Plugin Alliance – Black Box Analog Design HG-2
A software incarnation of a well-known piece of hardware that provides plenty of options for adding an analog spice to separate instruments, the whole mix, or a mastered final.
by Alex Arsov, Mar. 2017
This is a plug-in recreation of a well-known piece of hardware from Black Box Analog Design, and it shares the same name as its hardware counterpart: HG-2. The hardware version is a stereo unit used by many professionals all over the globe, its main purpose to add saturation, harmonics and natural compression. An ideal tool for mixing and mastering. The hardware box contains two different 12AX7 tubes providing high voltage 6U8A Pentode and Triode tube stages with all the additional controllers that will allow you to fine tune the end results. Plugin Alliance joined forces with Black Box, recruiting Brainworx to help them make a plug-in version emulating the sound, behavior and functions of the hardware unit.
I don’t own the hardware form of the Black Box Analog Design HG-2, so I can’t compare them, but after spending some time with HG-2, I’m more than pleased with the achieved results. When using some subtle settings I found that it can add some spirit at the mastering stage by pulling most of the instruments together, gluing the mix and making it harmonically more consistent. Because I added just a subtle a bit of everything, the end result was also subtle, hardly noticeable, but you can still hear the difference when switching it off, hearing how some instruments just fall down and get lost in the mix. Of course, using it on masters is only one of the possible scenarios. It also adds a bit of character and definition using it on all buses and it also solves some problems on separate instruments, making them sit better in the mix. HG-2 can go from subtle harmonics up to strong saturation. Of course, adding too much saturation on anything can do more harm than good. So, subtle is the name of the game.
HG-2 comes with a nice number of presets. These were made by Eric Racy, co-owner of Black Box Analog Design, and Trevor Case, who is a well-known producer. All presets prove to be a great starting point, covering a big range of mix, master and separate instrument solutions. I decreased saturation and air on most of them, along with adapting the volume level on most of them to find a spot where HG-2 doesn’t add any additional loudness to signal, giving you the impression that everything is better just because it’s louder. I understand that those settings on all the presets should be a bit higher, to show what this tool can do, so I took few minutes adapting them to my needs.
I fell in love with this one, discovering that even with subtle settings it adds a nice definition to any instrument, but for better results it is absolutely recommended to set all parameters on every instrument in the context of the whole mix. I tried it on everything and it proves to be just the right solution for adding some sub harmonies to the kick or bass guitar to make them deeper and fatter. Also a nice solution for the drum bus as a whole, making drums more prominent. And also great for adding definition and sharpness to the guitar and vocals. HG-2 is like salt, adding taste, but it is very easy to ruin everything by adding it too much. So, when you’ll download the fourteen-day fully functional demo, spend some time trying various presets. My only advice is, don’t go totally bonkers with all the knobs and buttons.
On the left is a Pentode section with a big Pentode knob for adding a more pleasant sort of distortion similar to those in a tube-based guitar amp. Next is a parallel saturation switch along with appropriate knob for applying the amount of that parallel compression. There is also a Low, Flat and High switch where we can define which frequency should be saturated. Low settings can add body and warmth, while high can add presence to the top end. At the bottom is an additional “Alt tube” switch for selecting the order between two tubes where the “Alt” option brings a bit more of an aggressive sounding character to the affected sound.
In the Triode section is a big Triode knob for adding harmonics that are similar to the ones we get from analog tapes. There is also an Air switch along with Air level knob for applying the amount of high frequency saturation. The last two are the output knob, for adjusting the output level, and bypass switch.
More or less, that is all. Not a huge number of options, but quite enough to get highly varied results. You can start by combining the ratio between Pentode and Triode level knobs, applying different levels to each. And this is only the beginning. Playing with all the different settings will give you quite versatile results that can be applied to different mix elements without giving you the impression that all colorations come from the same source. I like HG-2 mainly because it doesn’t change the character of the original sound in any unwanted or overly prominent way. HG-2 adds depth and character to the signal without bringing everything too much to the front, making the end result aggressive and lacking in dynamics (as could easily happen with many tube simulators that I’ve tried in the past).
This tool may worth every cent that you’ll spend on it, but I have to admit that I would rather see it be a bit lower-priced. $249 USD could be a bit overpriced for a virtual effect. I’m not talking about quality, but more about the price in general. I know that mastering tools don’t come cheap in any case. I’m also not so keen on seeing Plugin Alliance allow us to have only two activations – though to be fair it can be deactivated on one computer and activated on another. Also I presume if you give some reasonable explanation as to why you need another activation, it may not be such a big problem to get it – at least this is true with most other developers, but I don’t have any experience with Plugin Alliance. There is also an option to set up registration on USB, but it doesn’t work with e-Licenser or iLok. Somehow I’m not so keen to carry a million dongles around with me. (I subsequently learned that each full license comes with 3 machine activations at a time and that additional machine authorizations can be purchased at very deep discounts.)
No matter all that though, it is a fact that Brainworx nailed all those discrete sprinkles that we call Analog, adding that “something” without crossing the line by changing the main character of the effected sound. HG-2 sounds great and it can definitely add life to your mixes or even separate tracks. After all, this is what counts – to have a tool that does its job. And this one does.