Review – Nomad Factory Magnetic II Bundle
by David Baer, Sept. 2013
Bundle of Joy
LA-based Nomad Factory is a plug-in effects developer of the first rank. It has an extensive catalog of offerings, some of which are generally held in very high regard. Their software is available in all current formats (VST2, but not VST3), and their authorization system is extremely customer friendly. Lastly, and although it’s immaterial with respect to sound quality, many of the plug-ins sport gloriously vintage interfaces that are a joy to look at.
So, when Nomad Factory introduces a new product, it’s definitely worth checking it out. Recently they did just that with Cosmos, a multi-purpose effect whose main mission is its function as a multi-band exciter. We’re going to look at Cosmos in this review, but because it’s a fairly simple effect, we’ll also take the opportunity to examine Echoes and Magnetic II. Why those three? The reason is simply that this trio of effects is available in a bundle for a reduced price, so a prospective buyer of Cosmos may want to consider picking up the bundle while they’re at it.
Let’s start with the new kid on the block. According to the promotional material on the NF web site, Cosmos “is the ultimate tool for sonic enhancement and low-end fattening that will elevate the sound of your tracks to soaring new heights. This audio sweetening plug-in faithfully emulates legendary audio hardware that is used in professional studios worldwide. COSMOS can be used in virtually any application”.
There are four individual functions. Two of them, the limiter and stereo imaging (widening) functions are commonplace. Their presence here is a convenience but nothing earth-shaking. They work just fine in my estimation and nothing further need be said.
The third function is a tunable sub-generator. The documentation doesn’t tell us a lot more than that about what this feature does or how it goes about it. The sub-bass tuning control “dials in the frequency of the sub-base generator” and the sub-bass drive control “boosts the drive amount of sub bass”. So are we all clear?
As best I can tell by looking at the output of Cosmos in the Span spectrum analyzer, the sub-bass processing involves a resonant filter, the cutoff of which is specified by the sub-bass-tuning control and the resonance by the sub-bass drive. But that’s just a guess. If it’s correct however, the function could easily be supplied by an EQ. So, for me this all is of little value.
But now we get to the final function, the harmonic enhancement capability. This is where Cosmos shines and proves it worth entirely. Once again, the documentation is not very generous in telling us what’s going on under the covers. We have two controls, Bottom Drive and Exciter Drive, that dictate the amount of sizzle added to two bands. That’s all we know.
But as the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding, and in my estimation, Cosmos can do amazing things in adding some clarity and/or excitement to a mix. Whatever its secret voodoo is, it’s something different than what you could achieve through EQ. I can think of situations where you’d want to use Cosmos on the occasional individual track, but suspect most of the time it would end up as a master bus effect.
One thing for which the Cosmos designers deserve credit is their restraint. Too often effects sound good when “drive” (or whatever) settings are in the lower ranges but go way over the top to the point of seriously degrading the sound quality at higher settings. Not so Cosmos. Extreme settings are “well-seasoned”, not “overly-seasoned”. And the factory presets (not that such are really needed on a device with so few controls) are actually practical and usable as is. What a concept!
Words are often inadequate in conveying qualities of sound, and that’s certainly the case here. All I can say it that I’m impressed with the quality of sound that Cosmos adds and I can readily suggest that you download a demo to see if it has a beneficial effect on your mixes. Don’t expect it to perform miracles – if you got a track that’s already over-driven and screaming, it won’t make it better. But when used at the right times, it can certainly earn its place in your plug-in collection.
Echoes is a delay unit claiming to offer the warmth of vintage delay effects. In the grand spirit of Nomad Factory interface design, the single user panel is a tribute to the electronic gear of yesteryear. And the rust corroding the unit’s front panel is a well-chosen visual embellishment. Echoes sounds vintage by anyone’s standard.
Echoes provides five different vintage models based on real-life devices:
- PLX-1 is based on the Maestro Echoplex. This device came on the scene in the early 60s. It used magnetic tape and featured a moving head that allowed changes in the delay time. The electronics were tube-based.
- PLX-3 is modeled on a successor to the Maestro Echoplex called the EP3. It first appeared in the early 70s. The EP3 abandoned the tubes of its predecessor in favor of transistors.
- The EXH-DM is modeled on the Electro Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man, a highly popular transistor stomp-box that offered chorus and vibrato effects in addition to echo.
- The OILCAN is modeled upon the most fascinating contraption of the bunch, the Tel Ray Echo. This unit incorporated technology that sounds like something out of steam-punk science fiction. It used a rotating platter of carbon particles that acted as a massive number of tiny capacitors to capture the signal to be repeated. The “oil”, which acted as both insulator and lubricant, is said to have been a nasty carcinogenic brew full of PCBs. Ah vintage gear!
- The ADM-2 is based on the Boss DM-2, another extremely popular stomp-box from the early 80s that incorporated solid-state electronics.
The interface could hardly be more straightforward. A stereo spread control is situated between the input and output level knobs. On the bottom we have knobs for echo time, left/right Ping-Pong control, echo model type, repeats (i.e., feedback) and wet/dry mix.
There are three knobs in the center row. What these control depends on which model device is selected. For example, the EHX-DM, which had a chorus capability presents modulation speed and depth controls. For the PLX-1, we have wow-and-flutter and tube drive. In all cases, the rightmost knob is the echo level.
Do they sound like the originals? Since I have none of the physical units to compare them against, I honestly can’t say. Of one thing you can be certain: each of these options has a distinctive sound. And part of that distinctive sound is a fair amount of “grunge” in one form or another.
The real question that a prospective owner will need to answer is whether the grunge provides the vintage character you’re after. We’re not talking just about “low-fi” or narrow bandwidth processing (although that’s part of the perceived result in some cases), but actual distortion. The PLX-1, for example, can easily be overdriven. In fact, all models but the ADM-2 produce a bit of distortion that is difficult to suppress. For that reason, I’m not sure if Echoes is for everybody. But for those who get excited about a delay that offers distortion in the feedback loop, Echoes may totally be your cup of tea.
I couldn’t resist comparing the Oilcan setting in Echoes with another Nomad Factory plug-in I own, the Blue Tube Oilcan TLE2S. Although I found that I could coax similar sounds out of both, my preference would be for the BT Oilcan, which did not go into distortion no matter what I tried with it (and yet it sounds pleasantly antique). You may want the ability to coax distortion out of a delay, in which case your preference would probably be for the Echoes implementation.
Let’s have a show of hands. How many of you have actual hands-on experience with multi-track studio tape machines? Let’s face it, not many of us really have, and therefore most of us would not confidently know if a reproduction of the sound quality obtained when using such a machine was faithful to the original. And if most of us would not know that, how many of those who listen to our music would?
So in talking about Magnetic II, an analog audio tape warming effect, I’m going to assert something up front. It’s not important if it does or does not sound identical to classic tape consoles. What is important is that it makes our mixes sound better. And (spoiler alert!) Magnetic II does that indeed.
Magnetic II’s primary role is to introduce a tape-saturation-like quality to whatever is run through it. To that end, it would most normally be found on the master bus. But since it can simulate speeds down to primitive levels, you might occasionally want to use it on individual tracks that you wanted to make sound low-fi and ancient.
But mostly, we’d of course want to use it to improve an already good sound, and to that end, we’re going to be more interested in the higher speed simulations.
We should mention that Magnetic II supplies some limited EQ capability and a mastering limiter (which seems to perform splendidly), but those are not the reasons you’d add this effect to a mix. No, it’s all about the tape. And how well does it perform in that regard?
I’ve already given away the answer. I love this effect. I do have to say some things that might be interpreted as negative. But my criticisms are merely to point out things in the product that I think are inconsequential and that are unnecessary bells and whistles, but are essentially harmless.
At the top of that list are the various models of tape console being simulated. To be completely frank, I could not hear any difference in any of them when using tape speeds at or above 15ips. And I’m not sure if I could actually hear variations in the sound when playing with the tape color control. Admittedly, my age is such that I cannot expect my hearing to be as acute as someone a good deal younger, so maybe that’s a factor. But in the end, once again, the proof is in the pudding and Magnetic II works magic, even to these sixty-five year old ears.
As with Cosmos, I quite appreciate that the factory presets are practical and usable as is (is it a coincidence that they all use the generic tape model and none of the specific real-life models?). If you download Magnetic II for a demo, you need not even read the documentation (not that it’s all that lengthy), but instead just start calling up factory presets. You’ll get an immediate sense of what this plug-in does and whether it would fit with your way of mixing.
Are These Plug-ins for You?
Let’s look at the numbers. The current listed prices at Don’t Crack (not the only place to buy these, but one of my go-to sellers) for Cosmos, Echoes, and Magnetic II are respectively $129, $99 and $99 USD. The bundle of all three (labeled the Magnetics Bundle) is $225. So, nothing here is in the no-brainer range. On the other hand, I would not be surprised if owners of Cosmos and Magnetic II found themselves reaching for those two effects with some frequency, so the price might easily be justified. In my estimation, Echoes is a much more specialized plug-in and may be considerably harder to cost-justify for the home music producer.
But even if the prices right now are a little out of your range, you should check out these plug-ins by downloading demo version from the Nomad Factory downloads page:
Significant discounts for Nomad Factory gear do come along from time to time. If you can’t afford them immediately, a little patience may pay off handsomely. Do yourself a favor. Make like a Boy Scout and “Be Prepared”.