Most modern digital mixers, like Yamaha's O2R, incorporate powerful built‑in effects — but they frequently do this at the expense of their ability to interface with high‑quality external processors. Mike Collins explores an alternative way of adding top‑notch effects to the O2R...
TC Electronic call their Unit*Y an 'O2R native plug‑in card'. The card slots into one of the four rear‑panel I/O expansion slots on a Yamaha O2R digital mixer, and runs software on its own proprietary high‑speed DSP co‑processor and host processor — a very powerful combination which offers true 24‑bit signal processing. The idea is that you choose the software 'plug‑in' options you want for the Unit*Y — TC M2000‑style reverb and effects and Finalizer‑type mastering processing plug‑ins are currently available. TC first brought out the Unit*Y card about a year ago, and have recently released Version 2 software.
Using the O2R with the TC Unit*Y offers several advantages compared with using an external effects processor. Firstly, you are working with a fully integrated system with automix features, system clock optimisation and dither all taken care of. Automation is available not only for the level controls but also for the effect parameters in the Unit*Y, and many other neat things are possible using the O2R as the card's 'host'. For example, RAM presets may be dumped and loaded through the O2R's MIDI ports, and new ROM preset banks may be loaded through the PC/Mac Host port on the mixer. When mixers are cascaded, 'upstream' O2Rs may take advantage of 'downstream' TC Unit*Y cards. TC Unit*Y cards may also be fitted into several slots in one mixer.
There are two processing 'engines' available on the Unit*Y card. If you have chosen the M2000 plug‑in, you can have two completely independent effects programs loaded into the two engines. The Finalizer plug‑in, however, can only be used on engine 1, so if you have both sets of software, you can either run the Finalizer on engine 1 and the M2000 on engine 2, or you can have M2000 effects running simultaneously on both engines.
When you first buy a new card, both processing plug‑ins are enabled with a time limit of 100 hours of use — just over four days if you leave your O2R on all day (as many, myself included, do). Before your hundred hours are up, you need to contact TC to say which software you want to keep. If you just want one of them, there is no further fee, as this is included in your original purchase price, but if you want both you will have to pay an additional amount at this point.
Digital I/O options can also be added, so you don't lose any I/O flexibility by occupying one of the O2R's four slots with this card. The card may be fitted with either of the two 8‑channel, 24‑bit digital I/O options: AES‑EBU or ADAT and TDIF. The combined ADAT and TDIF card also provides format conversion, as you can set the card I/O for ADAT in/ADAT out, TDIF in/ADAT out, TDIF in/TDIF out, or ADAT in/TDIF out. These input/output features will undoubtedly make the Unit*Y a very attractive option for O2R users — but the deciding factor will be the quality of the effects, so let's take a look at what is on offer here.
The M2000 multi‑effects plug‑in provides all the well‑known TC M2000 effects including the Reverb algorithms, Delay, Pitch Change, Phaser, De‑esser, Chorus and Flanger effects. Using the M2000‑style reverb algorithms, sophisticated room simulations can be created using a combination of early‑reflection patterns and dense reverb decay. The various reverb algorithms provided let you control shape, size and high‑cut parameters for the early reflections, along with predelays, low‑, mid‑ and high‑ decays, diffusion type and amount and so on. The initial reflections settings for many of the presets are taken from actual measurements of various famous concert halls around the world, along with simulations of a club venue and a small domestic room. The presets provided are named appropriately to give you a good idea of what they can be used for (see the box on page 198 to see what I mean), and most presets sound good without much further tweaking. The good thing about having two processing 'engines', moreover, is that these reverbs are equally suitable for work in Mono, Stereo, or Dolby Surround formats; several useful presets are provided for 5.1 surround.
The Delay algorithm offers up to 1200mS of delay on four separate taps. Coarse and fine controls are provided for the delays, along with a feedback control, individual level controls for the taps, and so forth. Again, there are dozens of useful delay presets, ranging from simple slapback delay through to more complex multi‑tap settings.
An interesting inclusion is a De‑esser which you can use to process entire group busses carrying vocals. The manual even suggests that this may be used emulate the characteristic warmth of an analogue recording, by rolling off over‑bright or sibilant sounds!
Another useful effect is the pitch‑change algorithm. This has six individual polyphonic voices with associated delays which you can use for double‑tracking and other effects. Finally, a digital emulation of TC's legendary guitar Chorus effect is provided, which can also be used for Flangineffects, along with TC's guitar Phaser pedal — now available at mastering quality.
Unlike the hardware M2000, the Unit*Y's M2000 plug‑in won't let you do dynamic morphing between presets. However, you can simulate morphing with the Unit*Y by automating the returns from two engines — having one fade out as the other fades in. A bonus on the Unit*Y is that the engine returns can be kept separate, which is great for surround use as you can route one engine to the front speakers and one to the rear speakers. This is not possible on the M2000 as the output is a composite of signals from both engines.
The Finalizer multi‑band compression plug‑in algorithm consists of a 3‑band Expander, 3‑band Compressor and 3‑band Limiter followed by a broad‑band Soft Clipping circuit. All the 3‑band structures can utilise a look‑ahead delay to make the processing unobtrusive and free of dynamic distortion. When the Finalizer algorithm is switched in, the engine input configuration is switched from mono to stereo. Input routings are extremely flexible, and the Finalizer's output signals can either be returned to the O2R stereo buss or output directly from the Unit*Y card — so you could either use a Finalizer insert on the main stereo buss with the O2R master fader behaving normally, or use the Finalizer engine fader as the master fader, with the main stereo signal being output directly from the card at 24‑bit resolution.
The Finalizer lets you process the dynamics differently in different frequency bands, so you can equalise your masters with selective compression, adding real energy and clarity without worrying about 'overs'. Multi‑band processing also really helps when you are trying to get a whole album of mixes to sound consistent.
To control the Unit*Y card, you use the O2R's MIDI Remote page 5, which normally lets you assign remote‑control software for external devices such as Pro Tools or an O3D. With the Unit*Y installed, an additional option becomes available for the TC control software, which you assign to the remote position corresponding to the O2R slot you have used for the Unit*Y card. This software has three pages — the main screen where you recall and save presets and set up the routing, and two additional pages with controls for the twoprocessing engines. A handy shortcut is provided to let you quickly access the Unit*Y controls — you just hold the Flip button on the O2R for longer than usual. When you let go, instead of flipping the main faders between mic inputs and tape returns, it brings up MIDI page 5 with the Unit*Y main screen displayed. On the control pages for the processing engines, some parameters can be controlled by the O2R cursor and wheel, while others are laid out on the O2R faders. In this arrangement, engine 1 is controlled by faders 1‑8, engine 2 by faders 9‑16, and four faders control the amount of Unit*Y's output mix allocated to the O2R's four stereo faders. Any parameters on any of these faders can be automated.
There are several ways to switch between screens: if Fader Touch Select is enabled on the O2R Preferences page, touching faders 1‑8 will take you to the Unit*Y screen for engine 1. Touching Faders 9‑16 will take you to engine 2, while touching one of the Stereo faders will take you to the Main screen. You may also switch screens by pressing O2R channel Select buttons. If any of the Unit*Y screens are showing, this will switch to the Main screen when you press any of the select buttons above the Stereo faders. To go to the engine 1 screen you press any select button above faders 1‑8, and for engine 2 above faders 9‑16. Alternatively, you can move between screens using the cursor exits on at the screen boundaries — just keep pressing the cursor to the right or left, and eventually it will take you to the next page. The presets are controlled from the Main screen while automation (see box opposite) is handled by the Engine screens. Presets can be selected or stored from the Unit*Y Main screen in just the same way as these work on other O2R screens — but in this case they are actually stored on the Unit*Y card. When an O2R Scene memory is recalled, so are the presets and routing on the Unit*Y engines.
Getting signals to the Unit*Y card is done partly on the Unit*Y Main Screen and partly on the O2R Digital I/O screen page 3. First you go to the O2R's Digital I/O page 3 to set up the sends to the Unit*Y engines. With the Unit*Y card in slot 3 (or 4), mix busses 5‑8, auxiliary busses 5‑8 (or auxes 1 & 2 if these are switched as explained below), or the main stereo L/R buss can be chosen as sends, depending on what you want to achieve. If you double‑click on the L/R icons for channels 5 & 6 St Out, these will change to InsL + InsR to let you insert Engine 1 across the Stereo bus — which is typically what you would do to use the Finalizer plug‑in. Similarly, to route auxes 1 and 2 instead of auxes 7 and 8, you just single‑click on aux 7 to change it to aux 1 (and on aux 8 to change it to aux 2). You wouldtypically set things up this way if you have the Finalizer plug‑in running on engine 1 with an M2000 plug‑in running on engine 2. Having set this up, you then turn to the TC Unit*Y main page to select InsLR (the insert send from the stereo buss) as the input to engine 1 and to select Ret LR (the insert return to the stereo buss) which now becomes available as an output option for engine 1. For the M2000 you can select Aux 1 or Aux 2 (or InsL or InsR) as the input to engine 2 with Ret LR or ST LR (or Out 5 and 6 or Out 7 and 8 to go directly to these outputs of the Unit*Y card) for the engine 2 outputs.
...the idea of a card that offers an O2R access to software plug‑ins — with more software in the pipeline — is just too powerful to ignore.
The Yamaha O2R slots are pre‑configured with slots 1 and 2 feeding the tape return inputs, whilst 3 and 4 feed the mic/line channels. Thus, slots 1 and 2 would normally be used to house an ADAT or T/DIF interface, whilst 3 and 4 give the option to add additional mic inputs. The Unit*Y card as it was first launched caused the loss of the use of one block of eight analogue mic inputs if the card was used in Slot 3 or 4. With the latest version 2.1 software, however, you don't lose these — and if you have a Unit*Y with I/O, you can mix even more external and effects signals to the main L/R buss than on a normal O2R, by means of what TC call 'Extended Routing' (more on how this works in just a moment). Bear in mind that although you can fit the card into any O2R slot, and you can use multiple cards, only one card will be able to use the extended routing feture. The recommended choices for a card using extended routing are slots 3 or 4, which return signals to the microphone input channels on the O2R — so you can still use all the tape returns which are fed from O2R slots 1 and 2. Choosing extended routing with slot 3 also lets you keep your mic inputs with XLRs available.
Assuming you are using slot 3 for your Unit*Y card, to bring back the eight channels of audio connected to the digital interface on the Unit*Y card you would normally have to route card slot 3 returns to O2R channels 1‑8, making this selection on O2R Digital I/O page 2. With Extended Routing enabled, you can leave the O2R's mic inputs 1‑8 all routed to channels as normal and use the first four returns from the Unit*Y to bring back the effects into your mix. The other four returns can still be used to bring in four of the digital return signals from the Unit*Y's ADAT, TDIF or AES‑EBU digital I/O into your mix, choosing Ret LR or ST LR as their destination. In this case, the stereo outputs from the Unit*Y processors return through the stereo buss, and return channels 5‑8 from the Unit*Y card I/O can also be mixed directly to the stereo buss or to inputs 21/22 using the faders on the main Unit*Y screen. The limitations here are that you can only return channels 5‑8 from the Unit*Y card I/O, and you don't get the same level of control over the return signals from the Unit*Y I/O as you would when returning them through the mic channels — but the advantage is that all the O2R's analogue mic and line inputs are still available for use.
I was pretty sold on the idea of having the Unit*Y installed in the O2R in principle, and in practice it proved to be no disappointment. To have access to the extremely useable range of M2000 effects while recording and mixing and then to be able to process the final mix using the Finalizer plug‑in is a significant improvement over using the standard range of effects built into the O2R. Getting my head around the routing, however, proved to be not so easy (the manual was not much help here). I would also have liked more free RAM to save presets into, and I didn't like having to switch between the various different pages to set the routing up. But, overall, the idea of a card that offers an O2R access to software plug‑ins — with more software in the pipeline — is just too powerful to ignore. O2R users can add a lot of power and flexibility to their systems with Unit*Y, and I certainly recommend that they check it out.
When you buy the Unit*Y card, you get replacement EPROMs for the O2R which you need to fit before you can use the card. These EPROMs add support for the card, as well as containing the latest O2R software from Yamaha, so you still need to replace the EPROMs even if you already have an O2R with Yamaha's version 2.0 O2R EPROMs fitted. The manual states that the EPROMs should only be replaced by a Yamaha or TC‑approved engineer, because unauthorised replacement may cause internal data to be corrupted or to void the warranty on your console. A spokesman from TC UK, however, told me that experienced users may replace them themselves — with telephone guidance from a TC engineer if required. The procedure is very straightforward: you simply unscrew a panel on the back of the O2R to access the existing EPROMs, take these out and pop the new ones in. The trickiest thing is making certain that you don't bend or break any of the pins on the EPROMs while ensuring they all line up correctly and fit into the correct slots.
TC Electronic's Programme Manager, Thomas Lund explains the thinking behind the development of the Unit*Y: "I sat down with our main programmer, Morten Lave, one evening and we had a long discussion about the enormous success of plug‑ins for Pro Tools. Digidesign have established links with many third‑party companies who are now all working together to add value to Digidesign's Pro Tools systems. We ourselves have been developing our TC Works range of plug‑ins for Pro Tools for about three years now — and this has been very successful for us. However, a big concern for all software manufacturers is piracy. We would never put out our best code in an environment which can be cracked relatively easily and spread around for free two weeks later. So we discussed having a more protected platform where we could use plug‑in technology with better code which could not be cracked and copied in this way — and we decided that the best idea would be to use optimised hardware with its own processor and its own support circuitry, which we could make as good as we wanted. We looked around for likely candidates and the O2R seemed like a perfect fit — there are a lot of systems out in the world and we figured people would like some better effects than those built into the O2R.
"We approached Yamaha R&D in London and they were very excited by the proposal. The console was not originally designed for this, so we had to find a solution to allow the O2R's hardware slots to continue to be used for I/O at the same time as effects. When it was decided to go ahead we had Yamaha's full co‑operation — they wanted this to happen just as much as we did — so together we found a way. In future we intend to make much more software available for the Unit*Y, for surround and other applications, and we are currently approaching third‑party companies to invite them to write effects processors which will run on our card — with the benefit of bullet‑proof copy‑protection of their code. So if anyone out there has professional signal processing software which they would like to offer to O2R users, please get in touch."
- Unit*Y without I/O (including a licence to use either the M2000 or the Finalizer) £821.33.
- Unit*Y with AES‑EBU or ADAT/TDIF I/O £1056.33.
- AES‑EBU I/O upgrade £305.50.
- ADAT/TDIF I/O upgrade £305.50.
- Additional licence code to use both the M2000 and Finalizer plug‑ins £552.25.
All prices include VAT.
The first 1‑49 presets include a typical selection of hall reverbs, living‑room ambiences, plate reverbs, spring reverb, '1982 Digiverb', 'Ambience', 'Soft Room', 'Box Room', 'Closet', 'Close Mic'd', 'Small Bedroom', 'Empty Club', and 'Warm Studio', followed by various delay presets including 'Tap Delay', 'Phone Delay', 'Tape Delay', vocal doubling pitch‑change settings, chorusing, flanging, phasing and de‑essing. Presets 50‑59 are for the Finalizer effects, starting with 'CD PreMaster' and 'CD Master', then various genre ‑specific presets for 'Classical', 'Commercial' and other types of music, through to 'Multiband Expansion'.
Presets 100‑125 are for 5.1 surround. Presets 126‑199 have more reverbs which are useful for special effects, such as the 'Short ZipSplat', 'The New Beetle' and 'ToiletPaperRoll', along with more practical selections such as 'Guitar Ambience', 'Modern Drum Room' and 'Brite Vocal Plate', through to 'Big Hangar' and 'Cathedral Like'. And there are loads of useful delay and echo settings, several wonderfully‑named flanger settings including 'Fishtail Flange' and 'Throaty Flange', and still more chorus and phaser settings. By way of comparison, the hardware M2000 has a few more presets, half of which are combined presets (all of which are different to those in the Unit*Y), but lacks the surround presets. And in case you spotted the missing numbers above, Presets 60‑99 are reserved and cannot be used, while Presets 200‑250 are empty, ready for you to save your own settings. You cannot overwrite presets 1‑99 as these are held in ROM, but you can overwrite the additional factory presets in Presets 100‑199 as these are in RAM.
Like everything else on the O2R, snapshot automation of the Unit*Y is easy — you just use the O2R's Scene memories to recall stored presets with different parameter settings. But dynamic automation is also possible, so you can record and play back your movements of any of the faders which control the Unit*Y. To do this, you first set up your basic mix in the normal way on the O2R, store your Unit*Y settings to presets in the Unit*Y Main page, and store the basic mix to a Scene memory. Then you enable Automix and create a new Mix on the Automix page, start the timecode running and record your Unit*Y fader movements — choosing these using the Select buttons, as you normally would with the O2R automation. For backup, you can dump your Unit*Y settings to a MIDI sequencer or data recorder connected to the O2R'S MIDI output.
- High‑quality effects on a par with the hardware M2000 and Finalizer, but with surround support.
- Well integrated with the O2R.
- Scope to add further plug‑ins as these become available.
- The routing can be a little awkward to figure out at first.
- Manual could do with improvement.
With version 2 software, the Unit*Y can be configured to provide either an M2000, a Finalizer, or both, built in to your O2R, with more plug‑in options on the way.