Zen of Recording

Plug-Ins From the Bargain Bin

In the arena of recording software reviews, the emphasis is undoubtedly focused on products that reside at the pricier end of the financial spectrum. It can almost seem like a snooty act from some “expert” poised upon a lofty perch talking down to you, as if they’re saying, “Well, if you’re a serious working professional, you’re already making the kind of money that makes affording this no problem.” Believe me, as I’m flipping through the various trade-related magazines that I subscribe to, looking at holy grail microphones and world-class hardware, I’m thinking, “Yes, but where does this kind of dough come from?”

When I look at a product for potential review, I like to think about it as an investment toward achieving a level of quality and craftsmanship that will serve you and your clients for many years to come. Not just some cool toy that provides some “state-of-the-art (for this week, anyway)” sound of the moment that ages with the lack of grace that chorused guitars and gated-reverb snare drums did. The way I see it, several hundred dollars and a hefty chunk of your time is a sizeable outlay for something that may not even be a good fit for you, your music, and your creative flow, which are the most important considerations of all.

This is not to say that all your purchases need to be exorbitant ones. There are plenty of products out there that can do amazing things to your audio, notably lifting your game while barely affecting your bank balance. I have found that the key is to shop shrewdly by keeping abreast of what’s out there and waiting for the inevitable deals to appear… then I strike.

I started out by searching the internet for free or low-cost plug-ins and subscribing to numerous software, loop, and plug-in newsletters from the sites I really liked, like Plugin Alliance (www.plugin-alliance.com),where I have often found some expensive but invaluable tools at 90% of their face value! The Loop Loft (www.thelooploft.com) is my absolute go-to for drum loops. They have a profoundly deep talent pool, an excellent nomenclature system, and an astronomically high standard of quality. Guitar, bass, keyboards, and percussion are also well represented in their offerings. My personal favorite is Plugin Boutique (www.pluginboutique.com), which is where I recently discovered a couple of great tools at incredible price points, both in VST and AAX formats.

Xenoverb from Audiority (www.audiority.com) is one such example. This reverb unit tightropes a perfect balance between being quick and easy to set up and possessing a deeply powerful feature set. This results in a whole lot more creative versatility than most other reverb plug-ins, in any price class. Lots of great presets are provided, which will get you very usable results quickly. Xenoverb features 10 reverb algorithms: Room, Hall, Plate 1, Plate 2, Springy, Glass, Flow, Shimmer, Bode, Formant. All of these display their own unique characteristics of course, but there are also additional parameters to get you even closer to the sound you want, like Pre Delay, Diffusion, Tone Control, Modulation, Size, Mid Gain, Low Frequency Cut Filter, etc. The available parameters can vary depending on the reverb type. “Springy” for instance has a “CHIRP” function, which affects the apparent size of the spring tank reverberator algorithm.

The face of the unit resembles a great big guitar pedal for instant familiarity in getting around and there are three footswitches along the bottom, labeled “Active,” “Freeze,” and “Limiter.” The first is a simple On/Off bypass switch. When “Freeze” is engaged, it stops recording the incoming audio and loops the internal buffer, creating endless ambient radiohead-like textures and opening up myriad sonic possibilities. “Limiter” compresses the wet signal if it gets too loud, reducing unwanted distortion.

Xenoverb uses very little RAM resources and even less of my financial ones. It’s listed at $45 on their site, but I got it on sale for less than 10 bucks! Worth every penny.

HIKU by SoundSpot (www.soundspot.audio) is a completely other beast than any of its peers, when viewed in terms of its quick results, apparent simplicity, and ease of use. It can be thought of as a sort of “Quality Lifter,” because it just seems to make things sound better. HIKU applies a combination of parallel compression, tape saturation, and mid/side processing to your signal’s low frequencies. This gives the low end a tighter, punchier feel with a more focused bottom end, thanks to a narrowed image that’s 50% more mono. Simultaneously, HIKU utilizes soft clip saturation and widens the stereo imaging at the top-end, making that end result both clearer and prettier.

With its three concentrically laid-out rotary controls, nothing could be simpler to use. The bottom radius lets you set the crossover frequency at which the high end and the low end of your audio are processed. Setting it between 200hz–350Hz is a fairly good starting point, but you can crank it all the way down to 20Hz or up to 20k. Sweeping through the range will reveal the best result. The center radius controls the amount of the desired effect upon the signal. You may find that backing it off a little provides the best compromise between subtle and “more better.” Once you’ve arrived at the sound you like best, the top radius allows you to back off the overall output level for A/B comparison and to avoid overdriving the outputs. As always, use your ears!

SoundSpot retails HIKU at $32. I found it on sale for an incredible 99 cents!
Great deals are out there and they don’t all come from the bigger names. Go see for yourself!!

Sven-Erik Seaholm produces, records, mixes, masters, writes, arranges, and performs music. (www.kaspro.com)