By day, Chris Johnson is a mastering engineer. By night, he's an audio plug-in designer. Or maybe it's the other way around. In any case, I was first drawn to his Airwindows plug-ins because they offer a vast range of capabilities, and their straightforward GUIs reflect the functionally focused and CPU-conservative design goals that are common across the line. Also, all of these plug-ins are priced such that even the most meager project studio can afford a useful collection of them, and some of his plug-ins are even free. Unfortunately, only AU format is supported. I asked a couple of Logic hotshots to give some of the Airwindows plug-ins a go and get back to me with comments for this review. First-time Tape Op contributor Matt Robertson is an amazing composer, producer, and engineer based in the UK. He recently completed some arrangement and Pro Tooling with Rosie Danvers for the Kanye West live show, helped out Bjo^rk with the brass arrangements for her Volta tour, and finished additional programming on the film Hot Fuzz for David Arnold and Michael Price. He's also scored, performed, conducted, and mixed music for award-winning TV spots for Audi, Hewlett-Packard, and Mercedes. Walt Szalva is a long-time contributor to Tape Op. Not only has he written many gear reviews and conducted numerous interviews for the magazine, he's also a studio owner and an accomplished composer with hundreds of TV, video game, and film credits. Let's start with Matt's take and finish with Walt's. (Free-$59.99 download; www.airwindows.com) -AH
In an age where a lot of plug-ins look better than they sound, it's refreshing to find a suite where the designer has put more effort into what the plug-ins actually do rather than how many scuff marks there are on the photo-real facias. Chris Johnson's Airwindows plug-ins are very functional
looking-much like the Apple AU plug-ins that come with Logic. There are a huge number available from Airwindows, but I'm concentrating on just a few in this review.
In the compression and tone-shaping department, there are Drum Slam, Logical, and Bass Drive. Drum Slam is a sort of tape drive simulator like Massey's Tape-Head but more extreme and more of a character sound in its own right. I have been using it on drum overheads and also on snare drums to great effect. It certainly adds crunch and does a very cool thing with the transients in that you can drive it really hard and still have a nice pokey transient coming through. My only reservation about Drum Slam was the lack of a dry/wet slider to do parallel processing. So I emailed Chris and a little later found a new version in my inbox with said fader-amazing. You can get a really good variety of drive/compression effects from Drum Slam just with these three sliders. It's great for squished room sounds as well as drum stem duties.
Logical is a plug-in that simulates the tone characteristics of an SSL console. I have not sat behind an SSL for long enough to comment on how accurately it does this, but to my ears, using Logical across a drum mix or on the stereo bus makes the sound more engaging and exciting. The Personality slider, in simplistic terms, behaves like a tone control, and adds more or less of the SSL-type character to the sound-very useful indeed. I actually found Logical most useful as a mix-bus effect on a very-small-scale track that needed some more life injected into it. I had tried various mix-bus compressors on the mix, made up of little folky instruments with short sustain, as well as running it to tape and back, but in the end Logical gave me just what I was after-a more up front and coherent sound.
Bass Drive is one of many tone-shapers that are available from Airwindows. There are three bands of overlapping EQ which can go into overdrive for some
seriously-useful bass-sound sculpting. It's like having a really versatile bass DI box that you can tweak after the recording. Used in conjunction with the free CabSVT, this is an amazing pair of plug-ins to make a DI'ed bass really come alive. I used this a lot on synth bass sounds for the new Senser album I was working on with producer Neil Mclellan. One of the great things about Bass Drive, in common with many others in the suite, is that the sliders seem to have a very extended range. This makes them feel much more fun to use and somehow feel more analogue! Bass Drive is also great on drum loops and percussion. Presence and Hi on minimum and the rest on full with most kinds of drum loops is immediate "glorious overdriven beats" territory.
In the effects department is Glitch Shifter. I love this plug-in. I don't know exactly what's going on under the hood, but it sounds like a delay effect with the option of pitch-shifting the delay. The pitch-shift effect is definitely lo-fi though, and a Tightness slider broadly determines the delay time; but it moves around a little-in a good way. It's wonderfully random sounding! For glitchy stuff just use as it is, but for some really cool effects, it's great if you send an instrument to it and then send the effect output into a reverb.
Something that must also be mentioned is Chris's attitude to copy protection. The plug-ins are all $59 or less, and you are encouraged to back them up in a safe place and install them on as many of your own machines as you need. You will never be asked for a serial number or a dongle. Chris says that he "relies upon deserving not to get ripped off". Not only that, but to ensure that they will work on your system, you can download over twenty free plugs-ins. These include the excellent Pressure and Density plug-ins that I have been using extensively in recent months. Pressure is an early version of the pay-for VariMu plug-in, but I have found the free alternative to work better for me; it's a bit more aggressive sounding. I have used Density on some programming for the film Wild Child with composer Michael Price to help blend "in the box" sounds with recorded material very successfully. In all, Airwindows is an excellent collection of plug-ins that deserves the full attention of anyone who has an AU host!
A few of the plug-ins that I've been using from the Airwindows batch are Crystal, Elation, Cider, and Iron Oxide. These are very basic, effective-and very juicy-tone-shapers. For drum loops, real drums, overhead drum mics, and room mics, running one or all of these plug-ins on material provides tone and distortion options that are comparable to some well-regarded outboard compressors and tone-shapers that I have used.
One example-I recently had to write a batch of 15-20 second loops for a client for use in a series of web-based ads. This was a situation where I had to come up with a bunch of variations on a song that had the same drum and bass grooves, while the guitar and other instrument parts were different in each variation. I really wanted to change the tone of the drums in each variation while retaining the same groove. The drums were a combination of one mono loop along with some drums I tracked in my studio. I started out using Crystal on a bus to hype the drums on one variation, and before long I had eight different channel-strip settings in Logic that were all based on different combinations of the above mentioned plug-ins, in different sequence and setting configurations. Adjusting the gain and tone in each of the channel strips gave plenty of options to choose from, and the results of some were really similar to the in-your-face, slightly-spitty sounds I get from a Distressor or a FATSO. I even started naming the channel-strip settings like "Fatso 01" and "Distressor Spit 01". The bottom line is that these plug-ins are simple, effective, and relatively cheap. Definitely experiment with running multiple plug-ins in series and adjusting the gain settings; the results will be satisfying.
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.