In the hands of Sugar Bytes, familiar effects take on a wholly new identity!
Longstanding SOS readers will be familiar with Sugar Bytes from previous reviews of plug-ins such as Effectrix, Artillery2, WOW and Guitarist (see the March 2009 and December 2010 issues). While their product range spans both effects and virtual instruments, I think it's fair to say that the company provide tools very much focused on the electronic musician, and the two further plug-ins that are the subject of this review definitely follow this pattern. Turnado is a sort of multi-effects processor with a twist, while Thesys is a step sequencer with a sophisticated feature set, and both are designed to appeal to dance/electronica producers looking to add some new creative tools to their arsenal.
Of course, multi-effects and step sequencer functions are built into most modern DAWs. So just what have Sugar Bytes' offerings got to tempt the computer-based musician over and above what they already have?
Describing Turnado as a multi-effects processor perhaps doesn't capture the essence of what the plug-in is about. It does provide a range of effects types — some 24 in total — of which up to eight can be used at any one time in a single instance of the plug-in. However, the combination of effects types available and some rather interesting real-time control options make it very different from a conventional multi-effects unit.
The main user interface is divided into three areas: an upper strip where you can access the preset system, some general settings and set the wet/dry balance; a panel to the left that houses all the available effects types; and a panel centre/right that provides eight effects slots, each with a single rotary control associated with it. Effects can be dragged from the left panel and dropped into one of the eight right-panel slots as required, so it is very easy to assemble the combination of effects that you wish to use. If the rather quirky, albeit nicely styled, interface design wasn't enough to suggest that this is not another 'me too' multi-effects unit, the list of individual effects types ought to do the trick. Yes, they do include reverb, delay and modulation effects, but there are also options such as Looper, Slice Arranger, Stutter and Granulizer.
As you might expect, once you have placed an effect in one of the eight slots, turning the associated rotary knob clockwise applies gradually more of that effect to your audio signal. However, if you want to turn more knobs than you have available hands, pressing the Dictator button within the upper panel toggles the effects list panel to the Dictator view. This provides a sort of 'master fader' control where a single fader can be used to control the travel of any or all of the individual eight rotary effect knobs. This is brilliantly executed: not only can you specify the range over which each individual rotary knob should move, you can also change the direction of movement by adding additional automation points. Once configured, you then simply experiment with the Dictator's main fader, and all of the eight rotary knobs just do as they are told. The only down side — and it's a point I'll come back to — is that the options are almost limitless! Thankfully, the Dictator has its own preset system if you create something you like and want to be sure you can recall it later.
As well as the Dictator presets, Turnado also includes two other preset systems. The main preset system accessed through the upper panel captures all the settings within a Turnado configuration. This includes the eight effects and the Dictator, so if you create an overall configuration that you like, it can easily be recalled.
On top of this, each of the 24 different effects types also features editable controls (accessed via the tiny Edit button available on each of the eight slots) and is provided with a large number of presets. When you open up one of these Edit panels, you quickly begin to realise how deep you can get with Turnado if you choose to dig in. With the ability to link different parameters to the main rotary effects knobs (this is duplicated in the centre of the Edit panel), set the amplitude of the response and modulate that response via LFOs and envelope options, the degree of control available is staggering. This all takes quite a while to get your head around and, while the PDF manual does a decent job of introducing the overall operation of the plug-in, this Edit panel could do with more detailed treatment. That said, things do fall into place with a little experimentation; if you are a dedicated twiddler of effects settings, Turnado will be right up your street.
In use, Turnado is a whole lot of fun. You simply place the plug-in as an insert effect on your chosen audio track, create a MIDI track with Turnado as its MIDI target if you want to use an external controller, pick a suitable preset and start to experiment. If you don't have any sort of external MIDI hardware controller, the Dictator is perhaps the easiest control option to use with a mouse. However, if you have a set of hardware rotary knobs, these can easily be linked to the main eight virtual effects rotary knobs within Turnado: simply right-click to open a MIDI Learn feature (the same applies to the Dictator's fader), although you could also use whatever MIDI control routing your DAW offers, such as Cubase's Quick Control system.
If you use Turnado's reverb and delay in a subtle way, turning off the real-time parameter modulation, they can do a decent job of these bread-and-butter processing options, but this isn't really what the plug-in is designed for. What it really wants to do is beat-mangle, stutter and filter your audio to the very edge of its life, and in that role, Turnado is rather good at its job. Apply it to even the most timid of drum loops, and you will soon be slicing and scratching with the best of them.
You can, of course, take all this too far and end up with something that is entirely unmusical, so it does take a little practice to deliver on Turnado's obvious potential. Here, the Wet/Dry control within the upper panel is most certainly your friend; set it to about halfway so that you can still hear the unprocessed audio and the Turnado processing is just blended in with it. Used in this way, it's easy to add just a flavour of the audio processing without things getting too far out of shape. That said, out of shape might be just what you are looking for — and if so, Turnado will take you there. For anyone into creative sound mangling for electronic music, Turnado has a lot to offer. It is also great fun to use.
My DAW of choice, Cubase, has a step sequencer MIDI plug-in which does a decent job — but Thesys does a whole lot more. The main display packs a lot into quite a compact space, so much so that the ability to resize the plug-in window would be nice. The display is dominated by five lanes for the step sequencer. The first three of these deal with pitch, velocity and gate time: fairly standard step-sequencer fodder, but implemented here with some rather nice bells and whistles. For example, the Pitch lane offers a huge range of preset scale options allowing you to easily modify the musical mood of your pattern.
The final two lanes are called Performance and Modulation, and allow you to sequence a wide range of different parameters. For example, the Performance lane can be used to add pitch bends, chords, rolls and cleverly implemented 'humanising' elements to your patterns, while the Modulation lane actually provides eight different sub-lanes which each target a different MIDI CC number, so you can modulate sound parameters within the virtual instrument that Thesys is driving. (To toggle between these sub-lanes, you use the small vertical column of virtual LEDs situated outside the left edge of the lane.)
Along the base of the main window is the Keyboard Control Section, which can be switched between 'pitch' mode, where the full length of the virtual keyboard is used to provide a root note to transpose the current pattern, or 'performance' mode. In this latter mode, the keyboard is split into three zones: pattern select, action section and a smaller range for pitch transposing. While you can access all these options from the virtual keyboard, a hardware MIDI controller will mimic these functions if connected to Thesys. If you need it, the plug-in also includes a basic pattern sequencer located bottom-right, so you can chain patterns together.
The 'action section' refers to the selection of controls in the lower half of the right side of the main window. These provide a series of 'special effects' that can adjust the pattern playback in real time. The options include half speed, gradual slowdown and a velocity-sensitive gate, where only notes above the velocity threshold are played. There are some very useful performance options amongst these effects. Located top-right, meanwhile, are the Thesys synth engine controls. Yes, the plug-in includes its own synthesizer, and while it might not be the most sophisticated sound source you have on your music computer, it is perfectly capable and very useful if you just want to develop a few quick ideas. It also includes a range of preset sound patches. If you don't want to use the internal synth, you just switch it off via the 'power' button.
The top-right panel occupied by the synth controls can also be toggled to show some general settings for the plug-in. Some of these are 'set and forget' but three are worth further mention. The bottom two controls provide useful tempo and swing options, but the most interesting is the Loop setting. By default, this is set to Global, meaning that all the step patterns in all lanes are controlled by the length of the pattern set in the topmost Pitch lane. However, a simple click on this setting toggles it to Individual and instantly opens up all sorts of additional creative possibilities. In this mode, not only can different patterns be different step lengths, but also different lanes within a single pattern can be set to operate over different lengths, as can the eight individual sub-lanes of the Modulation lane. You could, for example, have pitches cycling over 16 steps, while velocity cycles over 15 steps and a modulation lane is used to sweep a synth filter over 29 steps. The end results can yield some fascinating interactions between these different step-cycle lengths and an almost endless evolution of the pattern. If you thought step sequencers were only capable of creating repetitive fixed patterns, think again!
In use, Thesys does require a little setting up within your host. Within Cubase, for example, I had to add Thesys as a virtual instrument and then create a MIDI track set to send MIDI data to the plug-in. If I then wanted to use Thesys to drive a separate synth instrument within Cubase, I had to create a second MIDI track for that instrument and configure its MIDI input to be derived from Thesys, then record-enable the track. Once done, however, the results are well worth the effort, and I have to confess that I lost half a day just working my way through the presets, tweaking as I went along, and exploring what Thesys could do when hooked up to a range of different virtual synths. Thesys is deep, flexible and hugely creative and, aside from the fact that I'm going to need regular optician's appointments from squinting at the rather compact control layout, is a monster of a step sequencer. While, like Turnado, it takes time to learn, Thesys is a fabulous tool for use within your studio DAW — and for those who master its workings, I'm sure it could be a brilliant tool in a live context.
Like Sugar Bytes' other offerings, Turnado and Thesys are probably niche products. However, if you like your music electronic and experimental — and if you are prepared to put in some initial work to understand and appreciate all the features they provide — both of these plug-ins have plenty to offer. Incidentally, if you also like to make music on an iPad, both of these plug-ins are available as iOS apps with all features intact. Both are equally impressive in that context.
Personally, I'm hooked. Turnado is just plain fun to experiment with, while Thesys has reawakened my somewhat dormant interest in step-based sequencing. And while neither is perhaps a casual purchase (although I guess that depends upon your idea of a casual purchase), given the features offered and the results available, I think both are fairly priced. Turnado and Thesys come highly recommended.