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Part 2: Section 3: Virtual effects

Published: Wed September 06, 2006  News Feed

While virtual acoustic and electronic instruments are the main weapons in your sonic arsenal, you should also consider having an array of virtual effects at your disposal as these can completely transform your sound. From adding a subtle reverb to drenching your mix in distortion, you can now do just about anything you like in software and even recreate many classic hardware effects as well! In fact there are so many software effects that categorising them is difficult, so it is best to discuss them in terms of the sequencer or hardware platform that you use, or whether they are ‘native’ or ‘DSP’ plug-ins.

Native plug-ins are broad-ranging effects that can be run on a variety of computer hosts and platforms and tend to be cheaper, although they are limited by your computer’s power. DSP plug-ins tend to have their own power included so come with hardware processors. In theory these don’t use any of your computer’s power so can greatly enhance your system although, because they require hardware power, they tend to be more expensive than native plug-ins. Examples of DSP platforms are Digidesign’s Pro Tools, TC’s Powercore, Universal Audio’s UAD-1 and Creamware’s Pulsar. As well as having software effects developed directly for them (sometimes exclusively) some also run virtual instruments. We talk in more detail about the actual hardware in a section later in this Guide To Computer Music. For now, though, let’s have a look at some of the native plug-ins effects that Dolphin offer…

Native plug-ins

Best for vocals

What better way to start (unless you’re sick of the effect by now!) than with Autotune? Cher made this vocal effect famous but now everyone seems to use it. Antares Autotune (£209) has been described as the ‘holy grail’ of music production as it keeps your vocalist in tune plus a lot more besides. The latest version 4 adds lots of automation and graphical features and if you are having trouble with your vocals (or indeed your vocalist’s) you can’t go wrong with this – just don’t overdo it! Also on the vocal front and from Antares is AVOX Vocal Toolkit (£329), which takes vocal effects to a new dimension as it can physically model a throat! Other features like Duo and Choir add other voices to your original vocal recording so who needs humans? You’d think there would be nothing left to model in software but Antares have even done the job of recreating different mics for your vocalist in Mic Modeler (£290) which enables your bog standard mic to sound like a more hi-end and expensive model.

Best for reverbs

Possibly the greatest of effects is reverb but also the one that people tend to overuse the most. If you want to add atmosphere, then what better than adding room ambience right up to that of a cathedral?! Recently convolution reverbs have revolutionised software effects by being able to model specific arenas or concert halls around the world. Surround effects have also become huge, particularly in the reverb field. Wizoo’s W5 5.1 Surround Reverb (£259) is a fine example of this and includes 100 presets to get you going. IK’s CSR Studio Reverb (£159) offers four separate reverbs in one pack modelling hi-end studio reverbs of days gone by. At the higher end is Waves’ IR-1 (£580) which is a convolution reverb with added simulation control so you can alter those classic environments should you wish.

Best for guitars

IK’s Amplitube (£186.99) was one of the first guitar amp simulators and has reached new heights with this latest version. You can also get it as part of the IK Studio Bundle (£349), which features T-Racks (see Mastering below) and SampleTank (see virtual workstations in the Electronic Instruments part of this article). Waves GTR 2.0 Guitar Tool (£348) is also a great buy and features several high quality amp and cabinet simulations.

Best for mastering and restoration

If you want to master your music, you essentially want it to sound more ‘pro’. Software for restoring audio is also very useful, particularly for getting scratchy old vinyl up to speed. Waves Broadcast And Production (£1750) software offers a solution to both and includes a multitude of EQs, reverbs, compressors, de-noisers and de-clickers. Their Restoration Bundle (£879) is cheaper but, as its name suggests, just concentrates on the restoration side of things. At the cheaper end for mastering is T-Racks 24 (£159), which features effects like EQ and compression to help tweak your final mix.

Other great effects

Antares’ Filter (£169) is a top notch filter to help you get your music squelching and squealing. The same company also produces Tube (£105), which will help you add warmth to your sound, often a useful effect with the digital harshness that computers can bring. Channel strips can also help here and Metric Halo do a virtual one (£229). It’s Mac only but includes compressor, filters and fully-featured EQ. Serato Pitch And Time LE (£299) is the ultimate plug-in for getting everything sitting well and in tune in your mix. Previously this was a Pro Tools only plug but is now available for Logic.

Other effects bundles

Waves Diamond Bundle (see below) might be the dog’s in terms of effects bundles but there are several cheaper options if you want to buy a set of all round effects in one go. Yellow Tools’ Freedom Ultimate Effects Rack (£279) offers delays, filters, EQs, distortions, modulation effects (like flanging) and reverbs. Waves themselves offer loads of lesser bundles than Diamond in the form of Platinum (£1,499 for around 27 plug-ins), Gold (£929 for around 20 effects), Waves Masters (£639 for three very high quality mastering plug-ins), Renaissance Maxx (£439 for a vintage EQ, channel strip and reverb plugs among others), Waves Power Pack (£299 for seven effects) and finally (phew) Musicians Bundle (£199.99 for five quality effects). Basically if you have any amount of cash, Waves have a product for you!

At the hi-end…

As we’ve already seen, Waves have certainly made their mark in software effects and produce arguably the greatest effects out there. The Waves SSL 4000 collection (£699) models the sound of the classic SSL 4000 desk. When you consider that the original desk came in at tens of thousands of pound, that sub 700 quid price tag doesn’t seem so high after all. Waves also produce the Transform Bundle (£869.99) which is a top quality package for manipulating audio and features vocoding, transforming, morphing and doubling options. If you want the best, however, then you could do far worse than buying Waves’ Diamond Native Bundle (£2,759) which features nearly all the mastering and effects plug-ins in the other packages we’ve discussed here. Top dollar for top quality. If you really want to get into the nitty gritty of sound analysis then Metric Halo’s Spectrafoo Complete (£529) is a package that lets you look at your sound in just about every way imaginable so takes editing and effects to a new level!

DSP effects

You can buy hardware power boxes to take the strain away from your computer. Dolphin specialise in effects for two such systems: Digidesign’s Pro Tools and TC Electronics’ Powercore. The necessity of the hardware makes these effects expensive overall, but you really are talking ‘top notch’ in terms of quality and power…

TC Powercore effects

TC Electronic produce a number of optional effects for Powercore. The NonLin2 (£258) is a software port (rather than emulation) from TC’s classy System 6000 and features all sorts of reverb effects from straight sheens to twisted novelties. The VSS3 (£379) is also ported from the 6000 and has more modulation features. The Intonator HS (£159) is a real-time pitch corrector, very useful for dodgy vocals. The Assimilator (£149) is one of the more interesting effects around in that it ‘learns the sound’ of your favourite mix and then applies its EQ principals to your own music. Easy production here we come! The MD3 (£749) is a set of stereo mastering effects that brings true studio pro power to your productions. Sony Oxford also produce hi-end effects for Powercore including the Inflator (£322) which increases your mix loudness and also adds warmth where necessary. Inflator is also part of another Powercore bundle, the Trio (£755). In this bundle you also get top quality Dynamics and EQ software also produced by Sony Oxford.

Pro Tools effects

Some native effects discussed above are also available for Pro Tools. These include the Antares Autotune (£299) and Vocal Toolkit (£329), Waves SSL 4000 (£1,399) and the IK’s CSR Studio Reverb (£159). Digidesign, as you might expect, produce several titles for the system including Vocalign (£189) which pretty much does what it says on the tin, and Maxim (£329) for the final mastering sheen. The DV Toolkit (£899) is a bundle of essential Pro Tools plug-ins for music and visual whereas Music Production Toolkit (£339) is the one for music only and features an impressive line-up including a synth, reverb and the platform’s famous Beat Detective software. There are two more bundles for Pro Tools. From the ubiquitous Waves comes Surround (£1749.99), which, you guessed it, features all manner of effects to give your mix that total surround feel. Last but by no means least is the Focusrite D2/D3 (£339) bundle which has a couple of great EQ and compressor/limiter plugs modelled on that company’s classic Red range of hardware.

A note on formats

Did you notice that in all this discussion of software effects and instruments I managed to avoid mentioning what sort of formats the software comes in? Clever eh? That’s because it’s not only rather confusing (to say the least) but also largely irrelevant because so much software these days will run on anything (DSP software tied to systems like Powercore aside, naturally). So were I to say whether it runs on a Mac or PC or if it’s in VST/RTAS/Direct X Audio Units/etc etc, not only would that be dull to read, it would make this feature twice as long – and it’s long enough as it is! But for those who have stuck with me this far, well done, and here’s a quick round up of the software plug-in formats and which systems they will run with. Like I say, most software runs native (on anything) but always check before you buy…


So many names for the Pro Tools types of plug-in. TDM indeed! On a PC you’ll need Windows XP Pro for TDM; Home will run AudioSuite and RTAS. On a Mac under OSX TDM and AudioSuite plugs will also run under Logic Audio.

Direct X

These plug-ins will run under the following hosts on a PC: Sound Forge 7.0, Acid 4.0e, Vegas 5.0a, CD Architect 5.0, WaveLab 4.0, Audition 1.0, Sonar 3.1.1 Producer Edition, Cubase SX 2.0.1, Nuendo 2.1.1.


The main plug-in format for Cubase, Nuendo and Wavelab on a PC and Cubase, Nuendo, Peak and Spark on a Mac.


Runs under Digital Performer only on a Mac.

Audio Units

Again, Mac only. For Logic, Garageband, Peak and Spark.

Fortunately in the (unlikely) event that your plug doesn’t work with your sequencer there are a number of wrappers around from FXpansion that will convert one format to another. See here.

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The Dolphin Music Beginners Guide To Computer Music by Andy Jones

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