Review – Crafter’s Pack from Blue Cat Audio – Part 1
Blue Cat’s Patchwork and MB-7 Mixer are both plug-ins that host other plug-ins. Between them, they offer much to increase your mixing options.
by David Baer, July 2016
This is the first of three reviews in which we will be looking at products from Blue Cat Audio, a French company founded by Guillaume Jeulin, self-described musician, software engineer and audio fanatic. In total, the subjects of this review series comprise a bundle, The Crafters Pack. All these items are available as individual purchases as well.
Blue Cat software is available in a lengthy list of formats:
Mac-AAX, Mac-AU, Mac-App, Mac-RTAS, Mac-VST, Mac-VST3, Win-AAX, Win-App, Win-DX, Win-RTAS, Win-VST, Win-VST3, Win x64-AAX, Win x64-App, Win x64-DX, Win x64-VST, Win x64-VST3 (Phew!)
These reviews are timely since VST 3 support has quite recently been added across the board to the Blue Cat software catalog. The Crafters Pack lists for €329 EUR or $399 USD. The subjects of today’s review, Patchwork and MB-7 Mixer are respectively €79 EUR/$99 USD and €99 EUR/$129 USD. Sales have been known to happen. Details can be found and purchases can be made here:
Today’s two review subjects share the ability to host VST or AU plug-ins, and in doing so coordinate latency among the hosted plug-ins and roll up the total latency to report to the host of the Blue Cat sub-host. Hosted plug-ins must be of the same 32/64-bitness as the hosting plug-in, unless 3rd party bridging software is employed.
For the MB-7 Mixer, the MB stands for multi-band. It can split the input signal into up to seven bands and have the same or different hosted plug-ins processing each of the bands. Patchwork has a different objective. It can be used to configure hosted plug-ins in both serial and parallel chains. It is also available to run in standalone mode and can therefore be a host of plug-ins that you would like to run outside a DAW.
So, with commonalities out of the way, let’s take a look at each of these tools.
Patchwork is a virtual patchbay that can host up to 64 individual plug-ins. It can be used to set up reusable, go-to processing chains, and it can do much more, as you’ll shortly see. The basic signal chain offers a series of up-to-eight serial plug-in slots, which feed a parallel set of up-to-eight chains of slots, which are summed and feed a final series of up-to-eight slots. That may sound confusing, but it’s straightforward, as can be seen in the signal flow diagram taken from the mostly-quite-good product documentation. Both the depth and width of the grid are adjustable to suit the needs at hand.
The slots labelled “No Plug-in” are where inserted plug-ins go and these can be loaded by clicking on an empty slot. The resultant menu allows you to load a VST or a VST 3 plug-in (since I run a PC, I get no option to load an AU plug-in but that probably also is an option for Mac users). Since the VST 3 specification requires standardized placement of VST 3 modules, Patchwork knows right where to look for those.
For non-VST-3 plug-ins, a configuration preference must be set to tell Patchwork where to look. This is one of my very few complaints about both Patchwork and MB-7 Mixer. You are not able to supply a list of directories. You must instead pick the highest common directory. As a Cubase user, however, this turns out to be not such a limitation, for reasons we will get to momentarily.
Mono, stereo and multi-channel surround audio streams are supported. In most cases, the user will probably want to keep hosted plug-ins coordinated in this capacity, but Patchwork will accommodate mixtures, and what happens when doing so is all spelled out in the manual.
Looking more closely at the signal flow, let’s consider the individual controls along the way. At the very beginning we have input gain, followed by the first series of plug-in slots. The output at this point is sent equally to as many rows are present in the center section. Each of these starts with an active/off button and a row gain control, followed by the inserted plug-ins for the row. Each row then concludes with an output gain control, a phase flip switch and a solo button. The parallel outputs are then sent to the final chain, but the summing is controlled by a list option: Average or Sum. Average attenuates the summed signal, effectively dividing the level by the number of rows. Sum just equally combines the inputs and leaves the resultant level alone. Finally, the signal is passed through the final serial slots and a final gain control. Globally there is a dry/wet mix control as well.
All in all, this is extremely flexible. There would probably be a few infrequent occasions in which I would want to have a pan control in the parallel chains. Other niceties would be some native LR/MS converters in those chains. However, these needs would be only very occasional. Patchwork users would be well served all around just to pick up the highly versatile and free MSED plug-in from Voxengo (get it here: http://www.voxengo.com/product/msed/ ) for use when such needs arise. Blue Cat’s own free Gain Suite has a plug-in that would also at least address the panning need.
Lastly, if I were to dream up an ultimate feature list for a Patchwork Version 2, I think I’d like to see some kind of mechanism to support feedback loops along the lines of that capability in MeldaProduction’s MXXX. But don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of power and flexibility in the current version.
Patchwork can be run standalone, and as such, it will direct all incoming MIDI to selective destinations. Each slot can be configured to receive all events of on channels from all ports, or a subset down to one specific channel on one specific port. So, with Patchwork you have an easy way to quickly bring up a non-standalone synth outside your DAW. Since a DAW like Cubase can take a fair amount of time to launch, this becomes an attractive way to get to play that synth more quickly. Yes, there are free VST hosts available, but I have yet to find one with which I was truly satisfied. With Patchwork, I am a happy camper at last in this regard.
Full preset management is available and entirely adequate. One feature I would like to see is to be able to specify a saved preset name in a Windows shortcut and have the standalone version pre-load that preset upon launch. Thus shortcuts to launch synths hosted by Patchwork could be set up. Blue Cat has promised to investigate adding this, and I look forward to that happening.
For running Patchwork in your DAW as a subhost, there are actually two versions from which to pick. The effect version supports sidechain processing. The other version, for use with synths, supports up to sixteen output channels, so it will accommodate higher-end processors like Kontakt or Halion 5.
An obvious use of Patchwork is in setting up effect chains that can be saved and recalled for later use. In this capacity, you probably wouldn’t even need the parallel processing capabilities in many cases.
Importantly, sidechain capabilities are on hand. A sidechain signal will be distributed to all hosted plug-ins with a sidechain input enabled.
There are all kinds of other useful things that can be done with Patchwork. Stick a filter on two or more of the parallel chains and, presto, you have a multiband capability. Of course that encroaches on the domain of the MB-7 Mixer. Multiband processing is easier to set up with the MB-7, but it would not be all that difficult with Patchwork as long as you have a decent multi-use filter plug-in on hand.
Another very interesting application (one suggested in the manual) is null testing, in which you set up a configuration to hear only the differences between what an effect unit does versus the dry, unaffected signal. Activate two parallel chains. Simply put your subject plug-in on one of them and leave the other one empty. Flip the phase on either of them, and, viola, mission accomplished.
As a Cubase user, one thing is a bit annoying, but in no way is Blue Cat to blame. Cubase (version 8 for me) does not expose its internal plug-ins to the outside world. They are only available to load within Cubase. Even when hosted by Cubase, Patchwork cannot access any of Cubase VST 3 effects. Fortunately, I have no shortage of third party FX of all manner, so the Cubase situation is not much of a dilemma here. And your DAW may differ. SONAR makes quite a few of its plug-ins available as conventional VSTs, including the indispensable Channel Tools. So, you will just have to discover for yourself what DAW-bundled plug-ins are available for use in Patchwork. By the way, it’s not obvious, but you can load Waves plug-ins into Patchwork – you must initially load in the Waves Shell and you will then get a dialog box asking you to specify the plug-in you actually want.
In any case, if you don’t have access to many effects apart those internal to your DAW, is Patchwork of any value? Yes, absolutely it can be. Blue Cat makes a number of useful FX modules available for free, and MeldaProduction’s free bundle (https://www.meldaproduction.com/MFreeEffectsBundle ) has a generous selection. So running Blue Cat Patchwork with only freebies is definitely a viable plan.
But let’s return to the single VST directory limitation. I use a scheme recommended by an old and wise DAW veteran. I let a DAW install its VST 2 modules where it likes. It’s more trouble than it’s worth to fight city hall on this. However, everything else goes under a common VST directory under Programs (I’m a PC, recall). This has worked just fine. But with Patchwork, if I name that directory, it will not see any of my the plug-ins that came bundled with SONAR. The only recourse would be to name C:\Programs as the top-level directory for plug-in location, and it’s got way too much other content under it for that to be efficient. So, it simply comes down to what kind of scheme you use for placement of VST 2 modules. If you have no scheme whatever, and things are all over the place, you might find this to be an problem.
There is more to cover that I have not had time for. Patchwork has a great MIDI-learn capability. There are three screen sizes to select from and alternate skins if that’s your thing. The most significant point I’ve skipped over is audio routing. It looks very flexible, but it’s rather skimpily documented. This is one area that the otherwise fine documentation could use a little improvement.
In short, Patchwork rocks. But it’s time now to move on to MB-7 Mixer.
The MB-7 Mixer (hereafter, just MB-7) shares Patchwork’s ability to host plug-ins. It only runs in a DAW host – there is no standalone version (nor would there be any use for one). There are three versions of MB-7: mono, stereo and dual, with stereo and dual differing in a few important ways we’ll discuss shortly.
As to loading VST and VST 3 plug-ins, all that was said earlier about how it works and the limitation of specifying only one top-level directory for VST location applies here as well.
MB-7 allows up to seven frequency bands to be defined. Each band has independent level and pan control, and stereo-width control in the stereo version. The dual version offers independent level and pan for L and R channels in the band. Up to four plug-ins may be loaded in each band, two pre-fader and two post-fader.
On the surface, MB-7 is quite straightforward. You specify the number of bands, and then adjust the crossover points and the slopes. The slopes do not all have to be the same. You might have a three-band configuration with a 6-dB-per-octave slope between the low and mid bands and a 48-dB-per-octave slope between the mid and high band, for example.
Even without inserted plug-ins, MB-7 has some utility. Using the stereo version, you can narrow the width of the bass band to center that frequency range. You could also define several mid/high bands and pan them differently to enhance the stereo soundstage.
But it’s the plug-in insertion capability that opens up the intriguing possibilities. Do you have a vintage-fluxamatic-hyperbolic-infusion plug-in? Well, now you have a multi-band vintage -fluxamatic-hyperbolic -infusion effect at your disposal. But the creative possibilities really open up when mixing and matching in the respective bands.
Consider that a lot of mixing engineers have go-to compressors for bass and different go-to compressors for midrange content like vox or synths. No problem, even if you are mastering and don’t have access to the individual tracks. With MB-7, just put your preferred compressors in the bands where they make sense.
But, there’s so much more. MB-7 can operate in M/S mode (using the dual version). Assuming your inserted plug-ins have independent L/R processing, you now have an M/S capability within easy reach.
Like Patchwork, sidechain is supported. You may route a bus to the MB-7 sidechain input port and that signal will be passed through to any inserted plug-in accepting sidechain input. Also, like Patchwork, a flexible internal routing scheme can be set up, but there remains the same criticism. This needs a bit better explanation in the documentation. You can probably figure it out, but I suspect you won’t understand what’s going on by just reading the manual on this topic.
MIDI control is powerful, just as in Patchwork. You’re only challenge will be to insure MIDI gets routed to MB-7, which will be much easier in some DAWs than others (it’s a piece of cake in Cubase).
MB-7 supports grouping, a lovely and powerful feature. You may group bands in a single instance or bands globally in multiple instances so that the sliders act in concert. You can also make them act inversely in concert. Suppose you were using (dual-mode) MB-7 as simply an EQ on two tracks. You could, for example, define two groups for the L and R channels of the mid band in both instances, but turn on the reverse setting in one instance. Then as you increased the mid-band level in one instance, the mid-band level in the other would decrease automatically. Very powerful … very cool.
Is Patchwork and/or MB-7 for You?
I just love both of these plug-ins. It’s true that one could do much of what they do with creative use of sends and EQ in your DAW, but certainly not everything – and no way as fast to set up for those things you could duplicate just using sends. For professional mixing engineers and the like for whom “time is money”, I suspect an investment in both would cost justify itself in little time.
I am not one of those professionals, but having had the pleasure of working with Patchwork and MB-7, I would most assuredly miss them if they were to disappear from my DAW. Enthusiastic thumbs up for both of these gems. Well done, Blue Cat. Very well done indeed!