Aberrant DSP ShapeShifter by Sound-Guy
ShapeShifter 1.1 by Aberrant DSP
An update on ShapeShifter. Version 1.1 is now available which adds features to the preset manager, and for anyone who wants to try before you buy, a demo version is now available! The demo is fully featured, but has a brief (< 1 sec) sound drop-out every 45 seconds and cannot save custom user presets. Now back to the review . . .
Aberrant DSP introduced SketchCassette about a year ago, a wonderful lo-fi processor that emulates some “defects” of the venerable cassette tape recorder. It evolved from a university senior design project and impressed me with its capability, flexibility and humorous, yet functional GUI. Now the designers, Ben and Dan, have released ShapeShifter, a unique take on the compressor, which goes even further from a skeuomorphic GUI than SketchCassette yet retains a very user friendly, easy to use interface. And as with their first processor, they are practically giving it away – at $20 I’d say it’s very foolish not to buy ShapeShifter. You can save your time by skipping this review, going to their site and buying it right now. I think you’ll find it more than worth the price.
The front panel is a combination of comic book and cubism. Yet the functions are clearly delineated. The unmarked input and output gain controls under the ladder meters provide +/- 24 dB and when you adjust them a digital readout appears in case you want to know the set levels.
In fact, most controls pop up a digital readout when adjusted (except tone, drive and asymmetry), so you can set ratios and thresholds exactly as you like. And of course saving an instance in any DAW will preserve all settings. Furthermore, the gray block in the upper right corner accesses presets and Aberrant DSP provide a few dozen of these arranged in seven general categories (General, Drums, Guitar, Keys, Bass, Vocal, and “Extreme”). And each of these categories has presets for different styles of sound processing (General Purpose, Extreme Compression, Distortion, Bright, Warm, Lo-Fi, and Blown Out). I found many of the presets to be useful ‘right out of the box’ with only slight adjustments needed to hit the effect I wanted. The range of possible effects is impressive. And of course you can save your own presets when you come up with useful settings.
ShapeShifter preset system has plenty of factory presets and of course you can ‘roll your own’
How Does It Do?
The controls are somewhat familiar if you’ve used a compressor, but they don’t all do what you might expect. For one thing, ShapeShifter provides both downward and upward compression. The gain meter at the top has two scales – a positive scale showing the upward compression being applied (scale reads to -60 dB) and a negative scale for downward compression (scale reads to -18 dB). Familiar controls are attack (0.2 ms to 200 ms) and release (20 ms to 2 seconds), along with ratio (1:1 to 8:1). But controls like “transients – ratio”, “transients – threshold”, floor, and even ratio provide adjustments different from what you are used to. While “transients – threshold” does control a threshold, upward compression is applied below this threshold and downward compression is applied above it! The “transients – ratio” control sets the ratio of the downward compression range while the larger ratio knob sets the ratio of the upward compression range! And the floor control sets the lower bound at which the upward compression stops being applied, which can help reduce the effective noise floor. This is all nicely illustrated in the user manual, but if it sounds too confusing, don’t worry, just start with a preset!
Another useful control is tone which balances the high and low frequency bands as they affect the compressor levels. Counterclockwise boosts the low band and clockwise boosts the highs. This acts somewhat like a “tilt-EQ”, but it affects signals only if the compressor is active – and the magnitude of the effect varies with compressor settings.
As with any compressor, ShapeShifter will raise the relative noise floor when input signals drop to a low level, and with its upward compression mode this can create an even higher “noise pump” than many compressors. This is most noticeable with extreme settings and in some cases may actually be useful, but can be minimized using the transient controls if needed. I tested a number of tracks and buses starting with presets such as Tight & Bright Drums, Colorful Keys, Punchy Bass, and Clear Crisp Vocals, and in a mix situation I rarely found a need to reduce the noise floor. I was impressed with many results, like using ShapeShifter on a drum bus where it not only changed the dynamics and tonal characteristics, but in some cases seemed to “expand” the sound field in a very pleasant way. It was like I was using a harmonic enhancer and stereo widener. I really like what this plug-in can do!
There are two additional controls in the lower left: comp. bypass and stereo link. As you might guess the bypass “button” bypasses the compressor and leaves only the drive, asymmetry and dry/wet controls in the audio path. Checking the stereo link uses an average of the left/right channels as the sidechain input to control compression so that gain reduction of both left and right channels is the same, like most compressors. Unchecking it provides dual-mono compression (left and right channels operate independently based on their own levels). This is a great feature that can to provide some good ‘movement’ to a sound. It also makes ShapeShifter very well suited for a “rear bus parallel compressor” application.
The drive and asymmetry controls, along with the A/B type switch, provide a wide range of warmth (OK, it’s harmonic distortion!) that I found very musical, at least in moderate levels. Type A is a more subtle distortion than B, and provides light saturation at low levels and a gritty guitar-pedal like distortion at high levels. Type B is a harsher, hard-clipping mode. If the asymmetry control is ‘off’ (fully counterclockwise) both A and B modes provide odd harmonics only (well, even harmonics are there, way below the odd levels) – turning up the asymmetry control increases even harmonic content. There are also some spurious frequencies and low level aliasing, but these don’t become audible until very high settings are used, and by then you are in trash metal territory anyway! Note this “module” is ‘post-compressor’ so that it interacts with the output level of the compressor module. Turning off the compressor module enables using the ‘analog’ drive section by itself.
Another nice touch is the very good user manual which can be accessed directly from ShapeShifter – just click the User Manual icon in the lower left corner.
If anything is missing it’s that ShapeShifter does not have an overall bypass control, but every DAW I’ve used has at least two ways to switch a plug-in on or off, so this is not a concern for me. When switching the plug-in in or out you may need to consider loudness bias, but with the +/- 24 dB output control you can easily adjust the output level if you wish. I found that ShapeShifter can change the tone and dynamics so much that judging equal loudness can be difficult, but is not really necessary when you consider its effect in a mix – if it sounds better, it is better!
How Does It Sound?
In short, excellent. The past few years I’ve tried a number of plug-ins that have interacting multiple processing modules for dynamics control and saturation, and for the most part, I have not been very impressed. ShapeShifter has extreme interactions among its controls and yet it impresses me – I find the interactions to yield fascinating and musical results. I’ve included a few audio examples since trying to describe tonal changes is nearly impossible. These are “soloed” tracks of acoustic guitar, bass and drum bus: they each start with the raw track and then repeat it using several presets. Of course you should really evaluate the effects within a mix which is easy using instances of ShapeShifter on instrument and vocal buses, and maybe on a few source tracks.
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) a single instance uses from 0.1% to 0.35% cpu resource depending on the settings. Latency is zero. Aberrant DSP plug-ins are available as VST3, AU, and AAX plugins, but no VST2 due to Steinberg, the creators of the VST2 and VST3 formats, no longer granting licenses to developers for VST2 plugins. If you’re still using a DAW that doesn’t support VST3 you should update!
A really fine compressor/harmonic processor with a wide range of possible uses and a very fast intuitive user interface. Truly a five star product. Although there is no demo available, the price is peanuts. If you can’t come up with US$20 immediately, start saving up.
Fabulous FX from subtle analog treatment to far-out trashy.
Excellent preset system with loads of factory examples.
Dual-mono capability as well as balanced left-right compression.
Unique downward and upward compression mode with relative level control.
Great on full mixes, drum buses, bass, vocals, guitars and other instrument tracks and buses.
Low cpu requirements and zero latency.
Easy installation and authorization.
Very convenient one-click access to the pdf user manual.
Very low cost. Like v-e-r-y low. Extremely high value for money.
Nothing to really complain about. Although one might wish for a loudness compensating bypass, I didn’t find this a problem in use as described earlier.