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Plugin Review: McDSP 6030

I am a little bit in love with this compressor.

Or should I say “suite of compressors.”

The value of McDSP 6030 isn’t in its full-featured-ness as a compressor, it’s in the fact that it’s basically 10 simpler compressors, each with different characteristics, that can be switched seamlessly.  There’s everything from a simple one-knob, LA-2A style opto compressor to a feed-forward dbx160 type compressor, making it incredibly versatile.

Of course this raises the question “so, okay, it’s versatile, but how does it sound?”

A valid question, since there are a few multi-tool compressors and EQs that are only sort of okay at what they do.  But in a word, 6030 sounds great.  It’s warm, punchy, and some of the models can be driven extremely hard. The McDSP-designed “FRG444” can squash a signal down to a mere suggestion of the original dynamics (although to be fair I’ve not yet found an actual use for this one).

The collection of compressors includes emulations of a Fairchild670, a Neve 33609, an LA-2A, a Mu-Tube, and then…well, to be honest none of them are exact models, but that’s not a bad thing.  There’s a vaguely dbx160ish one called “Over-EZ”, something kind of SSL-esque called “SST76”, a compressor modeled on the Empirical Distressor called “D357”, an one mystifyingly called “iComp” which is blue, seems to be an intelligent-ratio kind of thing but is basically an all-original creation.  None of these compressors is dead-on – the U670 for example has slightly different ballistics and doesn’t have the Lat/Vert controls of an actual Fairchild 670.  The Opto-C deosn’t sound exactly like an LA-2A.  But they all “feel”, for lack of a better word, like high quality compressors of that design.  U670 feels like a vintage tube-based compressor, British-C feels like a Neve – the response from the compressor is what you’d expect from those pieces of hardware, even if they’re not dead-on impersonations.  Whether this is good or bad is a matter of interpretation – for me, it’s good, since I’m not too concerned with sounding exactly like I have a vintage Fairchild in my basement, merely that I have a good, smooth, tube-y compressor for vocals.

As both a blessing and a curse, the makeup gain stage of 6030 saturates instead of straight-up clipping, so once you’ve compressed the signal you can crank the makeup gain well beyond what would normally be a digital over.  The saturation algorithm used is generally pretty smooth but overuse on many tracks can of course make things muddy.

The price of McDSP 6030 (native – TDM/RTAS costs more) is $229, which for an individual compressor plugin is a bit on the higher end side.  However, for that price you get a very flexible compressor toolbox that outclasses a lot of plugins in the same pricerange.

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Plugin Review: NI Razor

I picked up NI’s new “Razor” Reaktor ensemble last week.  Not like I really had a ton of money burning a hole in my pocket, but, hey, it wasn’t terribly expensive and you know what, I didn’t own an additive synth yet.  So now I do.  (I’ve always wanted one, to the point where I almost bought a used K5000r back in the 90’s.) 
Reaktor is required to use it, although NI has thankfully provided the free Reaktor Player for those unwilling to buy the full Reaktor or Komplete packages.  The player has a few limitations – you can’t save new preset banks, although you can create and save new sounds within your DAW – although they are generally minor annoyances.  The use of Reaktor as a framework entails a little extra overhead to the workflow – instead of dropping the synth in a DAW slot, first a user has to load Reaktor player, then load the Razor ensemble in the player, then load any saved patches (or start programming).  An extra step, although not really one that’s going to hamper your average electronic musician.
How’s it sound?  It’s fascinating, and weird, and rather cool.  As additive often is, it’s great at doing really gritty, punch-you-in-the-head digital sounds.  And because it’s additive with 320 partials, it’s also great at doing pretty complex evolving sounds (and I guess it has a pretty killer vocoder in it, I haven’t had the opportunity to try it yet).  The real excitement money seems to be in the effects section, which instead of actual “effects” in the traditional sense, are really modulations on the additive engine.  So a reverb isn’t so much a “reverb” as it is “changing the decay of certain partials so it sounds like a reverb”, and then there are crazy pitch-and-overtone based effects, and pan on individual sine waves, and so forth.  What’s cool about that is that you can then modulate those things directly from the synth, meaning your reverb can be pitch-following or be tied to the same LFO as your cutoff or whatever. 
The filters are also surprising.  Instead of the standard lp2/lp4/hp2/hp4 there’s a bunch of lowpass and highpass filters with definable peak and rolloff behaviors – so basically you can change a filter’s resonance response in ways that aren’t normal or natural for your standard Moog-diode-ladder or whatnot (usually, as your cutoff increases, the resonance peak bandwidth decreases – with this you can do just the opposite or keep it the same, or modulate how you please).  Years back I used to use (odd, experimental, completely unsupported) software that did lowpass in a similar way, and it meant you could do really weird squelchy sounds, and I always missed that ability in modern softsynths. 
The waveform display is pretty well-implemented and is rather useful to see what it is you’re exactly doing to the sound, although the “3d visualizer” option eats up a lot of processor (and the 3d option isn’t so useful as to be a massive benefit).  Shut it off and it’s surprisingly efficient, since everything except the dynamics is basically in the synth engine itself.  It’s not as processor-efficient  as most of the similarly-priced subtractive synths, but it’s still pretty good.  On my iMac it uses about 10% of a core playing chords on a semi-complex patch.
I can see this becoming one of those de facto IDM synths, simply because of all the weird stuff you can do with it if you want, and because it doesn’t really sound like anything on the market, except maybe slightly similar to some of the CamelAudio stuff.  
What I find interesting is how they’re marketing it.  If you watch their “trailer” for it, it’s all crazy wobbly dubstep and electro-house, gritty basses and stabs, like they’re saying “hey, look, here’s how you can sound like Skrillex or Rusko!”  And then you look at how they’ve structured the synth and you think “oh, it’s really good at doing sound sculpting and weird noises, and it does those wacky filthy basses basically as a side-effect.”  And yeah, it can do those but it…generally doesn’t.  Even the presets devoted to that sort of genre seem to lack much in the way of low-end (although doubling it with a simple sine subosc would be trivial).  ?  Of Razor’s 350 presets, only maybe 10-15 of them would qualify as the kind of thing you’d expect to find in a synth aimed at the dubstep/fidget house market.  A lot of the presets are surprisingly pedestrian – oh look a punchy stab bass, a wakeman-style lead, and a bunch of chimy sounds.  Of course you can mangle the heck out of those sounds pretty quickly.  It’s not until you hit the formant choirs or some of the more unusual Errorsmith patches that you sit up and say “ohhh, yeah, I get it now.”
Reminds me a bit of Absynth in that you *can* use it to create all sorts of basses and leads and stuff but with that sort of soundscaping power under the hood and an engine geared towards making weird sounds, why would you necessarily want to?
The most brilliant part of this synth, and one that I hope will trickle down into other synth design, is the clean, minimalist UI.  At first glance the whole thing looks like a standard 2-osc synth, but clicking on an osc brings up a nice, icon-ized, easy to understand menu of available osc types.  Clicking on a filter does the same with filter types, and effects, and so forth.  Choosing modulations is easy as well – click on the element you want modulated, and you get an icon-ized list of possible modulation sources.  It’s the kind of interface that would translate remarkably well to a touchscreen interface, actually, and I would not be a bit surprised if it borrowed inspiration from iOS and Android. 
There are a number of nice touches to distinguish it from other synths and make up for some of the traditional shortcomings of additive.  A special limiter in the dynamics section helps prevent the occasional spike caused by stray resonances and overlaps, and a set of knobs for enhancing bass help fill out the “thin” quality that certain additive sounds can generate.
So in short, it’s a unique synth and it has a lot of really unusual features.  Probably not as universally and immediately useful as something like Massive, and not a “bread and butter” synth.   But useful if you need funky, gritty punch-through-a-dense-mix sounds.  Some features basically might as well have “IDM Guys will use this” stamped on them.  Others have that “some 21-year-old dude in Sheffield will write an entire song with just this one feature being modulated and it will be a club hit in the UK” feel to them.  And yet others have the “this effect will dominate the soundtrack of low-budget SyFy channel movies for decades to come.”  It excels in the way additive often excels – unusual, evolving sounds with lots of harmonic complexity that cut through a mix – but anyone expecting it to replace a lot of their traditional subtractive or FM synths will be disappointed.  A dead-simple and functional UI and a flexible, unusual effects section are the secret weapons of this synth, making it quick to alter sounds.

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Meta-commentary: FM Mastering Shoot-Out

A few months back, FutureMusic did a shootout between three different mastering houses – Abbey Road’s “online” mastering, a dedicated small studio that also did mastering “in the box”, and another guy that mastered the entire track specifically  with Logic’s bundled plugins.
The results were…interesting.  It’s hard to say they were revelatory, because they weren’t, really.  The Abbey Road mastering sounded the best of the bunch, partially because of the bespoke gear they have, but I’d say mostly because the engineer is dedicated to doing mastering 100% of his time and has ears made of solid gold.   It was telling that he was able to quickly turn around the track the magazine submitted in a very short amount of time. 
The two ITB masters were not *quite* as good.  However, they were still remarkably well-done.  The small studio’s was almost as good as AR’s, although lacked a little of the high-end shine that the Abbey Road guy managed to add.  The Logic one was even pretty respectable, although it displayed a bit of the grit and boominess that seems endemic to their built-in limiter.
What seems particularly interesting about the shootout, contrived though it may be (who uses *only* Logic’s plugins, after all?) was just how good the ITB masters were in general.  Maybe not quite up to Abbey Road standards, but close enough that the differences were quite subtle.  Most of the differences could probably be attributed to the engineer and not to the gear.  Based on the analysis section of the review, each engineer made different adjustments the track, and the two cleanest versions seemed to take the most thorough approach to mastering the song.  Perhaps the Abbey Road one was just that nudge better because of the custom Chandler EQ’s, or maybe it was because that engineer knows how to use those EQs extremely well and knew better where to apply them.
It might also be noted that the AR masters were significantly more expensive than the small-studio ones, even with AR’s budget “on-line” system. 
Which kind of comes back to a mantra that mastering engineers have been repeating for eons – it’s ears, not gear.  Good gear helps, but just because the engineer has a mastering-edition Massive Passive doesn’t mean he knows how to use it (although if he’s spent that much on it, he at least can recognize good gear).  A good mastering engineer makes more difference than that engineer’s gear. 
This is not to dissuade anyone from going with a big-name mastering house instead of a small studio – the big names do get results, and while they’re more expensive, if you need or want that extra bit of polish on your recording, then an Abbey Road, Bob Ludwig or some similar studio is definitely the way to go, even if you’ll likely be mastered by the 3rd-shift intern.  For 95% of indie artists, though, it’s simply going to be too expensive to justify, and the smaller regional or local studios will have to suffice.  The good news is, that with a competent engineer, even a small-studio ITB master can sound polished and professional.