Starplugs Surround Bundle
What are they?
The plugins here are either a bundle of 7 tools or available individually as required, but considering how cheap they are in my opinion there is nothing to lose by simply getting the whole bundle - after all, itís not like there are many options available for PC based multichannel work open to us. These are SynthEdit creations - and donít let that put you off! As we all know, SynthEdit creations used to be predominantly VSTi based and used for building synths (hence the name) but this package proves beyond any doubt that it can also make some very usable effect plugins. In the bundle we find the following tools:
Installation & Authorization
Installation is simple - to install the demo version of the plugin simply register at the website, download the demo version and place the .dll file in your VST plugins folder - I recommend using a "Surround" subfolder. To authorize permanently, you will need to mail Starplugs, who will send installers for the full versions. These will require activation which is simply a case of copying the GUID code and mail it to Starplugs, who will send you back a personalized Product ID code as well as a Personal Security ID for final authorization. Itís then a simple matter of copy & paste into the authorization dialogue and you are done. Painless - completely.
What you have here are 6 processors and a dedicated LFE filter. The first thing you notice when loading one of these is how big the GUI is. They do take up a LOT of screen real estate. Once you get over the shock, youíll quickly notice that they all have a fairly standard format along with some very useful factory presets as starting points. As usual though, these will need tweaking to your own requirements. The bundle is pretty comprehensive, with some pros and cons on what is (and is not) included. On the "Pro" side, for once we find a bundle that is very reasonably priced indeed. Prices start at $18.29 for the LFE filter going up to a high point at $48.79 for the Cyclone Phaser. Now that is not only cheap, itís Sale of the Century! The actual plugins themselves are all fairly straightforward in use, and youíll be up & running with them in almost no time at all. The system used for this review is a Dual Xeon 3.06, with 2Gb of DDR-RAM at 533MHz FSB running Steinberg Nuendo 3.2 as the host application. Audio I/O is handled by an RME HDSP9652 running into an ADI-8 DS to a Midas Venice console.
Getting into the Details
Now we start getting into the fun part. Weíll deal with the Send effects first so without any further ado, lets get started.
Before we detail how this one works, I need to start out with a word of warning. You cannot set this plugin up so that it will rotate a centre panned signal, as it will mute inputs from centre and rear speakers - it only works on the front pair of Left/Right inputs. So you cannot, for example, take a vocal or guitar track panned dead centre and rotate this around the soundfield. The workaround here is to not assign the part to centre, but set it instead to a stereo child buss of L/R, and then things will start to happen. With Nuendo you can do this in another way too, which is perhaps more useful: Set up Cyclone Pan in its own 5.1 group or FX track, and use the centre channel send to route signal to the Panner. If you switch the send display to the routing option and double-click the small surround icon you see. Set this to a Y mirror, and pull the L/R bats across to the correct speaker icons as shown. The idea here is that your centre routed part remains routed to the centre channel, but the send to the panner now looks like a stereo track with L/R components and will be picked up by the panner. That aside, this is a very useful tool indeed. The default panners supplied with Nuendo are good, but they can also be somewhat limited inasmuch as you cannot normally take a signal and rotate it around the soundfield without either some heroic automation, or else by using a joystick with "write" enabled and edit this afterwards. Enter Cyclone Pan - and again there is a very helpful signal path diagram in the manual that a few minutes studying will help immensely, as out of all the plugs in this bundle the panner is perhaps the least intuitive one of the collection. Rotation speeds can be set with bar measured MIDI clock sync or in free mode with 5 values from slow to fast. You also have various rotation options, left turn, right turn and various cross turn & random modes as well. The effect can be described as being somewhere between subtle to the sonic equivalent of a good kick in the head! Nice. Moving on, you can also set the release time using "Auto" mode for smoother operation, or set some of the manual modes for faster or slower release times but be aware that the "long" or oddly named "Sauce" settings will decrease rotation and make things a tad chaotic. The Output controls set both front & rear outputs simultaneously, with a separate control for centre channel. This is because in most cases, the centre channel will be a phantom one derived from a combined L/R signal and not a dedicated feed. However, the possibilities are vast here - this one really needs a lot of time to get used to. I can recommend the method of using soloed centre feeds in a Y mirror configuration as this will really speed up the learning process for this plugin and quickly enable you to get the best out of it. I have been treating it as not so much a panner in the traditional sense, but as more of an effect in its own right.
This is a lovely, clean delay that can be used to produce some truly swirling delays. Itís awfully difficult to try & explain what it sounds like, as that is akin to trying to describe a surround mix to someone who has only ever listened in stereo - you kind of need to be there to get the whole picture because believe me when I say you cannot describe this at all easily. As with all the cyclone plugs here, it is designed to autorotate the effect around the whole soundfield but at the same time remain easy to set up and adjust. There is a very helpful signal flow diagram in the manual, which while you are getting used to this plugin you would do well to keep close to hand. A helpful part here is that the plugin will keep the pan settings you set in the Host application, leaving you to only worry about getting the rotation correctly set. This is done by adjusting the Sync control Ė Bar measures are MIDI clocked to the host, and there are also 5 ďfreeĒ settings, 1 to 5, which go from slow rotation to fast rotation in much the same manner as the Panner works. After this is set, you should set the "turn" control - there are many possibilities here for setting the various rotation directions, and by far the easiest way to set this up and understand exactly what is happening is to place a dry vocal track on the centre channel buss, and feed the signal to the plugin. You will very quickly get a feel for what each control does - and in the case of the rotation controls, what it actually means in terms of the delays and not only when they will come, but where they will come as well. The rest of the controls are simple - "First" is exactly that - where the initial delay will appear. "Static" stops all rotation - and this one can be used to great effect in conjunction with some automation, so that you can set your delays in a manner very similar to the way the panning goes in the surround version of Pink Floydís "Us and Them", where in the Quad version the initial "Us"is in the phantom centre, and the 4 repeats are one to a speaker. Very nice. And now, very simple to set up. The next bank of controls are the delay time controls. The "Time" setting ranges from free mode (which activates the "free" knob) to a myriad of MIDI clock synced values all in 1/16 note steps. In free mode the maximum setting is only one second - I would have liked to see a bigger value here. "Regenerate" (or "Feedback") seems confusing to me, with its use best worked out by soloing the centre channel and allowing the plugin to feed the surrounds until you are fully comfortable with its controls. The sound quality of the delays can only be described as super clean, with no discernible artefacts at all. Again, this is a very usable effect and also a very abusable one at the same time. Take your time with this and learn what it can do, and whenever youíre mixing in multichannel there will be room for more than one instance of these. They are not at all CPU intensive either, so you can load them up with impunity. Enjoy.
To start using this plug, create a 5.1 FX channel and simply insert it into the first slot. Pan & LFE levels are set up as usual in the track channel, and remember that the LFE is not processed by this plugin. All LFE settings must be done in the host application. (There is a nice diagram of the signal path in the manual). It says in the manual - with a masterly piece of understatement IMHO - that "normally youíll set the panning to all channels to get the phaser effect moving in a circle". What this really means is that the send panning from the host, Nuendo in our case must be set correctly or nothing will happen. Iíve included yet another screenshot here to show what I mean: Additionally, the send level should be set to "Pre-Fade", especially if the channel being phased is routed directly to an output buss. I apologise for talking about the routing so much here, but believe me it is necessary - otherwise things will not happen as you might expect them to. Nuendoís surround routing is extremely flexible - take the time needed to get your head around how this works - it is worthwhile. Now that is out of the way, time to look at the plugin itself. What we have here is a serious phaser. Youíll see from the signal path diagram that there are 2 phaser banks here. As with the others in the range, sync is via MIDI clock or in free mode and phaser 2 can be synced to the first one as well. Again, as with the others, you can set cross pan and random pan in addition to straight left turn or right turn circles for the effect output. (NB - if you set the send to prefade, and pull the channel fader down, all you will hear is the effect. This is very useful for setting up the initial options). There are feedback and frequency controls here as well, with the feedback control being the one to adjust for the "flanging" type effect and the frequency dial setting the ground frequency from low to High. This can also be modulated by the rotation frequency and is controlled independently for each of the 2 phaser banks by the Mod dial - increasing this value will increase CPU load and this one is already pretty hungry taking up 12% of the test rigís Dual Xeon CPU in itís default mode so be careful. Naturally you can control the depth of the effect too, and once you have taken the time to learn how this works with your host, you can produce some very interesting effects.
Another very handy tool. This one is like a super 3D application for those of us who remember Q-Sound encoding. This is a very clever little tool, and seems to be based on various enhancement techniques working equally well to enhance a stereo track as well as surround ones. Usage is very easy - insert in a 5.1 track and use as a Master Buss insert processor for best results - and from left to right you have a wide range of control options. The "front" section has width and depth controls. The depth value lowers the M component of the signal (Mid, or centrally panned information) and the width control increases the levels of the S (Side, or stereo) component of the signal. The centre control literally sets the level of the centre channel. In the middle is a distance control that sets the distance between the front & rear pairs, and to the right are the controls for manipulating the rear channels in much the same way as the front. This effect ranges from extremely subtle to wildly overdone - and the caveat is the line between the two is not all that well defined. Itís very easy to overdo it - all spatial tools are of a nature where you get used to the effect very quickly indeed and therefore itís all too easy to add more & more. If you can really notice it then youíre using too much - turn the effect down to the point where you can spot it - just. Then go away for a half hour, rest your ears & come back. Bypass SiXternalizer, and then bring it in. Youíll hear what is really going on immediately. Overall, the effect is very realistic and really does enhance a track nicely - and to cap it all, it works very well in a stereo track too!
This is another of those plugins itís very easy to overuse too. What we have here is a harmonic exciter working in 5.1, and quite possibly a first. Iíve not seen another one! For those who donít know, an exciter adds extra harmonics into the original sound - it can be a very effective way of putting the sparkle back into a mix that seems to be all there but is somehow still missing something ndefinable. It can almost be compared to the aural equivalent of cleaning your windows - even though itís an additive process and not a subtractive one, the overall effect really is like putting a shine across the entire mix. I really, really like this one a lot - and I donít normally like exciters. So why this one then? Simply because it works, and works well. The controls are simplicity to use - there is one set for the main mix channels and an independent one for the LFE channel. Setup is easy-the way I have been working here is to go into "Pure" mode to find the frequencies you wish to, er "excite" by turning the frequency control until you hear the "missing" harmonics. Then switch pure mode off, and adjust the "mix" control until you have the required level of harmonics - there are meters to assist here. Finally, the drive level will set the amount of excitement being applied to the track. The "Value" window shows 2 different numbers - the current value of the dial being adjusted as well as the value it was at before you began changing it so itís very easy to return back to where you were originally. A word of caution though - this type of effect is even easier & quicker to get used to than reverb is, so use very sparingly. In these cases, less really is more.
Itís compressor time! But with a difference in this one. With most compressors, you have a range of controls to set - in a basic unit such as an LA2A youíll get Peak Reduction and gain, with more complex models it can often appear that you may need a degree in computer science just to understand all the options. With the SuperSizer Surround unit, all you have are 4 controls - front pair, Rear Pair, centre & LFE. All you do is dial in the required value in 0.5dB increments until you get what you are looking for. No more messing around with Attack/Release controls, no more worrying about the correct thresholds, no need to think about the knee, just dial in the sound you need. But does it work? The surprising answer here is "Yes, it does". Without any pumping or other unwanted artifacts - just as long as you follow the golden rule with all dynamics processing and donít overdo it. You will end up with a much smoother sound - and best of all with a true surround compressor, you donít have the phasing troubles that can easily occur by stacking up 3 stereo units as one. To give an idea of what it sounds like, the overall effect is quite similar to the Waves C360 at a fraction of the Waves price.
Although this one is the simplest in operation and last in the list it is by no means the least of the bundle. Ensuring the correct content in an LFE track is one of the most important parts of surround work and a lso one of the most misunderstood. LFE does not equal subwoofer, but means Low Frequency Effects instead. A subwoofer is something very different. This little (?) plugin simply ensures that the content of the LFE channel does not exceed the limited bandwidth that this channel is designed to carry. Nothing more, nothing less. You simply set it and forget it. A point to remember here is that this is not a bass management tool. It is simply an LPF with a very steep slope of over 48dB/Octave. The only equivalent I know of is in the Waves 360 bundle.
All in all, this bundle is very good value for money. The Panner is a "must-buy" for its ability to rotate the whole soundfield around the listener, and if you only buy one of these plugins then the panner has to be the choice. However, considering the superb price point of these plugs then there really is no reason I can think of not to buy the whole collection - after all, multichannel and surround plugins are still very scarce on the PC (I know of only 3 other bundles, with the Starplugs package definitely holding itís own in comparison) and these are certainly capable of giving you some excellent results. CPU usage is very modest too - below is an approximate usage guide based on my review setup detailed earlier:
(There isnít much point giving the LFE Filter figures as it should only be used once) As you can see, usage is very conservative when you think about what is going on "under the hood". To my mind there are a couple of omissions here - an EQ would be really useful (I can think of just one multichannel EQ currently available) and a true reverb would also help to round out the package Ė although having said that, used sparingly the SiXternalizer could well give you a feeling of extra space in your track and the exciter can add that sparkle which some people try to get with reverbs. So, what about the downsides. The only ones I can think of immediately is the complexity of the cyclone effects, but as we are working in 6 channels now this is to be expected. If you get the settings wrong it will be very noticeable that something is ďout of whackĒ as it were because 5.1 is far more revealing than stereo ever could be. Remember that you have 5 channels now, not just 2, and far less effect is needed than in a stereo configuration. Use sparingly until you are certain about what you are doing Ė and please ensure there is a multichannel brickwall limiter across the output buss and the Control Room buss or you could damage your speakers and/or ears with momentary overloads caused by misuse. Any other minus points? Not really, no. This bundle represents seriously good value for money and I cannot think of a single reason not to buy it. Plus Points? What we have here are some unique tools that I have simply not seen anywhere else. If possible you should get the entire bundle as there are not all that many true multichannel effects available at any price, never mind the bargain prices these are sold at and try as I might, I cannot single out any one plugin over the rest for ďmust getĒ any more than I can single out one to avoid. Put simply, just buy the bundle. Highly recommended - and if you work regularly in Surround, I would say itís not so much "recommended" as "Mandatory". Go and get a set now from www.starplugs.com