Zen of Recording

Big Sounds For Small Change

Increasingly, the quest for finding suitable plug-ins that can help home (and pro) recordists solve problems, bolster a digital track’s positive attributes, and explore new sonic horizons becomes an even more complicated endeavor once budgetary concerns have joined in the pursuit. It’s not just knowing what to use or how to use it; it’s also very often how to afford it. I always feel a little tinge when the reviews I proffer here seem to nonchalantly throw numbers around as if we’re all making “mad stacks of fat cash” from our love of sonic alchemy, when the financial realities demand a keener eye on one’s own bottom line.

To that end, I’ve spent many a quiet morning perched in the middle of the internet’s data stream like a fish-hungry bear, poring through special sales, One Day Only deals, and introductory offers. Often with these so called bargains, I’ve gotten what I’ve paid for, which is to say not much. But every so often, I land a huge salmon of significant savings and creative power.

One of my favorite hunting grounds is Plugin Boutique (pluginboutique.com), a portal for a consortium of 100+ audio software developers that allows customers to browse, purchase, and download VST plugins and virtual instruments. There is a great five-star rating system, along with user reviews and plenty of demos and trial versions to make sure you like them before buying. A central user profile area helps you keep track of product updates and serial numbers and there’s tons of free content, too! I recommend subscribing to their mailing list, because they have some really remarkable deals on a regular basis and keeping a sharp eye out can save you some cash without compromising quality.

First case in point is Gain Reduction Deluxe ($65, Mac/Win, 32/64 bit, VST2, VST3, AU, AAX, RTAS) from JST (https://joeysturgistones.com), which I was able to snag for just $17 on sale! This is an aggressive and heavily colored compressor, ostensibly designed to get a lead vocal up and out in front of your mix with a minimum of time or fussing and does exactly that. I personally find the default settings a bit too much, but the controls are few, simple and intuitive. A cool, retro-vibed interface features a three-setting VU meter (In/GR/Out) at the center, with a power switch at upper left and an input gain knob at the upper right. The threshold is set at a fixed level, so adjusting the gain controls when compression kicks in. The attack and release times of the compressor are also non-editable, but this particular unit’s “in-your-face” style is not intended for meticulous audio surgery anyway. To the lower left of the meter is a chicken beak-styled Slay knob, which slathers on gobs of deep, gooey compression. While at the right, a post-compression Gain knob keeps the level up where you need it.

It’s the other three knobs that really make this a go-to effect for me, though. Centered beneath the meter is a -/+ Body slider that fattens or thins the signal in that truly wonderful way that makes vintage compressors so sought after. The fact that this can be exaggerated to taste makes it all the more versatile. Considering how over-the-top this plugin can sound, the Mix button becomes all that much more important, allowing you to pull the non-effected signal back in to add just the right amount of focus, via parallel compression. A LoFi button adds an extra bit of versatility with a flick of its switch, by dialing in a midrange-heavy crankiness à la Beck’s vocal in Loser. While all of the extra functionally seems specifically suited to vocals, it actually makes Gain Reduction Deluxe a perfect tool for coaxing unique tones from drums, guitars, bass and keys!

Topping that kind of price-to-performance ratio would be a tough ask in any arena, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got it beat with my $1(!) purchase of the Vacuum Pro ($129.99, Mac/Win 64-bit VST2, AU,RTAS) synthesizer from Germany’s AIR Music Technology. It’s a name some may recognize from their suite of award-winning effects and virtual instruments designed specifically for Pro Tools, of which Vacuum was one, albeit in a less fully-featured mono design.

The polyphonic (switchable mono) Vacuum Pro is so named due to the vacuum tube based oscillators and filters that gave many ’70s and ’80s era synths their fuzzy and uniquely crunchy character, so not only does it radiate genuine analog warmth, but driving those tubes can really bring the heat! Each sound can be built from a combination of two parts with multiple oscillators, totaling a whopping six oscillators that can be stacked, split, detuned, and layered for big, lush, fat, and wide basses, pads, leads, and special effects. There’s even a doubling effect for creating even thicker patches.

There’s an excellent multi-mode arpeggiator section that can be tempo synced (or not) as well as a similar LFO section. There’s also a drive circuit, a tone-warping ring modulator, a chorus/phaser, and a delay. Just working with the effects alone can yield hours of lost-time treasures. For those looking to emulate the high-maintenance nature of authentic hardware synth behavior, the Age controls let you manipulate pitch drift of and add dust and grit!

The whole interface is laid out intuitively for reflexive sound tweaking, but a cool Smart Mode button breaks it all down into a manageable performance-style layout, giving you access to the basics, without visually overwhelming you with so many options. For those not-so-tweaky types, Vacuum Pro comes with almost 400 presets, laid out by type (Arpeggios, Leads, Pads, Atmospheric, Sweeps, Poly, Percussive, SFX, etc.) that can take you just about anywhere you’d want to go. I should note that I purchased the Fresh Air Pack Vol 1: Vacuum Pro Expansion Pack, a set of 200 additional great sounding presets, for an additional $1!!!

There are so many things to hear, much less talk about with regard to Vacuum Pro. Just do yourself a favor: Go spend the $2 to buy maybe the only synth you’ll ever need.

You’re welcome!

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning producer, singer and songwriter. He used to be a rock star for the FBI. www.kaspro.com

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