AVID PRO SERIES PLUG-INS
Avid has developed some new ‘pro tools’ for the long-standing DAW, adding more pro features and Euphonix euphony to its arsenal.
Review: Brent Heber
For many years, Avid has been acquiring plug-in manufacturers in order to beef up its ProTools bundles. Sometimes it has been a partnership like Dolby, Focusrite or VocAlign, other times the manufacturer has been bought outright, like Trillium Lane Labs or Bomb Factory. The point being, Avid doesn’t often make new plug-ins, and when it does, it gets put under more scrutiny than other products due to being the manufacturer of the host platform. EQ3 and Channelstrip are two that spring to mind, having popped up in ProTools upgrades over the years and attracted their fair share of devotees and critics alike. The new Pro Series of plug-ins will no doubt polarise as well, simply by virtue of bearing the Avid logo.
The Pro Series (hopefully the name derives itself from ProTools, as opposed to some sort of declaration of competence required to drive them) is currently three AAX plug-ins — Compressor, Limiter and Expander — with hints of more to come. All run both natively and on the ProTools HDX cards. Compressor and Expander are offered at US$99 each and Limiter at US$299, fairly reasonable pricing looking at the competitive plug-in landscape and the features on offer.
As with the ProTools 10 Channelstrip, these dynamics plug-ins have their heritage in Euphonix digital consoles, resultantly touted as extremely transparent. Channelstrip’s dynamics are quite uncoloured so I had high hopes for these plug-ins and haven’t been disappointed. Critically, you could say their transparency is in part due to their audio detection. Rather than detecting peaks like most compressors and limiters the normal Euphonix behaviour is to compress based on average levels, letting quite a few peaks through to the keeper. Channelstrip defaults to this mode, but can be switched to peak detection if desired. The Pro series takes this idea a step further with five different detection modes on offer.
DETECTION A LA MODE
All three Pro dynamics plug-ins have the ability to switch their audio detection behaviour, with four modes of fixed ballistics — Average, RMS (faster release than Average), Peak and Fast (faster than peak, with a warning of being most prone to distortion) — as well as the default Smart mode, which adapts to the incoming signal and fluidly switches between the other four modes as it deems appropriate. Expander is the only exception to this, as it has an additional Duck mode (more on that later).
Apart from the ‘detection’ or ballistics modes, Compressor has the usual array of controls: Threshold, Ratio, Knee, Attack, Release. There is also a Depth pot, for setting a downwards limit on the amount of attenuation. And if you’re fond of interacting with the graphical display, it can be manipulated directly rather than mousing over the pots. Another smart and useful feature of Compressor and Expander is the Attenuation Listen function that allows the user to hear only the portion of audio affected by the plug-in. There’s also a Mix pot, for those fond of parallel compression. The sidechain function on Compressor and Expander is fleshed out nicely, with filters and audition controls. Surround instances of the plug-in also have good options for splitting the compressors behaviour, with a nice ‘front/rear’ option in addition to the more usual stereo pairs or 5.0/LFE splits.
In my own use, I turned to Compressor first, loved its clean sound and started using its sidechain function to duck some music beds under a voiceover. But after looking into Expander I found some unique features more suited to this task. Expander actually has a look-ahead feature (up to 15ms) to make sure it’s gating or ducking accurately (it can be turned off if you don’t want to incur the delay). Expander also features a dedicated Duck detection mode for smoother rides around voiceovers. I found the default ‘gate’ ratio in this setting too hard for ducking, but on rolling it back to 1.3:1 it settled in nicely and slightly improved on the results I was getting with Compressor’s sidechain.
NO LIMIT TO LOUDNESS
Limiter is the most desirable of these Pro plug-ins for broadcasters. TV audio is no longer reliant on VU meters and digital peaks, but rather loudness units (LUFS) and true/intersample-peak values. Limiter deals with both issues, providing a graphical read out of your loudness measurements over time — short-term and integrated-over-playback numerical values — and is a true/intersample-peak compliant limiter. It’s also bundled with a separate, simplified Audiosuite plug-in that analyses key loudness measurements of program material, faster than real time, which I’ve been using quite a bit. The other lovely part of Limiter is its Character control, which adds a bit of that saturation in an otherwise digital signal flow. Avid had Dave Hill of Cranesong work up its HEAT algorithm, and whilst this single control is not the same as HEAT, Avid is no stranger to the desirable side of saturation. I like Sonnox’s Warmth control on its dynamics plug-ins and would put this in the same league, although with different results. Both are worth checking out/demoing.
ONLY THE BEGINNING?
It may be too early to judge the merits of this series of plug-ins. Firstly there’s talk of more to come, which could provide more context for those reviewed here. And there’s also the impending release of ProTools 11’s new 64-bit Avid Audio Engine rewrite, which will provide a totally different native power experience than what’s currently available to these plug-ins in ProTools 10. We can only assume these plug-ins were designed for best performance in PT11, although natively they are no slouch in PT10, running quite efficiently on my eight-core MacPro. Regardless, for transparent processing inside ProTools 10 and above, the Pro Series plug-ins perform very well. And if you’re on a HDX system they’re a no brainer.