Jun 15, 2011

Earlier this year, veteran plugin manufacturer, McDSP released an important upgrade to its flagship bundle, the Emerald Pack. This robust collection of “bread-and-butter” effects combines a whopping twelve bundles, including muti-band compressors, channel strips, analog tape emulations, brick-wall limiters, de-essers and much more. Version 5 brings functional and cosmetic changes to all and also includes a brand new bundle: Retro Pack.

The Retro Pack of 3 useful plugins: the 4020 Retro EQ,  4030 Retro Compressor,  4040 Retro Limiter. are unique in that they are not of specific analog devices. “Retro” means that their design is one that colors the sounds somewhat with a distinct sonic character. These three plugins merely tip their hats to the likes of Pultec, Teletronix, Fairchild, and Urei, while imparting a color of their own. While sometimes designers take this concept too far, in practice I did not find them overly colored. They are not transparent, surgical, precision tools and wouldn’t be my first choice for detailed post work. But they can be run clean enough that I would have no qualms about using them in certain mastering applications.

The Retro Pack a newly designed “anti-clip” output stage which boasts low/no distortion even at extreme settings. In practice, this is a ridiculously useful feature. It allows you to crank the output stage, using it almost like a limiter or a tube saturation effect.

Both the dynamics processors are refreshingly simple to operate. In fact, the RetroLimiter has only two knobs: gain and ceiling. The RetroCompressor five: threshold, attack, release, ratio, output and mix. “Mix” allows you to combine the dry and effected signals and it opens up a lot of possibilities, most obvious being “New York-style” compression. I wish this feature were standard to all compressors. The compressor also has buttons to engage and monitor a side-chain.

Both plugins achieve a tactile experience with minimal tweaking. Attack and release times are dynamic. On the compressor, these controls attempt to stick to the user settings but change in response to material, ratio, and threshold. I found that minimal massaging of threshold and output was often all it took to achieve a good result. Not enough control? Believe me, I’d complain about it if it didn’t make my life easier.

The 4020 (pictured) is a flexible EQ with six adjustable bands: hi-pass, lo-pass, hi shelf, low shelf, and two semi-parametric mid bands. It has a polarity invert switch (for each channel) and input/output gain featuring the new “anti-clip” algorithm. Each band offers +/-15dB of gain and seems to allow obscene amounts of gain while remaining surprisingly musical (Pultec anyone?). The 4020 also unique in that its filter bandwidth and slope change as you adjust both frequency and gain. The end result is a very musical and surprisingly subtle EQ.

The 4020’s filters are calibrated and marked in octaves (250, 500, 1k, 2k, etc). I prefer a bit more detail, but this is in keeping with the design of the Retro Pack. They aren’t precision instruments. Expect to be working in broad strokes. With the 4020, only real complaint is that you cannot bypass its individual bands. I find that evaluating settings is awkward without this feature.

I got a lot of mileage out of the Retro Pack. compressor was useful for a wide range of material at both conservative and extreme settings. Acoustic and electric guitars got beefy; drums got bold and good sounds were obtained with minimal fuss. Even when presented with a challenge, the RetroCompressor usually equipped to deal with it. In one instance, I had a bit of trouble shaping the attack transient of a snare drum. Attack and release changes just weren’t quite getting me there. An easy workaround was to pull back the wet/dry mix and allow some of the uncompressed signal to pass through. The same trick made vocals spring to life immediately.

The limiter (in the picture) was a bit of a surprise. When mastering, or placed across my mix bus, I had moderate success with it. Sometimes it worked out great. At other times tools such as the ML4000 (reviewed below) were capable of getting things louder and punchier. But individual tracks and busses, I often preferred it over the 4030 RetroCompressor. On a drum sub-mix, the 4040 a no-brainer. On a whim, I gave it a shot on a male vocalist. To my surprise, try as I might, I just couldn’t top it. It may not work every time, but I wouldn’t hesitate to try the 4040 a compressor might normally go.

The RetroPack turned out to be a life-saver when a client suddenly asked to create “TV tracks” (instrumental mixes) of songs which had been created on an obsolete system and shelved for years. And yes, of course, she needed them “yesterday”. I was able to import the session, but without plugins. I needed to rebuild… and fast. Retro Pack the rescue! I swapped out effects on every channel of these full-band productions and replaced them with RetroPack . Swift, ballpark estimates got things underway and yielded two superb sounding mixes in less than an hour. Happy client; happy reviewer.

The Retro Pack ‘t a one-size-fits-all solution, but in the right application, it can sound fantastic. I think using these plugins is painting with a big brush. Their ease of use, negligible latency and efficient overhead allow them to be employed early anywhere. I found that because of this, they were often the first thing I would try on a track, swapping them out only when I couldn’t quickly get what I was after.

A 15 days full working demo of this software can be downloaded here. – Nathan Rosenberg

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