Brainworx bx_console sent me down a rabbit hole. This plug-in is not just a digital model of an analog channel strip; it is the paradoxical digital door to the zeitgeist of analogism. Let me explain: Analog audio devices are made of electrical components, like resistors and capacitors. Every component has some sort of electrical value associated with it. The realities of manufacturing dictate that not every specimen of any given type of component can be exactly the same. The components are manufactured within tolerances (usually expressed as a percentage), and they exhibit parasitic properties when tied together in circuits, such that components do things that they aren't specifically designed to do. For example, inductors also have capacitance.
It is the goal of the designer to create circuits such that each manifested copy of a circuit behaves as closely as possible to the others, given the collection of properties and tolerances of the components that make up the circuit. But the reality is, in the audio world, even well- designed circuits can exhibit audible differences from manufactured unit to unit. This is why "matched pairs" of any given audio device are a big deal. For a truly matched pair, somebody has to sit there and pluck components until they have two matching sets. In a large console, matching all of the components in all of the channels is nearly impossible, and doing so would ultimately be very expensive and labor intensive. Brainworx has designed this tolerance variability into bx_console. They call it "Tolerance Modeling Technology."
Here's the paradox (at least the emotional one). Electrical engineers would rather not have tolerances in the components. I can tell you from speaking to many circuit designers, and from my own DIY experience, that component tolerances are annoying at best. Engineering does not like unpredictability. On the other hand, sometimes music does.
Thus, Brainworx claims that channel-to-channel variations make the mix more interesting as a whole. So, taken another way, the smart minds at Brainworx have gone out of their way to reproduce the idiosyncrasies of an analog design — that the original smart-minded designers most likely did not want — because it turns out that we the music makers think it sounds cool. It's foolish genius and crazy beautiful.
Given all of that, what do we have here? The bx_console plug-in is a digital model of 72 different channels of a Neve VXS analog console. Brainworx purchased one from the orchestra soundstage at Skywalker Sound. The only information I could find on the original console was a review by Mel Lambert written in 1997, and an old ad listing one for sale. Other than some layout gripes, Mr. Lambert liked the console a lot, and claimed it sounded a lot better than its predecessor, the Neve VR. I've never used a Neve VXS, so I can't comment on the accuracy of Brainworx's model, but to my ears, it sounds great, no matter what it is. The rabbit-hole part is that there really are 72 different variations of the "same" channel strip, so the temptation was there, every time, to try all 72 on any given source. One does this by clicking arrows or typing in the desired channel number in the output section of the plug-in.
One of the first questions I had was, "Can I build the entire 72-channel console in my DAW?" Yes. I have a quad-core Intel Core i7 machine from 2012 — not top-of-the-line even when it was new — and I record and mix at 96 kHz exclusively. The CPU usage was at almost exactly half when I was done building my virtual Neve. So, the DSP programming is pretty efficient. Frustratingly, bx_console always instantiates as the channel 1 variant — there is no easy way to say, "Give me all 72 channels" — so it took me half an hour to build the console in the DAW. [According to Brainworx, v1.1 of the plug-in will provide a means to automatically increment the channel variant for each instantiation, making it easier to "build" a console like this. -AH]
The manual is presented in two parallel parts. On the right side, there is the explanation of bx_console's functions; and on the left side, there are personal comments and tips from Brainworx CEO and Founder, Dirk Ulrich. Unlike any other manual ever, I read this one three times. It's that interesting — and necessary. This plug-in has more functionality than any other channel strip I have ever encountered, real or virtual. This would be true even if Brainworx hadn't included several modifications that are represented as tweaker-screw adjustments in the GUI. The manual is available as a download, and I encourage reading it to get an idea of what this plug-in can do. I will summarize the functions, but be warned that this does not do justice to the whole experience of using bx_console.
There are low and high-pass filters, modded for more range than the original, and an EQ section that is modded to be switchable before or after the dynamics section. The dynamics section can expand, limit/compress, and gate. Mods here include an additional release setting, an additional HPF dedicated to the input of the dynamics, a mix knob for parallel dynamics, and the ability to insert the EQ section into the sidechain, even for the gate. The output section has settable noise (more on that later), switchable I/O meters, and dedicated mini-meters for limiting/compression and expansion/gating. There is a mistake in the manual where the expander/gate meter is referred to as GE, but the meter in the plug-in is labeled EXP. A stereo DAW channel can be configured either with "adjacent" channel variants from the virtual Neve or with the same channel variant for left and right. (For example, you can choose bx_console variants 5 and 6 for left and right of your stereo DAW channel; or 5 for both; but not 5 and 20.)
The skeuomorphic interface is rendered beautifully and feels very close to looking at a photograph, down to slightly crooked LEDs and even toothpicks to hold down flakey buttons. Obviously desiring to take the analog experience to the nth degree, Brainworx stuck virtual toothpicks in some of the high and low-shelf buttons so that they stay engaged. The manual makes no reference to this "feature," but I can only assume the original console has these same flakey buttons. I found that all this sucked me into the analog experience in a fun way; that is, I felt like I was using the real desk.
But there are also downsides to this photorealistic approach. The layout gripes that Mr. Lambert mentioned in his review are still there. The knobs are packed, there's not room to fully label them, and the groupings are not immediately obvious. At first, I found myself referring to the bx_console manual a lot to remember how things work, which is no doubt how it would have gone with the real console. The only difference between the plug-in and the real thing in terms of interface is that there are pop-ups that show you the exact value of parameters — but frustratingly, you can't type in values. At times, I wished there were an alternate interface that did not imitate the original, but I imagine that this idea was considered and thrown out at Brainworx, given the immersive, let's-go-all-the- way experience they have created.
Speaking of immersive, they even modeled the noise of the console. You can add as much or as little as you like. Mr. Ulrich offers some tips as to when and why you would use this feature. There we go again with idiosyncrasies the original designers were trying to avoid!
It appears that Brainworx has modeled one channel of the original, and then applied component tolerances to achieve 71 more variants — rather than recreating the specific variations in each channel of the original console exactly. Considering that building more than one real VXS would be subject to the same rules and would sound different than the first, this seems more than fair, but it made me wonder what would happen if there were a randomize button on the plug-in that randomized the component values (within the tolerances), offering even more variation. Another rabbit-hole.
I had the opportunity to mix a recording of a female vocal duo with electric-amped and acoustic guitars, and an amped ukulele bass. I was a bit out of my comfort zone for a while, but forcing myself to commit to bx_console, I got into the flow, and I ended up not needing anything else for the mix, except for reverb and delay. The thing that struck me the most is how much I could remove with the high and low-pass filters. This affects how the compressor behaves. For example, the bass ended up sounding more present and no less bassy by counterintuitively removing low frequencies with the HPF. On the electric guitar, I was able to remove bass with the HPF, but then add a bunch with the low-frequency shelf. This both removed mud and added thunder — a pretty good trick.
I can't honestly say that the channel variance helped or not; my mix sounded pretty good both with the bx_console instances set to different variants, and with them set to the same. The two resulting versions of the mix sounded different, but I couldn't say which was better. At the same time, I was psychologically comforted knowing each channel was a little different. Again, I felt like I was working on the real desk, never having done that in the first place.
The manual suggests processing signals fairly heavily, then clicking through all the channel variations to hear their differences. I did this with an amped, dirty electric guitar while listening on headphones. What I noticed with my eyes closed is that I would hear subtle to no difference through several channels, then something would jump out. I'd make note of the channels, close my eyes again, go backwards several channels, then forwards again to see if I could hear the same jump, and I could. For instance, with my settings, channel variant 26 sounded muffled compared to 25, and 43 sounded muffled compared to 42. Channel 50 was really bright. [According to Brainworx, the sonic effects of TMT are more immediate on stereo signals, and switching from the same bx_console channel variant on both the left and the right channels, to two different variants on left and right, is more easily discernible, in tone and in stereo width. -AH]
bx_console gave me something that I didn't know I wanted. When I first encountered the plug-in, I thought, "Why wouldn't I just want to use the best-sounding variation over and over again?" You can do that if you want, but now I know that it would miss the point. I've never specifically cared about recreating an analog experience; I just want stuff to sound good. And it's true that bx_console sounds great, regardless of what it's imitating. But now, using this plug-in, I find myself wanting to find a way to fill out a 72-channel mix no matter how many tambourines it takes. Rabbit-hole! There's a 14-day trial that I recommend checking out. System requirements are modest. Formats supported are AAX DSP, AAX Native, AU, VST2, and VST3.