UltraTools is a suite of plug-ins by Wave Mechanics that works with Digidesign’s Pro Tools TDM system, as well as third-party programs that utilize the Pro Tools|24 MIX hardware. The suite consists of four different plug-ins: PitchBlender, TimeBlender, Pure Pitch and Pitch Doctor (each plug-in may also be purchased individually). I tested the UltraTools suite with Emagic’s Logic Audio (using Digidesign’s Pro Tools|24 MIX hardware and DAE) and Pro Tools.
SoundBlenderWave Mechanics groups two separate plug-ins called PitchBlender and TimeBlender into a single module dubbed SoundBlender. PitchBlender and TimeBlender are based on the same architecture and feature similar user interfaces. A lot of DSP power is required to run these plug-ins, and the hit on your TDM farm cards will be substantial-each instance of either PitchBlender or TimeBlender takes up one entire chip on a farm card. However, when I began to tap into the number of tweak options available, I understood why these plug-ins are so DSP-hungry.
The DSP “engine” of the SoundBlender module shared by both plug-ins is a 2-channel effects processor that combines delay, filtering, panning and modulation. Many of the parameters within these features are identical within each of the plug-ins. The main variable component is that pitch-shifting is utilized in the PitchBlender plug-in, and reverse pitch-shifting is used in TimeBlender.
The Main parameter page contains the most frequently used parameters for quickly tweaking the sound of a particular preset. Most of the functions on this page act as master controls, and their functions are related to parameter settings found on other pages. The functions are Mix, Feedback, Master Pitch, Master Delay, Mod Rate and Mod Depth. A BPM and Trigger control function with a variable threshold are identical in both plug-ins, and trigger sources include sidechain, input, output 1, output 2, mod 1 output, mod 2 output or mod 3 output. You can also trigger a modulation manually with the mouse, and mods can be recorded as automation events. An “expert” section contains parameters for reconfiguring the signal flow and optimizing the audio processing.
Both plug-ins have a nearly identical modulation engine, with the only difference being the pitch range (+/-2400 cents in PitchBlender vs. +/-3600 cents in TimeBlender). The modulation control panel is very complex and feature-filled, and I’m sure that an entire article could be written about this feature of SoundBlender alone. The basic structure is based on three modulation sources that can be mixed and routed to dozens of effects parameters. Mod rates can be adjusted as units of frequency or bpm, and a wide range of modulation waveform and trigger options are available.
The filter section is a good way to really mangle an input source by altering the frequency of the audio, much like the filter of an analog synthesizer. The filters can be programmed to reduce high or low frequencies, eliminate or enhance a band of frequencies, or create highly resonant effects. Modulating the filter frequencies can create many synthlike effects. The parameter controls are quite extensive, and tweakheads will have a ball morphing the most basic sound into complex timbral masterpieces with a click of the mouse.
The delay section of SoundBlender contains two digital delay lines; typical delay effects include echo, slap delays and rhythmic effects. Delay values can be modulated to create chorus, flange, vibrato and other extreme modulation effects. Delay time parameters can be adjusted in milliseconds or bpm; the maximum delay time in PitchBlender is 700 milliseconds and 1,000 milliseconds in TimeBlender.
PITCHBLENDERThe PitchBlender plug-in is a 2-channel effects processor that combines pitch-shifting features with the delay, filtering, panning and modulation components that are shared by both plug-ins. The actual implementation of PitchBlender consists of two pitch shifters, two digital delays, two filters, a mixer and a feedback matrix. The basic effects modules can be “rewired” and modulated in many different ways, allowing for endless varieties of signal-processing effects. The signal-processing parameters are grouped into pages, easily accessible via a mouse click.
Two channels of pitch shifting are available and can be used to create detune and chorus effects, harmony generation, arpeggiation and some pretty wild pitch modulations. The pitch shifters in PitchBlender do not preserve the formant structure of source material (unlike PurePitch, as explained below). The shift parameters have a +/-2400 cent resolution and can be modified in one-cent increments. The output of the two pitch shifters may be panned anywhere within the stereo field, and a constant power panning algorithm will maintain a constant loudness across the stereo field. Level parameters adjust output levels of the two pitch shifters, with 0 dB representing unity gain.
The Pitch Mapper adds harmony and arpeggiation features to the two pitch shifters. For harmony generation, Pitch Mapper analyzes the pitch of the input signal and dynamically adjusts the pitch shift interval depending on the detected pitch, the selected key and the selected pitch-shift interval. Arpeggiation patterns are created by modulating a pitch mapper with one of the various modulation sources. A series of scale patterns available as presets ranging from Western diatonic to microtonal Eastern can be used to build harmonically interesting and rhythmically complex arpeggiations based on whatever aural building foundation is used as a modulation source. Pitch-based arpeggiation material can be adjusted to whatever key is desired.
TimeBlenderTimeBlender is a 2-channel plug-in that combines reverse pitch shifting with the delay, filtering, panning and modulation components shared by both plug-ins. The Pitch and Delay section of TimeBlender replaces the pitch-shifter section found in PitchBlender, and as mentioned above, TimeBlender uses two channels of reverse pitch-shifting as its main component feature.
Each reverse pitch shifter continuously samples small segments of audio and plays back the sampled segments in reverse. The length and the playback pitch of the segments can be varied and routed throughout the different sections of the plug-in (Mix, Feedback, Master Pitch, Master Delay, Mod Rate and Mod Depth as described previously).
How do they sound? The manual describes SoundBlender as “radical effects for creative audio production,” and this is definitely not an understatement. Options abound for everything from the seemingly mundane (such as chorusing, flanging, vibrato and delays), to the profound (check out the “Nightmare Sequence” preset in PitchBlender or the “Crystallizer” effects in TimeBlender), and the results can be stunning. I used the filter section of PitchBlender on a remix I was working on, and the client was literally jumping up and down with glee. A large number of interesting presets have been programmed by the engineers at Wave Mechanics, but don’t be afraid to tweak-the results will never fail to yield surprises.
One problem I discovered involves Logic Audio and is not the fault of the SoundBlender plug-ins: Automating plug-in activity (which works flawlessly in Pro Tools) consistently causes a hard crash in Logic. Although this is caused by shortcomings in Logic’s automation (I have the same problem with other plug-ins), it’s an issue to consider if you plan on implementing esoteric automation movements while using Logic. I hope this problem will be addressed in future versions of Logic Audio.
PurePitchPurePitch is designed to detune or transpose vocal or instrumental tracks over a wide pitch range while retaining the original, natural sound of the source material. A wide variety of harmony, detuning and other assorted processing is available. PurePitch also allows for independent control of pitch and formants and has a built-in delay and LFO.
Pitch KeysThe Pitch Key section of the interface is laid out like a vertical keyboard with intervals labeled to reflect a chromatic scale, and the unison key corresponding to middle C. A pitch-bend slider allows for microtonal pitch-shift options, and a set of keyboard shortcuts will quickly toggle through key centers.
PurePitch can shift the pitch using one of two different pitch shifting algorithms, depending on the setting in the Shift Mode control panel. The “conventional” mode is the cleanest of the two algorithms, but will result in the “chipmunk effect” with large amounts of pitch shift. The “formant preserving” mode attempts to maintain the original character of the source material for larger shift amounts than the conventional mode.
The Mixer Control Panel has separate controls for the wet/dry ratio, dry-signal delay time, wet-signal delay time and feedback (amount of pitch-shifted, delayed signal that is fed back into the input).
The Expression processor in PurePitch manipulates pitch inflections of vocal tracks by compressing or expanding the pitch envelope of the voice. In theory, it’s similar to what a dynamics processor does to the level of a signal, except the part of the signal effected is the pitch envelope. By compressing the pitch envelope, the pitch inflections are reduced, creating a more monotonous performance. By expanding the pitch envelope, the pitch inflections are enhanced, creating a more expressive track. A fairly complex, but easy to use group of settings include a ratio setting, rotation frequency and shift limit.
The Modulation Control panel accesses a scaled-down version of the modulation engine used in PitchBlender and SoundBlender. Various wave shapes can be used to modulate the signal. Pitch, rate, formant and level are also controllable. The Tweak Control panel provides a set of frequency-based controls designed to optimize (or mangle) the apparent quality of pitch-shifted vocal material.
I used PurePitch in a variety of vocal settings ranging from background vocals to lead vocals to dialog. It was quite successful in providing effects that ranged from the otherworldly to foreboding. As with SoundBlender, Wave Mechanics provides a number of presets. While PurePitch may have been designed for use primarily in vocal situations, I also used PurePitch on a variety of source material besides vocals, and sometimes the resulting artifacts worked in context of the current project (especially while pitch shifting some drum loops used within a remix). As an option for use as an effects plug-in, it’s a good addition to a well-stocked TDM arsenal.
PitchDoctorThe evolution of pitch-correction hardware and software in the last few years is something that can’t be ignored, even by audio purists. PitchDoctor offers yet another option for correcting intonation problems in recorded vocal or instrument tracks. The interface is simple, intuitive and easy to use. It can be used in three different modes, depending on the type of material being corrected and the severity of the problems: Manual Correction, Note-Based Correction and Automatic Correction. If necessary, all three modes can be used at once.
The interface includes a chromatic representation of a keyboard, with the function of the keyboard depending on the setting of the auto-correct enable button. When auto-correct is enabled, the keyboard will display the notes corresponding to the selected scale and key, with notes in the scale appearing as green and notes outside of the scale showing up as gray. Global control of the key is set by the user.
The scale setting, together with the key, determine how the pitch of the input track can be altered. Manual correction allows you to use a slider control to alter the pitch manually in one-cent increments within a range of +/-200 cents. The Correction Amount displays the total amount of pitch correction applied to the input signal within +/-200 cents. The amount of pitch correction can be “quantized,” allowing for small deviations from perfect tuning. Other parameters include smoothing (used to limit the rate of change of the pitch correction amount), capture (used to control the range within which pitch correction affects the input signal), and sensitivity. As is the case with PurePitch, PitchDoctor provides two different pitch-shifting modes-conventional and formant-preserving.
I ran through some tests using PitchDoctor and another popular pitch correction plug-in, Auto Tune by Antares. I tracked some vocals dry, duplicated the tracks and ran them through each respective plug-in on two separate tracks, allowing us to A/B them side by side on the console. In this particular case, PitchDoctor tended to sound a bit more natural and unaffected, although an overall effect was definitely noticeable with both plug-ins-especially with the vocals soloed.
ConclusionAt $895, UltraTools is loaded with options for people who want a range of plug-ins in the same league with hardware such as Eventide’s Ultra Harmonizer series of outboard gear. As mentioned above, each plug-in is available individually for users who don’t need all the features in the complete package. For my working environment, PitchBlender and TimeBlender offer top choices for out-of-this-world effects, with PurePitch as an option for tweaking around with pitch. PitchDoctor is a plug-in I hope I won’t get to use, but I feel safe knowing that it is available when needed.
Wave Mechanics, P.O. Box 144, Montclair, NJ 07042; 877/COOL-EFX or 973/746-9417; fax 973/746-0762; www.wavemechanics.com.