Review – Soundtoys Effects Suite, Part 1
Soundtoys has some extremely loyal and enthusiastic fans in the computer music production community. We take a look here to see what all the excitement is about.
by David Baer, Jan. 2016
Version 5 of the Soundtoys collection of FX plug-ins appeared the first part of 2015. Prior to that, using Soundtoys software required an iLok dongle. With version 5, iLok authorization was still in the picture, but like a lot of other software vendors recently, Soundtoys has made the need for a physical dongle optional. So, while I had had little interest prior to version 5 due to the iLok requirement, the new dongle-less capability was motivation to check out Soundtoys to see what all the enthusiasm was about.
The Soundtoys effect suite consists of eighteen modules. That number includes the Soundtoys rack (more in a moment about that), three “junior” versions of full modules, and two versions of the filter module (one-filter and two-filter incarnations). The functions of the modules comprise several distortion effects (amp simulation counting as distortion), a couple of delay-type FX units, a granulation effect, a phaser, the filter modules, a pan module, a tremolo module, a stereo widener and a pitch/formant-shifter.
We will examine all the major plug-ins in two parts. In this issue we will look at six units that are probably the most complex with respect to modulation capabilities and the like. The remaining units will be covered in the next issue of SoundBytes.
We are not going to cover every single plug-in. Specifically, the three lite versions will be ignored. We’re just going to look at the full versions. We will just look at one version of the filter module. Finally, the rack container (pictured at the top of this article) won’t be covered. While it might be useful to some, one can only include Soundtoys modules in a rack configuration, and the inability to include straight-up EQ and/or compression makes it of marginal value to my way of thinking. Readers interested in the rack are invited to it check out at the Soundtoys web site:
Before getting down to business, it merits mention that SoundToys is to be resoundingly commended for a pre-Christmas initiative in which they offered the lite versions of their plug-ins as pay-what-you-will, with all the proceeds being donated to an organization dedicated to refugee safety. You rock, Sound Toys! You truly do.
Let’s start with a few general observations. First, this software is available as 32-bit and 64-bit AAX, VST 2 and AU formats. I must say that Soundtoys and I did not get off to a very good start since the installer rudely installed the AAX versions unbidden – don’t need ‘em, don’t want ’em on my DAW, thank you very much.
This is not cheap software at list price, with many of the individual units priced in the $149 to $199 USD range. The bundle for the whole collection of all eighteen components is $499 USD. However, Soundtoys has the occasional sale with notable discounts. In the Black Friday sale period just ended as I’m writing this, individual plug-ins were discounted about 65% and the bundle was $299 USD, which started to make acquiring one or more of the plug-ins or the whole bundle a much more attractive proposition. The bundle was even spotted at under $270 at one of the independent retailers, or a hard-to-resist fifteen bucks per plug-in (even if some of those plug-ins are the lite versions that you would not really need if you are buying the bundle in the first place).
Most of the plug-ins are suitable as insert effects given the presence of a Mix (dry/wet) control – in fact, for FilterFreak, using this as an insert, as opposed to a send, is strongly recommended in the documentation. Many of the effects have a Tweak button on the front panel which causes more detailed parameter control to be exposed – we will see this in action as we progress.
The documentation for everything is not only completely adequate, and some of it is actually quite entertaining to read, especially when the historical context of an effect is being discussed.
As to historical context, I think that’s where Soundtoys effects stand out. If you are interested in highly versatile but pristine-sounding fare, check out MeldaProduction, for example, or even the effects that came with your DAW software. But if you want a vibe that is truly vintage-sounding, you’re in the right place. Soundtoys should definitely be on your short-list of candidates if that’s principally what you are after.
We will start first with the phasor effect, PhaseMistress, for several reasons. First, it is one of my favorites. But it also incorporates a variety of modulation capabilities found in several other FX. We’ll look at those capabilities in some detail here, so this will be a more in-depth look than any of the other FX.
For the reader who does not know what a Phasor effect is all about, here’s the short version. A signal has one or more all-pass filters applied, usually with the filter frequency being modulated via LFO or the like. The filtering causes phase shifting near the center frequency of the filter. When the resultant signal is mixed back in with the original, comb filtering results and we have some nice other-worldly audio results.
The UI above is the “simple view”. Clicking the Style Edit button or the Tweak button will reveal much more control, as you’ll see shortly. The Frequency and Resonance are the center frequency and Q (bandwidth) of the filter, or the center position of a group of such filters. Mod specifies the depth of modulation – on which there will be more detail shortly. Mix is the dry/wet control.
On the far right, we have the Input and Output level controls. These, as in a number of other Soundtoys effects, can be used to great purpose in introducing saturation. This is where Soundtoys really comes into its own. Additional controls on the Tweak interface (which you’ll see shortly) can dictate the nature of the saturation.
The sub-panel that has the Rate control will appear differently for types of modulation specified. In this case we’re seeing the LFO option. Other options include ADSR, Envelope, Random and Rhythm. The LFO sub-panel is replaced with the respective panels shown below. All modulations affect the frequency and/or resonance of the filters.
LFO does just what it says. One can select from a small set of LFO waveforms or create a custom shape. Note that there is no host-sync option with LFO. If that is needed, one can use the Rhythm modulation type with which LFO modulation can be duplicated.
ADSR is a classic ADSR envelope modulation that can be triggered manually or when the signal threshold level is exceeded. Level triggered processing is always based on the primary input signal in SoundToys. There is no sidechain capability here or anywhere in the other Soundtoys effects.
Envelope is a near cousin to ADSR. The Thresh, Attack and Release function as that commonly found in compressors, but, again, there is no sidechain option. The Gain control is similar to Ratio in a compressor by specifying the overall sensitivity of the envelope.
Random is a sample-and-hold type modulation, which can change abruptly or gradually depending upon the Smoothing level applied. This can be host-tempo synced. Not illustrated here, another option is Step mode, which combines sample-and-hold random behavior with an envelope follower.
The most sophisticated modulation comes via the Rhythm option, and here we need to see the Tweak button in action. Many of the Soundtoys effects have a Tweak button which, when clicked, expands the UI to reveal much more control. In the case of PhaseMistress, what is on the Tweak menu will depend on which modulation option is selected. For Rhythm, what we see is shown below.
The upper row of the tweak area is present for all modulation modes. We use these controls to refine the modulation (how much goes to frequency vs. how much goes to resonance, etc.). The Analog Style is the aforementioned “flavor” of saturation.
The rest is all about the modulation. We can use a predefined shape or create a custom one (as shown in the screen shot). We can then take that shape and insert it into a sequence of a chosen length as a quarter-note chunk, eighth-note chunk, and so forth. You only get one shape, which may seem not nearly as flexible as step-modulation capabilities found in many other vendors’ products. But in practice, it turns out this is not all that great of a disadvantage. You can generate a lot of action even when limited to a single component-envelope shape.
Back to the main panel. We did not mention the Style Edit button. Below is what you see when clicking that.
If you recall my mentioning Soundtoys affinity for a vintage vibe, this is a perfect example of the lengths to which that quality is sought. We have 70 styles to choose among, or we can define our own using the controls along the bottom. To be honest, many of the styles sounded indistinguishable from others to me, but there is much diversity nevertheless and much, much vintage-sound territory is covered.
Let’s move on to another effect, FilterFreak, or actually in this case FilterFreak 2. They are the same apart from FilterFreak 2 sporting two filters rather than the single one in FilterFreak. The UI, with the Tweak portion of the screen revealed can be seen below.
The filters can be LPF, BPF HPF or BRF (band-reject) filters of 12, 24, 36, or 48 dB per octave roll-off. They can be in parallel or series.
Having spent much time on the modulation in PhaseMistress, there’s little more to be said here. FilterFreak offers the same five modulation types: LFO, Envelope, ADSR, Step, Random and Rhythm and they all work the same as in PhaseMistress.
Once you learn to use PhaseMistress, you’ll need very little effort to get up to speed on FilterFreak or vice versa.
The next effect does tremolo, which is modulating a sound’s volume (not to be confused with vibrato which modulating a sound’s pitch). Tremolo is pretty basic stuff, but in Soundtoys’ case, this is once again done with great reverence for classic methods of delivering the sound manipulation. Below is the UI of Tremolator with the Tweak portion of the screen revealed.
At first glance this may appear to be yet another modulation variant of PhaseMistress and FilterFreak, but in this case, there is only the Rhythm modulation type available. And for tremolo, why would you need ADSR or the like? By now, you can probably deduce the operation by just looking at the controls available on the UI, so we’ll spend no more time on this one.
But now I’m going to throw you a curve. The next effect offers modulated panning – again pretty basic stuff. The UI with Tweak controls revealed for the Rhythm Shape modulation type can be seen below.
Your immediate impression may be that this is yet another incarnation of Rhythm modulation, the same as we’ve seen in the previous three effects. But look more closely and you’ll notice that some of the base values are higher than zero. This modulation works similarly but it’s not exactly the same.
We also have basic LFO, Random and Step modes. A new type is Ping Pong mode, which does pretty much what it says … hardly the stuff of rocket science.
The final modulation variant is unique to PanMan, that being Rhythm Step mode. The Tweak UI is shown below, in which we see something similar to Rhythm Shape, but as you can see, it utilizes a simple drawing to dictate panorama movement.
The last effect we’ll look at in this first installment is Echoboy, one of two delays in the Soundtoys catalog (the other, PrimalTap, models a specific piece of hardware and will be covered in the final installment). Echoboy does not model a specific piece of vintage gear, but it provides a flexible framework which can credibly recreate a number of classic delay boxes, be that technology tube, transistor, tape or other unusual solutions such as the one in TelRay’s Adineko which employed hazardous and toxic dielectric oil!
There are four modes of operation: single, double, ping-pong and rhythm. But before we get into the specifics of the modes, let’s talk about the Style setting, which can be applied to any of the modes. This controls the overall vintage character of however the delays are being doled out. The factory style presets are shown to the right, but you can create your own custom settings with the Style Edit interface.
There generic styles like Master Tape and Digital Delay. There are also specific modelled units like Space Echo recreating the Roland RE-201 and EchoPlex recreating the classic of the same name. One thing you will experience is that most of the presets will produce a bit of distortion – there will be grunge. So, if it’s purity of sound you’re after, Soundtoys may not be your first choice. Echoboy is mostly about the true vintage experience (or so I must believe, never having actually used any of that storied gear personally).
But back to the basics – the UI for the first mode, Single is shown just above, the screen shot including the expanded Style Edit UI. The Input and Output controls do their usual thing. Saturation dictates what happens in the delay signal only, not the dry signal. The delay time can be synced to MIDI. The Groove and Feel apply some adjustment to the precise delay amount. The Single Echo mode is otherwise straightforward.
To the right we see the leftmost subpanel for the other three modes. Dual Echo and Ping Pong are also rather straightforward. The most interesting of the modes is Rhythm. What we have here is an up-to-sixteen-tap echo unit. I’m familiar with at least a couple of software echo effects that offer a six-tap capability, but I’ve never seen this many in a single device.
The grid in the UI allows you to place echoes in relation to a timing template. The individual echoes may be placed anywhere (snapped to an exact grid position or not, as you wish) with the only restriction being that two echoes cannot occupy the same position. The strength of the echo is specified by the line height, but there’s no way to dictate individual pan position. However, a Tweak control (not shown) can be used to apply general panning rules to the multiple echoes. The Shape control allows a quick way of applying a loudness pattern (such as the Swell option shown in the screen shot).
All in all, Echoboy is a fairly complex effect that requires 40 pages of documentation to fully explain. My first impression was that it seemed rather straightforward. But the more I played around with Echoboy, the more its many possibilities revealed themselves and I grew to appreciate what a nice job SoundToys had done in the design of this plug-in.
Wrapping Up (for Now)
That does if for this installment. We have covered all the modulated modules except for another delay module in which modulation looks nothing like that we’ve seen here. We’ll return in the next issue of SoundBytes to look at the remaining effects, include my own choice as pick-of-the-litter, the delightful Crystallizer.