There are countless reverbs, EQs and delay‑based effects out there, but U‑he's new Uhbik collection brings some fresh thinking to familiar sounds.
With a name derived from a Philip K Dick novel, the Uhbik suite of plug‑ins from u‑He aims to combine a simple parameter set with some less common features and a vintage look. The suite is available in VST format for Mac OS X and Windows, and in Mac Audio Units format. Eight plug‑ins form the initial release, and all owners are guaranteed free updates to all of these plug‑ins, as well as free downloads of any future Uhbik plug‑ins developed. The first of the scheduled new plug‑ins will be Uhbik‑X, a 'virtual rack' in which to load individual Uhbik plug‑ins to combine them.
A single ZIP file of about 17MB contains all the plug‑ins (you cannot selectively install individual plug‑ins) and installs very easily. Once installed, the only limitations are vinyl‑like crackles that occur every now and then after two minutes of use. To authorise the plug‑ins, you simply enter a user name and authorisation code that are provided upon purchase to remove these crackles.
Uhbik‑A is a purely algorithmic reverb, which is actually a pleasant change from the current glut of convolution reverb plug‑ins. Even when the latter give you the choice of a wide range of 'real' acoustic environments, sometimes an algorithmic reverb just seems to feel better for some tasks.
Uhbik‑A works by combining early reflections with a plate‑like algorithm to give a unique sound. The parameters available are relatively self‑explanatory, with all of the usual control that you would expect from a reverb, and three modes of operation. The manual describes these as follows: "Open is probably the best choice for subtle ambience, while the direct model may be more suitable when used up‑front. Small is predestined for smaller rooms with prominent early reflections and a relatively short tail.” Rather than being simple tone controls, the bass and treble parameters set the relative decay times of the bass and treble frequencies of the reverb signal.
In use, Uhbik‑A can sound very varied, as a quick run through the included presets will show you. It can do everything from muted ambiences and bright, lively rooms, through to pseudo‑doubling effects ('Opener' is a nice example of this) and on to those shimmering and glossy reverbs that seem to make vocals drift on forever (have a listen to 'Snow Dome' to illustrate this). I tested Uhbik‑A on a variety of sources, from percussive sounds and vocals through to acoustic and electric guitars, and even big and lush synth pads. The one thing that really stood out for me was how well the resulting sounds blended into a mix. The reverb managed to give the sounds an added third dimension without actually detracting from the source sound and, in this respect, Uhbik‑A achieves exactly what it sets out to. When you listen to the sounds in isolation, they might not sound like real acoustic environments, but when you hear them in context, they really do come to life, in a subtle and characterful way.
I do have a couple of complaints, though. The first is that some of the presets are a little heavy‑handed, something which is also true of the other plug‑ins in the suite. I expect they were set up in this way to really demonstrate what the plug‑in is capable of when taken to extremes, and they do, but manual tweaking of the parameters may be needed to achieve results that work in your mix. The second, and perhaps more serious complaint is that some of the controls glitch when you apply very fast and large parameter changes. The worst culprit for this is the pre‑delay control which, when changed from minimum to maximum quickly while a signal is being processed, emits a buzzy noise for a split second. To be fair, this probably isn't something that you would do on a regular basis anyway, but it is something that needs looking at nonetheless, and fixing in a future update.
Uhbik‑D is a multi‑tap delay unit with five separately controllable delay taps. The controls for each are identical and feature a duration that is set in 16th notes, up to a maximum delay time of one bar, plus a pan control and a volume control. Other controls help simulate the fluctuations inherent in old‑fashioned tape delay, so as well as the normal wet/dry mix and basic tone controls, there are feedback, soft clip and modulation controls, the last of which aim to simulate the wow and flutter of an old tape‑based unit.
The relationship between the delay taps and the feedback confused me at first. I set up the first tap with a delay time of 4/16ths and, as expected, I got a one‑beat delay. Next I wanted to add some feedback, so I turned up the feedback control but ended up getting an 8/16th time for the feedback. It took me a little while to realise that the feedback time is set by clicking on the feedback buttons at the bottom of each tap. If the light is illuminated, it means a feedback time as set by the delay time of that tap is activated. The mistake I had made was having the feedback of a different tap activated! Activating the feedback control on the correct tap soon solved the problem. The slightly unintuitive down side of this is compensated for by the fact that you can have multiple different feedback times but, sadly, each of these is applied to the entire wet output, rather than each tap having a dedicated feedback time.
The rest of the controls work as you would expect and do a good job of emulating the sometimes wobbly nature of tape delays. The one thing that I did notice was a slightly metallic tone to the delayed signal, unless there was some judicious use of the filters provided to slightly damp the delayed sound.
Uhbik‑F mimics both classic 'through zero' tape flanging and the stomp-box‑style alternative, which uses very short delays and feedback systems to create comb filtering. The heart of any flanger is the actual movement of the effect, as controlled by an LFO, and the range of options in Uhbik‑F goes much further than the typical speed, depth, waveform and phase controls. Here, the speed control can be set in a variety of units, including quarter notes, 1/x notes (where a value of x=8 would give an eighth‑note cycle, a value of 16 a 16th‑note cycle, and so on), seconds, Hertz and 'manual'. Most of these made sense, but I could not, either through looking in the PDF documentation or by experimentation, actually work out what the manual setting did! There are also a lot of options for controlling the shape of the LFO: controls for scale, wave and symmetry go far beyond what you would expect, and actually provide many possibilities for creative and rhythmic flanging effects.
The actual sound is top‑notch, and with the inclusion of both types of flanging, you can create almost any effect that you could want, from smooth and oh‑so‑subtle, to in‑your‑face sounds that are just dying for a chance to blow your tweeters. And, of course, given that stomp-box flangers and chorus effects are closely related, it is also possible to set up some quite nice chorus settings here as well, although personally I think that's a perk rather than a purpose.
Uhbik‑P shares a lot of the same modulation topology, but the actual parameter set is a little different; there are controls for the wet/dry mix, the depth of the effect, the centre frequency of the effect and positive or negative feedback amount. Finally, there is a switch that controls the number of stages which, unusually for a phaser, starts at 14 and goes all the way up to a stratospheric 42! For those of you unfamiliar with phasers, the number of stages (technically, all‑pass filters) involved will directly influence the apparent depth and 'swirl' of the phaser.
Browsing through the presets, I was surprised at just how resonant the 42‑stage phaser could be! In many cases, this phaser can take on the qualities of a resonator and give you all manner of 'tuned pipe' sounds; as was the case with the reverb, some of the presets are actually a little distracting, as I feel that most users wouldn't use these kinds of extreme settings too often. I actually got results which were much more usable, to my ears, with the 14‑stage and occasionally the 28‑stage settings, but kudos to designer Urs Heckmann for including the 42‑stage option! In general, the sound is quite spacious, open and airy, and even 'chewy' (don't you just love the language we all speak in relation to sound?). The overall character didn't strike me as being as 'different' as that of the other plug‑ins here, but it's still a very useable example of a phaser.
Uhbik‑Q is a three‑band equaliser with low‑ and high‑cut filters as well as an overall gain control. The first of the three bands is a low shelving EQ, with a choice of six corner frequencies and a boost/cut range of ±24dB. The remaining two bands can be switched between 'low shelf', 'wide bell', 'flex bell', 'narrow bell' and 'hi shelf' modes. 'Flex bell' is a variable‑Q system where the bandwidth of the cut or boost narrows progressively as the cut or boost is increased. The effect of this is to somewhat limit apparent overall volume changes when using extreme gain settings.
So far what we have is a pretty standard, albeit very flexible EQ, but the gain control offers something a little different. It can function as an overall output level control, but there are two other options: wide mids and centre bell. With either of these two options enabled the gain control becomes, in effect, an extra tone control, with the wide mids offering a very wide mid‑range cut/boost and the centre bell offering something similar to the flex bell settings on the other bands. I am not sure why this option wasn't offered as a separate band in its own right, but it is a valuable inclusion nonetheless.
Everybody has different tastes in EQ, but I think that this EQ would make a valuable addition to any collection. It can offer some very serious shelving cuts useful for isolating certain parts of sounds, but it also lets you make gentler, broad‑spectrum adjustments. For me, one of the nicest applications was when I put the EQ across the master bus and used the low‑frequency control, set at 90Hz, to boost the bottom end of a mix that I was working on. The result was warm and rounded without sounding overdone and digital. Trying a similar thing with a boost on the top end seemed a little more obvious and less controlled, but still usable with careful adjustment. I personally preferred the sound when it wasn't pushed too hard: for me, the mid and high boosts were just a little on the brittle side, though certainly no worse than many of the other EQs that I use regularly.
Uhbik‑S is a bit of a strange beast. It isn't exactly a ring modulator, though it can be made to sound like one. It isn't a phaser, but, again, it can be made to sound like one. It is both of these and neither, and an awful lot more besides!
The principle behind it is simple: it applies a fixed frequency shift to any signal. The effect is that different input frequencies seem to be shifted by different amounts. If the shift was set to 100Hz and you had a 100Hz sine-wave input, the result would be 200Hz, an octave higher. But with a 400Hz sine wave the output would be 500Hz, which is definitely not an octave higher. This can lead to seemingly inharmonic and metallic results with larger shift intervals, but also chorus and phaser‑like results when used with very small shifts.
In fact, it was this application that I preferred in the end. With some experimentation, I was able to produce some absolutely gorgeous phasing effects that sounded remarkably similar to the swirling pad sounds of Jean Michel Jarre's Oxygene album. One thing I soon noticed was that when using Uhbik‑S to generate phaser‑like sounds, the phasing effect is more like a 'barber pole' effect, where the phaser seems to be constantly sweeping upwards (or downwards) rather than having an obvious LFO‑driven modulation. This is actually a really pleasant effect and, in my mind, preferably to the cyclic phasing effects that are more common. Using some of the more ring modulator‑like settings on vocals produced a dizzying array of scary vocal tones that I am sure will end up giving me nightmares at some point! These kinds of effects have never really been to my taste, but when I tried them on some sampled drum and percussion loops they really came to life. They can give anything from a real lo‑fi edge to strange tuned overtones, and sometimes even bring out pitches in loops that I didn't even realise were there, turning a purely percussive loop into a melodic one. Very useful!
OK, this is where things really start to get interesting! Uhbik‑T is described as a "trans‑modern pan and tremolo” but, in my opinion, that description doesn't even begin to do justice to what this plug‑in is capable of. In fact, I think that a full description of all it can do would probably take longer than this whole review, so I would refer you to the excellent manual for a full description of what is possible. But, in a nutshell, you get traditional amplitude‑based tremolo effects, along with a low‑pass filter that is modulated by the same LFO but with an independent depth control, plus a Haas delay, again controlled from the LFO and with its own depth control. So you can actually combine the three different effects in any combination or levels. The Haas delay applies a very short delay between the two channels that isn't heard as a discrete echo, but gives us the effect of direction and helps us place sounds in a three‑dimensional space.
In use, I found the amplitude and filter sections worked as expected, but whereas the Haas delay section gave a sense of spatial movement on percussive sources, it seemed to function more like pitch modulation on melodic sources. The real fun starts when you abandon the LFO in favour of the pattern generator. This is, in many ways, similar to the step sequencers found on some analogue synths. For each of up to 16 steps you can set a modulation depth between 0 to 100 (in multiples of 10), with results ranging from stepped waveforms to more 'trance gate'‑like effects. In addition, you can have up to 11 different patterns to choose from, with the option to use different ones on each channel and the ability to smoothly crossfade between patterns. Impressive stuff for sure, and the only thing I missed was the ability to combine cyclic LFO modulation and the pattern sequencer, so you could have a 'gated' pattern that was also swept up and down by the LFO — but now I'm just being fussy!
Rounding out the package is U‑He's take on a filter. To me, though, Runciter is much more than just a filter. To start with, it offers simultaneous low‑, high‑ and band‑pass modes, an envelope follower with adjustable response time, and a wet/dry mix control which, while not unique, is certainly unusual for a filter plug‑in. The filter's resonance control ranges from the subtle to the downright rude (watch those tweeters) and is joined by fuzz and drive controls, each providing a different kind of distortion. The fuzz is an unashamedly nasty piece of work, while the drive algorithm sounds a little more polite! As far as I could tell, with all the filter controls set to have no effect, the drive control actually needs to be set at ‑48dB to have no effect, which is a little counter‑intuitive to me. At 0dB there is a noticeable amount of drive, which I wouldn't expect with all the filter controls set in 'neutral' positions. Once again, as with a few of the other quirks of these plug‑ins, it isn't a problem as long as you remember what is going on.
As a straight‑up filter, Runciter sounds perfectly good. I think that the resonance maybe goes a little too far or, at the very least, the resonance control itself could have a little more bias towards the lower end of the range, as you can get up into self‑oscillation pretty early on. You could choose to ignore the filtering altogether and just use the fuzz and drive sections as a distortion effect and, again, it works very well (albeit with limited controls). However, the real fun, and I guess purpose, of Runciter is to create some absolutely filthy distorted effects that sound like you are playing a busted‑up old synth through a tiny guitar practice amp with a speaker cone that has a big tear in it. There are quite a few good filter plug‑ins out there, but I cannot honestly think of one that does dirty quite so well!
In the time I have been using these plug‑ins, I have got used to their sometimes quirky nature, but it can be off‑putting to start with. Some people may view it as a negative point that control ranges are simply numeric, instead of having actual frequency values, but I actually think it is a positive thing. After all, when we are adjusting the frequency of an EQ band, we should be listening rather than looking at numbers!
I don't do surround work myself, but the design of these plug‑ins makes possible some interesting three‑dimensional effects, as key parameters such as the phase offset on LFOs and delay tap panning work in surround.
As I mentioned earlier, the presets are a bit on the extreme side, but they do at least show what the units are capable of. At first sight, a collection consisting of a reverb, delay, flanger, phaser, EQ, tremolo, frequency shifter and filter might not seem that interesting. But I honestly think that Uhbik is worth a serious look, because even though the basic units are not new effects, their implementations here give us something at least a little different in each case, and very different in some cases! They represent very good value and will be a welcome new addition to my Mac. Will they become ubiquitous? (Sorry, I couldn't resist!) That I don't know, but they definitely deserve to be checked out.
- Great value.
- Good selection of effects.
- Results range from the sublime to the extreme.
- Future Uhbik plug‑ins will be free!
- Sometimes confusing parameter ranges.
- Presets don't really show the subtlety that is possible.
A good collection of 'workhorse' plug‑ins with a new twist and a couple of tricks up their sleeve. Great for anyone who likes to experiment with sounds.
- Uhbik v1.0.
- Apple Mac Pro with eight‑core 3GHz Xeon 5400 CPU and 10GB RAM, running OS 10.4.11.