Twenty years ago, there really wasn't much of a market for "plug-ins." Sure, there were some limited software tools for audio, but they were mostly proprietary to a specific editor. Very little product existed in the way of standardized plug-ins that could be used across different editing programs. Even the industry giant Waves was just getting started, offering only a few plug-ins for the Pro Tools platform. Since then of course, it has become a feeding frenzy of companies as well as individual computer nerds churning out new plug-ins on a weekly basis. It can be tricky to evaluate these new software tools. You can't open up the lid and look at build quality or component choice the way you can with hardware. Most of us can't evaluate the quality of the coding. Sure, we can absolutely judge the quality and value in terms of sonics, but we are hopelessly visual creatures and it can be tough to separate the "look" of something from the "sound" of something. So, we now have photorealistic plug-ins that have a "vintage" look, complete with scratched face plates, glowing tubes, Bakelite knobs, and spinning reels. And I will wager money that these visuals make the plug-ins "sound better" to most of us. Well, now let's look at another approach. Chris Johnson from Airwindows has created an army of innovative plug-ins with a "no frills" approach. They don't look, taste, or smell like vintage equipment. In fact, he has stripped away all of the pretense by leaving his plug-in GUI's in the bare bones style of Mac OS Audio Units. This means they have a plain old white background with blue sliders for parameter adjustments. If you can get past that, you are left with some pretty powerful and affordable audio tools. Now, I should add that at the moment, he only creates plug-ins for the AU format.
Since the debate continues regarding mixing "in the box" versus using analog summing of some sort, I'm going to look at a couple of his plug-ins that offer different aspects of console emulation. The two I'm going to focus on are Console, and Buss Colors. First, let me explain Console. This is not your typical approach to console emulation. It is not attempting to address tonal coloration. Console has only one goal; it attempts to provide the wider and deeper soundstage that can be apparent in an analog mix. One of the common concerns with in-the-box mixing is that the mix can sound less "3D" and can lack dimension. Chris has taken an unusual approach to this issue by using what he calls "negative distortion." Huh? Well, I have no idea. I'm not an electronics designer or a software engineer. I'm just a guy who tracks and mixes audio and can tell what things sound like. So I cannot speak to the technical viability of negative distortion. But I can say that I find this plug-in to subtlety do what it claims. There is an improvement on the lateral sound stage. Things do appear to take on more spatial dimension. I don't get the sense that it is accomplishing this using phase or comb filtering tricks, because those are easy to spot. I didn't notice any degradation in mono compatibility. It just felt more open as compared to the non-processed mix. It is not intended to be a spectacular "wow everything sounds great now" plug-in, but it is intended to provide the subtle sonic dimension that an analog console can.
Now, I need to backtrack a moment and explain how this process is applied. It is not just a plug-in that you slap on the mix bus. It is actually an encode/decode system. Each individual DAW track is encoded by applying the Console Channel plug-in, while the Console Buss plug-in decodes the signal on the master mix bus. There are no controls or parameters, you simply insert them and forget about it. I have an older eight-core Mac, but have not noticed any significant CPU hit even when inserting Console on a high track-count mix. Now, this means you have to think for a moment when setting up your mix. You have to make sure that each track is seeing one instance of the Console Channel (encoder) plug-in, and is then passing once through the Console Buss (decode) plug-in. That can require a moment of thought if you are using multiple group buses, or employing aux channels for effects. You just have to double check that you have everything covered for both halves of the process without accidental double use of one or the other.
So let's move on to the next plug-in, Buss Colors. While Console doesn't address tone, Buss Colors does. This is not an encode/decode plug-in, but instead, it is placed on buses and/or the stereo mix bus. It is specifically designed for emulating specific console brands. Also, unlike Console, Buss Colors has a few simple parameter controls. First, there is an input level adjustment for "driving" the gain, just like you would with a real analog console. Then, there's an output trim adjustment. Finally, there is a menu that selects which console you are choosing to emulate. Although these are not labeled with brand names, a quick visit to the Airwindows site will list the brands being emulated. The choices are: Dark, Rock, Lush, Vibe, Holo, Punch, Steel, Tube. Without consulting the list of consoles, more often than not, I ended up choosing the Lush setting for my mix. It seemed to impart more weight and body to the mix, without sacrificing clarity. It was only later that I discovered it was the Neve emulation. I also really liked the clarity of the Punch setting, which emulates an API. Rock is going after the SSL sound, and responds well to hitting the gain a bit more aggressively. I wanted to really like the Tube emulation, but it seemed to impart almost an exaggerated sense of high end to the mix, which was not what you would expect from a tube emulation. Many of the emulations were very useful, but I often found the Lush setting to be the perfect combination of depth and clarity. The effect that Buss Colors has on the audio is more obvious than Console. The ability to choose various emulations, coupled with driving the input gain, gives you a huge selection of different character choices for individual buses, or the entire mix.
So I had the opportunity to compare some Airwindows in-the-box mixes to those done using a well-known, transformer-based, Class A analog summing mixer. I ran various versions of the mix. First, I ran a straight ITB version with no emulation plug-ins at all. I then ran a version that was externally summed through the analog summing mixer using Metric Halo interfaces. Finally, I ran a third set of ITB mixes, processed this time using Console and Buss Colors. The results were interesting.
Let me first say that I am primarily an analog fan. I started with consoles and tape, and still use those tools routinely. As with many people, I have transitioned to primarily using a DAW for tracking and editing. I have not been able to completely break away from mixing with a console and hardware outboard gear. I know some people can get great ITB mixes, but I seem to always do better with hardware. When setting up the test, I did my best to ensure that the files were closely level-matched to avoid the "louder sounds better" effect. That being said, my findings surprised me.
My least favorite mix was the straight ITB mix. It sounded fine and would have been completely acceptable on its own. Next, the mix that was externally summed using the hardware summing mixer had a noticeable increase in dimension and space. It was not a startling difference, but it was apparent. When doing an A/B comparison, there was a certain sonic downgrade when switching back to the ITB mix. So, feeling somewhat smug about the superiority of analog summing, I listened to the mix processed with the Airwindows plug-ins. When compared to the analog summed mix, the spatial dimension seemed to be very similar. There was the same sort of feeling of the lateral sound stage being open and spacious. However, I was surprised to find that I preferred the high-frequency clarity and detail of the Airwindows mix as compared to the analog mix. Although the analog mix was great, it seemed to lose the top-end sheen that was apparent on the Airwindows mix. I would have to say that given the choice, I would likely choose the Airwindows approach due to the sonics of the final product.
Now, I must acknowledge the difficulty in accurately and appropriately conducting this sort of test. There isn't a perfect way to do it. In my tests, I attempted to make the summing process the only difference, while keeping all other mix parameters identical. This is probably the best approach, but it doesn't really reflect a real-world situation. Ideally, a good engineer would adapt gain-staging and levels in response to the specific sonic characteristics of the gear being used. Those who are used to an SSL 4000 know just how much to push it to get "that sound," and they adjust their mixes in response to what they are hearing. If I was using these three approaches independently, I might very well come up with different results. I might push the summing mixer differently, or make different choices along the way based upon what I was hearing. These cumulative choices might yield some very different mixes. But for the sake of the review, I tried to keep things consistent.
Also, although not part of this review, I played around with a demo version of the Airwindows Tape plug-in, which I may have to make the subject of another review. In my limited testing so far, it was quite impressive. But again, no graphics of spinning reels.
I haven't mentioned the best part yet. Airwindows doesn't make you work hard to use the plug-ins you've paid for. No complicated hardware authorization. No registration hassles. No issues if you change or upgrade your computer. No problems if your hard drive crashes. If you buy the plug-in, it's yours to use. Oh, and free upgrades for life. How much? $50. All of Airwindows' plug-ins are merely $50. And if you email Chris, he responds with much detail on the application and use of any of his products. Still not convinced? Any of these plug-ins are available for a demo download. The demos function completely, but mute the audio every 30 seconds or so. That's more than adequate for giving the products a great test drive. Also, Airwindows has a download page that contains many totally free plug-ins. Although they are not always as hip as the main current releases, there are some excellent plug-ins available. Lastly, the "free updates for life" feature is incredible, because Chris is constantly improving and updating the products. Forgive my cheesy plagiarism, but, "I don't always mix In The Box, but when I do, I use Airwindows."
($50 each; www.airwindows.com)