Featured Universal Audio Brainworx bx_sybsynth Plug-In by PassionFlower
Product: UAD bx_subsynth
Platform: UAD-2 (VST, AU, AAX)
Price: $149 / €149
“I love the sound! But how can I get more ompf out of it?”
That’s probably the question that has been asked since cavemen started banging rocks together. And a lot of attempts have been made since then to add more bass and weight to sounds. But just as acousticians thought they had it all covered the electronic era came and brought a whole new set of technologies, not only in the form of equalizers but also harmonic enhancers and octave generators. And when disco music invaded the dance floors in the 70s the need to not only hear but also to feel the groove grew and as a result DJs started looking for ways to enhance the bass to get the people moving their feet to the beat.
The company dbx, which was fairly new in the pro audio market at the time, spent a good amount of research and development at this and in the late 70s they introduced a device they named the “Boom Box” and was based on a proprietary technology they called a “Subharmonic Synthesizer”.
It worked by tracking the low end of the incoming audio signal and generating a synthesized subharmonic tone which was blended in with the original. This way it could generate a clean deep low end to music that was lacking in bass information.
Since vinyl was still the standard music delivery format at the time, it was not a device aimed at the recording studio as great care had to be taken not to introduce too much bass into masters as that would render the vinyls unplayable.
Instead the subharmonic synthesizer was intended to be used at playback in Hi-Fi or PA systems and was available both as the dbx 100 model which was a small box with wooden sides and as the 19” rack mountable dbx 500.
During the 80’s dbx continued to develop the boom box and eventually released the much more advanced dbx 120 series. It offered much deeper control which made it a more interesting product outside of the nightclubs and it became a big success.
Sound designers for film and TV found it invaluable to add rumbling low end to sound effects, and with the emergence of digital audio delivery formats it started to find its way into the recording studios as well.
To this day the dbx 120 is a staple that is still in production, so it’s no surprise that Brainworx decided to use it as their main inspiration when they set out to create their own subharmonic synth. But they wisely decided against making a 1:1 emulation of the hardware. Instead they aimed to add even more functionality and to give it their own touch. The result was bx_subsynth.
Making sense of it all
At a glance the user interface of bx_subsynth looks very simple, but in use it’s not completely intuitive and it does require a bit of playing around or even a look at the manual to understand all the features and how they interact with each other.
It’s divided into three main panels: Global, Sub and Edge.
The Global Panel
This panel controls the input and output of the plugins and it contains new unique features that is not available on the hardware or any other plugin of its kind that I can recall.
At the very top there’s the synthesis input selector which enables you to choose if the synthesis should react to only the mid information or both channels of a stereo signal. The mid selection can be useful if you want to put the plugin on a stereo bus or a whole mix and have it focus on the elements that is placed in the middle, which is generally bass and kick, and prevent it from reacting to instruments that are placed in the left or right channels. It’s a very good way to keep the sub information clean as bass frequencies has a tendency to take up a lot of space in the mix.
EXAMPLE: We'll try the Mid/Stereo sidechain input selector on this Vox organ. The first round is dry without the bx_subsynth, the second round is the mono input and the third round is with the stereo input. Notice the change in the stereo image.
The “Gain In” and “Gain Out” are the most obvious controls here. They will simply let you adjust the input and output level of the plugin.
With the “Mix”-control you can adjust the amount the manipulated signal that should be mixed in with the original signal. This does not only include the subharmonic content but also the Mid/Side controls as well as the edge controls described further down.
As with so many Brainworx plugins, this one also contains a Mid/Side section. In this case there are two controls. One labeled “Mono maker” which allows you to fold the stereo signal into mono below a specified frequency from 22Hz to 22kHz. This can be useful for once again focusing the bass information to the middle of the mix for a cleaner result. It can also be used to fold the entire mix to mono if desired, but you’d most likely not use this plugin for that purpose.
The other control is a stereo width knob which can increase or decrease the perceived width of the signal by manipulating the relative volume of the side information.
It’s worth pointing out that despite these controls being located at the left side of the plugin they do affect the entire effects chain and not just the input which feeds the subharmonic synth.
The Sub Panel
This is where the magic happens! This panel contain all the controls for the actual subsynth.
The incoming signal is fed into the subsynth sidechain which is then split into three different bands which each generates a separate synthesis one octave below the dominant frequency in the specific range.
The frequency labels at the top of each band describes the range in which the subharmonics are generated. For example: the lowest band listens to the incoming signal in the 52-72Hz range and generates a signal one octave below in the 24-35Hz range.
The third and upper band (56-80Hz) is an additional feature added by Brainworx and is not available in the original hardware.
At the bottom of each band control there’s a white light which indicates that there’s an incoming signal in the specific range. It’s essential to make sure that there is an incoming signal in the frequency range that you want the plugin to generate subharmonics for. Sometimes the signal might be too low in volume and then it might help to adjust the trim control located at the left of the band adjustment knob.
The main knob of each band will control the amount of synthesized signal in the specific range and you will be able to see the volume of the outgoing signal in the meter beside the while input indicator.
There’s also a solo button which will enable you to monitor each specific band. But it’s worth noting that it will not mute the main signal, only the synthesized signal from the other two bands are muted.
At the very top of the Sub panel there is a big knob which acts as the master output control of the subsynth sidechain.
EXAMPLE: Here we'll apply the subsynth to a drum bus. Notice how it affects the toms giving them a lot more depth and beef. First and third bar is with the plugin disabled.
The Edge Panel
Two common ways to make bass content cut through a mix is compression and distortion. bx_subsynth surprisingly but luckily includes these effects as well. The controls are very simple but effective.
The dynamics control is one single knob with the label “Squeeze” which enables you to tame the transients for a smoother signal.
Distortion is simply added by increasing the drive knob and there are two distortion characteristics to choose from: “Smooth” and “Harsh”. The smooth character is intended tame and even out the low end, but it can also be driven into full distortion depending on the incoming signal. The harsh character will clip the peaks for a nasty aggressive distortion which might not sound pretty by itself but can fit perfectly in a mix and make the bass stand out.
You can also control the frequencies which are affected by the edge circuit by using the “Low Cut” and “High Cut” controls. This can be especially useful since it’s not only applied to the subharmonic content but also the source signal.
EXAMPLE: Here we apply some drive to a drum bus to demonstrate how the filters affect the sound. The first bar is with the plugin disabled. The second bar is with the drive and subsynth engaged. The third bar is with the high cut filter turned all the way. The fourth bar is with the low cut filter turned all the way.
At the very bottom right there are two filter controls. One named “Tight Punch” that will act as a resonance highpass filter, similar to Little Labs Voice of God. It attenuates the low end and adds a resonant punch at the cutoff frequency.
The “Low End” control allows you to boost or attenuate the lows at about 55Hz.
EXAMPLE: Here's the "Tight Punch" applied to a kick drum. It starts with the plugin disengaged then swiches it on and off every second bar.
The not so obvious signal chain of bx_subsynth
In use and abuse
All the controls of the user interface might not be the most obvious at first. Especially since they don’t always follow the order of the signal flow. But once you learn them it becomes very easy to use the plugin.
No matter if you just want to add some slight subharmonic content to your signal or want to completely mangle the low end it is all done in a matter of seconds, and the results is usually very good.
The main benefit of a subharmonic synthesizer compared to just boosting the low end of the signal is that it can add information that is not there to begin with, and the information it adds is usually very clean.
The downside is that it needs to have a good signal to track in order to do an optimal job, and there are times where the tracking can get a bit jumpy if the source material is too complex. But it’s really nothing that the plugin can be blamed for as it has not promised to perform miracles.
Luckily they have provided other means to enhance the low end with both the edge and the filter sections in case the subsynth doesn’t work out for you.
The obvious use for this in a mix situation would be to add low end to kick drums, toms, bass guitars and synths. And it does so beautifully. But it can also be used in creative ways like adding scary low end to vocals for example.
It’s also a great tool for sound design and post production as it can add rumbling lows that gives sound effects a huge impact on the audience.
It’s perhaps not the essential tool for DJs anymore considering that EDM usually isn’t lacking in the bass department. But for those wanting to embrace their inner Disco Stu, it might be a useful addition.
It’s easy to get carried away with a plugin like this and add an immense amount of bass to your mix. But a little goes a long way, and unless you have really good monitoring for you sub frequencies it might be a good idea to go very gentle with the lowest frequencies.
In fact, in that case it might be worth leaving the 24-36Hz band alone all together or else you might end up doing more harm than good.
Room for improvements
So what more could you ask for in such a feature rich plugin?
Well, something that actually struck me very early on is that it’s not possible to solo only the subsynth. The mix-knob only allows you to control how much of it you want to blend with the original signal, but you can’t remove the original source all together from the output and only leave the synthesized signal.
Another option for this could be to allow for an external side-chain. But the UAD platform sadly does not support this feature. It could be something to consider for the native version however.
Why would you need this you might think? Well, it would be a simple way to introduce even more creative options to this tool. You could feed it with a highly modified or heavily cleaned up source, you could feed it with a completely different source to use as a trigger. You could also process only the synthesized signal separately.
While it might not be a feature I’d use in every project, I know that I’d be thankful to have it.
Also, a way to monitor the incoming signal and synthesized signal of each band would be useful. For example, holding in the solo button could solo only the subsynth for that band. Clicking and holding the input indicator could monitor the input signal. Perhaps not essential features, but useful nonetheless.
I can see how some would wish for things like variable bands as well, but with features like that you could risk losing the simplicity and ease of use, which is one of the key elements to this plugin.
And while there is room for minor improvements there really isn’t much to complain about with this plugin.
One thing that I’ve heard people react negatively towards is the pricing. And I can agree that it is a bit too much for a tool like this. Especially when you can find the hardware used for less than the price of the plugin. Granted, the plugin is much more feature rich and flexible compared to the hardware, but I can’t help but feel that they are losing a fair amount of customers due to the pricing.
The Bottom End
As I said earlier, It’s difficult to find something to complain about when it comes to this plugin.
With mid/side processing, a three band subharmonic synth, dynamics processing, distortion and and a resonance filter Brainworx have managed to create a one stop shop for bass enhancement. It’s one of the most flexible, versatile and at the same time easy to use tools in its category. And best of all: you can get great results with it!
No longer will I have to bother with sidechained expanders or midi triggering to add low end synths to tracks. Nor will I have to go EQ hunting for muddy ghost frequencies that aren’t really there in the first place. I just drop this on the track and with a few twists of the knobs I can feel the ompf in my chest that I was missing.
If you can swallow the fact that the price is a bit steep for a tool of this kind I can highly recommend investing your money into it. It will pay off!