LEXICON PCM NATIVE REVERB — AudioTechnology
One of the undisputed kings of reverb has ported its know-how into the plug-in realm, and it’s done so flawlessly.
Text: David Helpling When I first heard of Lexicon’s plans to release a new reverb plug-in my feelings were mixed. So many manufacturers have ported rushed versions of their technology into this realm in order to grab a piece of the action that many of them have lost sight of the importance of their authenticity, and more importantly, a sense of advancement. Now that I think about it, most of the truly musical and high-end plug-ins seem to have come from innovators that kicked off where hardware manufacturers fell away. Whether it’s by replicating classic hardware in ways that make our ears tingle, or creating something unique and innovative, these new software developers are doing it right. So where does that leave Lexicon in its first attempt to bring top-shelf studio hardware to a native plug-in format? Since the release of the PCM96 (and now the PCM92), it’s been clear that Lexicon’s parent company, Harman International, is aggressively trying to rebuild the Lexicon name, with a singular focus on what it once represented – high-end, dense and organic sounding reverb that we’ve all come to know and love. Now it’s finally happened. Lexicon has created a universal plug-in that builds precisely on technology from the PCM96 itself. Not content to release a single plug-in, the PCM Native Reverb Bundle provides no less than seven dedicated and specialised (and dare I say, legendary) Lexicon reverbs – each with its own custom user interface. Hats off to Harman for releasing this collection in several platform formats too, bringing that huge and detailed sound to any VST, Audio Unit or RTAS-compatible DAW platform. But rather than compare the PCM Native Reverb Bundle to other reverb plug-ins, I reckon it’s probably more insightful to compare apples with apples. With both a PCM96 and a PCM91 in my studio here, let’s see just how quickly and easily we can get this bundle performing alongside its hardware equivalents.
INSTALLATION A SNAP!
Installation of the Lexicon suite was extremely simple, almost too easy for what the bundle then reveals. Registration is available via an iLok only – a serial number (or license) is downloaded to the device as part of the registration process. Since an iLok is not provided with the software, it’s assumed that you either already own one or will go out and purchase (and then register) an iLok before you attempt the installation process. Using Digital Performer on a Mac, I quickly flew in the most obvious of the seven plug-ins available – ‘Lex Hall’. The user interface of this plug-in screams PCM96, and for good reason. With a very clean layout and nine sexy faders representing the ‘Soft Row’, almost any tweak of the reverb you care to make is represented here – with clearly labelled values embedded above each fader. Above the Soft Row from left to right are high-resolution input and output meters, a rather fancy graphic display, and an EQ section… But before I dive headlong into a description of the design, I must say right off the bat that the sound I heard coming from the default preset ‘Large Hall’ was nothing short of dramatic, and unmistakably high-end Lexicon. While remaining quite distracted by the lush sound it was instantly producing I grabbed a few of the faders (Pre Delay, Reverb Time, etc), and was immediately impressed by how realistic and smooth these controls were. They seem to have some kind of inertia about them – classy. The Soft Row parameters are customised for each of the seven plug-ins. Each parameter provides smooth and glitch-free changes to the audio stream – instantly feeling and sounding like the PCM96 in its responsiveness.
COMPUTER SAYS OH
The large graphic display of each individual plug-in defaults to ‘disabled’ status, (to minimise the CPU loading). Simply click once anywhere inside the display to activate any of the three modes, the first of which is a multi-band display of the reverb itself. In five differently coloured frequency bands, this image moves to the left as it ages (turn this on when clients are in the room). Click again and it switches to an RTA frequency display, and again to display a single audio waveform. All of these display options increase the CPU drain to some degree, but it’s arguably worth it – they are informative and very cool to look at. To the right of this display is an EQ for shaping both the early reflections and the tail individually. This is of a shelving, bandpass, or notch type – really it’s just a single filter that in practice often provides too little or too much, and is not a genuine replacement for an actual post-reverb EQ. Most often a subtle dip in the lower mids with a musical EQ can really clean up a mix.
With nine Soft Row faders controlling a variety of the most commonly used parameters there is often little need to dive deeper, but here’s where the true nature of the relation to the PCM96 becomes very clear. On the bottom left of the plug-in window are three control buttons: Edit, Compare, and Store. While the last two are for managing presets, the first opens a vast second layer of deep programming. From what I can see, this plug-in bundle is, to all intents and purposes, a Lexicon PCM96. Of course the hardware equivalent itself does more than just reverb, but certainly all of its reverberation capabilities are right here in the plug-in. When the ‘Edit’ button is clicked, an additional row of buttons appears along the lower right portion of the plug-in. The names and number of these buttons varies depending on the algorithm you’re tweaking. Clicking one of the buttons will bring up an edit page that holds parameters pertaining to that button. Here is where this review could easily run away with itself, so I’ll stop before diving in too deeply for all our sakes. Instead I’ll change tack to question Lexicon’s decision to separate these seven algorithms into individual plug-ins. Even those of us that have been using Lexicon outboard for decades may like to employ a trial and error method in order to find the right algorithm for a particular mix. To that end, the process of opening, closing, and reloading the plug-in several times to switch algorithms is not exactly a smooth way to get things happening quickly. Sure, having dedicated controls for each algorithm is essential but could these not have been folded into a single plug-in regardless? I suspect that part of the justification for the retail price involved providing a ‘bundle’ rather than a single plug-in – after all, seven plug-ins seems like better value for money than one. On the plus side is the vast number of presets available for each of these dedicated algorithms – this extremely comprehensive library rivals that of the PCM96. Hundreds of the most versatile and finely-crafted presets reside here, including recognisable classics from Lexicon’s immense library of sounds. Given the amount of customisation available, and the ability to modify the Soft Row itself, the storing of your own presets is also a must. Lexicon takes this a step further by allowing stored user presets to be available across DAWs, living within the core plug-ins themselves. At the top of the plug-in there are two pull-down menus: Category and Preset (very cool options).
ON YOUR MARKS…
Putting the Native Reverb Bundle up against the PCM96 to see how they compared was also very straightforward. My studio’s PCM96 is connected via AES/EBU and clocked by an Apogee PCIe interface. Taking the PCM96’s ‘Large Hall’ preset and the same on the Lex Hall plug-in was an instant revelation. I looked to my studio partner… he looked at me… “I think the PCM96 might sound a little better,” he said with a total lack of conviction. They quite possibly sounded identical, was my first reaction! I can’t say how much of what we were hearing was due to the placebo effect, but it seemed that on some presets the hardware PCM96 might have been a bit deeper in the sound stage and stereo field. I think only the most experienced and golden-eared engineer would have been able to pick the difference in a blindfold test. Simply put, I have never heard any reverb plug-in – generative or convolution – produce a sound as rich, detailed or organic as this PCM Native Bundle. I now completely concede the substantial price, where initially I thought it seemed a little steep. It’s like having a PCM96 in my Apple machine, only better – it’s like having as many as I can squeeze out of my processing scheme! Will I keep my PCM96? Heck yes! I love my hardware as much as the next engineer, but anyone considering bringing the new Lexicon sound into their studio now has a serious choice of two platforms – and compared to the hardware equivalent, the plug-in version now seems cheap at around half the price. Either way, at least there’s now a choice. The other algorithms (as individual plug-ins of course) are equally impressive and the presets are superb. Other than ‘Hall’ there are: Chamber, Random Hall, Plate, Vintage Plate, Concert Hall, and Room. I could easily talk about the Plates for another page or two as each of these algorithms is deeply specialised and has its own unique character. Suffice it to say they sound amazing, and for an in-depth description for each of the algorithms and their design concepts, the owner’s manual can be downloaded in PDF form at www.lexiconpro.com if you’re keen to peruse the options. The CPU impact of a single instance of the Lex Hall plug-in was barely noticeable (on my Apple eight-core 3GHz machine). In fact, three or four of these is not a big deal on sessions with a normal track count. To minimise the hit on your machine, Lexicon recommends closing the active graphic display and the plug-in editor menu – sort of a no-brainer, but the fact that it’s mentioned in the manual should be noted. I’m actually a bit shocked that this reverb didn’t slow my machine down by a large amount – perhaps I would have been more impressed if it had? I know that doesn’t make much sense, but when a plug-in can faithfully replace a single rack unit full of processing chips without barely knocking my Mac off balance, I instinctively get a bit suspicious!
TAIL END CONCLUSIONS
If I had one issue it’s that the reverb tail is sharply cut off at full stop, looping and editing in my real-time session. It’s noted in the users manual that this may happen within certain platforms. Harman also notes that this is a problem currently limited to the MOTU Digital Performer DAW. The bottom line here is that the PCM Native Reverb Plug-in Bundle looks and sounds like a PCM96 and worked instantly and flawlessly in my DAW bar the above caveat. This may be the first time a high-end manufacturer has created a fully functional emulation of a top-selling and current hardware unit with no limitations.