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United Plugins FireCobra

United Plugins FireCobra

4.25 4.25 out of 5, based on 1 Review

An intriguing plug-in that may help improve some tracks and mixes using few adjustments.

10th July 2019

United Plugins FireCobra by Sound-Guy

United Plugins FireCobra

FireCobra by FireSonic from United Plugins

United Plugins is new . . . and not new. It was founded by three software companies, JMG Sound, FireSonic and SounDevice Digital. They also work with MeldaProduction, so you will find products from all four brands on their website. They recently introduced three new plugins, one each from JMG Sound, FireSonic, and SounDevice Digital. I’ve recently tested FireCobra by FireSonic and found it a fascinating processor with some interesting features.

What is It?
FireCobra is described as “combining the accuracy of the digital world with the live randomness of the analogue with a simple user interface”. FireSonic state that it intelligently analyses the audio signal and makes it sound punchier, more powerful and better in general. While I could not say how the processor does what it does, I found it could make mild improvements to some sounds with most of the supplied presets, and provide some much more aggressive processing when pushed. It’s a plug-in that combines several audio processes with interactive controls.

There is a user manual accessible online while running FireCobra, accessed by right-clicking in the dark gray rectangle above the preset window and choosing Documentation. This requires being Internet-connected while working on a project. It is also available on the United Plugin site, a better situation for those who stay off the Internet while working. But the current manual actually describes little, other than explaining that “it is not the analogue devices themselves . . . it’s psycho-acoustics that makes things sound better”. And the controls are described as Intensify “is based on some advanced dynamics processing”, Smack is “inspired by rare analogue devices”, and Analogize is “based on classic analogue saturation units”. They also suggest “Just put it on every track you’d like to enhance . . .”

There are controls for the EQ processing mode (Off {minimum phase} or Linear phase) and for oversampling (Off to 8x). Linear phase produces zero phase shift unless some of the knobs are cranked way up, especially Smack which creates extreme phase shifts above 2-5 kHz. Minimum phase does what minimum phase does, with shifts dependent on the EQ applied by the various controls. With oversampling off, there is some measurable aliasing, but no frequency aliases above -75 dB, which is pretty much inaudible. And even 8x oversampling does not eliminate all aliased frequencies, so considering how much more CPU effort it requires (see Technical Details below), I wouldn’t use oversampling. Even FireSonic recommend not using it!

There are 17 presets included (plus a basic Initialize), and I found most of these to provide mild effects, but an increase in loudness is evident in every preset, from a few dB to about 24 db with the Guitar Brutal Massacre preset (which is not mild in any way!). Be careful - if you are already listening to a track at a high SPL, it could jump 24 dB if you switch to this preset. You could damage your ears, at least temporarily. Considering that even 1 dB of loudness bias will sound ‘better’, you need to adjust the output level to match input when bypassing FireCobra to evaluate any true sonic effects. The good news is that every preset includes both Input and Output fader settings, and you can not only create your own presets, but can modify the factory ones and then click Replace - if you do this after changing only the Output fader level to match levels of appropriate material (taking your clue from the preset names!), you will still have the original presets, but better adjusted to prevent loudness bias. Note that the loudness compensation needed will not always be the same for a given preset - it depends on the source material to some extent, but I found every factory preset output level could be adjusted down to be closer to ‘no level bias’ than originally supplied.

Controls can be set using normal mouse movements, but the mouse wheel can be used for very fine control, and a right click will set any control to a nominal value, while double-clicking opens a numeric keypad. Very flexible!

There are also undo/redo buttons that work well and can take you back through multiple settings which is very handy, and an A/B comparison control for instantly comparing two settings. The A/B settings are actually temporary presets, and include Input and Output fader settings so you can easily adjust for loudness changes when making comparisons. And there are some other nicely implemented features: the GUI can be continuously varied from 230 x 277 pixels up to your full screen size, FireCobra uses internal 64 bit processing for excellent audio quality, and high resolution sample rates are supported. Installation and authorization was fast and simple, and it’s available for Windows as VST, VST3, Audio Units for Mac, and AAX for Pro Tools users, though I tested only VST and VST3.

Sound Effects
My tests, both analytical and qualitative listening tests, found the effect of twisting a knob creates multiple processing effects. For example, Intensify changes overall level, affects EQ shape (in odd ways), applies compression and harmonic distortion, and interacts with the Smack and Analogize controls. Smack also affects level, EQ shape, increases harmonic distortion, and provides dynamics that acts like parallel compression. Analogize also changes level, and mildly affects EQ and distortion, but has no direct affect on compression. And signal level, adjustable with the Input slider which has a +/- 24 dB control range, affects multiple characteristics, making sounds “more processed” when pushed up high. And very distorted if pushed too high!

Listening tests yielded mixed impressions - some tracks changed in a good way, while others, after adjusting for loudness bias, were debatable that changes I heard were significant. However, with some experimentation, I found a ‘happy medium’ of signal level settings (controlled by the source material itself and the Input fader) and FireCobra’s three controls that can yield some good results. I was impressed with improvements to vocals in mixes I tested. The Vocal Mixcutter preset can bring a vocal up nicely while keeping the instrumental backing clear, even in an otherwise ‘finished’ mix, much like using a good harmonic enhancer, or fine-tuning EQ and compression properly.

Mix or Track
Although the user manual provides little guidance on its use, stating “Just put it on every track you’d like to enhance”, I’d suggest there is more to getting good results than that. In fact, FireCobra can act like both a “harmonic enhancer” and a “dynamics-saturation” unit, and should not be used on every track in a project (FireSonic do say “tracks you’d like to enhance”). If you “enhance” every track, the mix will become “crowded” and can sound shrill and fatiguing. FireCobra can be effective on a few tracks that need a change of tone, like bass or lead guitar that need added ‘bottom’ or grit, by using some of the more aggressive settings. But tracks that already sound right should be left alone. FireCobra can also be used effectively on an overall mix, and possibly on a bus or two, like a drum stem, to help shape the overall sound balance. Keep in mind that loudness bias may be present with any use of FireCobra which can be especially misleading when used on a full mix, maybe less so on a track since part of the mixing process is balancing levels.

For single tracks/instruments like bass guitar, I found starting from Guitar Massacre, Brutal Guitar Massacre, or Bassic, and then tweaking the settings could change the character of the track significantly, some settings bringing up the mid-range and harmonics in a way that helped cut through the mix. I found some very good results with bass guitar tracks, and acoustic/electric guitar could also be made more “punchy”. Drums could be greatly changed with the effective compression adding ‘space’ and ‘sustain’ to a single drum track or a kit. Extreme settings that helped individual tracks would likely ruin a full mix (or make it fit some extreme Thrash Metal genre!), but do provide some very colorful alterations.

Practice makes Better
Like any audio processor, FireCobra will do more for you with some experience. If you simply stick one on a track and crank up the controls, you’ll likely hear an “improvement” that, in reality, is predominantly an increase in level (although the more aggressive presets will also yield a lot of “true grit”). Some experimenting will show you where it can make a real difference in tone and dynamics. So I wouldn’t suggest you can just turn up the controls and make any track or mix sound better - you will benefit with some practice and restraint.

With some settings FireCobra seems to provide “psycho-acoustic” effects, acting much like a harmonic enhancer. I have several “psycho-acoustic” tools, both hardware and software, so I tried my classic rack-mounted Aphex Type C Aural Exciter, my BBE Sonic Maximizer software emulation, and the La Petite Excite plug-in on some overall mixes to compare. FireCobra provided slightly to greatly different results than these psycho-acoustic processors, in some cases a little better to my ears, in others it was a very close call, and in some I preferred one of the other processors. But FireCobra can also push sounds far beyond the range of “psycho-acoustic” processors since it includes distortion and compression, making it a more versatile tool.

Is It Unique?
There are a number of celebrity engineer signature sound plug-in suites available that bundle multiple effects using interactive controls. FireCobra claims no celebrities, but does provide the interactive controls. Although I found it was possible for FireCobra to produce useful effects, I also found I could quickly obtain similar results on the same track or mix using a channel strip, or separate EQ, dynamics and saturation units. Having mixed music for years, I find having control of these elements separately can be an advantage over “simple” interacting controls since I can dial in exactly what I want. In every case I tried, over a dozen tracks and mixes, I was able to closely match FireCobra in a minute or two, and, if desired, make minute adjustments more to my liking. Your results may vary depending on your experience and work methods.

An intriguing plug-in that can improve some tracks and mixes using only a few adjustments, but getting the best results requires some experimentation. It took me a few hours of testing to realize its best qualities, and I recommend you check it out yourself. Keep in mind that you will be fooled by loudness bias if you just crank up the dials, but after adjusting for this, you will likely find some useful settings. If mixing is new to you, it may prove useful, though it won’t help you understand the intricacy of compression, saturation or EQ use. Even if you are experienced you may find FireCobra provides some useful and fun effects. Since there is a free trial period, you can evaluate FireCobra painlessly, and come to your own conclusions based on your music and work methods.

Technical Details
In my test system (PC Audio Labs Rok Box PC with Windows 7, 64 Bit, 4-Core Intel i7-4770K, 3.5 GHz, and 16 GB RAM) with both 32 bit and 64 bit plugins, a single instance uses from about 0.5% to 1% cpu resource depending on parameter settings as long as oversampling is not engaged. With 8x oversampling the cpu requirements rose to over 6%. FireCobra adds no latency if Linear Phase is off and no oversampling is used - this increases to 768 samples if any oversampling level is used and 3,840 samples if both oversampling and linear phase EQ are used. If only linear phase is used, latency is 3,072 samples. I found excellent sound quality using no oversampling and minimum phase EQ.

Can provide some useful audio enhancement effects for individual tracks and mixes, for a neophyte and an accomplished engineer.

Quick to make considerable tonal changes (but beware of loudness increases!).

Useful Preset system with the ability to “roll your own” and to compensate for loudness bias in any saved preset, especially the factory presets which are all set too high.

Clever mouse control for knobs and faders - normal mouse movement, mouse wheel for fine control, right click to set nominal value, double-click for numeric keypad entry.

Internal 64 bit processing with high resolution sample rates supported.

Continuously variable GUI size with clean layout.

Easy installation and authorization.

Free trial period.

Interactive nature of controls and significant level increases as any control value is raised makes judging effects difficult.

Did not provide any audio effect I wasn’t able to accomplish using outboard and/or in-the-box processors.

No auto-gain mode and there can be significant level changes with the factory presets.

The user manual is not very informative on actually using FireCobra.

Not really an educational tool for neophytes since the actual processes going on, EQ, dynamics, distortion and maybe more, are hidden - but FireSonic don’t claim it will teach you to be the next Sir George Martin!

Attached Thumbnails
United Plugins FireCobra-firecobra-panel-2c.jpg   United Plugins FireCobra-numpad.jpg   United Plugins FireCobra-presets.jpg  
Last edited by Sound-Guy; 10th July 2019 at 04:20 PM..

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