Test Drive: Spectral Machine from The Sound Guy

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by Steve Cunningham

Show me a plug-in that mangles sound in a unique fashion and is reasonably priced, and the chances are I’m grabbing my wallet. Spectral Machine is one of those plug-ins that screams to be installed and evaluated, and I’ve been doing that for much of the past week. What Spectral Machine does that is somewhat different is that it breaks down the frequency content of audio using FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) algorithms, then lets you manipulate the frequency components in ways you might do with time-domain plugs. The results range from well behaved, as with mild pitch shift and automatic tuning, to completely out of control (but fun nonetheless). At $75 USD it’s an impulse buy if ever there was one.

Spectral Machine comes from The Sound Guy, the same company that brought us SFX Machine; we last reviewed the RT version in 2003, and I’ve been using the Pro version since 2006. I don’t know about you, but some version of SFX Machine has lived on my work computer since the late 1990s, and gets used on a regular basis for creating or modifying imaging elements with odd delays, phasing, flanging, filter effects including phone, along with others that are somewhat indescribable, and a whole bunch more. About three or four years back I partook of the company’s Backwards Machine plug, which features three different flavors of backwards playback; this has also proven to be Big Fun.

REQUIREMENTS AND INSTALLATION

Like The Sound Guy’s other plug-ins, Spectral Machine comes in flavors for both Mac and Windows: VST for both the Mac and Windows, and Audio Units for the Mac. Supported operating systems include Windows from XP forward, and OSX from 10.4 onward on either an Intel chip or PPC processor. RAM requirements are low at about 100MB, along with about the same amount of disk space. Best of all, Spectral Machine is very light on the CPU considering how much processing is actually going on in what is essentially real time. You will need a host editor program; there is no standalone version of Spectral Machine.

Copy protection is via a serial number, which is in my opinion the least onerous of all methods. Spectral Machine is only available on The Sound Guys website, so the serial number is delivered via email within a reasonable period. Installation is about as simple as you’d expect for a plug-in; run the installer, open your editor, and you’ll be asked to enter the serial at that point. I might add that Spectral Machine only wants the serial number -- not your name, social security number, Facebook account info, or anything else. It’s quick and unobtrusive. For evaluation purposes, there is a 30-day demo version that has all the functionality of the full version, although it does insert the odd gap in the audio from time to time while it’s in demo mode. Don’t fret; there’s enough there to decide whether or not you like it.


spectral Machine delay

FIRE IT UP

Once you’ve installed and instantiated, Spectral Machine will present you with a simple dialog box. On the left are two checkboxes that divide the effects into General Purpose and Monophonic categories. This is an either/or proposition, and there are different specific effects that appear depending on the category you select. Note that the Monophonic button doesn’t refer to monaural, as in one channel. It means one sound, like a single voiceover talent, or a clarinet, or a guitar playing a solo melody. A mono file will work best as well, but the recording itself needs to be of a single voice. On the other hand, the General Purpose presets work better with other stuff containing multiple “voices,” like a strummed guitar or two people speaking or singing together. Most music you’ll want to process will come out much better using the General Purpose preset, while your voice talent will give better results using Monophonic.

Below those two buttons are the effects themselves, and for the most part the name gives a good idea of what’s about to take place. Highlighting any one of these will change the controls that live in the center of the interface. Different presets will show different numbers and types of controls, but most consist of faders or knobs for adjusting the various parameters. Incidentally, any parameter that has a numeric display can be double-clicked and the desired value can be typed in. There’s also a handy description of each preset and its associated controls that appears along the bottom of the interface. In many cases the description also has tips on what parameters to change for the best results. Finally, on the right are two large faders for effect mix (wet or dry) and for output gain. There’s also a clip light above the faders, although I only saw that light up once during my evaluation period. There’s no indication as to what level causes the clip light to go off, so I would assume it’s set to 0 dBFS within the plug’s structure.

You’ll probably want to use Spectral Machine on a channel insert, although you could put in on an aux track that was fed from sends on various channels. The one thing to watch for is clipping on the insert or bus; some of these presets can create really nasty sounds, particularly at the extremes of some parameter settings. That’s where the gain fader on the plug comes in handy, although it’s worthwhile to check the input level to the plug as well. Most inserts in editors can be used either pre-fader or post-fader; to guard against clipping the input of the plug, it’s wise to make sure you’re using it post-fader which is the default for the majority of editors. So what does it do, and how does it sound? Below are some of my own descriptions of settings I like a lot.

PRESETS - GENERAL PURPOSE

One of the signature effects of Spectral Machine would have to be Delay Spectral Bands. Here you set the low- and high-cutoff frequencies, ideally leaving some space in the midrange section. You then set a delay time and regeneration (aka feedback, which controls the number of repeats) for the delays, to be applied to each frequency band. Setting the delay times to different values results in echoes of the frequency bands that are each clearly audible. This is a wicked-good effect for the end of a fast, hard-hitting promo -- my personal fave was to give the mid and high enough feedback that they hung out over the end of the spot, creating a couple of phone-filter sounding repeats of the last bit of a mixed promo. This effect can get messy-sounding, especially if the low-frequencies are repeated too densely, but the mids and highs work really well. On the other hand, a promo that ends with a nice low boom sounded much thicker with low-frequency delay audible. Note that these parameters are automatable in most editors, so you can bring the effects in and out in precise ways.

Another stunning preset in this category is the Sample & Hold. Like an old-school synthesizer, this preset stores a snapshot of the sound at a particular moment in time and loops it into a tone, which decays over time and is nearly inaudible when the next snapshot is taken and the process begins again. The only control you have is the hold time, which sounds to me to actually be the time between snapshots which is measured in milliseconds; the max time is 1000ms (one second). The overall effect is rhythmic and robotic at the same time, and works really well with the Wet/Dry control set to between .5 and .75 (full wet is 1.0). My only complaint about this preset is that there’s no way to sync it to a music bed except by trial and error. It would be great if it could be set to beats per minute for effecting music whose tempo you knew or could figure. Perhaps one could even set it to the master tempo of the session in the editor, but BPM would be good enough for me.

The last one I’ll mention here is the Oscillating Peak/Notch, which can be set up to sound like a frequency-dependent flanger, and represents another nice one with complex material. I fed both noise and music into Spectral Machine with this preset and recorded the output. A snip here and a trim there, and I’d created some really interesting sweeps and whooshes in nothing flat. I can see this being an effective way to renew some tired and overused effects with little effort.

PRESETS - MONOPHONIC

Trust me, you do not want to run music through these presets unless you’re a fan of artifacts -- you’ll get a lifetime supply with a music source. On the other hand, most voices sounded acceptable-to-great with these presets relative to artifacts. Look, it’s not supposed to be AutoTune, ya know?

Standouts in this category would include Harmonize, which does a musically-acceptable job of creating up to two artificial harmonies with a voiceover track. However, if you ignore musical harmonies and instead set it up as a frequency-specific doubling effect, using harmonies that are less than one semitone above or below the original voice pitch, then delay these relative to the original, you get a really nice doubling effect that is in some ways more convincing that most time-based doubling effects. Keep the delay time short, and use the Wet/Dry control to determine how “doubled” you want the track to be, and you’ll get a fatter track that maintains good articulation so the VO can be understood.

On the other hand, the Spectral Shape Shifter is just weird. The description says it changes the formant filtering in the voice without affecting the pitch, like making a big man’s voice sound like it’s coming out of a small woman’s mouth without changing the voice pitch. I guess I’ll buy that, although there’s a fairly narrow range of settings that produce something that is recognizable as human speech. It’s not that there are too many artifacts; this preset really does mangle the sound in some interesting ways. Don’t expect this one to work as described -- just play with the settings and you’ll find some strange noises that cannot be created any other way as far as I know.

The documentation consists of a 45-page PDF, which is both clear and complete. There’s not a lot of theory here, but in terms of helping you get some useful noises out of Spectral Machine it does the job well.

CONCLUSIONS?

Other than the woolly or crashy character of some of the presets (especially the Monophonic ones), which is to be expected in a plug as wild as Spectral Machine, I do wish there was some way to monitor the input and output levels. An “LED” on each end would be useful; a meter of some kind would be a delight. But Spectral Machine is definitely a trial-and-error business anyway, so one could postulate that the input and output levels should be adjusted to see what happens in any case.

If you’re looking for something completely different-sounding than the stock effects in your editor, or the same Waves-bundle effects that everyone else uses, give Spectral Machine a shot. Download the demo and put some tracks through it. As far as I’m concerned, it represents a good use of $75 in entertainment value alone. You will get some interesting and/or useful noises from it, I promise. By the way, if you decide to buy it, the company offers a healthy discount on its other plug-ins if you buy them at the same time. Steve sez check it out.

Spectral Machine is available from the company’s website at www.sfxmachine.com, and carries a retail price of $75 USD.

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