Pimp Your Plugin

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Do you feel envious of those with access to full-featured, high-end plug-ins? Here are a few tips on how you can bring high-end functionality to your inexpensive low-end units with little expense.

by David Baer, Jan. 2014

Lexus Features on a Kia Budget for Your DAW Effects

Home studio producers who are just getting started or who are operating on a tight budget may occasionally feel envious of those with access to full-featured, high-end plug-ins. I’m talking about effects that commonly support independent stereo channel control, Mid-Side processing and/or multi-band capabilities.  Fab Filter plug-ins, to name one example, nearly always offer independent stereo and M/S capability and have several modules that do multi-band as well.  But this kind of quality and control is rarely found in the modules that come bundled with a DAW or those that are free (or very low cost) independent effects.  High functionality usually comes at a premium price.

Granted, any simple plug-in can be drafted into M/S or multi-band service within a DAW using send busses.  But doing this not only takes a fair amount of time to set up and is cumbersome, such configurations must be built from scratch each time you want to set them up.

However, there is a way to achieve this goal without spending an inordinate amount of money.  It involves acquiring a VST “rack” module that can host VSTs in parallel fashion and which has (or can host) M/S conversion modules.  Blue Cat Audio’s MB-7 Mixer is such a plug-in.  It appears to be highly capable, but its $129 USD price is a bit too much to allow a “low-budget” label.

Another possibility is DDMF’s Metaplugin.  It can do everything we’re talking about here and its everyday price is $49 USD (with brief occasional sales offering significant discounts for those who are decisive and who are on DDMF’s mailing list).  We’ll be using Metaplugin in this tutorial to illustrate how easy it is to put together both M/S and multi-band composite plug-ins in no time at all.

Metaplugin can host most VST plug-ins (and AU on the Mac), with a few exceptions.  If your DAW offers some older Direct X plug-ins, you can forget those.  Waves plug-ins, with their unique underlying technology will not work, nor will plug-ins that are restricted to running only within a host DAW.  Finally, for now anyway, Metaplugin does not support the VST3 format, although Metaplugin’s developer, Christian Siedschlag, promises that VST3 compatibility will be forthcoming when the C++ JUCE class library (a free technology widely used in multimedia applications) adds VST3 support.  Metaplugin comes in 32-bit and 64-bit versions, with the 64-bit version able to host 32-bit plug-ins via JBridge.

Metaplugin actually has three components: the plug-in host itself, a simple L/R to M/S (and vice versa) module, and a four-band splitter module.  To use Metaplugin, simple put an instance into your DAW as you would any plug-in.  The initial interface looks like this:

Right click to load a hosted effect (or drag from file browser window).  Double click the icon to see the effect’s UI.  If you’re plug-ins are scattered about in many directories, navigation to them can be a little tedious, but once you’ve got one loaded, you can easily get more of the same with a context menu option.

Use the mouse to create connections by dragging an output to an input (or vice versa).  The white “terminals” are audio and the yellow ones MIDI.  Metaplugin supports MIDI input if you need that level of control.  In fact Metaplugin can host a synth as easily as an effect.  But you do have to make sure MIDI is getting routed to the Metaplugin instance, which is sometimes easier said than done, depending on your DAW.

But we’ll be focusing exclusively on audio routing in this tutorial.  You can just host plug-ins in parallel and serial combinations or you can get really fancy and introduce M/S or multi-band processing.

To convert an L/R signal pair to M/S, include an instance of the companion MidSide helper plug-in prior to the effect you want to operate in M/S mode (and presumably include another after the effect to convert back to L/R).  For multi-band, use the companion Crossover plug-in.  You’ll see an example of both techniques below.

That’s all there is too it.  When you’ve finished your creation, you can save the preset for effortless reuse elsewhere.  Easy-peasy!

We’re going to look at two roll-your-own effect examples here: a multi-band delay effect, and an effect that applies reverb to the side signals only, leaving the middle crystal clear. I am not going to demonstrate how one can expose controls in the hosted effects to automation, but it’s rather straightforward and the documentation clearly shows how it would be done.  Just consider that an exercise for the reader to complete.  😉

I used SONAR X2 to host these two projects, but I used non-SONAR effects to include within Metaplugin.  In one case, a SONAR delay was direct X, and a SONAR-bundled reverb I might have otherwise use was hobbled outside of SONAR (that is, it works only when directly hosted by SONAR, but not indirectly hosted via Metaplugin).

First, let’s build a multi-band delay.  I wanted a three-band effect with different delay setups within each band.  The illustration below shows the Metaplugin interface and the accompanying crossover UI.  I’m not using one of the available bands (three was plenty in this case), but could have added a fourth.  In fact I could have added even more bands by cascading the crossover plug-ins within Metaplugin.


Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge

For the delays, I used the highly-qualified Fab Filter Timeless 2 effect, ignoring all but its most fundamental features.  You can see the three instances in the images to the right.  I enabled the HP filter for the lowest frequency band and the LPF for the highest.  No other filtering was necessary.  From there it was just a matter of dialing in the desired delay parameters for each band and setting the wet-dry ratio.  I controlled the ratio within Timeless 2, but could have as easily done it at the higher Metaplugin level.

You can listen to the results in the brief clip below.  An Omnisphere factory preset was used unaltered and with no other effects in the processing chain.  The clip contains a short passage with Metaplugin disabled followed by one with the effect doing its thing.

   Multiband Delay Demo

The wet level was set little higher than it would want it in normal circumstances to be more easily heard.  All in all, I was quite pleased with the results, and I could easily see coming back to use this effect in other contexts.

Building the M/S reverb composite effect was even easier than the multi-band delay.  For this I used the Nomad Factory Blueverb effect, which has a pleasant vintage style (I was not after a breathtakingly realistic reverb by any means).  The idea in this case was to add some aural haziness to the side signals while maintaining complete clarity in the center.  The Metaplugin interface used for this, along with the two MidSide helpers, is shown below.

And here is the Blueverb setting used.

As you can see, this is all very straightforward – something you could do yourself in no time at all.  The results can be heard below.  This time, there was one additional plug-in added inserted before Metaplugin: an instance of Melda Production’s MStereoSpread.  This was done because the Omnisphere preset didn’t have a lot of inherent stereo content, so MStereoSpread was employed to add some.  Otherwise, there is nothing else in the mix.

   MS Reverb Demo

Once again, I was very pleased with what this effect added, although, again, I was a bit more heavy-handed with the wet signal for illustration purposes.

Now, even if you think these particular usages in my examples here are boring or unsuitable to your style of music, I have a hard time believing anyone couldn’t find dozens of uses for M/S and multi-band extensions to their plug-ins if these capabilities were readily available.  Certainly, there are more prosaic applications that involve compression and/or EQ you could envision, things that your listeners might not even notice due to tasteful subtlety.  But whether you’re going for understated refinement that’s not obvious to the listener, or instead looking for some “in-your-face” alterations to your sound, this approach offers a limitless range of possibilities.  Oh, and by the way … it’s a whole lot of fun putting these things together in the bargain.


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