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Production Plug-Ins For Guitar-Centric Sound Design

I often collaborate with colleague Rich Tozzoli on pro audio product reviews. Rich is an award-winning, Grammy-nominated producer, engineer, composer and sound designer for television, contributing short songs, soundscapes and more to programming such as FOX NFL, NBC’s Rio Olympics broadcasts, the History Channel’s Duck Dynasty, Counting Cars and Pawn Stars, among others. One of our ongoing conversations revolves around cool and/or new plug-ins that make his life easier, as Rich—being the prolific guitar-centric composer he is—constantly searches for new sonic tones as he continues to broaden the scope of his work.

“In a lot of the score-to-picture work that I do, I use sound design with the music,” Rich explains. “In other words, I often consider my music and sound design to be one and the same. Whether it’s a videogame-related piece—and especially sports sound—sound design elements are used with music. Being that I do both, I can integrate them together for overall effect. If I’m asked to break them out, I will break off my mental space and look at it as, ‘Oh, this is just sound design; this is music.’ But I think that the entirety of the sound is integral to any scene.”

When presented with the idea of featuring a short but carefully curated list of superb plug-ins for sound design, I turned to Rich to discuss his favorites, those digital tools that are always just a click away, allowing his fingers to create nearly any sound he can dream, via guitar. In turn, I offered him a few new ones to check out, too. Below are the plug-ins we discussed, listed in alphabetical order by manufacturer.

Audionamix ADX TRAX Pro

ADX TRAX Pro features Audionamix’s patented audio source separation algorithms, allowing nondestructive spectral editing and processing. As such, ADX TRAX is used for vocal isolation and instrumental creation.

In discovering Audionamix at the last AES show in New York City, Rich was impressed, if not just a bit skeptical at first. “ADX TRAX Pro allows you to raise or lower the level of a vocal or solo instrument in a mono or stereo mix, without the multitrack… but sure enough, it works! It now also allows MIDI imported as a Pitch Guide, and it has multiple bit-depth and sample-rate compatibility.”

“Believe it or not, I rely on Avid’s SansAmp constantly; it drives things in a unique way,” Rich says. “It has buzz, punch, crunch and drive. I’m actually looking at it right now. I use it like an equalizer. It’s even so good that I bought the hardware.”

Avid SansAmp PSA-1

Featuring amp emulation, harmonic generation, speaker cabinet sim- ulation and equalization tone-shaping options, the SansAmp PSA-1 is perhaps Rich’s favorite Avid plug-in.

Eventide Blackhole

First available in Eventide’s DSP4000 hardware effects unit, this ambient reverb for guitar and keyboard is inspiring for many users, including Rich. “It’s gigantic, a sound designer’s treat,” he explains. “I use gravity and size parameters most often.”

Notable features of Blackhole include more than 50 presets, many of which were created by Eventide artists; “Supernatural” settings (e.g., abstract spatial effects and drones); “Gravity” control, a reversal of “the arrow of time” via reverb decay inversion; Kill Switch for muting input, leaving only reverb; and more.

iZotope De-reverb

Part of iZotope’s RX Audio Repair Software package, De-reverb is designed to reduce reverb components surrounding source audio, and is one of Rich’s favorites to use when noise gates, etc., are not sufficient for specific tasks.

“It’s cool,” he notes, “If there’s a sample I’m using that has too much reverb, I’ll just suck all of the room out of it. I use impacts all the time; if I don’t particularly like the reverb of the impact, I can use De-reverb, then use my own reverb choice.”

Line 6 Helix and Workbench HD

“Line 6 is always in front of my face, and— as a guitar tool—you’d think it would be a tricky thing to talk about when it comes to sound design,” explains Rich. “But it’s not. Guitars can be effectively used in sound design, which is what I do. I use the Workbench HD and Helix software; the latter allows me to go in and trigger and tweak all the sounds of my outboard Helix [hardware unit]. The Workbench HD allows me to change my Variax guitar into anything—from a sitar to an acoustic 12-string.”

Massey Plugins L2007 Mastering Limiter

The affordable ($96 di- rect) L2007 Mastering Limiter from Massey Plugins is a superb go-to, mastering-grade, look-ahead brick wall limiter, one that Rich applies to nearly everything he produces. “Though I use the Massey DRT drum replacer all the time, that doesn’t necessarily relate to sound design, though I mention it because it’s so good,” he says. “But the Massey L2007 Mastering Limiter is often the last thing in my production chain. I think that Steven Massey is incredible, and his stuff is fantastic.”

McDSP 4030 Retro Compressor

The 4030 Retro Compressor from Colin McDowell’s McDSP is a dynamic-range controller paired with wet/dry mix control, allowing balance of compressed and uncompressed signals, plus active attack and release param- eters. As part of McDSP’s Ret- ro plug-in collection, the 4030 Retro Comp provides an output stage topology to eliminate digital clipping; overall, this produc- es a smooth and pleasing distortion characteristic.

“McDSP’s 4030 Retro Compressor can be anything,” Rich notes. “That’s why I like it. I also use Revolver, their convolution reverb.” The unique Revolver provides complete impulse response control, dedicated and routable EQ, two sync-ready delay lines, reverb decay crossover net- work, and stereo imaging.

Sonnox Envolution

Envolution from Sonnox is a frequency-dependent envelope shaper featuring separate transient and sus- tain sections. It is designed to sculpt the envelope of nearly any sound source dramatically, allowing tilt and parametric-style focus modes to choose the affected frequency bands. From individual tracks to master bus or output applications, Rich attests that Envolution is an incredibly creative tool.

“The most useful sound design tool that I use, along with iZotope’s De-reverb, is the Sonnox Envolution plug-in,” he says. “It’s almost like a super-gate or great to enhance, for example, an impact sound, pushing it to create a monster effect, just using two knobs—Transient and Sustain.”

Soundtoys 5

Featuring 20 useful effects tools for a wide range of applications, Soundtoys’ affordable (currently $399 street) Soundtoys 5 collection features standout effects such as Primal Tap, Little AlterBoy, Radiator “and, most importantly, their Effects Rack,” notes Rich. “With it, you can drag-and- drop your own Soundtoys custom effects chain and even lock them all to a master tempo. Talk about endless creative possibilities! It’s all in there.”

Universal Audio Thermionic Culture Vulture

Billed by UA as a “singular, enigmatic piece of all-valve boutique hardware,” Thermionic Culture’s Culture Vulture is a hardware unit modeled by UA for DAW-based users everywhere, providing many thick, rich and complex distortion tonalities to liven up virtually any sound source.

Rich loves Culture Vulture as a deep well of distortions. “It offers three key parameters—bias, drive and distortion type,” he explains. “You can drive signals to kingdom come with crazy, saturated and almost clipping distortion, which is truly unique. I use it to add grit, somewhat like I use the SansAmp PSA-1. For example, I use [Heet Sound Products] EBows all the time [a monophonic handheld electromagnetic string driver, or ‘electronic bow’] for ‘uncomfortable’ sounds. That, paired with the Culture Vulture, I can make you feel very uncomfortable with that combination.”

Waves Dorrough Meter Collection and PAZ Analyzer

Alongside useful Waves plug-ins he has used over the years, Rich insists that some of his favorite Waves tools for sound design are on more of “the technical side” of creativity, notably the company’s Dorrough Meter Collection and his

favorite analyzer, the PAZ. The PAZ Analyzer generates a real-time visual representation of stereo positioning, frequency spread and peak/RMS levels. Key features include Position, Frequency and Meter components; Real-time vector display with zoom; optional resolution in 10Hz steps for detailed LF analysis below 250 Hz; and more.

“Often, sound design has lots of low-frequency, low-impact sounds that you may not easily hear—especially when working from a mobile system—but you can see them on the PAZ analyzer,” Rich says. “I will use that on my master chain. If I isolate a particular sound design element and it has way too much bottom end in it, I can see it. It’s an invaluable tool.”