sustaining trends in audio land, 2022 edition

Forecasts are difficult, especially when they concern the future – Mark Twain

In last years edition about sustaining trends in audio land I’ve covered pretty much everything from mobile and modular, DAW and DAW-less up to retro outboard and ITB production trends. From my point of view, all points made so far are still valid. However, I’ve neglected one or another topic which I’ll now just add here to that list.

The emergence of AI in audio production

What we can currently see already in the market is the ermergence of some clever mixing tools aiming to solve very specific mixing tasks, e.g. resonance smoothing and spectral balancing. Tools like that might be based on deep learning or other smart and sophisticated algorithms. There is no such common/strict “AI” definition and we will see an increasing use of the “AI” badge even only for the marketing claim to be superior.

Some other markets are ahead in this area, so it might be a good idea to just look into them. For example, AI applications in the digital photography domain are already ranging from smart assistance during taking a photo itself up to complete automated post processing. There is AI eye/face detection in-camera, skin retouching, sky replacement and even complete picture development. Available for all kinds of devices, assisted or fully automated and in all shades of quality and pricing.

Such technology not only shapes the production itself but a market and business as a whole. For example, traditional gate keepers might disappear because they are no longer necessary to create, edit and distribute things but also the market might get flooded with mediocre content. To some extend we can see this already in the audio domain and the emergence of AI within our production will just be an accelerator for all that.

The future of audio mastering

Audio Mastering demands shifted slightly over the recent years already. We’ve seen new requirements coming from streaming services, the album concept has become less relevant and there was (and still is) a strong demand for an increased loudness target. Also, the CD has been loosing relevance but Vinyl is back and has become a sustaining trend again, surprisingly. Currently Dolby Atmos gains some momentum, but the actual consumer market acceptance remains to be proven. I would not place my bet on that since this has way more implications (from a consumer point of view) than just introducing UHD as a new display standard.

Concerning the technical production, a complete ITB shift – as we’ve seen it in the mixing domain – has not been completed yet but the new digital possibilities like dynamic equalizing or full spectrum balancing are slowly adopted. All in all, audio mastering slowly evolves along the ever changing demands but remains surprisingly stable, sustaining as a business and this will probably continue for the next (few) years.

Social Media, your constant source of misinformation

How To Make Vocals Sound Analog? Using Clippers For Clean Transparent Loudness. Am I on drugs now? No, I’ve just entered the twisted realm of social media. The place where noobs advice you pro mixing tips and the reviews are paid. Everyone is an engineer here but its sooo entertaining. Only purpose: Attention. Currency: Clicks&Subs. Tiktok surpassed YT regarding reach. Content half-life measured in hours. That DISLIKE button is gone. THERE IS NO HOPE.

The (over-) saturated audio plugin market and the future of DSP

Over the years, a vast variety of vendors and products has been flooded the audio plugin market, offering literally hundreds of options to choose from. While this appears to be a good thing at first glance (increaed competition leads to lower retail prices) this has indeed a number of implications to look at. The issues we should be concerned the most about are the lack of innovation and the drop in quality. We will continue to see a lot of “me too” products as well as retro brands gilding their HW brands with yesterday SW tech.

Also, we can expect a trend of market consolidation which might appear in different shapes. Traditionally, this is about mergers and aquisitions but today its way more prominently about successfully establishing a leading business platform. And this is why HW DSP will be dead on the long run becuse those vendors just failed in creating competitive business platforms. Other players stepped in here already.

the twisted world of guitar pedals II

Meanwhile I had the opportunity to put my hands on some Fairfield Circuitry effect pedal stuff mentioned earlier here and the “Meet Maude” analog BBD delay was right here on my desk for a deeper inspection. My actual experience was a rather mixed one.

Focusing on a rather dark and LoFi sound quality on the one hand plus a rather simplistic feature set concept wise on the other, they do not appear to be very flexible in practise and this at a rather steep price point. They appear to be very noisy featuring all kinds of artifacts even when integrated to the mixing desk via reamping. One may call this the feature itself but at the end it makes it a one-trick pony. If you need exactly that, here you have it but you get nothing beyond that. To me this trade off was too big and so I send it back.

However, I found their nifty low pass gate implementation (very prominently featured within their “Shallow Water”) that much unique and interesting that I replicated it as a low pass filter alternative in software and to have it available e.g. for filtering delay lines in my productions. The “Shallow Water” box made me almost pull the trigger but all in all I think this stuff seems to be a little bit over-hyped thanks to the interwebs. This pretty much sums it up for now, end of this affair.

Timeline & BigSky – The new dust collectors?

Going into the exact opposite direction might be a funny idea and so I grabbed some Strymon stuff which aims to be the jack of all trades at least regarding digital delay and reverb in a tiny stomp box aka desktop package. To be continued …

Further readings about BBD delays:

the twisted world of guitar pedals I

Quite recently I had a closer look into the vast amount of (guitar) effect pedals out there. Most are already DSP based which surprised me a little bit since I still ecpected more discrete analog designs after all. While looking for some neat real analog BBD delay I finally stumbled across Fairfield Circuitry’s “Meet Maude” which got me intrigued, having a rather rough look&feel at first sight but some very delicate implementation details under the hood.

Their delay modulation circuit has some randomness build in and also there is a compression circuit in the feedback loop – both designs I’ve also choosen for NastyDLA and which makes a big impact on the overall sound for granted. But the real highlight is the VCF in the delay feedback path which actually appears to be a low-pass gate – a quite unique design and soundwise also different but appealing in its very own regard.

They employed very similar concepts to their vibrato/chorus box “Shallow Water” featuring also random delay modulation and a low pass gate but this time a little bit more prominent on the face plate. On top, their JFET op-amp adds some serious grit to any kind of input signal. All in all, I did not expect such a bold but niche product to exist. If I ever will own such a thingy, there will be a much more detailed review here for sure.

What I like about the Behringer 2600

What I really like about the Behringer 2600 is that it’s not just a plain copy but introduces some real useful improvements over the original concept. Most important to me is the 19″ form factor which not only reduces the originals size and fits in the rack but also remains big enough to enjoy a great user experience while cabling and tweaking things. And they got rid of those speakers! Instead it offers 2 filter revisions to choose from, two of the oscillator sections are now fully featured, the LFO is part of the main chassis now and new additional timing options for the envelopes has been added as well.

On the other hand, the Behringer 2600 sticks to CV gate voltages following original levels which limits full integration in todays modular world quite a bit. However, this is currently not a big deal to me. I only wish they would have made a true analog delay instead of the spring reverb (emulation). Offering audio in, the device also doubles as an excellent analog effect unit which seems to be a little bit underrated in this regard. Given it’s pricepoint, this feature is already something to consider if one is just looking for an outboard analog filter box or an alternative for something like a MS-20.

The ARP 2600 turns 50

And if time allows, watch this awesome documentary about the history and story behind ARP:

Getting the most out of the SPL Tube Vitalizer

In this article I’m going to share some analysis insights but also proposing an easy to follow 3-step approach for finding the sweet spot while processing any kind of material with this device.

Preparing for winter season: room heating with style

So, having now a Tube Vitalizer here on my desk (at least for some time), I was surprised about the lack of usable online reviews and background information. One just finds the usual YT quality stuff which might be entertaining in the best case but also spreads misinformation ever so often. To save those influencers honor it must be said that the Vitalizer concept is really not that easy to grasp and its quirky user experience makes it not easier. The manual itself is a mixed bag since it contains some useful hints and graphs on the one hand but lots of marketing blurb obscuring things on the other. Time to clean up the mess a little bit.

What it actually does

While easily slotted into the “audio exciter” bucket, some more words are needed to describe what it actually does. Technically speaking, the Vitalizer is basically a parallel dynamic equalizer with an actual EQ curve behaviour which aims to mimic equal loudness contours as specified in ISO226. Rather simplified, it can be seen as a high and low frequency shelving EQ to dial in a basic “smile” EQ curve but one which takes hearing related (psychoacoustic) loudness effects into account. It does this also by generating curves differently based on signal levels, hence the term “dynamic EQ”. And wait, it also adds harmonic content galore.

Taming the beast

To obtain an equal loudness contour the main equalizers center frequency must be properly set depending on the tonal balance of the actual source material. This center frequency can be dialed in somewhere between 1k and 20kHz by adjusting the Hi-Mid Freq knob which defines a cross-over point: while frequencies below that point gets attenuated, the higher frequencies gets boosted. However, this attenuation is already a signal level dependent effect. Opposed to that, the LF EQ itself (which actually is not a shelving but a bell type curve) has a fixed frequency tuned to 50Hz and just the desired boost amount needs to be dialed in. The LF curve characteristic can be further altered (Bass soft/tight) which basically thickens or thins out the below 100Hz area. Finally, this EQ path can be compressed now with the Bass Comp option.

A typical EQ curve created by the Vitalizer

On top of the main EQ path, the Tube Vitalizer offers an additional HF boost and compression option which both can be dialed in to complement the LF behaviour in a very similar fashion but in the high frequency department. Internally, both are in a parallel configuration and mixed back into a dry signal path. The according Process Level knob can be seen as a kind of dry/wet option but only for main the EQ part. The upper HF part is mixed back in separately by the Intensity dial.

Gain-Staging is key

For the EQ section as a whole, the Drive knob is the ticket for proper gain-staging. If compression can be dialed in properly for both compressors (as indicated by the blue flashing lights) input gain is in the right ballpark. One might expect to hear actual compression going on but it appears to be a rather gentle leveling effect.

Gain-staging for the output stage has to be concerned separately which might become an issue if the tube stage is activated and operates in shunt limiting mode. Now you have to take care about proper input levels since the Attenuators for both output channels are operating after the limiter and not beforehand.

Tube stage limiting: input (red) vs output (blue)

Which directly leads us to the additional harmonic content created by this device. First of all, there is always additional harmonic content created by this device, no matter what. One might expect the device to not show any such content with the solid state output stage but it actually does. The tube output stage just increases that content but signal level dependent of course and 2nd order harmonics are always part of that content. A serious additional amount of harmonics gets added as soon as the HF filter gets engaged by dialing in Intensity (and LC Filter mode activated!) but this sounds always very smooth and natural in the top end, surprisingly.

Delicious content

Also impressive is the low noisefloor for both output stage modes, tube and solid state. The first one introduces pretty strong channel crosstalk, though.

Workflow – Finding the sweet spot in 3 easy steps

Initial condition:

  • Drive, Bass, Bass Comp and Intensity set to 0
  • Device is properly gain-staged

1. Set Process to 5 and now find the best fit for Hi-Mid Freq for the given source material. For already mixed 2bus stuff you can narrow it down to 2-3kHz most likely.

2. Dial in Bass (either left or right depending on source and taste) and some compression accordingly.

3. Only then dial in some further HF content via Intensity and some compression accordingly. Adjust HF Freq so it basically fits the source/taste.

Workflow – Tweaking just one knob

My good old buddy Bootsy told me this trick which works surprisingly well.

Initial condition:

  • Left most position: Bass
  • Right most position: Bass Comp, High Comp, High Freq
  • 12-o-clock position: Drive, Intensity
  • Hi-Mid-Freq set to 2.5kHz

Now, just dial in some (few) Process Level to taste.

He also recommends to drive the input to some extend (VU hitting the red zone) using the Tube stage in limiter mode while always engaging LC Filter mode for HF.

The renaissance of the Baxandall EQs

Already in 1950, Peter Baxandall designed an analog tone correction circuit which found its way into some million consumer audio devices later on. Today, it is simply referred to as a Baxandall EQ.

What the f*ck is a Baxandall EQ?

Beside its appearance in numerous guitar amplifiers and effects, it made a very prominent reincarnation in the pro audio gear world in 2010 with the Dangerous Music Bax EQ. The concept shines with its very broad curves and gentle slopes which are all about transparancy and so it came to no surprise that this made it into lots of mastering rigs right away.

And it also had a reason that already in 2011 I did an authentic 1:1 emulation of the very same curves within the Baxter EQ plugin but just adding a dual channel M/S layout to better fit the mastering duties. For maximum accuracy and transparancy it already featured oversampling and double-precision filter calculations to that time and it is still one of my personal all time favourite EQs.

BaxterEQ

During the last 10 years quite a number of devices emerged each showing its very own interpretation of the Baxandall EQ whether thats in hard or software and this was highly anticipated especially in the mastering domain.

A highly deserved revival aka renaissance.

When comparing units be aware that the frequency labeling is not standardized and different frequencies might be declared while giving you same/similar curves. More plots and infos can be found here (german language).

A more realistic look at the Pultec style equalizer designs

One of the few historic audio devices with almost mystical status is the Pultec EQP-1A EQ and a lot of replicas has been made available across the decades. Whether being replicated in soft- or hardware, what can we expect from a more realistic point of view? Lets have a closer look.

Some fancy curves from the original EQP-1A manual
  • In the top most frequency range a shelving filter with 3 pre selected frequencies is offered but just for attenuation. Much more common and usable for todays mixing and mastering duties would be an air band shelving boost option here.
  • Also in the HF department there is just one single peak filter but this time just for boosting. It offers 7 pre selected frequencies between 3 and 16kHz and only here the bandwidth can be adjusted. However, the actual curves could have been steeper for todays mixing duties.
  • There is no option in the mid or low-mid range at all and also no high pass option. Instead, there is a shelving filter for the low-end which allows for boost and/or attenuation around four pre selected frequencies between 20 and 100 Hz.

All in all, this appears to be a rather quirky EQ concept with quite some limitations. On top of that, the low frequency behaviour of the boost and cut filters is rather unpredictable if both filters are engaged simultaneously which is exactly the reason why the original manual basically states “Do not attempt to do this!”.

Nowadays being refered to as the “Pultec Bass Trick” the idea is that you not only boost in some low end area but also create some sort of frequency dip sligthly above to avoid too much of a boost and muddiness in total. In practise, this appears to be rather unpredictable. Dial in a boost at 3 and an attenuation at 5, just as an example: Does this already feature a frequency dip? And if so at which frequency exactly? One has no idea and it even gets worse.

Due to aged electronics or component variety one has to expect that the actual curve behaviour might differ and also to see each vendors replica implementation to be different from another. In practise this indeed holds true and we can see the actual bass frequency dip at a much higher frequency within one model compared to another, just as an example.

… the more I boost the EQ the more it makes me smile …

A reviewers statement misguided by simple loudness increase?

Fun fact: Like the original device, all current (hardware) replica models do not have an output gain control. Also they increase the overall signal level just by getting inserted into the signal path.

So, where is the beef? Its definately not in the curves or the overall concept for sure. Maybe I’ll take some time for a follow-up article and a closer look into the buffer amplifier design to see if all the hype is justified.

Further Links

Not really demystifying but fun to read:

In the VoS plugin line you can find some Pultec style low end performance within NastyVCS: https://varietyofsound.wordpress.com/2010/05/07/nastyvcs-released-today/

Also interesting to read and hear: https://www.sweetwater.com/insync/pultec-shootout-with-sound-samples/

The Korg SDD-3000 – perfect for LoFi?

By accident, I recently stumbled upon the UAD Korg SDD-3000 digital delay version. When I noticed that they modelled also its amplifiers as well as the 13bit converters they immediately got my attention. Having also high- and low-pass filters on board, this could easily double as a great lofi device – so lets have a closer look.

As in the original hardware, the device offers several gain stage adjustments for both input and ouptut, intended to match different instrument or line level signals. These amplifiers are always in, no matter if the BYPASS switch is activated or not. Interestingly, UA also integrated this in its “Unison” interface feature as an preamp option.

Depending on how hard the input gain is driven, quite heavy distortion and saturation effects can occur. As soon as the Bypass is deactivated, the effect signal path containing the 13bit converted and HP/LP filtered signal can be dialed in with the LEVEL BALANCE. If this balance is now set to EFFECT only or just the WET SOLO option has been turned on (plus avoiding any amounts of feedback in this case) the device now offers a pretty much nicely degraded signal path for any sort of creative effects. Depending on the actual settings one can dial in now some really creamy or even gritty effects. Be aware, that this signal path contains an additional delay according to the DELAY TIME setting, of course.

The analysis charts are showing – from left to right – the basic frequency response (in bypass mode), some example harmonic distortions when hitting the input gain quite hard and the filtered effect signal path frequency response according to the UI settings above. The slight frequency bump on the right side of the charts might be caused by the plugin oversampling filters – the original hardware does not show this and its spectrum ends somewhere around 17kHz.

As in the original hardware, all settings are just within limited ranges and so it is not that flexible in general. However, soundwise its pretty much awesome. Oh and by the way, it also doubles as a simple but impressive delay 😉

A short review of the LIRA 8 VSTi

While currently having the original SOMA Lyra-8 hardware here on my desk I was curious how the VST emulation created by Mike Moreno DSP might appear in comparison. The release is available in VST formats for Mac and PC under “Pay what you want or download for free”.

In case you never heard of the hardware Lyra, it’s basically a 8 voice drone synthesizer, providing some LFO and FM modulation capabilities plus a basic delay and distortion FX. It does not provide any Midi control but solely relies on manual interaction with it’s analog interface (plus some quite limited CV support). It also does not have any sort of filter, mod matrix or effect structure. However, it perfectly fits for different styles of experimental electronic and ambient music as well as all kinds of sound design e.g for film scoring and such.

The VST plugin resembles the overall appearance and usage concept almost identical to the hardware. All parameters are accessible via host automation in your DAW which indeed turns out to be really useful. To trigger the sensors, Midi notes C1 to G1 can also be used instead of clicking the interface. Since the original sensors are sensitiv to skin capacitance/resistance, I would have expected the plugin sensors to have some sort of velocity or aftertouch control accordingly but this is not the case.

Soundwise the plugin was a real surprise. While it might not stand an A/B test with its analog counterpart, it amazingly captures its overall sound aesthetic and gives instant gratification in this regard. Wobbling drones, shimmering soundscapes and fizzling FM weirdness – it can all do that and much more. But maybe even more important it is real fun to twiddle with and it appears to be very inspirational, exactly like the HW does.

What the plugin itself can’t give you of course is the tactile experience. Beside that there is an issue when it comes to tuning sounds. The oscillator tune parameters actually do have just very imprecise control given the huge frequency range across all octaves. This becomes even more of an issue if you try to finetune something in its FM sweetspot area.

Overall verdict: Highly recommended for all sorts of sound design or pure inspiration – if you can live with its constraints.