Review – Soundtoys Effects Suite, Part 2
Soundtoys has some extremely loyal and enthusiastic fans in the computer music production community. We resume and conclude our examination of their effects suite here.
by David Baer, March 2016
In the last issue of SoundBytes, we took a look at a number of FX modules in the current Soundtoys catalog, all the ones that utilized on-board modulation. That article can be seen here:
Review that (or at least the Overview section) for information on pricings, etc. In this issue, we conclude the survey. Since none of the modules incorporate modulation this time, the task here is a bit simpler, since most of the modules are rather straightforward in the way they operate.
We begin with one of my favorite of the lot, Chrystallizer. This effect does manipulation of sound with granulation techniques, similar to those found in instruments that implement granular synthesis, but, of course, the actual sound production is left to an external source. But it’s not that easy to pin down what this marvelous unit can do. In Soundtoy’s own words (from the Chrystallizer user manual): we think of it more as an incredibly creative, powerful, new granular-pitch-splice-forward/backward-echo-plus-space-drive-shimmer-accumulator-effect-device. That’s not a bad summary, in my opinion.
Chrystallizer has its roots in a once-revered hardware unit, the Eventide H-3000 Harmonizer, which included an algorithm called Reverse Shift. When combining this process with feedback and delay, various magical results can be obtained, and this is exactly what Chrystallizer delivers.
Granulation is a process in which incoming audio is sampled in discreet segments (grains) of contiguous samples. These grains then can be played back with all manner of modification: techniques like altering the pitch, playing with the playback sequence, and even reversing the playback direction are all possible. Throw a feedback mechanism into the process, and introduce randomization of various factors, add MIDI-sync, and you start to get close to what Chrystallizer delivers.
But wait, there’s more. There’s also a combo control for either gating or ducking the affected signal. Several different controls can be used to offset L and R playback characteristics. And there’s also EQ control over the resultant processed sound.
This is a complex unit with many sound alteration possibilities. Owners of NI’s Absynth have an on-board effect called the Aetherizer that does similar things (Absynth can be run as an effect), and MeldaProduction has MMultiBandGranular that also competes in this space. Which is best? Such an investigation would be worthy of a complete article in its own right and is a bit beyond the scope of what we have time for here. But make no mistake, Chrystallizer is a gem, and should definitely be considered when shopping for something in this unusual category.
PrimalTap is a faithfully modeled incarnation of the Lexicon Prime Model 93 Digital Delay Processor (introduced almost 40 years ago). It’s aggressively vintage in vibe, and the features seem a bit primitive by today’s standards. So why is it that this thing is simply so damn much fun? I’ll leave it to you to see if you have the same reaction and, if so, to try to explain why.
The original unit was a digital device that was produced when computer memory was painfully expensive. As a digital delay, that memory was the mechanism that offered a delayed playback, but the designers had to be stingy with how it was allocated. Specifically, delay length could be multiplied by a factor of 1, 2, 4 or 8. But the sample rate was halved at each step to conserve memory space, leading to a decidedly low-fi sound at the extreme.
There are two independent delay lines present that can operate in Time and Beat modes, the former being clock time and the latter being MIDI-synced time. I said earlier that the FX units in this article do not implement on-board modulation. Well, that was not entirely true, since PrimalTap does indeed have a primitive LFO capability. But the modulation options here are not nearly as sophisticated as those we saw in the FX covered in Part 1 of this survey, such as in the far-more-versatile EchoBoy delay unit. Depth and pan can be modulated via the LFO. But the LFO cannot modulate delay time, which is probably just as well, since changing these values in flight result in some heavy-duty glitching that is faithful to the original (or so the documentation tells us).
Rounding out the feature set are some algorithm choices (Classic, Criss-Cross, etc.) and some feedback control. As stated earlier, this one is a load fun. A scaled-down version, Little PrimalTap, is also available at a substantially reduced price.
Once again, Soundtoys reveals their affection for vintage character with this poor excuse of a limiter, if limiting was what you were after. It is based on the Shure Level-Loc Model M62 Audio Level Controller, originally aimed at use with podium mics for keeping the audio in PA systems level.
But limiting is not its real purpose this time around. Instead it excels at adding saturation and distortion to the point of being over-the-top. To be sure, it can be used with considerable restraint to put a slight glow on an audio track. But given the factory presets, I have a feeling the Soundtoys engineers were not all that interested in restraint.
The controls are minimal. Crush dictates how much signal is sent to the gain-reduction circuit. Crunch controls how much gain is applied. Darkness controls the frequency of a low-pass filter. Finally, Mix controls dry/wet proportion. The Release switch allows the choice of a slower or faster release time for the gain reduction.
I do think it would have been wise and useful for Soundtoys to add an output gain control. This thing can not only saturate and distort, it can really amp up the audio level to the point you will need to apply post-effect attenuation.
Frankly, Devil-Loc Deluxe delivers on its mission in a way that’s far too extreme for anything I would probably ever wish to achieve. But if it’s grit you’re after, you’ll never be disappointed that there’s too little here. A scaled down version with only Crush and Crunch control is also an option at a substantially reduced cost.
I have much the same reaction when using Radiator as I did to Devil-Loc Deluxe. This one, like Devil-Loc Deluxe, will introduce copious amounts of vintage character. Again, I think it goes for way more character than that I would ever wish to employ. But of course, different strokes, and all that.
Radiator is based on the Altec 1567 hardware tube mixer that had a boatload of gain available. According to the Soundtoys documentation, this unit played a big part in shaping the sound Motown between 1961 and 1964. Of course, Soundtoys is not just trying to put an amplifier in your hands. This thing is all about old-fashioned hardware noise.
The controls could not be more straightforward. On top there are a Bass and a Treble EQ control. We have Input to control the level of signal entering the circuit emulation processing. Mix controls dry/wet proportion and Output does what you’d expect. The Mic/Line switch controls impedance in the circuit emulation. Finally the Heat meter recreates the look and feel of the original.
Once again, a scaled-down entry-level version of this effect, the Little Radiator, is an option for the budget conscious.
If you haven’t had your fill of vintage character and saturation yet, the best is yet to come. Decapitator is all about saturation, from subtle to antagonistic-like-a-certain-US-presidential-candidate-aggressive. Rather than modelling a specific piece of gear, Decapitator provides five different styles of saturation, each based on real hardware models as follows:
- A – Ampex 350 tape recorder
- E – Chandler/EMI TG Channel
- N – Neve 1057 input channel
- T – Thermionic Culture Vulture – triode setting
- P – Thermionic Culture Vulture – pentode setting
Specific details of each of these modes are found in the documentation.
Operation is straightforward. Select one of the five styles by ear (or just go with a factory preset). The Mix and Output controls do just what you’d expect, although there’s an auto-gain function that can be invoked to keep the output at more or less the same irrespective of other settings. Drive does the expected, of course. Low-cut is a pre-saturation filter, with a Thump button to add a little resonance at the cutoff frequency. High-cut is post-saturation, with a selectable gentle or steep rolloff. Tone is a basic hi-fi-tone-type control. What does Punish do? Do you really need to be told?
Little Alter Boy
Little Alter Boy is intended for use on mono vocal tracks. It combines pitch shifting and formant manipulation and throws in a tube saturation processing found in Decapitator. We are specifically instructed to use it only as the first effect in any effects chain.
Three modes are present:
- Transpose – normal mode that simply shifts pitch with no correction
- Quantize – auto-tuning
- Robot – locks vocal track to a single note, selected with the Pitch control
The Pitch control is just what it says. Formant controls the application of a formant-type EQ curve, and it may be linked to Pitch with the so-named button.
Finally Drive governs saturation amount and Mix provides the usual dry/wet level control.
And finally we get to MicroShift, an effective track widener that uses reasonably subtle, time-varying pitch shifting along with delay as the means to differentiate between the L and R sounds and create enhanced stereo spread. Of course, this wouldn’t be a Soundtoys effect without a little saturation on tap, so we’ve got that as well. It is suitable for vocals, synths, guitars and many other kinds of recorded material.
Three styles are offered. The first two are based on specific presets from the H3000 multi-effects processor hardware unit. The third style is based on the AMS Neve DMX 15-80 broadcast delay unit. It is the most pronounced of the three styles, and I would venture a guess that it would probably be most mixer’s go-to choice.
Focus is a control that governs a cross-over frequency above which the effect is applied. The Delay control does the expected, as does Mix. Finally, Detune controls the amount of micro pitch-shifting.
A scaled-down, but very effective, entry-level version of MicroShift is offered for those on a budget called Little MicroShift. My personal assessment is that Little MicroShift gets the job done just fine and its bigger brother doesn’t bring all that much more to the party.
Are Soundtoys Effects for You?
We covered the pricing possibilities in Part 1, so I won’t repeat all that information here. But to quickly summarize: The individual units are fairly expensive but decent sales happen with moderate frequency. The best deal is to wait for a major sale, like Black Friday, and pick up the bundle for a price that would come to, perhaps, twenty-five dollars per effect. Now we’re talking pretty strong value, assuming you need and would use most of these plug-ins.
But, if you’re not looking for vintage character (and lots of it), you might wish to consider alternatives. MeldaProduction’s MCreativeBundle comes to mind as an alternative candidate that you may find preferable – it does many more things than the Soundtoys suite of FX, but it will not give you anywhere near the vintage character at which Soundtoys excels. Also, many producers swear by Soundtoys as promoting easy-to-dial-in results that quickly provide the just sound they’re looking for, and perhaps you’ll experience that same level of satisfaction in this regard. Soundtoys offers a no-risk way to find out if these tools are for you, so you’ve got nothing to lose except a bit of time should you wish to audition them first hand.
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