Review – MXXX from MeldaProduction, Part I
One FX to rule them all and in the mix to bind them? Not a bad description for something the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Melda has set the bar very high with its new mega-effect.
by David Baer, Sept. 2015
And Then There Was MXXX
In the last couple of years, we’ve seen the emergence of effect-chainer plug-ins. These can be thought of as plug-ins that can in turn host other plug-ins in various configurations (series, parallel or combination) which can be saved as presets that can be easily recalled and reused. We’ll review some existing options momentarily, but what we’re going to look at here is the easily the most powerful of them all, MeldaProduction’s new MXXX mega-effect.
This review will be done in two parts, partly because there’s so much to talk about, but partly because the final shipping version of MXXX is not yet available at the time this is being written. But one thing is clear: although pricing has not yet been established, this baby will set you back a pretty penny. You need to know that up front, because you are probably going to drool over MXXX when you read about all it can do.
But let’s first briefly look at what else is currently available in this area. There are a number of FX hosts that do just that: they host FX plug-ins in various fashions, but do so with third-party effects. Blue Cat Audio’s Patchwork ($79 USD list) allows eight chains of eight effects. Blue Cat’s MB-7 Mixer ($129 USD list) has just one chain with a band splitter to allow for roll-your-own multi-band FX creation. The Plug & Mix Chainer ($99 USD) allows for 32 effects in series or parallel; it is available to owners of the Plug & Mix bundle for free but the free version does not host third party FX, only effects in the Plug & Mix bundle. So far, none of the items mentioned will host VST3. For that, the modestly priced MetaPlugin from DMF ($49 USD) is available and contains an onboard band-splitter to boot. This one is not the most elegant to work with, but it does represent a very good value.
Studio One Version 3 has set the standard for in-DAW solutions with its onboard FX chaining feature offering highly flexible serial/parallel configuration with a multi-band capability (VST3-compatibility unknown). We can probably safely assume that other DAW makers will follow with their own improved integrated chainer solutions.
Finally there’s Nomad Factory’s Magma ($199 USD list). No VST3 compatibility at this point, but it’s the only one mentioned so far that comes with bundled effects (65 of them – all the usual types: dynamics, EQ, filters, etc.) and provides integrated LFO and MSeg modulation. It’s the closest one to MXXX in terms of building total integrated multi-effect solutions.
All of the above have a certain amount of appeal. With the open architectures, one can custom-build multi-effects on your own to whatever limits your imagination and the chainer’s capabilities allow. But even in the best of cases, you might be a lot happier with a dedicated closed-architecture, single-purpose solution rather than a roll-your-own solution. Any plug-in that presents LFO/MSeg graphs as an essential part of the UI will be easier to work with than a chainer-hosted solution. Think FXpansion’s Etch or FabFilter’s Volcano as two examples of filter plug-ins with the UI graphics fully supporting the function. As you will see, this is not a strong point of chainer host plug-ins, including MXXX.
Anyway, now let’s focus on MXXX. In brief here’s what it is. MXXX is a closed architecture (no third party plug-in hosting), but it comes with MeldaProduction’s entire catalog of effect capabilities, which is pretty much anything you’d need for studio sound manipulation. These can be hosted in a fashion that allows nearly unlimited flexibility in how the component FX units are configured. There is multi-band support, parallel and serial operation, nested configurations, and a powerful set of “utility” modules such as mixer units to bring an FX design to fruition. What’s completely unique among chainer hosts is the ability to send feedback from processing modules down the chain to preceding modules further up the chain.
The Lay of the Land
Like many MeldaProduction products, the UI of MXXX has two modes: Easy and Edit. For now we’re just going to look at things via Edit mode. We’ll come back to the other mode before wrapping things up in part 2.
Above is a virgin MXXX preset. It doesn’t do anything yet. At the top, you see a band-splitter. Unless you’re building a multi-band effect, you’ll just leave this alone. If you are building a multi-band effect, each band can do different things. You could do a delay-compressor-phaser process in one band and a distortion-filter process in another (not that you’d probably ever want to, obviously, but you never know … ).
If we click the Meters & Subsystems and the MultiParameters buttons, the UI expands to include the areas shown below.
To the right of the band splitter we now see some standard controls for level and dry/wet mix. These are self-explanatory. Below those are sixteen extremely powerful modulators, and to the right are sixteen Melda multiparameters. We will revisit both these later; there’s much to talk about.
Of immediate interest is the grid, into which modules of various kinds can be inserted. The modules available are a wide variety of common FX processes (delay, distortion, modulation, etc., etc.). Another class of modules is “utility”, which help to tie the FX modules together (examples will follow, never fear). We are initially going to focus mainly on how signals make their way through the grid in this first installment. There is much to say about the processor module types, but your patience will be required. There’s a lot of background to cover first.
All of the action takes place within a four-column grid. That is, there are four columns at the time this is being written, but Melda has promised that that number will increase to six columns in the very near future. There are two inputs, the main input and an optional sidechain.
To the right, you see a grid populated with three filters, all in parallel. Their output flows to the bottom rank of output slots which are evenly mixed together. Sometimes this will be all that’s needed. But chances are, there needs to be more control over the mix levels. For that we need the Mixer utility module.
So, we insert a mixer below the leftmost filter, as can be seen to the right. There’s a problem, however. The mixer gets inputs from the three filters, but the outputs of the two right filters also flows to the bottom output slot. This is certainly not what we want. So, if we right click on the mixer module, we see the window below.
Here we not only specify that the mixer expects three inputs, but that the second and third inputs are to be “stolen”. To steal means to preempt the default output path and to, well, steal it for sole consumption. The results are clearly what we want, as can be seen to the right.
Another type of utility module does signal splitting. We can split a stereo signal into two separate channel signals, and back again, of course. We can also do LR to MS conversion and back. To the right shows a simple configuration in which we apply tremolo to the side signal, leaving the mid signal unaltered. MXXX is very good about figuring out when it’s dealing with a stereo signal vs a split L-and-R or M-and-S signal. I’ve always found it does just what you want, and you do not need to fret over whether or not it’s doing what you wish.
What you’ve seen so far is fairly straightforward, but there’s much more that can be accomplished. First, I need to introduce the ratio module. It’s similar to the mixer, but offers and expects exactly two inputs, so it’s frequently easier to use. Its main control is Ratio. 0% is all left input, 50% an even mix, and 100% all right input.
So, let’s put this module to work in an interesting way. Below is a setup that has two reverb modules. They can be configured in series or parallel, or anything in between.
Here’s the trick: we use a control (a multiparameter to be precise, but we’ll get into these shortly) to simultaneously set the Ratio value of two ratio modules. That control dictates series signal flow at the lowest setting and parallel at the highest with a mix at intermediate values. The lower ratio control has its Ratio parameter range between 0% (all left input) for series to 50% (even mix of inputs) for parallel. The upper one ranges between 100% (all right input) for series and 0% for parallel (all left input).
But wait – you ain’t seen nuttin’ yet! So far all signal flow has been top to bottom. But MXXX doesn’t stop there – there are also feedback capabilities. When you right click on a module, in many cases you will have the opportunity to specify a feedback channel (there are eight available). Below you see the window produced by right-clicking a vibrato module.
The context for this is seen in the image below. We have set this up so that vibrato output flow to the normal output slot, but it also flows back to the feedback utility module above it. That module’s controls are delay channel, the delay amount and a level control. The delay modules output is then introduced as input to the vibrato module via a ration module.
So, hopefully you are beginning to see just how extraordinarily powerful the signal flow capabilities in MXXX really are. But you may be thinking that just four parallel channels will be insufficient for some really fancy applications. And you’d be right, except for the availability of the Modular utility module. It allows you to nest another four-column grid inside it. Multiple levels of nesting are even allowed.
The Mighty MXXX Modulators
We’re still focusing on MXXX infrastructure here. Please trust me that the actual effect processor modules are highly capable. But you all probably know what a filter or distortion unit can do. Much of the unique innovation in MXXX is to be found in the infrastructure, and modulation is the next piece of that we will tackle.
MXXX has sixteen modulators, and they do all sorts of things. They can act as a simple LFO, a highly sophisticated LFO, an envelope triggered by either MIDI or signal level (main or sidechain), a level follower and more, or a combination of many of these things.
The image above shows the Normal tab of a modulator, the LFO tab, if you will. There’s so very much to the modulators that we could easily devote an entire article (and a lengthy one at that) explaining their operation. Fortunately Melda is in the process of releasing a series of first rate video tutorials demonstrating how they work. There are three at the time this is being written and more are in the pipeline. They can be seen here (under the Modulators heading):
Let me just mention a few highlights. A modulator can combine the effects of the LFO, follower, envelope and a random generator to produce a modulation signal. This signal can be directed at multiple modulation targets, each with individual range control. Furthermore, a unique response curve can be defined for each target individually. So, you might have ramp shape in the LFO, but each target can see something completely different. Watch the second of the two video tutorials to see a demonstration of this. It’s truly a powerful capability.
The only shortcoming I find with the modulation system in Melda technology is that it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to have a target modulated by multiple modulators. Fortunately, this is probably not something that you will want to do very often. The far more common situation of needing a modulator to influence multiple targets is easily accomplished, so no worries there.
The Mighty MXXX MultiParameters
One problem we will have with potentially a vast number of internal “tunable” parameters in an MXXX preset is that host automation will be impossible without some kind of intermediary agent. Likewise, MIDI learn could easily degenerate into a hopeless mess. Also of considerable importance is the ability to reduce potentially vast complexity internal to an MXXX preset into a simple set of controls for the end-user. The multiparameter (hereafter MP for brevity) solves all these issues.
An MP (there are sixteen available in MXXX) is a single control that can alter parameter values of multiple targets. Not all parameters within MXXX modules are available targets, but the important ones usually are. Targets include not only parameters of MXXX modules (e.g. filter frequency or reverb time) but also parameters within modulators and even parameters in other MPs.
If an MP is given a name, it will be seen in the simple view of a preset. We have not discussed simple vs. edit mode yet. Most of the images seen here have been captured in edit mode. But at the top of this article is a screen shot of MXXX in non-edit (or simple) mode. The controls on the left side of the screen are all MPs in their “user presentation” aspect.
One nice feature of the MP is that it can take on the units of the first assigned target. Thus in the simple mode screen at the top, we see some parameters being percentages, some being milliseconds and some being decibels. Mostly MPs will be continuous controls that range from a low to a high value, e.g. 0% to 100%. But they can also be a switch (on or off) or a trigger.
Both modulators and MPs have a quick-and-easy target assignment procedure. You simply put them in learn mode, click on and manipulate the targets value, and your assignment is made. Both Modulators and MPs have a bit of a learning curve – they are extremely powerful and deep. But the dedicated student will be well rewarded for their diligence should they take the trouble to master these mighty devices.
Putting It All Together
We’ve said little so far about the FX modules within MXXX. That will have to wait until part 2 of this review. But before we go, let’s look at one rather simple, but complete and practical preset implementation I created.
This is an effect that can be used to remove unwanted high-frequency content and replace it with a less strident content obtained from a saturation module. It works on the following principal. First we completely remove high frequency content (desired frequency cutover point to be provided by user) with a band-pass module. We send the output of the band-pass straight to an output slot and also to a saturator module, for which the user can specify the saturation type (a Melda contrivance – set by ear). The 100% wet output of the saturation module is sent to another band-pass module. This filters out content below the same frequency used in the earlier band-pass module – we don’t want to alter the original input signal in the lower frequency range. It also provides an optional low-pass filter which the user can use to filter the higher frequency content newly added by the saturator. The output of the second band-pass module is sent to an output slot where it will be evenly mixed with the output in the first column.
Here’s the edit-mode screen shot (partially cropped).
Note that five of the MP slots are in use. The first MP is connected to the global output gain control. The next row is for the two cutover frequencies. Finally, the third row of MPs controls saturation type and saturation amount. The saturation type MP is governs the Mode control in the saturator. The saturation amount governs the output level of the lower band-pass module.
The two frequency level MP configuration windows (the bottom window partially covering the top one) are shown below. Notice how the Max Dry Freq MP governs both the frequency of the low-pass filter in the first band-pass module and the frequency of the high-pass filter in the second.
And there you have it. Once you are adept at working with MPs, you can set something like this up in minutes. Once again, I want to emphasize that taking the time to learn to work with Melda modulators and MPs will pay off handsomely in the end if you have any investment at all in Melda effects.
That’s it for now. Next time we will take a close look at some of the FX modules available in MXXX. You can expect to see part 2 of this coverage in the next issue, provided MXXX is out of beta by that time.