Review – Analog Studio Rack from Nomad Factory

 

We take a close look at Nomad Factory’s latest offering, a collection of seven processors that can be inserted as an integrated rack or individually, all delivering some tasteful vintage goodness.

 

By David Baer, Sept 2016

 

In this review, we will take a close-up look a new channel strip plug-in from Nomad Factory, the Analog Studio Rack, which was inspired by various vintage sources.  Nomad Factory has always been known for its propensity to offer software recreations of classic vintage gear.  As a big fan of some of those recreations, I was gratified to see a new product being released.

Until recently, the future of Nomad Factory was unclear.  Bernie Torelli, one of Nomad Factory’s founders and chief technologist, passed on recently.  Online music software vendor Don’t Crack , which has always had a close relationship with Nomad Factory, has officially taken control, retaining the existing Nomad Factory developers and reportedly hiring more.  They also set up a new distribution system called Plugivery (“plug-in delivery”, get it?).

So, as best I can tell, if Don’t Crack and Plugivery aren’t essentially the same thing, they at least are thick as thieves, and Nomad Factory is now either a Don’t Crack operation or is owned by Plugivery.  These relationships are a bit unclear.  Is any of this important?  Maybe not the fine details, but in one sense, it seems quite important.  We can now rest any concerns that Nomad Factory software will stop being supported.  One of my favorite plug-in vendors is alive and healthy.  Long live Nomad Factory.

Now, let’s get down to business with the review.

 

Nice Rack!

Analog Studio Rack is comprised of seven processor modules plus a container module plug-in which houses them all.  All seven can be individually instantiated as well.  Formats include the usual suspects: 32-bit and 64-bit, VST (2), AAX and AU.  Authorization is extremely customer-friendly.

The modules that comprise this package, and their real-life inspirations are as follows:

  • Pre-amp – unspecified origin
  • Gate/Expander – SSL console channel strip component
  • Compressor/Limiter – SSL console channel strip component
  • State EQ – SSL console channel strip component
  • Bus Compressor – SSL console bus compressor (as opposed to channel strip)
  • Exciter – unknown unit from BBE Sound (more later)
  • Pulse EQ – Pulteq EQP-1A

 

All modules except the pre-amp and the exciter have an easily-identified pedigree.  The SSL-inspired modules hail from the early 1980s.  Note that Nomad Factory describes these as “inspired by” as opposed to closely modelled emulations.  The Pulteq module hails from a quarter of a century earlier.  But so what?  The intent appears to have been to supply a strip with genuinely useful capability, and if inspiration was pulled from multiple decades, big deal!

From a UI standpoint, the SSL modules and the Pulteq observe the interface conventions of the inspiration source.  If you are already familiar with other emulations of these, you will immediately be right at home.  The expander is a bit of a mystery here.  BBE Sound has a line of products called Sonic Maximizer, the interface of which looks nothing like that of the exciter.  I tried but failed to find any earlier hardware units that looked similar.  But, again, no matter.  The exciter sounds great, even if its pedigree is questionable.

The interface of the rack with the pre-amp visible is seen in the title image.  In the rack, the preamp is always “on” but if the settings are all at their default (no tube drive, etc.), it contributes nothing to the sound.  All the other modules may be explicitly enabled/bypassed, but they are always present.  They can be reordered as desired, but there will always be one each – you cannot, for example, have two State EQ modules, although that actually might occasionally be useful.

In practice, one will benefit from having the pre-amp out of the way when setting the bottom-six effects, since the pre-amp covers some of the useful readout displays.  This is a good time to mention my one mild criticism of this software.  Nomad Factory has never been known for complete and insightful documentation, and with Analog Studio Rack, that tradition is strongly maintained.  Useful pieces of wisdom, such as pointing out that the pre-amp is always engaged, even when the display button is disengaged and the indicator unlit, is simply absent.  Not that the operation of any of these components is rocket science, but a little experimentation will be needed by the user to understand how some essential things work.  I will try to point out a few of these important but undocumented niceties when appropriate.

So, from this point, let’s just look at the individual modules.

 

Pre-amp

 

This is useful for both gain settings and coloration.  The Tube Drive control can introduce modest to heavy amounts of tube-like distortion.  The Fat control can be used to add more of a tube stage color.  Bias ups the amount of even-harmonic generation.  Really, the only thing I can’t understand is the Calibrate switch.  This supposedly sets the dBFS calibration level of the meters between -24 dB and -6 dB.  I found the meters invariably stuck in the max position unless I set the calibration to its highest setting.  Perhaps your mileage will vary.

The rest is straightforward.  The small Pad knob in the upper left allows input gain adjustment of +/- 20 dB.  Mono and Phase switches need no explanation.

Next we will look at the bottom six modules individually.  But first let’s go over a few common points.  There are small arrows at the top of each module.  The left opens the preset menu.  The right opens a display menu, the choices being appropriate to the specific function of the module.  The In and Out knobs are obvious gain adjustments.

The function of the Clip button is far from intuitive and the documentation is silent on its function.  I had to post a question on KVR to understand what it does.  According to a Plugivery spokesperson, it does appear to have a very useful function, that being its role as a soft clipper that limits peaks from exceeding 0.5 dB.  It employs a newly-designed algorithm allows you to increase output gain without noticeable distortion.  In my informal testing, I was impressed by the amount of extra “oomph” I could introduce by cranking up the output with the soft clipper engaged.  Note, however, that when this button is in, clipping occurs.  Clipping protection is provided when the feature is not engaged.  I’m not sure when anyone would want the feature disabled.

Each of the modules other than the exciter has a button labelled “In” in the lower left that engages or disables the module.  The exciter actually has two unrelated functions, which can be individually enabled/disabled.

 

The EQ Modules

Since we can place the bottom six modules in any order in the processing  chain, the order in which we discuss them is totally arbitrary.  So let’s just start with the EQs, pictured right.

The State EQ has controls similar to those on the SSL 4000 series console channel strip EQ.  There were two models of this console manufactured, the E and the G series.  The button labelled “E” near the bottom is supposed to switch between two behavioral characteristics, but the documentation is otherwise silent on what these characteristics are.  So, I would suggest this is just another of those “set by ear and don’t worry about it” type of controls.  The differences are quite subtle in any case.

The controls on the UI map fairly closely to those on the original, except that the Q adjustment for the two middle bands is just two choices: narrow or wide.  The highest and lowest bands can select between a shelf and bell shape.  Finally, a low-end high-pass filter can be engaged to cut off at 20, 40, 60, 80 or 120 Hz.

This is a straightforward module.  If you know how to apply EQ, there should be little challenge when using it.

The Pulse-EQ module is another matter entirely.  Inspired by the Pulteq EQP-1A, it has the same enigmatic control layout as its ancestor.  Here’s the lowdown.

The bottom three knobs, Boost, Cut and Freq, govern the low-frequency behavior.  Like the original, the Boost frequency is actually a bit lower than the Cut frequency.  Thus, one can dial in a bass boost and carve out frequencies from the “boxiness” range of the spectrum at the same time.  Note also that there’s a separate low-end high-pass filter, like that in the State EQ, available.  This was not something found on the original.

The middle three knobs, Bandwidth, Freq and Boost, allow for a midrange boost (boost only, just like the original).  The top Cut and Freq knobs take care of the high end.

One of my favorite Nomad Factory plug-ins is the Pulse-Tec EQ, which combines an EQP-1A with a Pultec MEQ-5 emulation.  This is a better all-around solution because we can use it to also cut the midrange and boost the high end, something not possible with just an EQP-1A.  But if you were to only have access to one of the two Pultec units, most producers would choose the EAP-1A due to its somewhat unique concurrent-boost-cut capability on the low end.  For additional EQ requirements in the Analog Studio Rack, the State EQ is always at hand, anyway.

I did some informal comparisons between the Pulse-EQ module and the full Pulse-Tec plug-in and found them to be very similar in nature.  This was exactly the result I was hoping to discover.

 

The Compressors

In Analog Studio Rack, we have a compressor/limiter and another compressor.  The former, the Comp/Limit module, was inspired by the SSL console channel strip compressor/limiter.  Again, we have controls that mimic the original fairly faithfully.

Ratio and Release are standard compressor fare.  The Soft Knee button does what it says.  For attack we have two choices: normal (approx. 30 ms) and fast (approx. 3 ms).  The Lin Release engages a linear release curve instead of the default exponential curve.  The Direct knob is a handy addition not found on the original.  It allows for mixing direct and compressed signals on output.

The Threshold control, according to the documentation, is calibrated in units of dB.  But the range is +10 to -20, which does not make a whole lot of sense.  But just treat it as a control over the amount of compression due to input signal level.  The more it is turned clockwise, the more compression you get.

The side chain may be treated with a high-pass filter with a frequency of 20 to 800 Hz and slope choices of 6, 12, 24 and 48 dB per octave.  Note that the sidechains in Analog Studio Rack are of the input signal only.  This is probably logical for a channel strip, even though it’s my understanding that one could actually set up an external side-chain configuration on an SSL console with a bit of trickery.  In any case, since VST 3 is not supported, doing external sidechaining would be a pain (at least I know that to be so in Cubase), so no big loss.  If you need external side-chaining, you’ll need to look elsewhere for a solution.

The other compressor is the Bus Comp unit.  Its inspiration is the bus compressor in the SSL console.  This was a unit that was so well-regarded that standalone units which were independent of the console were manufactured and sold.  This compressor is known for its capability to function as a so-called “glue” compressor, great for putting on the master bus to achieve cohesion as well as fulfilling the normal compression duties.

Once again, we have reasonable fidelity to the original controls.  Like the Comp/Limit module, the Threshold units, this time -20 to +20, don’t make a lot of sense to me again.  Just to keep things interesting, unlike the Comp/Limit module, this time you turn the knob counter-clockwise for more compression.  But, hey, Nomad Factory just seems to want to be faithful to the original control scheme.  The Ratio range is 1.5 to 10.  Attack and Release knobs are straightforward.  Finally, we have a high-pass filter on the sidechain identical to that in the Comp/Limit module.

 

The Gate/ Expander and the Exciter

The Gate/Expander is the final of the three dynamics offerings.  The switch marked “EXP” toggles between gate and expansion modes.  The expander is a downward expander – i.e., it makes quiet signals more quiet, and thus it can deliver a gentler result than an all-or-nothing gate.

Once again, we have a Threshold control that is true to the original but makes little logical sense, having markings ranging between -30 and +10.  Clockwise means more input level is required for the gate to open or the expander to engage.  The expander ratio is a fixed slope of 1:2.

Attack is either slow (approx. 1.5 ms) or fast (approx. 0.1 ms).  Range has the usual meaning on gates, except that range is usually minus something to zero.  At zero we get no dynamic changes.  At -20, signals below the threshold would be attenuated by 20 dB.  Here we have a range of 0 to 40 dB.  No need to overthink this.  Turn it clockwise for a bigger reduction of signals below the threshold.  On expanders, range controls the maximum amount of gain that would be applied on the signal below the threshold.  Clockwise means a bigger maximum amount of gain.  If there’s any confusion, just check out the graphic image at the top of the module which nicely conveys just what you’re doing to the signal.

The sidechain filtering in this module offers both high-pass and low-pass and the same slopes as in the compressors.  Unique to the Gate/Exp module is a switch allowing you to listen to the sidechain.

The Exciter module offers two completely unrelated functions.  These can be individually and independently enabled/disabled.  The exciter function is controlled by the bottom three knobs.  Fullness adds low-frequency content and Clarity adds high-frequency content.  Diffusion makes the high frequency additions dependent upon signal level, with distortion more likely at higher settings.  Although simple in function, this is one of my favorite things about Analog Studio Rack.  Anything from a gentle warmth enhancement to an in-your-face attitude can be gotten out of the exciter.

Stereo Width is just that.  Use it to make things tend toward mono or to widen the stereo image.  The optional goniometer display can be useful to detect mono incompatibilities when doing higher levels of widening.

 

Is Analog Studio Rack for You?

I have never been overly eager to put channel strips on tracks on the theory that picking and choosing individual components is more rewarding (and more fun to boot).  Besides, if I want transparent processing, Fab Filter will normally be my preferred solution.  For vintage coloration and warmth, I’ve got another list of go-to solutions, a good many of them from Nomad Factory, by the way.

But perhaps my aversion to channels strips is about to rapidly recede.  I haven’t had Analog Studio Rack long enough to use it extensively.  But in my time spent in evaluating this software, so far there’s much to like … a great deal to like, as a matter of fact.  Analog Studio Rack is easy to use (in my case, due in part to previous familiarity with the Pultec EQP-1A interface).  Getting a good sound is way less effort than would be expected.

At the time I’m writing this, the introductory price of Analog Studio Rack is $39 USD, which is a total no-brainer in my estimation.  The stated list price of $199 USD after the introductory period is hardly a bargain, and it will cause many home-producers to question if a channel strip that duplicates functions already abundant in their DAW environment is worth that kind of expenditure.   The modules can also be purchased individually: $10 USD, introductory price, $49 USD thereafter.

If you’ve missed the introductory pricing, I can only recommend perseverance.  Get on the Don’t Crack mailing list for a start (http://list.dontcrack.com/?p=subscribe ).  Significant sales on both individual titles and bundles have been known to happen, sometimes with crazy-deep discounts.  If the introductory sale price is no longer available at the time you read this, be patient – another opportunity will eventually come.

 

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