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Plugin Review: Airwindows Busscolors2

The first “BussColors” plugin by Airwindows was clever, a little dig at the long-vaporwared Slate Virtual Console (which is now out, of course, but at the time).  It lacked features, it was pretty rudimentary, but it was an assertion that virtual console emulation by convolution modeling wasn’t just something for larger software developers to tackle.

At $50, too, I guess it became pretty popular, because Chris Johnson recently pushed out BussColors2, which adds a lot more power and functionality to the plugin.

The first Busscolors was basically a pass-through that ran the incoming signal through one of four convolution curves – “Rock” (SSL), “Lush” (Neve), “Punch” (API) and “Tube” (um, something tube-y).  The curves weren’t exact point-by-point samplings, but were a few samplings smoothly interpolated, which is really good enough for most.  Tube added nice airiness, Lush smoothed things out and gave a little more low-end beef, Punch was, in fact, punchy, and Rock had the 80’s-SSL smackiness.  The thing was, they were incredibly subtle, and to get much benefit from it you had to use multiple instances.

Busscolors2 adds a number of new models – most notable “Dark”, which models an MCI console.  Some of the other new models, like “Vibe”, “Steel” and “Holo” don’t model anything directly but seem to be designed to act like consoles without sounding like a specific one, instead designed to solve problems.  “Vibe” is somewhat Neve-y, but without the low-end beef (which can build up across instances).  “Steel” thins out the low-mids, allowing for more clarity in bass-heavy electronic compositions.  And so forth.

The additional models would be a stellar upgrade (the MCI, particularly, sounds great across a drum bus).  But going one better, input and output gain controls have been added, and somewhere deep in the bowels of the plugin, a saturator has been built.  So not only can you drive it hard, it will eat peaks appropriately.  Subtly used, it can shape a track or a bus nicely.  Used more aggressively it can sound like actual gear that’s being driven hard to distortion.

Most of the time it’s to be used subtly.  I find myself using the MCI console across drum busses a lot, with a very slight input gain and a very slight reduction in output.  It does a nice job of smoothing the rough edges of a track without brutally muddying things up.

And it’s still only $50!
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Plugin Review: Airwindows ToTape

Airwindows is an eccentric company.  It’s basically one guy (Chris Johnson) doing one thing (making specialized AudioUnit plugins) in one esoteric way (he uses a default GUI and never adds any fancy graphics).  The way he does things allows him to write plugins that are absurdly cheap, very stable, and well-supported.  Of course it also means they don’t look as nice, and if you’re not using a Mac program that support AU, you can’t use any of his stuff.  While he does spend time doing things that model vintage gear, somewhat, his focus primarily seems to be on taking the ideas out of the gear, modeling just the parts he wants, then selling the results.

This has led to plugins that do nothing more than model the slew rate behavior of a console,  or plugins that emulate certain analog summing functions, or plugins that do nothing but digital signal dithering.  It can tend to be esoteric, but it can also tend to be kind of stunningly useful.

ToTape (and the free companion “FromTape”) is one in a line of his tape saturation modeling plugins – previously including the popular “IronOxide” saturator.  What’s particularly interesting about ToTape is that, rather than actually modeling tape itself, it models the behavior of the tape.  Consequently you get the saturation and “glue” of the tape without the coloration.    This makes it very flexible, although definitely not an all-purpose plugin – sometimes the coloration is exactly what you’re seeking to emulate.

The FromTape companion plugin is a subset of the ToTape controlset, intended for use on tracks and busses.  It models just the “compression” part of tape saturation, without any of the equalization or leveling.

The aforementioned EQ and leveling parts are the more interesting parts of ToTape.  While some tape emulators, like McDSP’s AC202 and The UAD A800, allow you to vary tape speed, bias, and all those actual tape parameters to achieve certain sounds, ToTape merely gives you “bump” and “treble soften.”  Whereas most tape emulators give you a fixed bump and rolloff to emulate a certain type of tape head, and treble effects are achieved using bias, tape speed, EQ type, etc, here you’re given a pair of sliders.  This gives you very fine control over the output effect – you can pair a low bump with a high “treble soften” in a way you couldn’t achieve with tape.  Of course, the output then doesn’t really sound like a tape, but it may still give you the sort of saturation and punch you’re seeking to achieve.  The actual “tape slam” is akin to a combination of input drive and variable tape compression, which again can be driven in a decidedly non-tape-y way, and it even has the capacity to overdrive the output signal, which tape can’t physically do (there is, however, an output trim slider for such an occasion).

It’s not an all-purpose plugin, and is probably best used judiciously, but it can do some wonders to a track in need of a little warmth or saturation.

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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.