In the realm of modern recording, digital is now the name of the game. Whether you’re a top-tier commercial facility or an entry-level home recordist, at some point your music will be broken down into little 1’s and 0’s for later consumption. Bad news for those who long for an old-school approach and the smell of ferric oxide, but a whole other world of possibility and wonder opens up for the more sonically adventurous.
It’s not just that you can do almost anything to your audio now, as much as it’s just so easy to do so. Equalizers, compressors, delay, and other effects have been in use for decades, but you used to have to spend a considerable amount of time just setting them up and interconnecting them, much less finding a sound you liked. Now, it’s more a matter of dragging and dropping and selecting a preset that gets you close to where you want to be. While the software versions of those monolithic beasts are less expensive and obviously require less maintenance, having a variety of tools, toys, and flavors to choose from can quickly add up financially. Software bundles are often the way to go when balancing cost vs. performance, but even two or three effects together can cost $1,000 or more!
Enter Nomad Factory’s (www.nomadfactory.com/products/magma/) MAGMA ($199), a “Virtual Studio Rack” of 65(!) great sounding effects that can be loaded into four customizable racks of four. That’s 16 simultaneous effects that you can route in any order you please, via MAGMA’s flexible and exponentially creative Routing Matrix.
My initial feeling was that all of these effects included at such a low price point would be “hit or miss” in terms of quality and functionality, but aside from a couple of weaklings, all were professional grade with regard to sound and usability. In fact, many are downright stellar.
Going through things alphabetically, we start with Amplifiers. This is kind of a weak first step, because MAGMA only provides one guitar amp head simulator currently. It’s Union Jack-emblazoned face suggests Marshall/Vox type tones, which it gets pretty close to. This is generally paired with the Yellow Cab cabinet simulator, which provides 29 different styles. Unfortunately, they’re all driven by the previously described Lead Guitar effect, which narrows the usability. More amps like Fender tweeds, etc. would help a lot here.
Delays are one of the areas that MAGMA really shines: Radio Echo provides EQ, drive, and width for a modern tempo-synced delay with some analog crunch. BPM Delay is clean, flexible, and easy, while Super Echo provides ping-pong and reverse echoes…
Distortion is chock full of dirty contenders, but I felt they were somewhat constrained by the amp simulator. Fat Drive worked well on drums and keys, imparting a thicker character. Flying Drive is pretty much a solo boost switch and the Full Fuzz is there for those who dig the sound of a Big Muff, etc. Orange Tube is quite tasty indeed, and I found it to be a favorite “go-to” for lending awesomeness to riffs on both guitar and keys. Wurlidrive is a great flavor enhancer, like running your audio through the preamp, EQ and vibrato sections of a Wurlitzer electric piano. I have a Wurly and I found the simulation worked really, really well. Radio Drive leans heavily towards an old-timey, midrange-centric vibe, while Super Distortion provides the choice of three different types of distortion.
Dynamics is the category that, honestly, did the least for me. The Devil’s Touch compressor offers all the tweakability one would look for, as well as parallel compression capability. I just never got a sound I was totally happy with. I found the Max Limiter lackluster, but I got good-sounding results from the Opto-Tube limiter every time. Spectra Gate, Tape Hammer, Tube Limiter, and Devil’s Boost round out that category, but little was really remarkable about them.
Equalizers come in myriad flavors and configurations and while they’re not the sexiest thing to talk about, I was impressed with the range of styles on hand. From the DJ X-Tone with its bone simple interface and big sound to the Tone Shelf’s Pultec-like approach and all the Graphic and Retro models in between, these sound terrific and again, are easy use.
Filters take the EQ concept to extreme depths, whether you’re lopping off the highs or scraping off the mud in your tracks. The Band-Pass filter works well for adding motion to electronica tracks by automating the frequency. Mooger Sweeper is a quick way to add some tempo-synced animation as well. Presence Booster kicks it up at 8k for quickly slicing through dense mixes, while Presence Filter provides considerably more control over boost/cut and frequency. Frog Filter is a favorite: 23 different filter types and seven kinds of overdrive combine to completely reinvent your audio. Start at the presets.
Generators is a curious section. The Sweep and Tone generators are pro-quality tools and the Claritone did amazing things for vocals and bass, bringing punch, focus and yes, clarity to dull and lifeless tracks. Fat Bass was less successful, but the Stereo Imager and Stereo Maker (try it on a mono acoustic guitar track) worked wonderfully.
Modulation features so many delicious varieties of Choruses, Flangers, Phasers, Tremolos, Vibrato, Auto-Panning, Pitch-Shifting, and Detuning that you could lose yourself in them for hours on end. This is another good place for exploring the presets. Don’t miss the Retro Flanger!
Reverbs is where the gold is. Plate-Verb sounds appropriately vintage, but provides good flexibility. Reverb One gives you a “clean and versatile” modern sound, while the MFX-Spring takes things back to the “old-school.” Studio Room allows you to place things like drums and guitars into a warm and excitingly life-like space. For me, Purple Verb was the blue-ribbon winner amongst all of the plugins included. Its rich reverb sounds like creamy clouds of cotton candy are surrounding your audio and… okay, I’ll stop before the unicorns arrive. Incredible sounding will do.
Special presents the Destructor bit crusher for lo-fi effects, the Insanulator Grain Delay (Frankly, I didn’t get it) and the really interesting Trance Gate which gives you rhythmic stutter effects, etc. on the fly. The plugin that really grabbed me here was the CromaZone. You can create a three-note chord from incoming audio (especially percussion) and transpose it to the key of your song. Makes drum loops sound fantastic!
Utility rounds things out with a Phase Inverter and Stereo Reducer, both thoughtful inclusions that work well.
I feel kind of like the TV infomercial guy that keeps saying “Now how much would you pay?” If just the five reverbs were all you got for $199, MAGMA would still be a great deal. Add in 60 more effects and a powerful routing matrix for the same price and you’ve got yourself a downright steal.
Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer, singer, and songwriter: www.kaspro.com. Check out the May issue of Recording magazine for his feature article on vocal recording (www.recordingmag.com)