Have you ever sat there in front of the console, putting the finaltouches on a track, and felt like something was missing? For whateverreason, when you A/B your material with someone else’s, you can’t helpbut get that sick feeling that something is fatally wrong with yourmix. Or worse still, you track some of the best guitar sounds of yourlife, and you pop into the studio the next day only to find thatsomething has changed or somebody forgot to take notes on the settings,leaving you to eternally ask yourself, “What if?”Thankfully, these horrific scenarios may soon be a thing of the past.Enter the new Assimilator plug-in from TC Works.
Designed for the Powercore platform, Assimilator ($299) is designedto intelligently analyze different pieces of audio and apply the EQ“fingerprint” of one piece of audio to another. The two EQcurves are referred to as the Reference curve (your original signal)and the Target curve. It sounds simple enough, but the applications fora piece of software like this are limitless. A vocal track recordedmonths ago in a different studio with a different vocal chain can bemorphed to mimic the sound of a vocal recorded yesterday and viceversa. For mastering chores, the global EQ of an entire album can nowbe much more consistent. And then there are the more sinister uses: Youcan’t figure out how Bob Rock gets that monstrous snare sound? Justpass a few bars of Metallica’s “The Unforgiven” throughAssimilator, and you’re on your way. Or, perhaps you don’t feel likepaying for a mastering engineer and you need to get a track up on yourWebsite in a hurry. Find a piece of music that has that sound you want,and the sound is yours.
UP AND RUNNING
With Assimilator, TC has employed one of the more interestingpackaging concepts I’ve seen in a while. When I first attempted toinstall the software, I did what anyone would do: I opened the box anddropped the CD-ROM into my computer, expecting to be under way shortly.To my surprise, the plug-in itself was not there. The CD includedmanuals and tutorials but no real installer. Users are instead directedto the TC Website, where they’re instructed to enter their Powercorecard-authentication number and Assimilator serial number. From there,you’re permitted to download the plug-in. The complete plug-in packagealso includes a second piece of software called the AssimilatorCompensator, which comes with its own documentation and Assimilatorpresets. At this point, I was a bit confused by the entire process.
I copied the Assimilator plug-in into the Powercore folder inside ofboth Cubase and TC Spark 2.5. And after quickly reading through theincluded PDF manuals, everything became clear. Assimilator works offboth the Powercore, as well as pulling a tiny bit of bandwidth off ofthe host CPU, thus requiring a different compensation plug-in than thestandard Powercore Compensator. For those of you who already own aPowercore or are familiar with other card-based plug-in packages, thisshould all make sense. For everyone else, this subject requires a bitof an explanation.
Plug-ins that run off TC’s Powercore card incur a slight amount ofdelay because they get slowed down when crossing back and forth overthe PCI bus. In an average session, where some audio tracks will havePowercore plug-ins inserted on them and others do not, this delay cancause things to play back out of sync. Most DAWs automatically accountfor this delay when these effects are used as standard inserts onsingle or stereo audio tracks. For whatever reason, the same is nottrue when Powercore effects are used on a group bus (a common issuewith most host applications). And for this reason, the variouscompensation plug-ins are included. The quick fix when using Powercoreeffects on group channels is to set up a secondary group bus for all ofyour non-Powercore tracks, insert the appropriate compensation plug-in(set to the number of Powercore plug-ins in use) and route it to thestereo master. If you want to skip this step, the AssimilatorCompensator PDF includes a table that tells you how far (in samples) tonudge your non-Powercore audio tracks so that everything plays back insync: a tedious process at best.
The Assimilator Compensator includes an extra item that is differentfrom the standard Powercore Compensator: Inside of both the Assimilatorand the Assimilator Compensator are settings for low-frequencyresolution. The settings are low, medium and high, and the defaultsetting for both is medium. These two settings must be the same for theplug-in to function properly. As far as the resolution settings, thesame theory applies here as with any plug-in. With thehigher-resolution setting, you can expect better low-end detail andseparation with a higher Powercore DSP load.
The overall system requirements are pretty basic. For Windows,you’ll need Powercore System 1.6.1, Windows 98SE/ME/2000/XP, PIII/500or better, 128MB RAM and a VST host application. On the Mac front, therequirements include Powercore System 1.6.1, Mac OS 9.04 or higher,G3/300 or better, 128MB RAM, and a VST or MAS host application.
INTERFACING WITH THE COLLECTIVE
The Assimilator interface is deceptively simple. It includes threemain screens or pages that are broken down into screen A, B and Morph.The first two screens are exact duplicates of each other (the A/B punshould be obvious to all), and the Morph page allows you to blend theresults of page A and B — more on this later. The A/B screensinclude an analysis display that shows the various EQ curves in realtime. There are also input and output gain controls, reference andtarget EQ controls, preset management, low-frequency resolutionsettings, limiting, level calibration and a slider that mixes thereference and target EQ signals. For the truly tweaky, Assimilator alsoallows users to customize their EQ settings with three tools: Thepencil tool allows you to create your own reference curve by simplydrawing it in; the magnet tool glues a section of the reference curveto the target curve; and, finally, the magnet tool also groups EQpoints, enabling you to move them as a group.
To make Assimilator work properly, you must do two things: First,you need to pass your reference audio (the piece of music you want toalter) through the plug-in. To do this, simply insert the plug-in onthe channel in question, press the Learn button under the Referenceheading and hit Play. You’ll notice a real-time analysis curve appearin the main screen. The curve doesn’t bob and weave to every note ofthe music; rather, it is looking for an average EQ signature. (If youstop playback, then the curve will slowly come back to zero.) Onceyou’ve played your reference piece through the plug-in, it’s time tofind your target EQ. Under the Target heading, press the Learn buttonand repeat the same process as before. This time, however, you’re goingto send your target material through Assimilator. After the plug-in hasboth curves stored and analyzed, it’s possible to hear what it canreally do. The slider under the Apply heading allows you to blendbetween the untreated source signal and the custom curve that theplug-in has created.
The Morph function offers a slight variation on the process. Insideboth the A and B pages, users must first move through the same analysissteps as above. Once that is completed, they can move over to the Morphpage and blend between the results of four EQ curves (two reference andtwo target). For DAWs capable of plug-in automation, this makes itpossible to move between two radically different EQ settings in realtime.
After first auditioning the plug-in and getting a clear picture ofwhat it can do, I immediately turned to my CD collection and beganmaking some extensive notes. I wanted to hear some of my own materialprocessed with the EQ curve of a number of my favorite recordings, andmy preset names were just as shameless as my intentions. Some of thebest/worst included “Sweet Spawn of Mine,” “March ofthe Sheep,” “Space Not-So-Oddity,” etc. And theresults were fabulous. I found that moving the Apply slider all the wayto the right produced some extreme results, and it didn’t quite work onfull mixes. The happy medium seemed to be somewhere in the middle, andespecially with things like snares, hats and higher-register rhythmguitars, the results were very satisfying and instantly apparent.
The plug-in’s real magic is its ability to match up differentrecording sessions. About two years ago, I recorded a number of guitarand vocal tracks in my old studio space. And, as is so often the case,those songs got shelved, and it wasn’t until recently that my band andI felt the need to finish tracking them. So rather than start from thebeginning, we recorded only the parts that we needed and I began thetask of matching everything up. In this instance, the Morph functionwas a lifesaver. Inside screen A, I processed the old tracks againstthe new; vice versa in the B screen. Between the two Apply sliders andA/B morph, the dry tracks sounded nearly indistinguishable.
As mentioned previously, the package also includes a number ofself-contained presets, as well as an extensive collection of targetcurves. The target curves are all divided into aptly named subfolders,and some of the preset names are as ridiculous as my own (“NuMetal,” “Heavy Anger Metal” and “DeutscheDisco,” to name a few). They include curves for individualinstruments, vocals, FX cues and full mixes. And for tasks liketweaking a snare channel or an acoustic guitar, they were all greatjumping-off points.
While a fabulous product, Assimilator didn’t really strike me as thekind of processor you would want to use in a multitrack session. Whileit’s totally capable of working in that kind of environment, I feltthat it was much more at home inside of a 2-track editor. The plug-insometimes produces extremely subtle results, and it would behoove usersto work with it in a less cluttered environment.
The ability, however, to match up or blend different recordings willprove to be a godsend for many engineers. With so many artists workingout of project studios or whacking down vocals in hotel rooms withless-than-ideal signal paths, a tool like Assimilator is priceless. Andfor those shameless practitioners of gonzo engineering like myself,Assimilator will afford us even more bragging rights. All in all, itseems silly for any Powercore owner not to cough up the extra cash forAssimilator. I’m keeping this one.
TC Works, 805/379-2648, www.tcworks.de.
Robert Hanson is Mix’s assistant editor.
When Powercore was launched in June of 2001, it was heralded as oneof the most innovative products in recent memory. Unfortunately, theoperating system for the original Powercore left a little to bedesired. While the OS did essentially what it was purported to do, itwas plagued with a number of bugs. With Version 1.5, released inDecember 2001, the entire OS was more or less rewritten and the productwas relaunched. Since then, the performance has been rock-solid. Evenwith sessions that push the unit to its limits, freezes and crashescaused by the Powercore have been all but eliminated.
Now in V. 1.6.1, a number of refinements a have been added to thepackage including: “No Latency” mode in Windows; less RAMusage and improved multiprocessor support in DP3; MegaReverb andChorusDelay work at 96 kHz in all applications; and more. The basicPowercore bundle currently includes the 24/7 Compressor/Limiter,Classic Verb, Master X3, MegaReverb, ChorusDelay, EQSat, Voice Stripand the Powercore 01 Synthesizer. The company has also launched thePowercore FireWire, which moves the Powercore from a PCI-based unit toa 1U chassis that can now work with any FireWire/IEEE-1394-enabledcomputer.
— Robert Hanson