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George Shilling reviews

McDSP Retro Pack

 

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McDSP have for over a decade been providing plugins which are much loved by professionals. In particular, the long-established FilterBank EQ and CompressorBank plugins are standard requirements for many mixers, with rock-solid sound quality and low latency.

 

Elegantly designed interfaces combine with comprehensive parameter adjustments in both series, and both are able to emulate many classic units. In contrast, the new Retro Pack plugins go back to basics, taking a novel approach to EQ, Filtering and Dynamic control where much of the cleverness is hidden in algorithms behind a streamlined and stylish interface. Despite the Retro name, there is no modelling of historic units here, and no trademark disclaimers – these designs stand or fall entirely on their own merits.

 

The 4020 Retro EQ provides four sweeping bands, along with high and low pass filters. The filters are described as ‘complimentary’. Now, I like nothing more than free stuff, but they never once told me how nice my hair looked! Call me pedantic, but surely they mean ‘complementary’. Although everything looks very straightforward, there are complex changes going on when the knobs are turned. The high and low bands are shelving, the two middle bands are peaking, but in all four bands the slope or Q gets steeper or narrower as the gain is increased. Not a new idea, but this is something that cannot easily be achieved with FilterBank, despite its claims to emulating ‘Every EQ Ever Made’, as one would have to change two parameters simultaneously for the same effect.

 

On the shelving bands there is also something of the Pultec effect with a small dip just before the boost frequency. It sounds musical, very smooth, and the resulting effect is extremely satisfying in use. McDSP describe the middle two bands as ‘parametric’ but (being pedantic again) there are no bandwidth or Q controls, and the 4020 is no worse for the lack of these. Minimal calibration of the controls is visible, with cut and boost simply marked at full range as +/-15dB, and four frequencies on each band labelled around the knobs; interestingly these correspond to octaves. One can determine exact settings by enabling automation and using the Pro Tools Edit window, but I didn’t ever feel the need to. Unlike many EQs, the ranges do not even overlap completely, but they cover plenty of useful areas and encourage general broad tone-shaping. As with API EQ, it is difficult to muck things up and introduce any nastiness, such is the coherence, integrity and sweetness. However, there is plenty of effect from cranking the knobs. The 4020’s quality is akin to the forgiving character of Massenburg EQ, but a bit less tweaky.

 

 

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The High and Low Pass filter section is also innovative in that the slopes vary with frequency. As the effect is increased, the slope goes from 6dB per octave to 24dB per octave for more dramatic effect. This works very naturally, and I had great success automating the high pass filter to eliminate extraneous traffic noise from a French vocal take (seemingly recorded in the middle of the Arc de Triomphe). It worked smoothly and unobtrusively to duck out the worst parts with no unpleasant artifacts audible. I mixed about seven tracks by three different artists using almost no other EQ but the 4020; only once did I have to employ something else more surgical to nip out a problem frequency.

 

The overall effect was a great clarity in the mix, with each instrument clearly separately audible, with no grunge and mush that can sometimes happen when using actual vintage (or modern) EQ. It sounds expensive. And with less parameters to tweak one tends to work faster, quickly zoning in and adjusting. Usefully, the plugin provides a phase polarity button, and Input and Output trims with plenty of range. There is an ‘Anti-Clip circuit’ at the output which prevents nasty digital clipping, although I wasn’t entirely sure what it was doing; distortion was certainly still possible when cranking up. Remarkably the total latency for the TDM version is just 3 samples.

 

The 4030 Retro Compressor looks pretty conventional, but as with the EQ there are clever algorithms at work here. Conventional controls are provided: Threshold, Ratio, Attack and Release, plus a make-up Gain. And additionally, and less conventionally, there is a Mix control, for perfect blending of any amount of compressed and uncompressed signal, with full phase coherency. This increasingly popular technique is made easy here, and it can sound terrific. The 4030’s other cleverness is in the detector section which provides a degree of automatic control of all standard parameters depending on signal. The compressor responds to minimize artifacts, and there is again an ‘Anti-Clip circuit’ at the output stage. The Ratio control lowers to 2:1, but more subtle compression can be achieved using the aforementioned mix control. It can sound very smooth indeed, and works well on most signals.

 

Even winding in large amounts of compression, things stay smooth and controlled thanks to the automatic adjustment of parameters. Drums and percussive instruments can sound exciting using extreme settings, with much of the character (but less of the distortion) achieved by more typical vintage vari-mu type compressors. The tracks I mixed using only the EQ also employed only this compressor (apart from on the mix buss) and a sense of controlled clarity pervaded. As with the EQ, it’s hard to mess things up using this plugin, and results sound satisfyingly hi-fi.

 

The 4040 Retro Limiter completes the set. It has a very simple interface with just two knobs, and similar metering to the Compressor. Here, a little more latency is introduced, but still at just 37 samples this easily beats off the competition. The controls work slightly differently from how you might imagine: Gain drives the sidechain into limiting, while Ceiling is actually a gain control, or more accurately a gain trim for lowering the subsequent level. Pumping on vocals was more audible than a favourite rival plugin, but across the mix as a loudness maximizer it retains a pleasant character, and its strength is that no distortion is ever audible. However, it does start to audibly pump when pushed, and beyond a certain Gain setting no perceivable benefit is obtained by cranking further. For individual tracks more variety and more extreme effects can be achieved with the 4030, and I would probably only employ the 4040 in a situation where a strict maximum (distortion-free) programme level is required.

 

All Retro Pack plugins provide excellent huge LED style meters for Input, Output, and where appropriate, Gain Reduction. Interfaces are stylish, clear and easy to understand. The tasteful clarity of these processors is possibly more suited to acoustic music than electronica or noisy rock, but I happily used them on a variety of material. The lack of fiddly or esoteric parameters is a bonus when working fast, and one can be confident of retaining signal integrity and character, even with radical settings. The CPU usage is low enough for these to replace pretty much any standard plugins you might be using, so there is little not to like about these classy sounding processors.

 

Pros: Smooth, musical, characterful processing; Ultra-low latency; Simple no-nonsense controls


Cons: 4040 Limiter can pump

 

 

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