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The Sound Guy: SFX Machine RT

The Sound Guy SFX Machine RT

Formats: PC & Mac OS 9 VST, Mac OS X VST & AU

SFX Machine has been around for several years now, and in its original incarnation as a Mac-only Premiere-format plug-in, won wide acclaim for its extremely flexible and frequently outlandish sound-mangling capabilities. However, Adobe's Premiere plug-in format, while perfectly usable, was never the most popular choice among musicians, partly due to the limited range of host applications supporting it, and partly because it doesn't offer the same convenient real-time operation as, for instance, Steinberg's VST format.

With SFX Machine RT, The Sound Guy Inc (sound designer and software developer Earl Vickers, with the assistance of Marc Poirier) has addressed both of these concerns by porting the core SFX Machine code to two different real-time plug-in formats: the aforementioned VST (for Mac OS 9, OS X and Windows) and Apple's new Audio Unit standard (for OS X).

SFX Machine RT appears superficially very similar to its predecessor: the user interface is divided into two halves, with an extensive list of presets to choose from on the left, and a row of faders to adjust the parameters of the active preset on the right. Not only can you adjust fader values in the usual way, but the range of each fader may also be altered by entering the desired Min and Max values in the fields above and below. Choosing very high Max settings for one or more faders in a preset allows you to transform it radically — very often to the point where it becomes something altogether different. Your warped patches may be saved either in the standard AU/VST preset file format, or (in some plug-in hosts) simply by saving a song or project file. It's also possible to import presets saved with the older Premiere version of SFX Machine.

While presets can be modified and saved in this way, SFX Machine RT does not currently allow you to build entirely new patches from scratch via the slightly intimidating modular interface its predecessor provided. Some users may not even notice this absence, but others will mourn it — and especially the much-loved random patch generator. The Sound Guy's developers are working to implement a patching window in a later real-time version of SFX Machine, however, so all is not lost. In the interim, Mac users who purchase SFX Machine RT are entitled to download the old Premiere version as well, which they can use to make new presets which can then be imported.

SFX Machine RT offers literally hundreds of built-in presets, in no fewer than 21 different categories. These range from the conventional (chorus, flanging), via the more unusual (megaphone and vinyl noise simulations), to the utterly unique and startling ('UFO Descending' for instance, or the superb pitch-tracking Theremin emulator). Fans of the original SFX Machine will be pleased to discover most of their old favourites included, along with some new ones, all now working in real time as promised.

The sheer range and quality of effects offered by SFX Machine RT is staggering. Starting with a simple drum loop sample, I began auditioning the presets one by one. Half an hour later, I was still going, and my humble drum loop had undergone dozens of surprising and exciting transformations, many of which rendered it completely unrecognisable. As a creative sound design tool SFX Machine RT could be extremely valuable, as it consistently produces unexpected, interesting and usable noises and textures. There are few if any effects that can't be coaxed out of this plug-in — and there are one or two stranger ones that you probably won't find anywhere else.

New to SFX Machine RT is the option to map MIDI Controllers to the parameter faders in a patch (provided you're using a host application that allows you to send MIDI data to plug-ins). An ingenious MIDI Learn function allows you to assign any MIDI CC to a parameter by simply Control-clicking and sending a message from your preferred controller. In this way you can take advantage of all your sequencer's MIDI editing capabilities, and program any number of precise fades or sudden tweaks during the course of a song. This is great fun, and it's easy to come up with results that are quite striking.

Unsurprisingly, all this clever real-time processing comes at some computational cost, and while I certainly wouldn't call SFX Machine RT inefficient, I would caution that some more complex patches will place a fairly hefty load on your CPU. Newer Macs and PCs should be able to rise to the challenge, but my old G3/400 test machine really began to show its age at times.

SFX Machine RT works with any VST plug-in host under Mac OS 9 or Windows, and any Audio Unit host under OS X. The VST version for OS X works in any host that supports so-called 'Mach 0' (ie. OS X-native, not Carbon) plug-ins. Cubase SX, Metro and recent versions of Peak and Spark should be fine. Other applications may not. You can easily find out if your preferred host works by simply downloading the demo version and giving it a try. For an asking price of just $99 (about £62), SFX Machine RT is excellent value for money. There's really nothing else quite like it on the market, and its originality of design is reflected in the wide range of sounds it's capable of producing. If you're interested in doing something a little out of the ordinary, this could be just the tool to do it with.