Joey Sturgis Tones JST Bus Glue Billy Decker by Sound-Guy
Joey Sturgis Tones- Bus Glue Billy Decker
Having worked with audio recording and mixing for decades, I learned technology the “slow” way, by personal experience: how to use EQ to enhance specific sounds and minimize masking, how to use compression and limiting when needed, and when not to mess with anything. That said, I have also found some complex processors such as dynamic EQ and spatial DSP to be very useful at times. And I’ve developed my own “mix” templates with a standard set of processors on tracks and buses to help facilitate setting up new projects quickly. A time-saving technique that Billy Decker recommends.
I have not been a fan of “celebrity engineer signature sound plug-in suites” for several reasons that I’ll discuss later on, but I was recently ask to evaluate the new Joey Sturgis Tones- Bus Glue Billy Decker suite (JST BD, or just BD, from now on), which is, in fact, a celebrity engineer signature sound plug-in suite. Will this product change my mind?
What You Get
As it says on the tin, “The latest addition to the Bus Glue family introduces 7 all new plugins from the creative minds of JST and chart-topping mixer Billy Decker.” This is true. “Unlock the tried-and-true secrets of a modern country master. . .” That is debatable. There is no clear indication of what the various knobs actually do, and from my quantitative analysis, as well as my listening tests, I can tell you they pretty much all interact to some extent, so figuring out any “secrets” is very difficult.
The controls have fanciful names like Deckerate, Staput, Finish and Calibrate (OK, that one is not that fanciful, and it is not ever labeled as such, but is a little “screw” graphic that looks like zero adjustment for a VU meter, but is not). The controls don’t necessarily do what you may think and, as I said, many interact in odd (and secret) ways.
The first module I listened to and analyzed was the "Master". When I first used it on a full mix, the distortion was terrible to my ears, with almost any setting above zero! A look at quantitative measures showed some non-harmonic distortion in addition to harmonics, and significant inter-modulation distortion. The frequency response was approximately flat over most of the spectrum with slight (~2 dB) peaking at the low and high ends, but only if the Mix knob was at 100%. If the Mix setting was reduced, or some of the other knobs such as “Deckerate” or “Finish”were changed, some odd, non-intuitive and significant things happened to frequency response. While this module didn’t appeal to me for what I normally do, it could be useful if I were mixing heavy-metal or punk-rock. If that’s the style of music you’re working with, this module may be of use to you!
Next I tried the Vocal module. This module forces an almost unadjustable EQ on the sound that I found inappropriate for the tracks I tried - even in a mix it “lost” the vocalist's tone for both a male and a female voice. It might work on a high pitched “twangy” vocal, but I don’t normally mix such a style. As before, lowering the Mix level changed the EQ in odd ways. And while there is a switch for Female or Male, alternate settings changed the EQ curve very little. The Female setting slightly boosted below 2 kHz and added a small dip at 5 kHz.
Dynamics, as I found in several modules, were limited to high ratio compression or flat limiting. True, you can reduce the effect of this by dropping the Mix level, but that affects other parameters that you may not wish to change, like EQ as I just mentioned. Harmonic distortion in the Vocal module was mostly odd harmonics, and with the strongest settings was below 1%, which is generally OK, but there was also significant inter-modulation distortion. While such distortion may help a vocal cut through a dense mix in some musical styles, it didn’t work for me.
The oddest adjustment I found was with the Bass module - most modules have something like a "Country/Rock" switch, which in many of them has very little measurable or audible effect, but the Bass Module goes to the extreme - the Country setting creates an EQ dip of 20 dB at 2 kHz, while the Rock setting boosts 2 kHz by 20 dB! A 40 dB difference! Of course you can use the Mix control to reduce this, but again, that also affects other areas of EQ and dynamics. The Bass module can provide a wide range of compressor ratios, from very gentle (a bit over 1.2:1) to moderate (4:1 or so). But as with dynamics of the other modules, you do not have independent control of ratio, threshold, or side-chain EQ. You take what you get.
There is a Keys module intended for keyboards that impresses an EQ that may, or may not, enhance your piano, harpsichord, Clavinet, Hammond B3, etc. I found the Keys module added no harmonic distortion with any setting, and the Deckerate control and tiny Calibration screw did pretty much the same thing, essentially adjusting the limiting threshold.
Two of the other modules are for guitar, the Acoustic and Electric modules. The Acoustic module has a pretty good range of dynamics control, even hitting a dual-slope mode with a low ratio for 10 to 20 dB of input change, then a hard limit for higher input levels. Again, there is no direct way to know what control settings will yield such dynamics - you'll need to experiment and listen. The Electric module has only a hard limiting action, and it has few controls, just Mix, Deckerate and the little Calibration control, and the last two do essentially the same thing, changing internal gain/threshold for the limiter. Both guitar modules have a “fixed” EQ that cuts sharply below 250 Hz (unless the Mix level is reduced, which changes other things).
The Drum module also enables dual-slope compression/limiting with the right settings, and enables distortion levels right up to crunchy (10 % THD or so maximum, and IM distortion in the double-digits). Again, you twist the knobs and hear the results, and some Drum settings were able to cut through a mix well. If I had to choose a module as a favorite, this would be it.
But there is an issue with all these modules that makes judging results somewhat difficult. There is no loudness compensation mode. When increasing a parameter seemed to improve a sound, I often found that level increases were actually what I perceived as an improvement, even with some controls that were described as having “gain compensation”. When I really compensated for loudness bias, the improvement sometimes 'disappeared'. Since none of the modules have a bypass function of their own, you need to use your DAW’s plug-in “defeat” switch, and manually adjust the Output level control of a module to correct for loudness bias in order to determine any actual audible effects. This is true, of course, for many audio plug-ins, but loudness bias can fool even some experienced "ears". If you are new at mixing, you need to be aware of this issue.
There is a “user manual” for each module, but these contain little useful information. They all have the same format with three partial pages on installation and using the iLok account, half a page listing the controls, half a page explaining some extra mouse functions, and almost seven pages of legalese, listing who licensed what to whom, your rights and restrictions, limits of liability, and other useful information if you are a lawyer. A real missed opportunity to instruct the user about what kinds of processes are going on ‘under the hood’ and how to use each module to help make a track sit properly in a mix.
Speaking of iLok, you need an account, with or without a dongle, in order to use this software.
The Mix Has It?
For evaluating use in a mix environment, I set up a couple old projects with country and pop ballads, and tried the modules on various buses (less the Master module, of course). The Vocal module, as I expected, cut at too high a frequency and made the singers sound too thin for my taste . The Drum module on the other hand, especially pushing it into distortion, was fun. And the Bass module was interesting to switch between “Country” and “Rock” - I found in both projects I preferred “Rock”! The Acoustic module added some clarity (no doubt due to the EQ curve), but I didn’t find the Keys module to help, and I didn’t need the Electric module on either project.
For comparison, I also tried my usual EQ and compressor chain on the same buses, and preferred the control and the sound I could obtain with them. Using the JST BD modules, I could obtain some reasonable results, but I found it faster and easier, for me, to use “real” EQ, compressors and limiters.
Still Not a “Celebrity” Fan
So why would I not like to sound “just like xxx or zzz” (insert your favorite mix engineer’s name)? Why would I? They have all spent years mastering the tools to establish their proficiency and signature sound. You should do the same if you want to really master mixing. If you don’t know how to use the tools of the trade, there are many tutorials and articles, and many plug-in emulations of the kind of gear you’ll find in a real studio that you can practice with. A program of preset processor chains won’t help you find your own style. And you won’t really learn much if the EQ and dynamics being applied are hidden.
Unless your raw tracks are of the quality that these top engineers work with (recorded in world-class studios by experienced engineers with top studio musicians backing big name talent) how could even the very same chain of processors make your tracks sound really ‘professional’?
Further, even if you have superb quality recordings, how could a mix with one set of instruments respond to a signal chain created for different music and different instruments? Using such a processor chain might help you improve a given mix, but I doubt it would help you learn what mixing elements actually improved the mix.
As a producer Joey Sturgis himself has said, “ I was trying to capture basically the comic book character version of the artist that I was working with”. That seems to fit what I see here with rather aggressive effects, odd graphics and “unique” control names. It may be the kind of tool-set you want, but it’s not my cup of tea.
Fun to play with the oddly named controls - adjust them and be surprised.
Some modules can deliver useful results.
Low CPU usage from as low as 0.2% per module to just over 0.5% (Master) - latency on all modules is 48 samples, except the Master which needs 432 samples.
Reasonable price for seven modules even if not all of them are useful for your musical style. And if they are all beneficial for you, it's a really fair price.
Non-technical names for the controls that give little clue to the actual functions, though some hint strongly, like Squeeze or Staput, but others like Deckerate have different effects from module to module. And controls interact in various 'hidden' ways.
Tiny Control “screw” on the meter that is not a meter zero adjustment, but a compressor/limiter threshold control that in some cases duplicates the effect (for all practical purposes) of another control.
Non-skeuomorphic and “fanciful” graphics with different layouts and controls from one module to another, with the settings on controls not clearly visible, although considering how controls work and interact, you may not care!
No easy way to actually understand the “secrets” (i.e., settings of EQ, saturation and dynamics processors that are applied to each type of track), so not really a good learning tool.
No built-in bypass control and no equal loudness mode - loudness bias is difficult to separate from actual EQ or dynamic effects. Even controls that are described as having “gain compensation” can shift output levels 2-3 dB, enough to fool you with loudness bias.
Bus Glue Billy Decker
– Joey Sturgis Tones