Review – Don’t Crack Plug & Mix V.I.P. Bundle

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Effect aficionados (would that be “efficionados”?) will be in seventh heaven with this collection of VST plug-in that cover the full range of sound sculpting capabilites.

by David Baer, July 2013

Deal of the Century?

In March of this year, on-line vendor Don’t Crack offered a group-buy for a 40-piece ensemble of plug-ins called the Plug & Mix V.I.P. Bundle.  The bundle at that time retailed for $399 and the group buy target price was $99 when sufficient subscribers were signed up.  Not being one who can resist a $2.50/plug-in offer, especially for plug-ins sporting rather delightful user interfaces, I jumped on the bandwagon irrespective of not having downloaded them to demo first.  The target price was achieved, and thus I’m able to offer a review of this package today.

First let’s get the basics out of the way.  The bundle is available for all current mainstream formats on PC and Mac in both 32-bit and 64-bit.  A customer-friendly authorization system is all that is required and the demo restrictions allow plenty of freedom to take them for a thorough test drive.  The possibility exists for additional effects to be added to the bundle in the future, and customers who own the bundle are promised free upgrades.

At the time this is being written, the bundle sells for $249 (on sale from $299), and individual plug-ins can be had for $39.  I believe that in the past, Don’t Crack had a deal that offered a free upgrade to the full bundle after some number of individual units was purchased, but that doesn’t seem in evidence at the moment.  In any case, as of right now, the per-effect price is about $6.25 … not as good as the group buy opportunity but still not bad if there are a sufficient number of plug-ins that you’d actually use.

We’re not going to look at every plug-in here — not even close to all of them.  Instead we’ll take a look at a handful close up to hopefully give you enough of an idea of what to expect in the overall collection.  Before doing that, though, we can consider some common characteristics shared by most.

First, they are all simple, with very few knobs and a user interface that’s so intuitive you’re not likely to need documentation.  Even where function isn’t evident, there are so few controls that a little experimentation is all that’s needed to understand how to use any of these devices.  All of the units come with factory presets and the ability to save user presets.  While useful, the effects have such simple control panels that presets don’t buy all that much.

While the UI design aesthetic is of no consequence as far as the final sound, I have to say the V.I.P. “front panels” are delightful and can bring a little joy into an otherwise dreary day.  Visually, they rock.

Their functions are all over the map: distortion (amp simulation, bit reduction, etc.), compression, EQ, reverb, and so on.  All the conventional bases are covered.  Most of what you get will duplicate functionality you probably already own if you have any mainstream DAW installed.  So why bother considering the collection in the first place?  Here’s the reason: You will probably find a handful of effects that you consider real gems, even if you think the majority are unneeded in your setup.  If the price is right, you may find the bundle a worthwhile purchase.  The hitch is that everyone is likely to have their own list of favorites, so you’ll have to work out on your own which ones the gems are.

Another quality that makes this bundle attractive is that the effects beg to be assembled in chains.  Again, their simplicity and focused purpose make them not only easy to use individually but also in groups.  If your DAW supports effect chains (e.g., as does SONAR), you might have a ball inventing your own custom composite effects.

With that out of the way, let’s look at several of the plug-ins close up.  I selected the first two of these because for me they’re the “pick of the litter.”  The others were picked just because I think they are nicely representative of the group as a whole.

Chorus Classic

I fell in love with Dimension 3D at first listen.  It is said to be based on the Roland SDD320 “Dimension D” manufactured in the late 70s.  Don’t Crack asserts that the unit adds the highly sought after detuning effect heard on countless classic rock records and continues to be used on modern club tracks.  The problem with that claim is that if the effect is in evidence to the point it’s noticeable on a recording, it may not be a sound you want to embrace.  As with so many plug-ins in this collection, a little goes a long way.  It doesn’t take much to overdo it with Dimension 3D, turning gorgeous warmth into cloying suffocation.  But at more restrained settings, the transformations preformed can be gorgeous.

Other than the input trim and output gain knobs, there is just one knob: Detune.  Along with this we have Mode selectable via three buttons: D1, D2 and D3 (D for depth amount perhaps?).  Documentation?  We don’t need no stinkin’ documentation!  You can find the setting you like best through experimentation faster than you could open a help file in the first place.

The Dimension 3D is not the only chorus in the bundle, by the way.  We also have a more conventional chorus effect available in the P&M Chorus Ensemble.

Cool Vibes

My other favorite is the Cool-Vibe, said to be based on the Uni-Vibe, a stomp box from the late 1960s used by artists from Jimmy Hendrix to Pink Floyd.  According to Wikipedia, the Uni-Vibe, “though often associated with chorus, is in fact created through a staggered series of phasing filters, unlike the usually aligned filters of a normal phasing effect.”

Like the Dimension 3D, the effect can all too easily be overdone.  With restraint, this effect can turn something merely pretty into something absolutely beautiful.  But turn the dial up just a bit more and you’ll think about opening the windows for some fresh air.

You can control the speed of the effect — it does provide right-left image movement and the speed can be synced to host temp.  The width of movement is controlled by the Width knob.  Three modes are offered: Sweet, Mellow and Deep.  This strikes me a little like asking “do you want that small, medium or orange?”  But, no matter, like all the other effects in the collection, the simple interface makes it easy to rapidly find a usable setting with only brief experimentation.

The bundle also offers an auto-pan module called Tremolo Pan which does what it says and is very basic.  Cool-Vibe can impart some of that quality as well, but can produce so much more of a beguiling quality in my opinion.

Granulizer

Next we look at one of the more unique offerings, the Granulizer.  Native Instrument’s Absynth synthesizer has a stunning effect called Aetherizer.  It chops audio into short “grains”, manipulates them in various ways and recombines them to produce completely transformed (or just partially transformed) sounds.  Absynth can be used as just an effects unit to process the output of other synths.  However, it requires MIDI note events even in this capacity.  Sending MIDI to an effect can be somewhat of a pain to set up in some DAWs.  So, I had high hopes for Granulizer because one might expect it will do largely the same without the MIDI routing hassle.

However, I was disappointed in the inability to reproduce the quality of the Aetherizer effect.  It appears that Aetherizer uses the MIDI note events to do more than just open gates.  While Aetherizer can produce some ethereal transformations, Granulizer’s agenda tends towards chaos.

So what does Granulizer do to sound?  It … um … “granualizes” it?  This is one of those things that you just have to hear — it’s too difficult to put into words.  Trying out the presets should get you well down the path to understanding this effect as long as you start with simple sustained sounds so that you can get a sense of what it’s all about.  That’s not to say you might not find it of use with non-sustained sounds.  But it can totally annihilate the identity of the original sound, so when you evaluate it, feed it something simple and easily recognizable to get a sense of how Granulizer rips sounds apart and reassembles them.

 

The Leslie Mystique

I’ve never played an organ with a Leslie rotating speaker, so I cannot be a great judge how well the LS-Rotator effect pulls off its Leslie simulation.  But although I haven’t performed with one, I certainly have heard them, and I must say that this one sounds like the real deal to my ears.  I think it’s absolutely stunning.  Try it on electronic organ, by all means, but don’t stop there.  It does magical things with synth strings, for example.  One of the great things about this effect is that it’s a plug-in.  I have Leslie effects in several synths, but they are on-board effects.  With LS-Rotator, I can place a Leslie speaker simulation on virtually anything I like.  Better yet, this effect has more control options than any synth-resident Leslie effect I’ve seen.  For example, there’s a Spread slider control that controls the width of the stereo image.

Unlike many of the other effects in the bundle, this one is not so easily misused by over-driving it.  At high drive settings, the results are gritty but delicious to my ears.  A quick trip through the half-dozen or so presets will give you an excellent demo of what to expect.  The LS-Rotator is a total winner in my book.  My only regret is that I can’t completely turn off the speaker-rotation effect and just use the distortion processing, which I have a feeling might sound righteous on its own.

 

Pass the Dust, Please

One of the more unusual effects in the V.I.P. Bundle produces vinyl record surface sounds.  Three types of sounds can be combined: background surface noise, dust and scratches.  Controls allow you to set surface noise amount and tone quality and set dust and scratches amounts and rates (platter rotation speed) individually.

There are four factory presets with this one.  One has the amusing name “Dirty Needle.”  Another name, one I hope the developers wish they could take back, is “Amy Crackhouse.”  Tsk, tsk!

Admittedly, this is not the sort of thing you’re going to be reaching for very often.  But it’s nice that the bundle does have some reasonably unique effects in its bag of tricks.  There’s not a lot more to say about Vinylizer.  It only does something that’s well off the beaten track, but it does it very well indeed.

 

VIP – Very Interesting Purchase

For $99, I couldn’t be happier with my purchase of the V.I.P. bundle.  Of the 40 effects, there are some that I am unlikely to ever want to use under any circumstances.  Then there are the mainstream mixing plug-ins that duplicate functionality I’ve already got in spades: compressors, EQs, limiters, etc.  What’s left is a collection of plug-ins I’m delighted to have acquired.

Is the V.I.P. bundle for you?  Well, first of all, if it ever comes up for sale at $99 again, I’d suggest that you just jump on it.  At the current price of $249 it’s obviously a more difficult call.  Basically, you simply need to download the demo package, find which effects float your boat and determine if there are sufficient ones to warrant your purchase of the bundle.  You probably will come up with a three-part list much as I did: effects that you flat out would never use, effects that you like but that duplicate the function of things you already own and like at least as well, and finally, effects that won’t want to be without.  If that final group is too short of a list to justify buying the bundle, you still have the option of picking up them up individually for $39.

More information here:

http://www.dontcrack.com

 

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