Technical Stuff: The Plugins of Perihelion
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Inspired, roughly, by my friend Tom Shear’s “My Favorite Things” posts over at his excellent blog Waveformless, I’ve decided to give a rundown of a few interesting pieces of software that went into the making of Perihelion. Perhaps at some point I’ll delve into the hardware side of things, but honestly that’s probably less interesting because, aside from some new microphones and a dilruba, I’ve been using the same hardware for years.
I’m setting aside a few major softsynths and softsamplers, because…well, regarding NI Massive, what can I say that isn’t already said better by some 15-year-old doing a terrible wobble-bass tutorial on youtube? There’s also a lot of FM8, and a good chunk of Kontakt. Also, both the orchestral and ethnic libraries from EastWest show up a lot – they sound great although frankly I think they’re both a little overdone in ambience and their proprietary software “Play” is a hog. That hasn’t stopped me from using them, of course. Even the stock Logic instruments, venerable though they are, get some play on this album.
|Part 1: Dynamics processors and EQ|
www.mcdsp.com I love this compressor. It’s a compressor toolkit, more than anything. It’s not direct models of vintage gear, but it has a lot of the vibe of those pieces. There’s a feed-forward, dbx160-ish comp, a Fairchild-like big knob, something roughly resembling an Empirical Distressor, and so forth. It also saturates when driven hard, which sometimes isn’t the greatest thing but is handy for catching the rogue peak.
www.cytomic.comA pretty badass emulation of an SSL4000-series master bus compressor. And now it’s included in Ableton Live9 so more and more folks will be able to get their hands on this piece of kit. It’s not appropriate for everything, and it has a very characteristic SSL-ish smackiness and thickness in the low-mids, but it is freaking great on drum busses and master busses. Which is basically what I use it for.
www.pspaudioware.comPSP has always made top-notch stuff. While VintageWarmer is pretty long-in-the-tooth now, it pretty much set the standard for all other “analog warming” plugins that came after it. The PSP sQuad EQ bundle is an incredible bang-for-the-buck package. So when they released “NobleQ” I was completely onboard. It’s modelled after a Pultec-style passive tube EQ, and is pretty analog and gooey – when you want it to be, since they were smart enough to add a “clean” switch and the ability to dial in the amount of tube saturation you want. But it’s a nicely sweepable EQ, it can dial up into the supersonic “air band” (although at lower sample rates, when you approach the nyquist it can get kind of crispy, but at 96khz it’s pretty fly). Great on vocals.
|Part 2: Saturation and Emulation|
|Slate Digital Virtual Console Collection
I messed around with a few other console-emulations. Okay, I messed around with a LOT of other console emulations. I ran demos of Waves NLS, bought the super-cheap SKnote “Stripbus” and Airwindows “Busscolors” plugins, tried Satson and a few others. They are all with their merits, and all substantially cheaper than VCC, but…well, VCC is the gold standard for a reason. It sounds great, it’s easy to use subtly (my main complain with Waves’ offering was that while it sounded good, you got FULL ON SATURATION) whether you wanted it or not. I don’t have any of the 5 consoles they emulate to test against, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of their models, but I do know they sound pretty freaking good, and really do help add depth to a mix.
|Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machines
www.slatedigital.comAnother one from Steven Slate and Fabrice Gabriel. I’d also tried a bunch of different tape saturators, and again VTM came out on top for roughly the same reasons as VCC. It can be used as a fine tool and not just a blunt instrument. My biggest complaint with it is that the “tape hiss” emulation is on by default. While I understand that some people, Steven Slate included, believe that 2″ tape hiss is integral to what made tape sound great, I just don’t want to deal with it.Still, it’s pretty freaking amazing, and surprisingly deep. While McDSP’s offering has slightly more options in terms of tape types, bias adjustment and bass bump, Slate’s just sounds more like…well, more like stuff recorded to tape. Now, admittedly, in the era of digital recordings and the fact that I’m making dance music, analog tape isn’t a necessity, that sort of glue offered by saturation really helps a mix congeal.
www.soundtoys.comSoundtoys often frustrates me – they’ve been slow to get 64-bit support, a few of their products are memory hogs, and one of their most anticipated products has been vaporware for nearly 2 years.That said, though, Decapitator is fricking amazing. On the surface, it appears to be just a distortion plugin. But it’s capable of much more. Between the drive control and the wet-dry mix, it can be used very surgically to provide a little extra coloration to a track to help it sit in a mix. It can do pretty brutal overdrives, too, if that’s what you’re into, but slapping it on an unruly bass track in Triode Tube mode, with a little bit of lo-end rolloff and some tone control adjustment, and suddenly things gel better. The guys at Dubspot.com seem to recommend it on everything. I think that might be going a bit far, but it really is pretty great.
|Kush Audio UBK-1
www.thehouseofkush.comIt’s not easy trying to explain what this thing is, or does. I mean, it looks a little like a saturation processor, because it has a saturation control. And it has a Density control that does something saturate-y. And it looks a little like a buss compressor, becasue it has a 2buss-kind of compressor to it, with some mysterious parameters to it like “squish” and “splat” and “smooth.”What it does is apply all these in varying amounts, with wet/dry mixes, in parallel. What that means is you basically add these effects to whatever you’re processing, but keep your dry signal intact. Which again doesn’t tell you a whole lot. The upshot is that it can add some real life and dynamics into tracks. It’s great on electronic drum busses, helping clicky static hi-hats breathe against big smashy snares and kicks. But used judiciously it’s also great on a 2buss.
|Part 3: Creative FX|
|Soundtoys Native FX
www.soundtoys.comPartially redundant, since Decapitator is included in this bundle, but the rest of the bundle is incredibly useful as well. EchoBoy is a memory hog on long delays, but it’s insanely tweakable and great for emulating analog bucket-brigated delays, doing interesting filtered delay taps, etc. And it has some very nice saturation/distortion built into the delay taps themselves, so your echoes can get grunged-up nicely. There’s Crystallizer, a seemingly weird effect that has proven to be quite useful for adding a bit of unusual character to just about anything – based on a shimmer effect from the old Eventide Harmonizers (unsurprisingly, since the company is made form a bunch of ex-Eventide engineers).Filterfreak is brilliant. It’s one of the best filtering plugins on the market. Not only does it sound nicely fat, it’s once again incredibly tweakable. It works great as a shaping-EQ too, especially in the “filterfreak2” configuration, which pairs two filters. Filters are modulateable in a number of different ways – env followers, LFO’s, SH, and there’s individual saturation types available too.Panman is another winner for doing complex stereo pan. Sounds kind of goofy, but it makes a number of jobs a lot easier than they are normally. Same with Tremolator – I don’t use tremolo a lot, but when I do, this one is the way to go. Phasemisteress is a configurable phaser – anotehr one that I don’t use often but when I do, this is a great-sounding, deep plugin.I confess, I haven’t had a need to use “Speed” yet.
www.fxpansion.comAs long as we’re talking about EchoBoy,there’s another great delay plugin on the market. Bloom is full of character, and extrememly tweakable, but I use it for entirely different things than EchoBoy. The modulation routings on this thing are insane. While I’m sure you could use it to emulate a Roland SpaceEcho or something, given you can hook up basically any parameter to two LFO’s, an envelope-follower, and a separate sample-and-hold generator, as well as feed everything through a diffusion matrix and distortion unit…you can do some pretty wild sound design with this. It is incredibly CPU intensive but there’s a reason for it.
www.fxpansion.comSpeaking of FXpansion, there’s also Maul, a multiband distortion unit. It is capable of numerous kinds of brutal distortions, many circuit-modelled after germanium transistors, tubes, and otehr bits of hardware, while others are just standard bitcrushing, clipping, waveshaping, and so forth. Like all other FXpansion products, it’s ludicrously modulate-able with LFO’s and envelopes, and there’s individual wet/dry and bypass on each band. I found it particualrly useful on punchy electro basses – add a lot of grit to the top-end and midrange, but bypass to leave the sub clean. Add some modulation to a parameter to give the top-end distortion some movement, and suddenly a dull, boring thud off a bassline comes alive.
www.valhalladsp.comI got this one sort of late in the game – most of Perihelion uses a combination of Space Designer and Audiodamage’s excellent Eos – but when I got my hands on this one, it kind of blew me away (as did the equally excellent ValhallaRoom). I used this on the last few tracks we wrote. It’s an algorithmic reverb, so i doesn’t sound quite like a real space…in some ways, I think it sounds better than a real space. It has some movement to it, due mostly to the modulation algorithms and the “vintage” band-limiting artifacts. The friendly UI and the “color” control give it more flexibility than one would expect from an algo-verb.I did a more detail breakdown of some algoverbs (all of them written by Sean Costello, unsurprisingly) at submersiblestudios.com
www.sugar-bytes.deNot everything it does sounds great. The filter is kind of meh, the phaser is weird-sounding, the chorus is overwhelming…and yet, it’s incredibly fun to play with and is great for mangling loops. It basically is a little looping effects and glitch sequencer, like illFormed Glitch or Sinevibes Sequential. It’s handy for keeping a loop or phrase from getting repetative, and with everything being MIDI-controllable, you can keep things varied.It of course seems to shine on breakbeats, but has more applications elsewhere.
|Part 4: Synths and Samplers|
www.synapse-audio.comIt does one thing: make kick drums. It does it rather well. It can do standard 909/808 stuff, but it has some nice smacky club drums too. It’s dead simple, it’s < $30, and it sounds good.
www.fxpansion.comIt’s an MPC-like drum sampler, with a built-in graphical step sequencer, a nice interface for chopping up loops, multiple sample layers per pad, some respectable onboard effects, loads of modulation options, easy MIDI-assignability and even internal effects sends. It’s a beast of a drum sampler, I haven’t even scratched the surface of it, but it’s become my go-to machine for handling samples and loops.
www.synapse-audio.comIt’s not the analoggiest of beasts (that would be u_He DIVA, which I don’t own), but Dune has some features that make it eminently useful for dance music. The massive stacking of unison voices, and individual modulation, detune and spread on each one AND unison per oscillator means big, wide squishy sounds, great for trancy stabs, washy sweep pads, or dubby basses. I wouldn’t use it for an Emerson-style lead or anything like that, and it’s certainly not an all-purpose synth. It’s definitely a niche instrument, but I find that niche to be one I needed to fill.
www.sugar-bytes.deAnother niche synth, Cyclop is designed to do gritty, wobbly basses for dubstep and electrohouse. While that seems a little inflexible, it works surprisingly well for generating lead sounds and generally making any sort of monophonic fat synth. It can certianly do wobble basses, but having two independent filters, a couple of very different oscillator types, effects designed specifically for doing bass (a “subbass” knob adds a sine suboscillator post-effects, so you never accidentally overdrive your subs), you get a synth with a lot of power for making gritty, deep, evolving sounds that don’t resemble every Massive preset used by a thousand youtube dubstep producers.It even has a built-in videogame, which doubles as a patch randomizer. Weird, quirky, but fun.
|Hollowsun Music Laboratory Machines
www.hollowsun.comNot a synth or a sampler, these are custom sample libraries for Kontakt. They’re incredibly weird and esoteric – waveform samples taken from test oscillators, old optoelectronic instruments, and a lot of strange old british radiophonic kit, packaged up into a number of custom interfaces that benefit heavily from Kontakt’s scripting language. Each one has a built-in patch randomizer, as well as a number of really fun lo-fi effects. It is just fantastic to use something like Cognosphere (pictured) to generate strange Doctor Who-ish bleeps and squacks, which can then be further tweaked into something usable in a track. They’re remarkably fun to play with, endlessly tweakable, and best of all, ludicrously cheap. Each one in the set runs for about $10-20 (or UKP5-10, exchange rates may vary).
That’s a lot of stuff. It’s not even a comprehensive list, but then again, I couldn’t really have one, because we’ve been working on this album over the course of 3 years so software has come and gone, I’ve learned how to use different things, and lots of stuff has been upgraded, improved, or just changed in that time. But that’s some stuff I found notable.