The biggest music technology manufacturer in the world has stuck to hardware — until now. Do Yamaha's first plug-in processors have what it takes to compete with the big names in Mac and Windows software?
Yamaha were one of the first hardware companies to take the software revolution seriously, and the main thrust of their response has been to develop hardware that augments or integrates with computer-based systems. At 2003's Frankfurt Musikmesse, however, they announced their first software-only products: a range of dual-platform VST plug-ins. All support Windows, Mac OS 9 and OS X, with Audio Units versions also available on the latter platform. Sample rates of up to 96kHz at 16- and 24-bit are supported, depending on the capabilities of the host program.
The current range comprises three plug-ins, under review here. These include Vocal Rack, a software 'channel strip' offering compression, enhancement and de-ssing, and Final Master, a multi-band compressor/limiter intended for use across a full mix, but the one likely to attract the most attention is Pitch Fix, a real-time pitch-correction plug-in. An additional plug-in emulating the channel strip of their new 01X interface/mixer is bundled exclusively with the 01X itself, and we'll look at this when we review the 01X (SOS March 2004).
Pitch Fix (shown above) takes on established products like Antares' Auto-Tune and TC's Intonator. It's purely a real-time plug-in, without any equivalent to Auto-Tune's Graphical Mode, but unlike its rivals it also includes some basic formant-tweaking controls for changing the sound as well as the pitch of the voice. Using an algorithm that Yamaha call 'Pitch Detective', Pitch Fix reads the pitch of any monophonic vocal line (which must be essentially free from spill or time-based effects) after which the software can automatically tune the audio to a chosen scale, or the user can force the performance to new notes altogether in real time using a MIDI keyboard. If a stereo file is input, Pitch Fix processes only the left channel.
Various controls set the analysis and retune parameters so that the pitch correction can be made to sound as natural or as effected as desired, and a pull-down menu lets the user specify the sound source as Normal, Male or Female. What type of 'normal' vocalist is neither male nor female I'm not entirely sure!
A nice feature is that the plug-in window has three scene memory buttons plus a bypass button (also assignable to keyboard shortcuts) which allow the user to switch between snapshots of the control and parameter settings in real time, which may be useful when working on a song that changes key or where a different scale is used for the chorus. A pull-down menu also enables bypass and the three snapshots to be called up using MIDI Controllers where the controller range of 0 to 127 is split into four zones to call up the four options. As with most VST plug-ins, some parameters may be MIDI-controlled where the host application allows. When Pitch Fix is controlled from a MIDI keyboard, a MIDI chord may be used to determine the current scale notes, or you can choose a mode where you play the notes to which the vocals should be shifted.
Pitch Fix's window is dominated by a one-octave keyboard, on which mint-green blobs show the root note and the pitches of any notes being processed. Indicators above the keys allow the user to set up custom scales — clicking on a key toggles these scale note indicators on or off. A long horizontal meter above the keyboard shows how much pitch-shift is being applied to the audio being processed, though as this tries to match the indicator position with the keys below it, it ends up dancing around so much that it is harder to make sense of than Auto-Tune's single correction amount meter. The bypass and preset buttons reside above this, with six knobs to the right and the scale-defining sliders and menus on the left. As with Auto-Tune and similar programs, you can choose from the main scale types (only major, minor and chromatic are available as presets), or you can define your own.
How natural the result sounds depends on how you set the Pitch Correct Rate knob, which is divided into green, yellow and red areas — red is the most severe setting and suitable mainly for special effects. Upper and lower limits can be set for the shifted notes, and there's a lot of creative audio fun to be had by setting the low limit an octave or two above where it should be! There's also a Pitch Detect Window dial which determines how quickly the pitch of the incoming signal is analysed. If this is set too slow, the resulting pitch change can sound somewhat artificial as the natural pitch nuances of the original tend to be ignored, but it provides a useful means of optimising the process.
If the original audio isn't in concert pitch, a Master Tuning In parameter showing pitch relative to A440 allows this to be compensated for in the analysis part of the program, while an Out pitch control makes it possible to offset the tuning of the treated signal from A420 to A460.
While pitch correction requires little more than setting a couple of controls and then choosing or creating the right scale, the sound of the voice is affected by a number of other controls. The Keep Formant button, for example, tries to retain the same vocal character, even when larger pitch changes are made, while Pitch Shift allows the whole treated vocal to be shifted up or down by up to two octaves. This is accompanied by a formant control, which changes the apparent body resonance of the voice.
The performance of this plug-in is impressive and at sensible tracking rates, the result is every bit as natural as from any of its rivals. Setting a fast correction rate creates the now familiar pitch-quantised, vocoder-like effects, and adjusting the formant can provide a useful means of tweaking the character of a voice without making it sound too unnatural — providing you don't go further than around ±10 on the dial. Where your host application lets you route MIDI into the plug-in, the MIDI note and pitch-bend options (preset at two semitones) are useful both for live performance and for sequencer control. As with Auto-Tune and other similar programs, instruments can also be processed providing they are monophonic.
Vocal Rack comprises a combination of processing tools of the type that would normally be needed to treat a vocal recording, though they can also be used on instruments. Each section may be individually bypassed when not required, with no CPU load imposed by bypassed sections.
The signal path starts out with a phase switch, with a high-pass filter variable from 20 to 180 Hz for getting rid of rumble or boom, and then proceeds to a fairly conventional compressor with Threshold, Ratio, Attack, Release and Output Gain controls. There's also an Auto button to set the compressor output gain slider automatically. This section has a compression curve window and a gain-reduction meter, though the latter is uncalibrated, so you have no idea how much gain reduction you're actually applying.
Tonal control is available through a harmonic enhancer and a three-band EQ. The enhancer is very simple, with just a Drive control, while the EQ features a fully parametric mid with variable-frequency shelving high and low sections. The overall EQ range is 20Hz to 16kHz and the gain range is ±10dB. A display window shows the EQ curve, where adjustments may also be made by dragging the curve, and separate bypass buttons are available for the three EQ sections.
After the EQ comes a de-esser with variable detection frequency (500Hz to 16kHz), variable threshold and a listen facility that lets you hear the filtered signal when setting up. This appears to notch out only the sibilant frequency band, not a wide section of the audio spectrum, so it is fairly subtle in operation with minimal side-effects. To get rid of unwanted noise, there's a fairly standard noise gate with threshold, attack and release sliders, and finally, a digital delay with a curiously short maximum delay time of 50ms and a Mix control. This can be used to create very crude artificial double-tracking effects, though I'm not really sure of the thinking behind restricting the delay time so tightly.
This plug-in is very straightforward to use and it sounds clean, especially the compressor, which controls the gain with minimal side-effects. For vocal use, I felt that an auto attack and release mode might have been useful and possibly a hard/soft knee switch, but if you like the unassuming nature of the compressors in Yamaha's mixers, you'll probably like this one. The enhancer adds high-frequency harmonics and sounds fine if used sparingly, otherwise it can be a little abrasive, while the de-esser does a good job of tacking normal amounts of sibilance without introducing obvious side-effects. Though this plug-in sounds good, I feel the gate should have had a variable range setting and perhaps side-chain filters, while the compressor would have benefited from a calibrated gain-reduction meter.
Final Master is essentially a three-band stereo compressor/limiter with separate compressor controls and bypass buttons for each band as well as variable crossover points. The gain within each band may also be varied by up to +12/-8dB and the two crossover points (with selectable 6 or 12 dB/octave slopes) may be set anywhere from 50Hz to 16kHz by dragging the two nodes on the horizontal bar below the three compression curve displays.
All three bands may be linked to allow the same parameters to be adjusted in all three simultaneously, plus there's a Soft Clip function with three choices of curve to help maximise loudness and to give the sound a more 'analogue' quality. Soft Clip processes the full-band signal after the three bands have been recombined. It's also possible to solo any of the bands, and each one has variable lookahead to prevent the limiter side-chain being caught unaware by sudden transients. The limiters within the separate bands can be switched on and off independently, but there are no additional limiter controls.
The compressor parameters are much the same as for Vocal Rack, with an Auto button, variable Threshold, Ratio, Attack and Release. A pair of stereo meters monitor the input and output signal levels, but like the compressor gain-reduction meters, these are frustratingly devoid of scale markings and have no peak hold display or headroom indicators. There's also no overall output level slider (though you can adjust all channels together by turning on Link) and no indication of when the soft clipper is operating or how much gain reduction the limiters and soft clipping are imposing. This means that although the plug-in sounds good and is generally easy to understand and operate, the lack of adequate visual monitoring makes it more difficult to optimise the settings than might otherwise be the case. Equally frustrating is the lack of an overall bypass button. Nevertheless, you can get some seriously good results using this plug-in and the Soft Clip option lets you get significantly more loudness and density than can be achieved using the compression and limiting alone.
All three of these plug-ins deliver the high audio quality we've come to expect from Yamaha, and Pitch Fix is a particularly flexible and effective plug-in. OS X Logic users in particular should be queuing up for it, as most of the Audio Units alternatives have yet to materialise at the time of writing. Vocal Rack also offers a sensible and useful combination of clean-sounding vocal processing tools, though it is less of a 'must have', simply because many audio programs already come with compressors, gates, limiters, de-essers and so on that do a perfectly acceptable job of processing vocals.
I've been a bit tough on Final Master because it has some frustrating omissions in the control and display departments, but it sounds excellent and the soft-clipping options are particularly effective in squeezing those extra few dBs of loudness out of a mix or track. Again it could be hard to sell it to those who already have multi-band dynamics within their audio programs, such as Logic Platinum users, and to complete the mastering toolkit, it needs to be teamed with a nice parametric EQ, but it certainly sounds right.
Pitch Fix costs £209 and the other two plug-ins £139 each, and while I don't think anyone will be put off buying Pitch Fix at that price, I feel the other two are perhaps a little too ordinary to generate that 'must possess it!' vibe — and there are of course more alternatives when it comes to dynamics and EQ. My own view is that Final Master would be more attractive if its interface shortcomings were remedied, and there could even be a case for bundling it with an equaliser to provide a complete mastering solution, but don't let this put you off trying it because if you want your mixes to sound big and loud, Final Master will certainly do the job for you. Ultimately, it is great to see a technology heavyweight like Yamaha building plug-ins, because they have a huge wealth of digital expertise behind them and they have the imagination to come up with great tools. This is a good first showing and I'm eager to see what they come up with next.
- Good audio quality.
- Clear interfaces.
- Pitch Fix is particularly impressive.
- Final Master and Vocal Rack are let down a little by their metering.
- Final Master and Vocal Rack could be considered expensive for single plug-ins.
Yamaha's first VST/AU plug-ins show that the company can translate its classy sound into software, though some user interface issues could be improved, especially as regards metering.