12 January 2013

Home Studio: Sony Oxford Elite Native Pack test


Note: this is a revisited entry that was originally posted in my Spanish version of this blog, with added comments after using more often this pack of plug ins.

If, like in my case, you are trying to build your own home studio and, you are thinking on recording, mixing and masterizing in your PC, with acceptable results then, you should be looking for those plugins that can help you in each phase and, I am quite sure that you have already heard about Sonnox plugins, as well as the highly spread Waves' ones.

Lot of Masterizing or Mixing Engineers give credit to some Sonnox plugin. By example, Bob Katz considers them as top quality ones, as well as Friedmann Tischmeyer do it.
Of curse, I've tried every plug in that was included in Pro Tools 8.0 LE and, even that all them are over most of available plugins (with the exception of the big names), I find my mixes as lacking something.
I've noticed a high improvement in sound, when I went from Cakewalk Sonar 9 PE to Pro Tools 8.0 LE and, the quality of included plug ins was what made the difference.
I can easily imagine that the use of top-notch outboard units can improve everything even more but, tag prices go way higher when we talk about hardware.

I've tested demo versions of Waves, Wave Labs, Brainworks, Snolksis, PSP, Voxengo, Izotope as, well as practically every free VST or RTAS plugin. I am still pending on trying some renamed brands, as URS, McDSP or Metric Halo.

About those plugins I've tested, some are better than others but, usually, free plugins doesn't work better (or with a better quality in sound) than those plugins already delivered with Pro Tools 8.0 LE. I even was a bit disappointed with Waves plugins.

The only exception, to me, was the suite of mixing and masterizing provided by IK Multimedia and, very specially those plugins that modelate vintage outboard (Fairchild 670, Pulteq EQP-1A, LA-2A, 1179); those are top-notch plugins, that deliver exciting and very musical results and, that are cleary over PT's takes of same equipment.
ARC system of IK Multimedia was also very useful to remove most room's problems.
RNDigital's Inspector XL is very useful to understand what is going on in the mix, from a forensic point of view and, helps to better "visualize" issues in your mix.

112dB's Red Monitor is helping me to mix during the night, in a silent environment, balancing the stereo's phantom center to hear the mix in headphones very close to what you hear thru your monitors.
TT Dynamic Meter helps me to better monitorize and control the dynamic range of the mix and, the compression level that I am giving to the whole program.

Massey's plugins are awesome. The Limiter 2007 is one of my preferred ones and, Tape Head helps to give some warm to programmed drums tracks. TCH4 is a very easy to use compressor that delivers good results.
But, one of my main issues was to have a good equalization, without coloring the track or mix. Some new compressor is always welcome, since not every compressor it's the best for every work. I was also interested on the Transient Modeler (specially for those high transients that can even ruin the work of your compressor or limiter) and, about that cryptic Inflator plugin, that seems to be highly used by those mixing and mastering wizards.
Even having the amazing Wizoo Wizooverb W2 for reverberations, I find that isn't working fine in every situation. Sonnox has a very good reverb plugin also so, I wanted to compare those two.

Related to Delay, even that PT's delays work ok, the quality of Soundtoys Echo Boy's bundle is over anything else I've heard. EchoBoy can be purchased just as a part of their Native Bundle so, I have more freaky filters than I need but... how knows!.
I was after Sonnox plugins during loooong time but, the price was my stopper. The Elite pack, taking into account that you get the higher discount respect of the sum of their individual prices, was priced over 1000 Eur. Finally, I found a sale in an Spanish online store for 799 Eur and, I couldn't miss the opportunity to have such a quality plugins pack for the best price I've ever seen.

Plugins come in a single carton box, in a single CD with some little information. I had to go to Sonnox official page to download the last updated versions of each plugin, together with their manuals.

Playing with Sonnox Plugins

Well, mate, every Sonnox plugin is a Little World in itself. Maybe, the simpler one is the Inflator but, for everyone, I highly recommend you to read the manual first. I wish there was a real-time button where you can browse the manual while working with the plugin.

First impresion is clear: they aren't friendly or easy to use as, by example, Massey's plugins. If you are already done in mixing and, you have a clear idea of what do you want to do with each plugin, don't worry, everything is there, plugins are really versatile and complete.

Sonnox Dynamics
Here we have the monster of Dynamics control. This plugin is some kind of high level channel strip, with several sections that you can activate or deactivate: a Gate, a Expander, a Compressor, a Side Chain, a Warm section and a Limiter.
If memory doesn't fail, it's based on the Sony's Oxford gear.

So, any kind of dynamics work you can imagine, can be cover with this plugin and, results are always of high quality. Controls really "make something", in fact, they are so sensible that, you better go for light adjusts and check results.

The Gate section allows you to filter the sound and reject the part that doesn't reaches a certain loudness level, what helps to filter the floor noise but, as every Gate, to get the right settings is a very tricky thing but, once done, the gate works awesomely. Gates have other creative uses, as gated reverbs or gated snares or, you know...
The Expander section can help to increase the dynamic range of a previously highly compressed source material. By example, I've found it very interesting to open the dynamics of highly compressed Drums Clips, as well as some old takes I did with overdone compression.

The Compressor can be used anywhere, in a track or in the master track and, works awesomely to sculpt the exact dynamics you wanted. Has even a Hold control, for a complete control of the Dynamics Envelope. This one is always in my master track, while I usually prefer other plugins at track level.
It works in three different modes: Normal works like the Oxford console; Classic emulates a Drawner DBX-160 compressor and; Linear is some kind of Linear Compressor (for very specializated use).

The Side Chain section allows you to better determine the range of frequencies that should be compressed.

The Warm section introduces some tube-like distortion and harmonics, giving the warm that a tube-based compressor would do to the mix, with silky results.

The Limiter section, help to completely control the peaks and avoid overs when converting the material to lower resultion formats. It's one of the best Limiter around and, I have it always at the end of my master chain.

I haven't checked the real CPU consumption, because I didn't had the necessity. Those huge and quality plugins seem to work without overloading the CPU too much.

Sonnox EQ

This is probably the highest rated by experts Sonnox plugin, because of its transparency and accuracy. It works really awesome but, you SHOULD read the manual before working with it.

EQ filters can be of 4 different types, some have the Q and notch level in a narrow relation, in a way that a parameter dramatically affects the other.
The EQ has 5 bands, each can of of a different type. Includes also a low-pass and a high-pass filter, to work on lower and higher frequencies but, those can work as shelving or parametric so, in fact, you can have up to 7 parametric band filters.
Parametric filters can work 24 dB per Octave down or up, while the pass-filters work with up to 36 dB down per Octave.
Some of the filters are good for overall work, some for the master channel (to slightly correct the overall EQ) and, some other to work on notch frequencies.

Sonnox EQ highly substituted the EQ III plugin of PT in my mixes, because the EQ III often gives some color the track or mix and, sometimes, very noticeable digital artefacts, when used over a 6 dB correction.
As colored EQ, I like more the IK Multimedia's Pultec EQP-1A.

Sonnox De-Esser

If you are done to friendly de-esser, you will be surprised with Sonnox one. Can be so deep and huge as the Dynamics plugins but, fortunately, it can work in two modes and, one of them is for people like me: dummies. In this mode, the plugin automatically detects the band were "s" happens and, sets up a band and a reduction level that works dynamically and fully automated. You can always increase or reduce the band with your mouse and, the threshold and level of reduction.
You can hear separately what is Inside the de-esser (what would be reduced) and, what is Outside (original signal), as well as the resulting mix.

The de-essing levels are automatically reset during the time, using a smart look-ahead algorithm, depending on the dynamic range of the source material.

The Expert mode allows you accurate control over every parameter hidden in this plugin and, was highly cryptic to me in my first experiences.
The Easy mode works really good, very transparent, smooth and without distinguisable artifacts.

De-Essers can be always used to get rid of certain frequencies that are a mess for the track or the mix. I've used this one, by example, to filter some fret noises in the Bass guitar track and, worked awesomely.

Sonnox Inflator

This plugin, very cryptic, is some kind of Harmonics Exciter, in a similar way as a BBE unit works but, is
able to add some warm to the the mix, as well.
It's very easy to use (maybe the easier of Sonnox plugins) so, test it and see what can it do for you.

Sony is describing it as "this kind of plugin that apparently increased the perceived volume of any track, adding warm and, making the material sounding better, overall". Go figure!.
Well, a really cryptic description but, whatever this plugin is technically doing, what is true is that it gives some kind of "sonic glue" to the track or mix and, well used, can enhanced a boring track.
It recalls me the Warm section of Dynamics plugin so, I use just one of them in the same track.
It worked specially well with Drums and Vocals, in my mixes.

Sonnox Limiter

Another highly acclaimed plugin from Sonnox and, in my opinion, is the best Limiter plugin I've ever tried.

Not so easy to set up as the Massey L2007 (that is second to none) so, once more, I had to read the manual to test this plugin.

It took me some time to fully understand the plugin but, now, it's always the last plugin in my master chain and, I had no overs anymore when translating the mix to lower resolution formats (MP3, 16 bits, etc.).
Usually, all limiters are darkening the sound but, this one works very transparently (if you want!) but, has controls to enhance the mix (to add some harmonics and warm).
Limiting can be of any kind, including a highly accurate breakwall limiter that uses smart look ahead algorithm to do the right thing depending on the dynamics range of the source material, just in time.
You can run it in safe mode (to ensure no overs) and, even push the input level higher than desirable, without affecting so much the quality of the output processed signal.

I love to work on 24-bits dithering but, before I start bouncing the mix to a lower resolution format, I like to change it to 16-bits and do the last adjust. Sometimes, to change the limiter from 24 bits to 16 bits, reveals that your mix will sound with issues when transformed to 16-bits (usually darker and boomier) so, a final check with the 16-bits mode saves me a lot of time later.

Sonnox Reverb

Well, that's a digital reverb, not convolutive but, of very high quality. Parameters everywhere. Has lots of slide controls to accurately sculpt the kind of reverberation you are after, for each particular situation.
Comes with lots of Factory settings, some really useful and pretty sounding, so you can start your tests choosing some of them and, modifying them to your needs.

You have complete control over any parameter and, I like specially the Blend control, that helps you to get the exact mix of Early and Late reflexions (even just one type of both).

I've tried it with everything and like everywhere so, this is my Reverb plugin for every work.

The Reverb includes an EQ section that helps to give the exact color to your reflexions or, even use the low and high pass filters to limit the band of frequencies were reverb should take place.
I totally forgot the Wizoo plugin after trying the Sonnox one and, I prefer it to all convolution reverb I've tried up to now.

Sonnox Transient Modeler

This plugin allows you a nice control over transients (peaks of small duration, usually at the beginning of the attack phase of the sound), sweetening them or giving more punch.
It's very usefull for very dynamic material. I used it with Bass Tracks that have high peaks and low valleys, to better balance the material, with very good results.

Overall Conclusions

The overall impression I had when I tried them first time is that every plugin was way huger than I was expecting. There is a lot of development work behind the complex and efficient algorithms that implement these plugins.
Every plugin is delivering a sound of the highest quality and, it's really difficult to make them to clip and, when they do it, they do it in a very musical way.

But all that complexity behind is being pop up to the surface so, overall, they aren't friendly-user plugins, you need several hours of tests to understand how they work and what can they do for you.
I highly encourage you to read the user's manual of each plugin before using it. Differently from other manuals, this Sonnox manual are really well written and of big help. To understand how each parameter affects to the sound, together with the suggestions and guides included in that manual, will lead you easily to get nice results.

The user's manual of the Dynamics plugin, worths the time, even if you aren't a user of the Sonnox Dynamics. Its explanation about sound dynamics and the tools to sculpt dynamics to your needs is highly recommendable for everyone!.

Those plugins are really workhorses, very capable to process any kind of material. The learning curve is high, sure, but I am quite sure you will end using at least one by track (sometimes, even 5 of them in the same track!).

I would specially thanks to Sonnox the excellent work made with their manuals. Usually, we have user's manuals with lot of marketing and very few useful tips or information. Sonnox manuals are of real help. Read them, they are not a waste of time, they are your best inversion of time.
If you are learning to mix (as myself) there is a lot of interesting and useful information inside those manuals what will help you to choose what to do for each particular case.

These plugins, together with IK Multimedia T-Racks 3, RNDigital IK Inspector XL, 112dB RedMonitor and TT Dynamic Range plugins is all I usually need to have the job done.

Be sure to check Youtube often. Sonnox have an user with very useful videos showing how to achieve some interesting studio tricks, where you will learn a lot about the potential of your Sonnox plugins.

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