Where Pedals Fear to Tread
By Joe Gore
Two things you already know:
1) A huge percentage of software plug-ins aim to replicate vintage analog gear. The technology of 2006 goes to great lengths to mimic the technology of 1976.
2) Guitar pedals are becoming more sophisticated. From the mad modeling skills of Line 6 pedals to the Busby Berkeley filters of Roger Linn’s AdrenaLinn II, stompboxes routinely perform tricks that would have been impossible to get from a computer not long ago, let alone from a little metal box you jump up and down on.
So it stands to reason that software and stompboxes are meeting in the middle somewhere. Pedal, plug-in — what’s the diff? They pretty much do the same things, don’t they?
Well, sort of.
When it comes to marshalling pure processing power, plug-ins still eat stompboxes for breakfast. That may not mean much when it comes to the classic guitar effects, which tend to make only modest processing demands. But if you want to take your guitar tones wayyyyyy out there, the plug-in bullet train will get you there a lot faster than the stompbox hay wagon.
This column surveys a grab bag of plug-ins that venture beyond standard stompbox territory. Make sure to check out the audio examples I've created. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll projectile-vomit. So will your guitar.
Eventide H3000 Factory
The H3000 offers eighteen separate effects, which can be configured in countless ways via the GUI’s virtual patch bay. But it’s not the sheer number of pitch-shift, delay, modulation, filter, and distortion effects that distinguishes the H3000 so much as the ways they can interact with one another. Instead of running a pitch-shifted guitar sound through a delay, you might insert the pitch-shift effect inside the delay. In fact, pitch-shifted delay and modulation effects, with their bright, bell-like overtones, are among the H3000’s signature sounds. The same goes for its tempo-synchronized filters, an effect also captured in the Eventide Band Delays plug-in, an H3000 spin-off. Here's some of these effects sound on electric guitar: [ Audio example 1]
The H3000 Factory and Band Delays plug-ins are included with Eventide’s Anthology II bundle (reviewed in this issue’s Plug-in Centerfold on page 32). Both are TDM-only plugs, though Pro Tools LE and M-Powered users can get related filter-plus-delay effects from such RTAS plug-ins as Antares’s Filter and Ohm Force’s Quad Frohmage, as well as from our next subject: SoundToys’ Crystallizer.
It’s only fair that Crystallizer should follow the H3000, because the brainiacs at SoundToys are former Eventide programmers, and Crystallizer uses the H3000’s pitch-shifting as its jumping-off point. Crystallizer lets you transpose delays by as much as four octaves up or down. These transposing delays can feed back upon themselves, creating ethereal curtains of synth-like sound.
Like the H3000 Factory, Crystallizer has a somewhat glitchy, retro-digital sound, which can soundgreat if you’re going for a not-quite-OK Computer sensibility. Here are a few audio examples: [ Audio example 2]
Crystallizer comes in both TDM and RTAS versions. It’s also included with the SoundToys TDM Effects bundle, which includes all nine of the company’s bad-ass effects.
Native Instruments Spektral Delay and iZotope Spectron
Cycling 74 Hipno
Now for something newer: Cycling 74’s Hipno, a collection of 40 plug-ins that’s so original, so unique, and so utterly over-the-top that most guitarists will run screaming in the opposite direction. Its timbres range from otherworldly and discordant to discordant and otherworldly. God, I love this thing.
Hipno combines all the processes we’ve touched on so far — synchronized filters, pitch-shifted delay and modulation, spectral delay — plus a dollop of granular synthesis/delay. In granular synthesis, a tiny particle of sound, or a “grain,” is used to generate a larger sonic structure. The resulting sounds, sometimes called “clouds,” tend to be eerie, amorphous, harmonically complex, and pretty much unusable in mainstream pop music. How cool is that?
Before zeroing in the individual plug-ins, a bit about Hipno’s ingenious architecture: Many Hipno GUIs feature a rainbow-colored circle called the “Hipnoscope.” The Hipnoscope’s eight colors correspond to eight preset slots. You store and recall presets via two adjacent rows of color-coded buttons. You can also morph continuously between eight stored presets by click-dragging across the Hipnoscope. You can even edit the position and size of each color field. It’s heavy, man.
Hipno’s results are often unpredictable. Take Spuntorrt, a clangorous noise bomb that grinds out grating, metallic-edged textures like a ring modulator on PCP. You never know what you’ll get as you drag the controller puck across the interface, though it’s a safe bet that it will torture your speakers. [ Audio example 4]
Hipno wants to be noisy, but it doesn’t have to be. For example, you can elicit pretty tones from Crackverb, a wacked-out reverb plug-in whose delay time can be tweaked via LFO. [Audio example 5]
Another cool plug-in is Sbinulator, which can use spectral analysis to concoct quirky variations on conventional tremolo and phase shifting. [ Audio example 6]
Troublemakers, take note: Hipno runs as an RTAS plug-in on all Pro Tools systems.
Native Instruments Reaktor 5
Finally, a few words about Native Instruments’ Reaktor 5, arguably the most powerful Pro Tools plug-in of all. Actually, Reaktor isn’t so much a plug as a religion — or at least a cult.
Reaktor is justifiably known for its ability to create great synths and samplers, but it also excels at guitar-friendly effects. Its building blocks include a vast array of sequencers, filters, modulators, distortion devices, dynamics processors, reverbs, and delays, including cutting-edge granular delays.
You can conjure just about any audio effect with Reaktor, and deploy them in novel ways. For example, Mooshverb, an ensemble by ace programmer Rick Scott, creates psychoactive reverb and delay effects by combining eight delay lines. Meanwhile, most of its parameters are being modulated by LFO. You can randomize all the settings with the push of a button, or have the damn thing continually randomize itself. Here are a few of its sounds: [ Audio example 7]
Benjamin Suthers’ Kittengate also created a cool rhythmically burbling effect using a pair of pattern generators to modulate the rhythm and gate time of two envelope generators, with the results feeding a stereo delay. Check it out here: [ Audio example 8]
The result is a big mess — but kind of a cool big mess. Downloading new Reaktor ensembles is like getting bread baked fresh daily. Only noisier.
Granted, the effects and sounds referenced in this column aren’t for all tastes, or maybe any tastes. But they do illustrate that there are still plenty of sounds out there that you won’t find under your foot.
Joe Gore (email@example.com) has worked with Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, Tracy Chapman, Courtney Love, the Eels, and many others. He writes extensively about music and audio and has interviewed hundreds of the world’s leading players, composers, producers, and technicians. Joe’s latest collaboration is Clubbo (www.clubbo.com), a sprawling “music fiction” project.