Full disclosure; while I’m going to review Valhalla DSP’s latest plug-in, ValhallaDelay, I’m also one of the two product designers of the plug-in, along with Valhalla DSP founder Sean Costello. This may lend my review towards a more Behind The Gear flavor while also talking about the product, its features, and how it fares under heavy use. [For the record, Don is one of our senior gear reviewers and has done many pieces for Tape Op. We asked him to do this review in order to learn more about the process of building a plug-in like ValhallaDelay. - Ed.]
I’ve been involved with Sean and Valhalla DSP for the last seven years, originally starting as someone to lend Sean my ears (and my studio) for performing deep analysis on new algorithm designs for ValhallaVintageVerb, and, since then we’ve continued the process for the subsequent plug-ins that have followed.
We started talking about what would eventually become ValhallaDelay almost four years ago, even before we had finished and released ValhallaPlate. Much of the original design brief centered around the desire to make the most accurate digital representation of the tape echoes we both love (Sean is especially obsessed...), particularly the Roland RE-201 Space Echo. There are already some excellent delay plug-ins that come close to the sound, but none that made either of us think we were hearing the real thing, especially when compared to a well-maintained original unit. Funnily (or depressingly), this maintenance situation became one of the hurdles we had to overcome during our research and analysis phases; 40-plus-year-old tape delays have an impressive tendency to break down no matter how well-maintained. Nearly as much money was spent on repairs as purchasing units to measure and analyze!
Much of our research time was spent listening to things like distortion, the tonal character of feedback, finding noise levels, analyzing noise colors, and discovering where in the signal path it occured or was generated – truly riveting stuff! Eight to ten hours of that in a day left both Sean and I feeling a bit like we’d been hit by a truck. Some of those days yielded huge breakthroughs, and we felt really good about the work done. Other times we’d realize that we had been heading down the entirely wrong path, and all of the work got discarded while a new approach was conceived.
With that background information out of the way, let’s talk about ValhallaDelay! Like all of our products, ValhallaDelay is a 32- and 64-bit VST/Audio Unit/AAX-compatible plug-in for both macOS and Windows (10.8 and above, and Win7 and above, respectively); it’s also the first Valhalla plug-in to be released in the VST3 format, which we will roll into the other plug-ins through updates later this year.
ValhallaDelay is built around Modes and Styles. Modes are effectively the “machine that was modeled,” so this is where you’ll find Tape, Hi-Fi, BBD, Digital, Ghost, Pitch, and Reverse Pitch. Lest you think “making a tape delay” was all we were trying to do, au contraire! Tape is exactly what it says on the tin – this is our RE-201 with all the noise, dirt, and tape-splice goodness of the real thing; Tape (as well as all the Modes in Delay) can self-oscillate, so you can send yourself to dub heaven. Hi-Fi is a cleaner variation of Tape; imagine an idealized, digital version of a tape delay, with all the character but less of the noise/dirt. BBD is a dark, noisy bucket-brigade delay, lovingly modeled on one of Sean’s favorite BBD guitar pedals; during our analysis in the final days of initial development, we couldn’t tell which was the pedal and which was BBD mode in Delay in blind tests, so that was a nice victory during the process! Digital is modeled on some of the classic digital units from the ‘80s, with the lower bandwidths and delicious grit they are known for. Ghost is an analog-style delay with frequency-shifting; perfect for creating scary-movies voices and reverbs you’ve never heard anywhere else. Pitch and Reverse Pitch are both digital models with forward and reverse pitch-shifting, respectively.
Common among all seven Modes are the Diffusion controls (both Amount and Size); this is the secret to turning your delay into some of the most interesting and useful reverbs. Sean and I went back and forth a lot about whether to include the ability to add diffusion, but once we both started realizing we liked the reverbs we could make in ValhallaDelay more than most of our usual suspects (including some other Valhalla products!), it had to remain. Also common are the Color parameters of Drive and Age. Drive is an input saturation control that is gain-scaled so the output level stays constant even with boosts of 24 dB of gain. Age is Mode-specific and changes things like asperity noise and tape splice artifacts in Tape, to bit-depth in Digital, to bucket-brigade noise in BBD.
The Modulation parameters vary between the Modes and are model-specific, thus Tape has Wow and Flutter, Hi-Fi/BBD/Digital have standard sine-wave Rate and Depth, and Ghost and the two Pitch modes have Frequency Shift and Detune.
The ERA control subtly changes the overall character of each Mode depending on the era chosen, generally moving from darker and noisier in Past, to cleaner and brighter in Present and Future.
The Style control is where you choose the number of delay voices; the choices are Single, Dual, Ratio, Ping-Pong, and Quad; each Style also has additional, unique parameters that appear when one is chosen. Single is one stereo delay voice with feedback, but the addition of a Spread control offsets the single delay between the left and right output when used in a stereo output configuration. Dual gives independent delay values for left and right channels, while Ratio uses the Delay time parameter to set the left delay and then the Ratio control to set the right channel as a ratio of the left – it sounds tricky, but in practice can yield some really interesting textures that would be difficult to achieve in other styles or other delay units and plug-ins. Ping-Pong sends the feedback of the left delay into the right delay, and then to the left, and then to the right, and then… you understand. Setting the Width control to -100% reverses the direction of the ping and pong, so it starts on the right channel and moves left (Pong-Ping?). The Quad style is our emulation of multi-headed tape echoes; you are given four tape heads, any of which may be turned on or off. There’s a Spacing control to adjust the ratio of spacing between the heads and this is a bi-polar control, so values greater than 0% move the spacings closer to the shortest delay/head, while values less than 0% move the taps closer to the longest delay. There is a Repeat/Swell button in Quad mode that affects the behavior of the mode by taking the feedback from tap D when in Repeat, or from all Taps that are switched on when in Swell.
You can clearly see that we pushed this far beyond the initial concept of, “Let’s make a shockingly good tape delay plug-in!” In practice, I find myself using instances of ValhallaDelay all over my mixes; it’s not uncommon for me to have at least 10-12 aux tracks set up with Delay used for micro-shifted delays and pitches on vocals, reverbs on drums, slap-back delays on snare, a send with an instance of Ghost mode doing some crazy reverse frequency-shifted reverb for strings, multiple tempo-synced delays for guitars and vocals, and on and on. It’s also really fun to then automate many of the parameters in ValhallaDelay so the output is constantly shifting and evolving. We wanted the plug-in to invite experimentation and knob twisting; all the presets in the world won’t give you the pleasure of making the sound into your own that’s tailor-made by you, for your music.
Do I wish there was anything added to ValhallaDelay? Sure. I wish there was a Tap Tempo button for times when I’m using it in a session that wasn’t tracked to a click (one of my favorite features of the now-classic EchoBoy from SoundToys [Tape Op #62]), or I just want to tap and have it set the time based on the beat division I’ve selected while being unlinked from the host clock. This isn’t a deal-breaker, and I have apps on my phone where I can tap in a tempo and have it calculate the delay time for various beat divisions, but it would be handy in the plug-in itself.
One of the great features of Valhalla plug-ins is that accommodations are always made within the architecture of the code for future expansion as new algorithms are developed. Without giving anything away, there are many updates to ValhallaDelay planned in the pipeline to add even greater value to the purchase – also, these updates have historically been provided free of charge.
Yes, I’m biased, and think this is a stunning plug-in, as well as being an incredible value at only $50. But even if I wasn’t involved in its development, I’d have purchased it the day of release and would still be using it in every mix exactly as I do now because – for me – it’s the right tool for the job. It’s a deep plug-in that doesn’t scare away the user with a convoluted and confusing interface; it’s inviting rather than off-putting and doesn’t get in the way between your ideas and their execution. There’s a fully functional demo available on the Valhalla site (it fades the output every 45 seconds, but won’t time-out on you), so do check it out!