Universal Audio have rapidly become highly respected for their emulation plugins of their own hardware as well as those by Neve, SSL, API and Manley through to classics by, Studer, Fairchild and more. Their plugins have been used on countless productions and are used daily in world class facilities worldwide.
However, there are some very unusual plug-ins in their catalogue which users may initially overlook, but these products bring innovative solutions to problems many engineers, musicians and producers face regularly. Here are a few of our favourites.
Developed by Brainworx for the UAD-2 platform in collaboration with mastering engineer Gebre Waddell, bx_refinement lets you remove harsh frequencies in your tracks or mixes without affecting the tone and character of the original sound too much and attributing a valve-like analogue smoothness.
With very simple controls, bx_refinement makes it easy to remove harshness over a full mix, or guitars, keyboards, bass, vocals and more. The main focus is a big Damping control, which dials in how much harshness is removed. A great feature is that no matter how much damping is applied the processed signal remains at the same apparent level as the unprocessed signal making it extremely easy to hear the effect of the unit and compare between versions without being fooled by level differences. Saturation and Presence controls let you dial in more presence or thickness to compensate for the Damping effect while the mix knob lets you blend the processed and unprocessed signal in parallel.
A modulation section adds further controls over the damping behaviour. The first control is called Dynamics and makes the damping program-dependent. A Range and Speed control let you set the threshold and attack and release of the process. The second modulation section is called Oscillator and adds a form of “chorusing” effect to soften the overall harshness.
Since using it the first time bx_refinement has become a go to plug-in for mixing or mastering. Although originally designed as a mastering tool, the bx_refinement is extremely effective (perhaps even more so) on individual tracks. On guitars it can easily shine by removing a lot of harshness of a less than ideal mic’d amp or on a bus countering the effect of the harshness that sometimes happen when combining different amps while keeping the sound natural and open. When used on vocals, the dynamics settings lets you achieve forward sounding vocals while the Presence allows you to have forward sounding vocals. It also works on cymbals and other “metallic” sounds.
As a mastering tool it is no less powerful and the option to affect the Mid or both Mid and Side can be very useful for less intrusive processing. In such situations I find that a combination of saturation, Presence and Dynamic yields the best results.
Bx_refinement is a very powerful processor and like everything is best used sparingly, but if you haven’t tried or even considered it, you will likely find a situation where this plug-in is a life saviour, and before long you’ll very likely start finding yourself using it more than you originally thought you would.
UAD Precision K-Stereo Ambience Recovery Plug-in
While on the subject mastering processors, the UAD Precision K-Stereo Ambience Recovery Plug-in is a very specific and unusual processor that has had its fair share of use when mastering.
Developed in collaboration with renowned mastering engineer Bob Katz, the K-Stereo process is part of the UAD Precision series of mastering processors. What this processor does is quite clever. Using Mid/Side processing and elements of the Haas effect and other psycho-acoustic effects, the K-Stereo is capable of extracting natural ambiance from a mix to enhance the stereo depth of a track.
Ideal for mastering tracks that have been mixed “too dry” or need more space, the UAD K-Stereo is great at adding depth transparently. This plug-in has been a saviour many times when mastering for a particular producer I’ve been working with over the years who hates reverb. The K-Stereo is uncanny at adding natural depth without sounding processed however like many processors it has to be used with care.
The plug-in is composed of four sections starting from the top left and the Ambience Enhance, which is where the main process is added. It comprises a deep and wide buttons, which affect the stereo and the depth of the sound and central control, which sets the amount of processing.
To the right is a three-band filter with low-pass and high-pass filers and parametric mid section with bandwidth control which lets you focus the effect to a specific frequency band between 150Hz and 10kHz to focus on a specific band, for example to add more depth to a snare drum or vocals.
The Mid/Side gain section lets you affect the mono or stereo part of your track to narrow or widen your mix while the Left and Right lets you balance each channel individually to rebalance your stereo tracks.
The plug-in also comes with some great presets created by Bob Katz himself that can be used as great starting point and be tweaked to better suit the track. Going through the presets is also a great way to hear what this processor is capable of.
Inserting it on a stereo track and turning the ambience enhance mode will make the whole sound wider and deeper. The more pronounced, the more obvious the effect becomes and pushing it to the maximum clearly shows the principle behind this processor. In Wide mode the Left and Right tracks are delayed from each other creating the stereo width also known as the Haas Effect. This trick is often used to widen guitars. In Deep mode, with the ambiance enhance control all the way up the song sounds like it's doubled and delayed so my understanding is that the delay is caused in the mono component of the track being duplicated, causing the effect. Returning to more sensible settings it is easy to see hear the effects work and how these processes can add the depth and width so transparently. It is also apparent that the relation between delays on the mid and the sides are carefully calculated so that the delay in the mono and the sides start to conflict with each other.
The EQ section is extremely critical as it serves as a side chain to focus on the effect on a particular band. I often tend to use around the vocals and snare frequencies to add more depth and width without affecting the bass, or to add width to the cymbals.
It is possible to overdo it and often a setting that I think sounds good, will later reveal itself to be too much so it's always good to A/B with and without a few times and come back to it to make sure the process is not doing too much.
The Precision K-Stereo is a very niche processor that will mainly benefit mastering engineers but when a mix or group needs more depth or wider sound-stage it is quite possibly the best way to do so transparently.
UAD Vertigo Sound VSM-3
The UAD Vertigo Sound VSM-3 is another plug-in developed by Brainworx for the UAD platform and is an emulation of the very special Vertigo Sound VSM-2. The UAD Vertigo Sound VSM-3 is an extremely versatile colour box which blends second and third order harmonics in a truly unique way on any sort of material to add subtle colouration or heavy crush.
The unit might appear a little complex at first for people who are starting but spending a little time on each section becomes very revealing very rapidly and after a little time it could become (and has in my case) become a go to plug-in to add more magic on bass, vocals, guitars, drums, keyboards, whole tracks etc…
The VSM-3 is essentially two saturation units, one FET designed to generate 2nd order harmonics and a Zener designed to add 3rd order harmonic sheen or grit depending how hard you push it. These two distortion circuits feature the same controls and can be used in series or parallel to offer a wide range of tones.
The main controls for both harmonic circuits include Drive to set the amount of saturation desired, Shape to set the curve of the distortion and a THD Mix which controls the amount of processed signal is added to the original signal. A Soft/Hard toggle switch lets you choose how hard you want the saturation to sound. Each saturation bloc can be allocated to different bands from low, mid, high-mid, high and full track, letting you target the area where the distortion needs to take place but it is also possible to assign which part of the stereo signal it affects, from the Mid, Side or straight LR stereo.
If it isn't impressive enough, you can blend the amount of second or third harmonic via the central THD mixer. The Parallel/Serial mode switch below is an addition only found in the plug-in but it certainly is a very nice touch. The switch lets you decide whether each block should work independently from each other or whether they interact with each other, and can yield some very powerful results.
Finally the monitoring section includes a MS Solo switch letting listen to the Mid or Side independently and unlike in the hardware unit it also boasts a distortion circuits solo which lets you hear only the distortion circuit via a 4-way toggle switch giving you the option to listen to the 2nd, 3rd, 2nd+3rd or Off. This is an extremely powerful and useful feature that lets you hear exactly what you’re adding and how they interact.
Since I started using it, the VSM-3 has featured on almost everything I did, whether it is to add some fullness and/or grit to bass tracks where it can simulate the sound of a bass going through an amp. It is also great at adding character to a guitar or vocals, open up a mix or making it gel more, and even as a grit machine for more edge on some synths or drums.
It is always featured on my mastering chain as well where it can often help add heft and coherence. The frequency band selector is fantastic to let you focus the sound where you want it to and the addition of a serial or parallel mode is really spot on.
There are many other great sounding distortion plug-ins out there such as SoundToys Decapitator or the UAD Thermionic Culture Vulture, but this offers a level of versatility and tonality that really make it a no-brainer for me.
UAD Ocean Way Studios
The UAD Ocean Way Studios is a very unusual plug-in which claims to give you the sound of one of the most revered American recording studio Ocean Way. This is in no way a small claim because one of the key elements missing in most bedroom or project studio recordings was the “sound” of a great room and quality microphones and hardware.
The choice of Ocean Way is by no means an accident as Bill Putnam, founder of Universal Audio and designer of the classic 1176 and LA-2A compressors originally designed Ocean Way Studios. This legendary recording studio is composed of two rooms Studio A and Studio B, which have been instrumental to some classic records over the decades.
To replicate this the UAD Ocean Way Studios plug-in is divided in two main applications: Reverb which essentially works like a very nice sounding reverb and can be used via send aux and returns, and Re-Mic which is inserted as an insert to recreate the signal chain of a superb studio including its mic collection and EQ.
The plug-in itself is split in two sections with on the left hand side a visual representation of the studio layout, mic positioning and master EQ section. This section gives the option to choose between Studio A and Studio B as well as the instrument source, which determines the position of the instrument in the room, which in turns determines the sound of the room. Four vintage-looking tabs are included below giving you access to the position layout, master EQ, interior image and information about the setup. The first two will be the most important features, which will see the most use. Below are EQ controls including low and high shelves.
The second half of the plug-in gives the option to choose the microphones from the incredible range of vintage microphones found in Ocean Way from vintage C12 large diaphragm condensers, classic KM's small diaphragm condensers mics and Ribbon microphones. Three faders control the Near, Mid and Far microphones allowing you to blend textures. A distance knob controls how far each microphone pair is placed and a panning balance. Finally low-and high-pass filters, polarity reversal and mute switches are included above all three faders. A fourth fader is included in the master section as well as L/R Swap, Mono and wet solo which can be deactivated in favour of a Dry/Wet knob. A Pre-delay control lets you control the first reflection time.
Although the claim of giving the sound of a recording studio might seem somewhat exaggerated, Ocean Way Studio is nevertheless a fantastic plug-in with a very straightforward interface.
In Reverb mode this plug-in is the best way to recreate a great sounding room mic for drums replacing my previous reverb plug-in. Although this is not the ideal way for mixing drums, this plug-in offers the best alternative I have yet heard. Placing Room microphones are easy and blending all different microphones makes some really interesting sonic texture. In addition unlike Reverb, Ocean Way Studios gives you a visual way of seeing where you are positioning your microphones in a similar fashion one would when recording drums in real situations.
I was much more skeptical with the Re-Mic side of things based on previous experience with microphone modeling. Indeed mic modeling software simply adds frequency response modelling to what is already a signal recorded through a microphone. So unless the microphone used in the original recording is extremely linear then there is no way to impart the characteristics of a microphone onto another and expect the sound to be anything near the intended emulation. However Re-Mic mode is definitely useful to add natural properties to virtual instruments that many sample library fail to recreate. In addition blending different microphones offer a great way to add useful tones and I often reverted to using the C12_c (cardioid) for close mics, KM184s for mid and the M50 for the far microphones blending the three to create a nice and rich tone.
Ocean Way is probably the most popular of the plug-ins mentioned here and many people will already be enjoying its benefits. For me the Reverb mode is definitely worth the price tag on its own and is the best tool I’ve found to recreate a great sounding room and to add cohesion to a group of instruments and works wonders to recreate a drum room where none are provided or the original room take is less than ideal. The layout is easy to understand and sounds very realistic for situations where you don’t have a good sounding room.
UAD Sound Machine Wood Works
The final plug-in and one the most recent of this review is a truly intriguing proposition and a collaboration with a company I had never heard of until then. The UAD Sound Machine Wood Works is designed to take electro-acoustic guitars recorded with piezzo microphones and reinstates all the properties of a well-recorded acoustic guitar. Piezzo microphones are a very handy solution for live acoustic guitars but in a recording situation lack many of the acoustic properties such as the sound coming from the rest of the instrument that microphones can easily capture. The sound of a piezzo is often very focused on the strings and sounds quite thin and lacks the fullness that the rest of the instrument provides.
The UAD Sound Machine Wood Works aims to solve this issue by using clever acoustic modeling algorithms to create an accurate studio mic’d sound from your Piezzo pick-up. This truly innovative plug-in can be extremely useful in situation where using a microphone is not possible or difficult such as recording in a less than adequate room, or when used with the Apollo series of audio interfaces, used in a live context with no latency enabling to recreate the full sound of an acoustic guitar live.
The UAD Sound Machine Wood Works is fairly easy to use with a vintage-looking GUI, which shows (in keeping with the name) a lot of wood. On the left hand side is where the entire main controls feature starting with the Sound Machine control, which lets you, select the algorithm. It is divided in 3 sections called Studio, Dreadnought and Jumbo representing the different guitar size, which are then divided into a total of 16 sub-categories spread across all three main categories. Choosing the right algorithm will depend on the guitar you use as well as the intended result.
Below the main Sound Machine control, Two sections Neck and Body are included and let you increase the sound of each section as well as their respective panning positions. The final controls are to control the input and output.
On inserting the first instance of the plug-in I was immediately taken aback by the result, which sounded surprisingly realistic. The mid-range heavy and somewhat nasal tone of a piezzo-pickup gave way to a full-bodied acoustic guitar sound. Even the sound of the strumming of the strings sounded like it was recorded through a microphone and the recreated body resonance really gave the feeling of hearing an acoustic guitar through a microphone.
Flicking through the different presets produced dramatically different results allowing for different tones to be used in different contexts. It is important to note that different algorithms will produces very different sounds and while some can sound surprisingly realistic some of them will sound pretty awful. But this is not that the plug-in is bad it’s just that the algorithm is not suited to the type of playing and the guitar used. In addition although I was nicely surprised by how effective it could be, there are some issues that are possibly inherent to the technology. While the resulting sound was surprisingly realistic, some of the resonances produced were very pronounced (as you can hear in the audio examples). Inserting an EQ afterwards somewhat remedies the issue and in a mix the resonances are barely noticeable once tamed. I can’t help but think that a resonance control would possibly help to tame it but I can imagine this would have a huge effect on how realistic the result would be.
Would I use this instead of recording a real guitar with a microphone? Probably not as I feel it is possible to get far superior results by using the real thing, but I definitely prefer the sound of an electro-acoustic guitar recorded via the piezzo-pickup with the Wood Works than without! I think that the results are pretty remarkable for what this plug-in is supposed to do and I can easily think of instances where it would be useful. For example mixing a recorded live performance of a singer songwriter or a band would add the extra dimension associated with recorded acoustic guitars. Live engineers can also recreate a natural sounding guitar with no latency by using one of Universal Audio’s Apollo audio interfaces.
It might not give you the same beautiful tone of your cherished acoustic guitar as when it is well-recorded in a good room with a good microphone but it will certainly help alleviate the nasal tone of a Piezzo pickup and provide a recording that is more than useable in a mix.
So there is it, my list of five unusual UAD plug-ins that I would find difficult to work without. Some don’t get used all the time, but when they do, whether mixing or mastering they’re invaluable. There are some other great processors worth mentioning such as the VOG and IBP by Little Labs., but I suggest you try what works for you, and have look at those that aren’t the usual suspects!
By Paul Lavigne