TC Works transfer more of their expertise to DirectX PC software with a set of interfaces that let you squash, tone up, and space out your audio with a mouse. MARTIN WALKER gets clicking.
TC Works certainly mean business. Only a few months have passed since the launch of their Native Reverb (mentioned in the PC plug‑in roundup in SOS March '98), and now they are back with a pair of all‑singing, all‑dancing EQ plug‑ins and a budget bundle of effects, all of which will run inside any DirectX‑compatible PC application. The Native EQ has two completely separate EQ modules. The first is parametric, providing seven fully configurable bands, and the second is a 28‑band graphic (which can also be switched to either 14 or seven bands if required). The Native Essentials bundle contains a trio of useful tools: Q(a simplified 3‑band version of the same parametric EQ), R(a cut‑down semi‑preset version of the full Native Reverb), and X(a switchable soft/hard knee compressor).
Many digital EQ designs have a reputation for sounding 'cold', which is why some engineers still prefer to use analogue equalisers. However, along with many other special features, both the Native EQ modules (along with the compressor and EQ module of the Native Essentials bundle) feature SoftSat, a proprietary algorithm that claims to generate the warm sound associated with analogue equipment. TC have many years' experience of designing hardware effects units (under the name TC Electronic), so it will be interesting to see how their sophisticated rackmounting expertise translates to software‑only solutions, and (just as importantly) how much processor power these consume.
After installation (and entering the unique serial number for the protection system), you will find two new plug‑ins in your DirectX list: TC Native EQ Graphic, andTC Native EQ Parametric. In addition, if you use either Cubase VST or the latest version of Wavelab 2.0, you will also find another labelled TC Native EQ Parametric VST. This is useful, since DirectX‑compatible plug‑ins need another layer of code when running inside a VST‑compatible application (in fact, given the option, you should always use a VST‑specific version, as it will take slightly less processor overhead.)
Both EQ windows have gorgeous 3D graphics, although I'm not convinced that the display windows really need simulated glare! However, the most important part is the user interface, and here TC Works really know what they are doing. Every control is easy and intuitive to use, and you will know 80 percent of what you need within the first few minutes, without even looking at the manual or help file.
The EQ Graphic has a level meter at the top left‑hand side, with stereo input levels shown above, and outputs beneath. There is a useful peak hold facility (a menu can be called up by right‑clicking over the meter), which indicates the highest peak level to date. Beneath the meters are input and output level controls (scaled in linear fashion from ‑96 to 0dB), and beneath these a dual‑function window which normally shows the name of the current ROM preset (a drop‑down menu appears when you click on the associated ROM button). However, if you click on the SoftSat button this window changes to a valve‑style magic‑eye level display. You might remember those on early open reel tape machines: both ends start to illuminate as the effect is introduced, and the display eventually overlaps to give a brighter section in the middle when the level is getting too high. A Compare button also lets you perform before/after comparisons, and right‑clicking this brings up an Undo history of the last 20 editing steps.
The right‑hand side of the plug‑in is dominated by the Touch Screen, which shows level between +12 and ‑12dB in the vertical direction, and frequency from 20Hz to 20kHz in the horizontal. The equaliser defaults to 28‑band operation, but three buttons beneath the display allow you to select between 28‑band, 14‑band or 7‑band options. You can reset the entire response to flat at any time, although this is a permanent change (unless you use the Compare functions), and you should use the application Bypass button for in/out comparisons.
The Touch Screen is really where the fun starts. The first obvious thing to do is to left‑click and drag individual bands up and down. However, much quicker for initial setting‑up is to right‑click and drag horizontally. This draws a frequency response curve, and once you release the mouse button every individual band jumps to the desired position. To the left there is a vertical slider which provides +/‑ scaling, so that you can raise or lower every band in the display in proportion. You can also group any combination of bands by holding down the Shift key before clicking on them: changing the level of any band within the group will then affect them all. No processor resources will be used by any band that remains at 0dB.
The parametric equaliser has a similar setup for the metering and level control as the graphic version, but this time with levels from ‑96 to +12dB, and with separate SoftSat and ROM preset display windows. The right‑hand side of the plug‑in has a smaller frequency response display, with the bulk of the controls beneath. There are seven fully adjustable bands, and each of these can be switched in or out of circuit (if you don't need all seven, switching out the unused ones will reduce processor overhead). If you hold down the Shift key, you can globally enable/disable every left or right EQ band by clicking on any left or right button.
A Type button below each in/out switch allows you to select from Parametric, Low Shelf, High Shelf, or Notch characteristics. Beneath this there are readouts of Frequency and Bandwidth, and clicking on either of these brings up a vertical floating fader to make any adjustments that you need. Any of the seven bands can be tuned between 20Hz and 22kHz, and the B/W control either sets the slope in the case of shelving EQ (the options being 3, 6, 9, or 12dB/octave), or the bandwidth (from 0.1 to 4.0 octaves). You can also type in the desired values directly.
The vertical faders provide +/‑18dB of range for each band, and are in stereo‑linked pairs. You can separate them by clicking on the global Link button — useful, say, for creating spaced pseudo‑stereo filtering. If you select a Notch filter response, the faders disappear and the B/W changes to Q, with a different scale of 1.0 to 100. To help you when setting several bands of similar parameters, there are options to copy individual values or the entire band to another one.
The final performance control is a joystick (which has its own in/out switch), and this provides a general treble control in the vertical direction (a shelving EQ of about +/‑6dB at 4kHz by the look of it), and the familiar smiley (or frowny) curve loudness response from left to right. Giving the joystick a wiggle gives some very useful tilting responses on top of whatever curve has been set by the parametric, so this is a useful tool to fine‑tune an existing EQ.
Both equalisers have user interfaces that are easier to get to grips with than other packages, especially if you want to dial in a specific EQ to emulate the response of, say, a particular analogue desk. The fact that any band set to 0dB uses no processor resources is very useful, especially if you only need to make a few changes. Many designs take the same large overhead, no matter how many bands are in use.
TC Works themselves say the SoftSat option is subtle — it's certainly not a replacement for a valve overdrive box or enhancer. But it's nevertheless useful, since it can be difficult to avoid clipping when adding large amounts of boost at a particular frequency. SoftSat generates a soft harmonic distortion, starting at about 4dB or 5dB below clipping according to the main level meters, and stops anything clipping. If you do really overdrive it as an effect, it does make the bass end more punchy, but this is not its main function.
The sound of any EQ is very much a personal thing, but I found both plug‑ins powerful and precise, with far more control than the average small desk. By comparison, the sound of the EQ1 (included with Cubase VST and Wavelab) was good, but harsh at more extreme settings. More suitable for a direct comparison was the Q10 Paragraphic (part of the Waves Native Power Pack bundle) and here both EQs acquitted themselves well — the Q10 has a clean sound with a huge range of options, although it can be tricky to set up. However, I still felt that the TC Native EQ had the edge. With the SoftSat switched in, it became warmer at the bass end, and it was certainly a lot easier to use.
I did have a few small niggles, though. When using higher Q levels, the notch filter setting has a tendency to ring, which rather undermines the effect of the preset 50 and 60Hz hum filters. Of course, you always have the option of reducing Q (at the expense of widening the notch). The level faders have a linear law — halfway across they are already 48dB down, so the more useful 0 to ‑20dB area ends up crammed into the final 20 percent of travel. Also, the meters, while graphically attractive, have very small markings.
The Native Essentials bundle is an altogether less expensive proposition, and at £149 should appeal to many people who want basic effects to add to those already supplied with applications like Cubase, Wavelab, and Sound Forge. There are three entirely separate components on offer: the Rreverb, Xdynamics, and Qequalisation. Each is an entirely separate plug‑in and, like all TC Works products, each is designed to minimise processor usage while maintaining high audio quality.
Some of the features are the same in all three Essential plug‑ins — the I/O display is largely the same as both Native Reverb and EQ plug‑ins, showing a stereo input level meter in the top half, and stereo output level meter across the bottom half of the window.
Right‑clicking on the meters gives another menu with options for Peak Hold display, but a useful addition (not available in the more expensive ones) is Use VU, which globally deactivates all the metering in order to save several percent of processor overhead. The other main difference is that the Input and Output faders are now incorporated into the I/O display. I noticed that the law has been greatly improved. Although they both still operate over the full 96dB range, most of the useful range is now spread out, so that the top 9dB occupies half of the fader range which makes it far easier to tweak values.
The Reverb plug‑in features a simplified version of the Native Reverb interface, although there are some differences. Gone are the Native Reverb's more specialised controls to adjust Density, Color and Shape — these are now internally preset. In the central window are displayed the current settings of ROM (18 fixed preset reverb types), Decay Time (from 0.7 to 5.0 seconds), and Mix (0 to 100 percent). Clicking on one of the associated buttons enables you to adjust the appropriate parameter using the large rotary control to the right, or you can use the mouse buttons to increment or decrement the text values directly.
The Room Size parameter which appeared in the Native Reverb (and which scaled early reflection patterns) still appears in the display window, but can only be changed by selecting different presets. Mind you, there are still seven sizes available — from Small through to Huge, along with Spring. The only two of the Native Reverb options missing are Tiny and Box, which are no great loss. There are sounds ranging from small Bright Rooms to Huge Cathedrals, with a wide variety of smooth to gritty reflections, and brittle to dark decays. There was no obvious metallic coloration in the longer decays: this is definitely not the poor relation of the Native Reverb.
Mind you, processor overhead was significantly lower, and measured 32 percent with my Pentium 166MHz MMX processor (31 percent with Use VU option switched off). This compares with 44 percent for the Native Reverb. I tried matching the default settings of the supplied presets to the Native Reverb, and got remarkably close, which suggests that much of the same algorithm is present. TC Works subsequently informed me that exactly the same reverb engine is in both, and that only the control options have been restricted in Essentials. The reason for the lower overhead is further code optimisation, and by the time you read this, Native Reverb owners can expect a free update to the lower‑overhead version as well.
Overall, this is very impressive. At an equivalent price of about £50, Native Essentials's Reverb makes the reverbs included with most applications sound like a tin bath, losing out only in terms of flexibility to its more expensive cousin and the Waves Trueverb. Given that it takes 30 percent less overhead than the Native Reverb, and 40 percent less than Trueverb, this is a bargain in more ways than one.
The equaliser is essentially three bands taken from the Native EQ. Each can be individually switched in or out, and can be Low Shelf, Parametric, Notch, or High Shelf, with a range of +/‑18dB. Three boxes for Frequency, Bandwidth, and Gain, use the same floating fader or text‑entry system of the larger version.
A more immediate way to get hands‑on control is to use the joystick. Any combination of the three bands can be assigned to it using the three side buttons, to control both frequency (horizontal) and gain (vertical). Initially, control is over the Absolute range, giving frequency from 20Hz to 20kHz, and gain from +18 to ‑18dB. Although one's first impression is that the corners of the joystick should be 'square', these only restrict the extreme settings, and few people will worry about losing the ability to have +/‑18dB swing at 20Hz and 20kHz! However, you can restrict the joystick control range in either or both directions to more manageable proportions.
The sound seems to be exactly that of the Native EQ, with similar low overhead. People may question the need for a general‑purpose EQ when most applications provide these as standard, but I do think that this one sounds significantly better than many, and of course SoftSat does add a certain something to the end result.
At an equivalent price of about £50, the Native Essentials Reverb makes most free reverbs included with applications sound like a tin bath.
The final plug‑in is a comprehensive compressor, which has traditional controls for Attack (0.1 to 10mS), Release (20mS to two seconds), Threshold (‑60 to 0dB), and Ratio (1.0:1 to 64:1). All four controls feature click and draggable rotary knobs, although as usual you can type chosen values in directly as well. The amount of gain reduction is shown in a small meter on the right, and beneath this are two switches, one to toggle between soft‑ and hard‑knee compression, and the other to activate SoftSat.
There are a dozen presets supplied, and these range from subtle to extreme, though all are effective. At this price point, having the soft‑knee option is very welcome for providing less processed sounds, and the SoftSat option seems more pronounced than in the other modules, giving an even wider range of options.
The TC Works range continues to provide high‑quality DirectX plug‑ins. The Native Essentials may not be essential to everyone, but it is a carefully thought‑out and useful bundle. The reverb is truly excellent for the price, and the compressor gives a wide range of options from general correction right through to manic mangling. The EQ also sounds good — it's versatile, too — but will probably not be quite so high up most people's wish lists. However, as a package, only the Waves EasyWaves bundle at £125 comes anywhere near this quality for the price. For the extra £25, Native Essentials provides a lot more options and wide‑ranging sounds.
If you want a cheap but versatile EQ to add to your audio applications then the one in the Native Essentials bundle will be ideal. However, if you want the ultimate in EQ flexibility, along with a very clean sound (or the option of some benign second‑harmonic distortion courtesy of SoftSat), the Native EQ package should provide everything you need. Both graphic and parametric plug‑ins are also so easy to set up that you won't be waiting for a library to be released to take full advantage of them. There is always a place for a toolbox EQ that can do everything. With the Native EQ pack, TC have given us the works.
'Help! I Need Somebody...'
I do wish plug‑in developers could agree on who provides the Help button for them — the plug‑in or the host application. The only applications that provided a button to access the help file while running any of these plug‑ins were Sound Forge and Cakewalk Pro Audio. Neither Wavelab nor Cubase VST had this option, although you can normally locate the help function via the Windows 95 Taskbar.
Native EQ Processor Usage
Processor usage is very low, considering the amount of control on offer. The graphic EQ took an additional five percent of my Pentium 166MMX reserves when first switched in, another two percent for SoftSat, and a further one percent for each band at a non‑zero position. To give you an idea, using the full 28 bands took 36 percent (38 percent with SoftSat), while only using seven bands took 13 percent (15 percent with SoftSat). The parametric worked out about the same: five percent for general overhead, another two percent for SoftSat, and again about one percent for each non‑zero band. Using all seven bands took 13 percent (15 percent with SoftSat) and the joystick option took a further 3.5 percent. All of these figures were measured inside Steinberg's Wavelab 2.0 (which now provides a direct readout of processor overhead on its graph), but were also checked inside Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge.
Of course, more powerful PCs will use proportionally less resources, but you can often save your processor by considering the end result you are after. If you want a gentle frequency spectrum tilt, don't draw in a dozen bands of graphic EQ — you could achieve the same effect with a single band of parametric EQ.
- Excellent user interface and sound.
- Only active bands use extra processor power.
- Precise fader adjustments can be tricky.
- Notch filter rings at high settings.
A high‑quality, easy‑to‑use plug‑in package that should cater for every EQ requirement.