This review is going to focus on the new plugin technology that has recently been released by 'Variety of Sound', an independent plugin development company dedicated to producing innovative and versatile VST audio plugin tools which not only sound great, but are also completely free! Variety Of Sound
The new technology is called 'Stateful Saturation' which claims to be 'a sophisticated DSP core system for musical harmonic distortion generation based on authentic and truly stageful non-linear models'. The idea behind this new release is to create a new plugin development algorithm that effectively preserves the analog qualities that many producers and engineers still yearn for…the non-linear distortion. Hugh Robjohns explains in his 2010 Sound on Sound article on analogue warthm, 'when it comes to audio, some aspects of analogue technology introduce artifacts and distortions that are perceived as pleasant, and are often musically enhancing'. Up until now it has been something that many believe to be unattainable within the digital plugin domain!
The plugin that this review focus's on in particular is called the ThrillseekerLA, a digital stereo leveling amplifier that incorporates high user programability to really enable the compression characteristics to be tailored to the source material.
My first impressions were that this is an extremely versatile plugin compressor! Although not an emulation of anything in particular it is possible to achieve a wide range of compression characteristics, which many specific pieces of hardware gear a renowned for. This reminds me somewhat of the Distressor EL8-X which offers several modes that colour the signal in different ways to allow for the emulation of some classic pieces of outboard gear. One thing which is nice about the Distressors is that they include recommended settings for achieving these emulations. It seems that this new product from Variety of Sound aims to offer the same versatility so it might be nice for them to include some recommended settings also, although it's not hard to find these yourself. Another interesting test would be to hear how the non linear harmonic distortion differs between the Distressors and this new plugin.
The side chain filter is a great addition and comes in very useful for maintaining the low end impact and weight.
The mix level control is also a pretty useful feature. If you're working within your DAW at -18dB or 0dbVU (for example if you are running a lot of outboard equipment) it allows you with one switch to optimize the plugins internal gain structure to work at this level. This is quite a unique and thoughtful feature. This can also be used for really driving the compressor and achieving some crunchy effects. It's great to have this option built into the plugin!
One of the most versatile parts of this plugin are the attack and release times. It offers a very wide range of speeds, from 0 ms to 100 ms. The quick attack time is extremely fast as you would expect. This is true also of the release times, it pretty much does what it says on the tin, giving you as many different options as possible.
The interstage section of this plugin is where it really comes into its own, allowing the introduction of odd and even harmonic distortion. Second order even harmonic distortion is added automatically just by switching the interstage section on, and you can then add odd harmonic distortion to taste using the THD slider. The spectrum slider lets you choose where to focus these harmonics. You can tell that this slider introduces odd harmonics because it's quite easy to hear the spectral focus change.
The options include full bandwidth which is great on focussed source material such as vocals or guitars, however using it on drums creates an almost muddy sound with the generated harmonics all fighting against each other. It's kind of unnatural to introduce so many harmonics over the entire frequency spectrum anyway so this is to be expected. However it's a cool effect none the less and could be just what you're looking for.
The low frequency option is great for bringing out the low frequency information on smaller speakers. It Introduces harmonics that can help shift the sound into a more audible spectrum.
The high frequency is great for adding a bit more sheen to the tracks. It almost works like a very subtle exciter, however it maintains a smooth sound and doesn't add the brittle harsh quality that is often common with this type of processing!
This section also features a transformer emulation which can be switched in and out. It seems to soften the transients a little, which is particularly apparent when used on drum tracks. This is one of those things that when used in a mix may either work or not depending on your personal taste. It is completely dependant on the situation and source material. I would say it definitely gives you another option to try out though which is the main thing!
One of the only negative aspects that I can find with this plugin is that it seems to be slightly more CPU intensive than some of its competitors like the Waves CLA compressor bundle. I would say that this is probably just down to the fact that Variety of Sound is an independent plugin developer. The resources required to nail the CPU drain down to the absolute minimum are not necessarily as available as they are for a company such as Waves. Having said this with the development of computer technology this issue is not something that should be a problem for most people, particularly those with newish machines. I think that the amount of functionality and variety that this plugin offers justifies it being slightly more resource intensive. Oh and the fact that it's completely free as well, I think we can let him off on this one
I would highly recommend checking this plugin out and all the other releases from Variety of Sound! It sounds great and gives you pretty much any kind of sound that you would need. The only downside is that it's only available to Windows users at the moment in the VST plugin format. Maybe this will change in the future but it might be worth hooking up a PC somewhere just to try this one out! If you want to run it with Pro Tools then there are VST to RTAS wrappers available so this shouldn't be a problem for anyone.