The HG-2MS from Brainworx is self-described as “your mix bus’ best friend.” Designed to impart rich tube harmonics and analog coloration in mixing and mastering, this plug-in offers unprecedented control over its unique style of tone shaping. This is an upgraded mid/side version of the original Brainworx Audio hardware-modeled HG-2 plug-in with familiar controls as well as welcome improvements, including a redesigned section with four variable filters for the Saturation circuit, variable Density control to boost gain equally for virtual pentode and triode tubes, Brainworx Audio’s patented Tolerance Modeling Technology (TMT), advanced mastering controls, and a Parallel Mix control.
I love using this plug-in to start my mixes. Four different vacuum tube stages are emulated in the HG-2MS, so you can really enhance a recording right from the get-go. I usually begin with the Pentode and Triode knobs at two or three o'clock. These are virtual 6U8A tubes that run in series. The Pentode offers an obvious upfront saturation while the Triode is less obtrusive. For rock tracks, I've found that a generous amount of the Pentode can help guitars and drums feel more present and exciting without getting blown out. For pop, the Triode helps add excitement and sheen without being too obvious. Since they are run in series, driving the Pentode harder will increase the signal sent to the Triode. Blending the two has a huge effect on the overall sound and can seriously do wonders for your mix.
Of course, the signal hitting my mix bus typically rises as I get further into the mix, which will affect how the HG-2MS is responding. More often than not the saturation becomes too noticeable. To combat this, Brainworx created the Density control located at the bottom of the plug-in. This allows me to reduce the overall saturation without changing the parameter blends or output volume. If my Triode/Pentode blend is perfect, or if I am worried about levels reaching other processing down the chain, I can simply lower the Density knob until I am happy with the saturation levels. Conversely, if I’m having a hard time hearing what the plug-in is doing, the density knob can be raised until I hear the saturation and then backed off to an appropriate level.
My favorite part of the HG-2MS is definitely the Saturation section. Unlike the Pentode/Triode section, this circuit can be turned on and off and is added to the signal in parallel. Turning this section on adds drive from one of two modeled 12AX7 tubes (activated via the Alt Tube button) and the wet/dry blend is controlled with the Saturation knob. While the Pentode and Triode tubes can be fairly subtle, this is instantly noticeable and can drastically alter your productions. This is the section I reach for if the tracks I have been given were not recorded particularly well, or if the production calls for something extreme. While it works wonders on the mix bus, I especially like this section on individual elements like guitars and drums. I highly recommend playing with it on overheads set to mid/side and on electric guitars in particular.
The real magic of this section comes from the four different filter modes. You can choose between a high-pass, low-pass, band-pass, or band-stop that filters the parallel path. Choosing the high-pass filter means only the high frequencies are being saturated, the opposite for the low-pass, and so on. New to the HG-2 MS is the band-pass and band-stop modes, as well as the ability to alter the frequency cutoffs, Q, and center frequencies of all the filters. You can even solo the parallel path to get your filters set exactly right.
I was recently mixing a hard rock song with poorly recorded guitars. There was way too much boom and not enough bite for this style of music. I bussed all the guitars together and dropped an HG-2MS on an insert. Turning on the parallel Saturation made an immediate improvement, but it still needed bite, and the out-of-control low end was making it sound flabby. I switched into band-pass mode and adjusted the frequency and Q to just above 200 Hz and below 3 kHz, and boy did it bring the tracks to life. Switching to the Alt Tube, which is voiced more aggressively, also gave me the extra bite I was after. It was a night and day difference and 100% saved the tracks.
Brainworx was extremely generous with this new version and added tons of bonus features clearly geared towards mastering engineers and tweak freaks. The left and right, plus mid and side channels can now be unlinked then given unique settings. There is a Mono Maker knob that folds low frequencies to mono based on the frequency setting and a Stereo Width control that seems to be the same feature seen on other Brainworx mastering plug-ins – like the bx_digital V3. There is a very welcome Parallel Mix knob with calibration settings for Dark, Normal, or Bright that modifies high-frequency response. This emulates an internal trim adjustment found in the original hardware unit.
Another new feature is TMT which stands for Tolerance Modeling Technology, found in many of the Plugin Alliance console channel strips. It mimics the subtle differences in analog channels which, according to the Plugin Alliance website “are responsible for the beautiful imaging and the characteristics that we know and love from analog consoles.” The idea is you can set different instances of the HG-2MS to different “channels” for subtle nonlinearities, making it sound more “analog.” Controls for this feature are found in the bottom left of the GUI, including Random Channel which will randomize the channels of all HG-2MS plug-ins in your session. While this feature is subtle, I do notice an enhanced stereo image when using the plug-in on multiple track inserts.
There is almost too much to write about here, and the only real flaw I can cite with this plug-in is the exuberant amount of tweaking options available all at once. It can be rather intimidating at times and feel overwhelming. Sometimes I just want simple controls with strong results, and luckily the much more straightforward HG-2 plug-in comes bundled with the purchase of the new mid/side version. However, for those willing to take the plunge and tackle this crazy box head-on, there can be some truly magical results. This would be a very strong, versatile tool for an aspiring or established mastering engineer. It has a ton of amazing features packed into a single plug-in. I would highly recommend giving it a 14-day free test drive.