 years ago, upgraded it to the full Linear Phase/Dynamic EQ spec a little later, and it is still in regular use.
The sister unit, a de-esser and broadband compressor, was also on our most wanted list, but the price tag was a barrier when we were starting out, and it remained only an aspirational purchase decision. The current purchase price of the Weiss DS1‑MK3 is still around £8500 — so the announcement of a plug-in version for around 5 percent of that price has understandably aroused attention. Adding to the anticipation is the fact that Softube's DS1 plug-in uses the original code and is endorsed by Daniel Weiss himself, who says that it sounds no different from the original.
The Weiss hardware processors are an ergonomic dream, with nicely weighted, touch-sensitive, switched rotary controls for the main parameters, and square push-buttons for menu items that light when active. They are very easy to use, and with two banks of 127 numbered saved parameter states, they are easy to recall. It seems to me that the user experience was a large part of the appeal of the Weiss units, especially for mastering engineers whose processing chains were predominantly analogue — there are very few other hardware digital devices that come even close. And ergonomics is not just about comfort, it is also about performance. For example, from a purely sonic point of view I might just be able to replace the analogue mastering chain I have used for over a decade entirely with plug-ins, but both physiologically and psychologically, the difference in operation would very likely have an effect on the result. The reason for mentioning this will become much more clear later in the review when I look at the additional plug-ins Softube have derived from the Weiss algorithms, but the point is simply that identical digital code does not yet provide for an identical human response. And, of course, music engineering is a very human activity.
For the central DS1 plug-in Softube decided not only to port the original code line-by-line, but also to adopt a GUI which hardly deviates from the original in appearance, and which, sadly, is equally resizable. Clearly this is intended to recall the experience of using such an iconic piece of kit, but it's risky to ignore the differences between hand and mouse, rack space and screen space, so it's good that Softube have attempted to address this with additional direct-drag modes of control.
The Softube plug-in actually features slightly more controls than the hardware. At top right are the original six rotary controls for the non-standard compressor settings, which govern a crucial aspect of the performance of the DS1. In addition to the standard attack setting, these include Attack Delay and two different release stages called Fast and Slow; the side-chain processor measures both peak and RMS levels and then 'decides' on the basis of their ratio which release speed to apply. The Average control sets the time window over which the RMS is measured, so faster Average settings mean that the processing leans more to Fast release. There is no substitute for trial and error for finding the optimum setting in each case, but after a while, most operators find a favourite, predictable, narrower range. The dual-stage release is not in itself unique — both the digital TDR Kotelnikov and the analogue Pendulum OCL2 (see below) feature similar architectures — but this amount of fine manual control between them is much less common.
Six, more widely spaced, rotary controls on the lower right add standard knee, threshold and ratio controls, along with Shape and Centre Frequency Bandwidth settings for the band-selective compression. This, in effect, is an extremely useful generalised form of de-essing: you isolate a certain range of the frequency spectrum with high- and low-pass filters and a variable band-pass filter, and then apply compression to it. It's a powerful tool both for attenuating problem frequencies and tightening and augmenting others. Because the make-up gain control on the far right affects only the gain of the selected frequency band, this makes possible more intrusive and 'creative' processing...
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