The first thing one notices about Softube plug-ins is that the graphics are kinda stunning. Now, I'm not foolish enough to think that skeuomorphic precision and meticulous shading are going to make the stuff sound better exactly, but the first impression is a good one, and what soon follows is the notion that if they put as much energy into the sound of their plug-ins as they do into the look, then things will be pretty peachy in the sonics department.
I've had the pleasure of using the Studio Collection suite in my mixes for a few months, and overall, I'm extremely pleased with them. There are twelve plug-ins in all, and they are a combination of branded and unbranded emulations of specific hardware alongside more general algorithmic effects. I'll start with the one that made me notice Studio Collection in the first place: Valley People Dyna-mite. The first time I ran across the hardware a number of years ago, I had to immediately go find my own two-channel unit. It's one of the more unique compressors I've ever come across, due to its aggressive sound and crazy make-up gain. It sharpens the attack of whatever you put through it (most notably drums), and can also get super pumpy-breathy-roomy, depending on the release time. Somewhat oddly, it also functions as a gate/expander, and a very effective one at that, with three modes: Peak, Average, and Gate. I really feel like Softube nailed this emulation on every front. As much as I love my hardware Dyna-mite, I doubt I'll use it again during a Pro Tools mix. (Tracking or analog mixing are different stories.) It makes percussion tracks come alive, makes a bass synth poke out in the mix, and puts hair on the chest of anything you run through it. Just lovely.
Speaking of compressors, the other one in the bundle is FET Compressor, which is clearly modeled after the Universal Audio 1176, although it adds a number of very useful features, making me glad it's not a straight-up emulation - I have plenty of those by now. In addition to the standard 1176 controls (including the famous "All Buttons In" setting), you get an incremental external sidechain input, sidechain filtering (both high and low-pass), a wet/dry control for parallel processing, and a unique "Lookahead" control that makes the quite fast attack time of the compressor even faster through digital trickery. Also, the ratio control is continuously variable, but can be set directly to one of the standard ratios by clicking on the text surrounding the knob. For the graphics, Softube apparently perused a few '70s hi-fi catalogs, drawing on classic Pioneer and Sanyo stereo faceplates. I really love the sound and adaptability of FET Compressor. The extra features added to the already familiar and versatile set of controls have been making it a first-reach compressor for transparent volume management as well as smashy stuff.
Also in the '70s stereo vibe, GUI-wise, are three different equalizers: Passive Equalizer is based on the Neumann PEV, Active Equalizer is based on the Filtek Labo Mk5 (wha?), and Focusing Equalizer is based on nothing I've ever seen or heard. I don't have a lot of experience with the PEVs, and I've never used a Filtek, but I found both Passive and Active highly effective, albeit for differing tasks. Passive Equalizer has a fixed 60 Hz low cut/boost, a fixed 10 kHz high cut/boost, and a boost-only midrange band with seven frequencies between 700 and 5600 Hz. The steps on the high and low bands are in 3 dB increments, and 2 dB for the mid band. Definitely a "broad-strokes" tool, but it works great on buses and mixes for emphasizing or deemphasizing areas of the frequency spectrum. Active Equalizer is more versatile, with two bell shapes and twelve center frequencies to choose from per band. Gain comes in 2 dB steps, ±16 dB. In addition, there are very smooth sounding high and low-pass filters, each with five frequencies to choose from. I'd put Active Equalizer in the middle of the spectrum in terms of precision; although it's not fully parametric, you can get much more fine-tuney when notching out unwanted frequencies or adding something extra. I found this plug-in to sound best at pretty low amounts of boost. Both Passive and Active have an output-level control, which is handy if you're boosting frequencies on a hotly-recorded track.
Focusing Equalizer gets the award for most innovative plug-in of the entire suite, and is one of those "why haven't I seen this before?" kind of things. The three EQ bands, which can be made either "Passive" or "Active," have no frequency selections; instead, their corner frequencies are determined by the sliders for the low and high-pass filter frequencies (cleverly mimicking an old '70s radio tuner interface). Once the extremes are set, you can boost highs and lows, and boost or cut mids, without knowing the precise frequencies of those bands. In practice, this means you are really using your ears to analyze the tonal makeup of a given instrument, and to figure out where to augment it, in a way that even an analog EQ doesn't often allow. There is also a single Saturation knob (borrowed from FET Compressor's processing) with three different tonal curves, which is the best-sounding one-knob saturation emulator this particular reviewer has yet stumbled upon. Snare drums, bass guitars, vocals - everything sounded better with a little of this saturation applied, with or without the EQ engaged. I now have a new first-reach tool to counteract anything boring-sounding.
Next on the EQ list is Trident A-Range. I already own and love the UAD version of this venerable EQ, and this one sounds just as good, if not better. I think of the A-Range EQ as being particularly capable of "juicing up" guitars, snares, or vocals, and Softube's version adds a Saturation control to the mix, for even more juice. The final two EQ plug-ins in the suite are Tonelux Tilt and Tilt Live, which have already gotten print [Tape Op #88]. I'll simply add to that review by saying I found a lot of instances where Tilt came in very handy.
Left to mention are the time-based effects - a delay and two (and a half) reverbs. Tube Delay is very much a colored, non-utility delay plug-in. You can drive the wet and dry signals separately for a pretty convincing tubey-sounding overdrive, and you have your standard Mix, Feedback, and Delay Time controls. There are also simple Treble and Bass tone knobs. Out of all of the plug-ins in the suite, I found this the least utilitarian. That isn't to say that I don't like the sound of it; I do. It's warm and fuzzy and gritty, in a particular way that won't be useful on every mix. But having different flavors and colors is essential, so I'm glad I have another one. I do wish it had an output-level knob, though, since the delay circuit attenuates the signal substantially, and the Drive knob only increases distortion, not volume.
Spring Reverb is a versatile and believable spring emulation. It's not my absolute favorite spring plug-in, but again, as one of a few different options, it has definite value. It has a unique, automatable "Shake" lever that emulates the sound of kicking or dropping your spring-equipped amplifier. I guess this is interesting - and useful a couple times a year for someone who doesn't have access to a real amp with real springs, although I am sad to think that that could be the case.
TSAR-1 is a full-featured, killer-sounding algorithmic reverb. I thought I was all set in the reverb plug-in department until I heard TSAR-1. It has become one of the small handful of reverbs I can trust for just about any task, from creating an intimate ambience around a vocal, to pushing a singer to the far reaches of a cathedral, to creating a total alien environment - all without any signs of digital artifacts or harshness. The controls are simple, straightforward, and familiar. This plug-in isn't really breaking any new ground in terms of features; it is merely providing the highest-quality of ambience sculpting that one could possibly hope for at an extremely fair price point. TSAR-1R has fewer features for the control-wary, but I didn't find much use for the stripped-down version, personally.
Authorization for the entire suite is iLok, and for you folks who've made the transition to Pro Tools 11 [Tape Op #101 online], you'll be pleased to see AAX compatibility for all of Softube's plug-ins. (TSAR-1 is AAX Native but not AAX DSP. All Sotftube plug-ins also support VST, VST3, AU, and RTAS). Scroll-wheel control is smooth and intuitive, which I always admire, as is Avid Artist Control integration. Most of the plug-ins in the collection don't have a bypass switch, which I find odd, but of course, you can always use the DAW's own bypass control.
I've really been enjoying using these plug-ins; I find them of absolute top-notch quality and very easy to employ in my day-to-day workflow. The best thing that can be said about any tool is that it makes your job easier and more pleasurable on a daily basis, and I say that without hesitation about Softube Studio Collection.
($879 MSRP; www.softube.com)