Sonalksis was formed in August of 2002 in Liverpool England by R&D engineers originally employed by AMS-Neve. As the company grew, they added people from Sony and Focusright. With a pedigree like this, good things are bound to happen. Their first plug-in was released in 2003, and since then they have grown into a highly-respected company with a world-wide user base.
Though they are primarily known for their studio staple plug-ins, you may be using Sonalksis effects already, without knowing it. Their insert effects—hi-pass/low-pass filter, 5-band EQ, compressor, gate and transient—are included in Toontrack’s award-winning Superior Drummer. Sonalksis plug-ins sound great, are relatively inexpensive, and are very CPU friendly.
FSU plug-ins are kind of unique in that they focus on ways to manipulate and destroy sound. Generally, these are of the glitch / delay /granular / bit-reduction / buffer variety, sometimes modular, often combining effects and sequencing. Sonalksis offers a kind of sound-design / sound-destruction suite that has one foot in the FSU category, but focuses mainly on dialing in sonic extremes without complicated bells and whistles. Three plug-ins—Über Compressor, Creative Filter, and Digital Grimebox—are a unified toolset sharing the same look-and-feel (and MIDI functionality), designed mostly for exploiting, shaping, and coloring sound. They are capable of everything from mild coloring and enhancement to complete sonic mayhem. This review will focus on Über Compressor, a very unique and useful compressor for enhancing, coloring, and grunging up sound.
Not Your Mother’s Compressor
The Über Compressor is a specialized compressor that is very different from any other compressor I’ve tried. For one thing, it is adaptive. There are no attack and release settings, no separate input and output controls; instead the two attack and release stages adapt according to the sonic material, controlled by a “Timing” switch (whose four values, “instant”, “pop”, “slap” and “pump”, approximate increasing attack and release timings with words that illustrate typical behavior of the settings) and an “S/C Bias” switch. Under the hood is a transient designer that allows everything from a fat punch to complete destruction of audio. According to Sonalksis, the compressor utilizes “state space analog” technology to model real-world analog circuits, but these circuits, modeled to include noise (which can be switched off, if desired), can be pushed to digital extremes.
The controls are few, easy to understand, and placed in a logical order. Right in the middle of the plug-in is the ratio control. I’m not really sure why it’s so huge, but, hey, it looks like the other two plug-ins in the suite, and it certainly draws the eye.
The Timing and S/C Bias Switches
As I mentioned, there are no attack and release settings, which is, in my opinion, both bad and good. It’s bad in the sense that you really can’t anticipate how the compressor will act by making minor adjustments. What you have, essentially, are switchable behavior characteristics. So, for example, if you want no delay in the attack, you’d choose “Instant”; if you want a pumping sound, you’d select “Pump”. The two in the middle are a little less obvious, but with use it becomes fairly easy to anticipate, in a general sense, how the plug-in will react and what type of setting to try out on what material. In fact, one of the nice things about all the plugins in the Creative Suite is that with few controls adjustments can be made quickly to try out different settings.
Right below the Timing switch is the S/C Bias switch. Like the Timing switch, these settings are labeled with words that describe their behavior. Each of these settings selects a different filter circuit that affects the behavior of the compression. Several of these settings, like the Timing switch, are easy enough to understand: “None”, “Bottom”, and “Top”. The other two, “Scoop” and “Lump”, are a little more difficult to imagine, but once you hear the effect a few times you understand the general principle. The S/C Bias switch is intended to mimic side-chain compression, and is more subtle than the settings with the Timing switch.
The “Noise”and “Fierce” options
Two really interesting features of the Über Compressor are the “Noise” and “Fierce” options. By selecting the “Fierce” option (whose default on or off state is configurable in the plug-in settings) the plug-in is kicked into Über mode – that is, extreme compression. It’s like a turbo on a car, and just as wild. This is the setting you’d want to experiment with on anything that requires controlled sonic destruction (massive pumping, controlled clipping, etc.). Using this option, it really becomes imperative to coordinate the settings already mentioned along with the “Input” control, which controls the volume of the incoming signal, and the selectable “Output” control. Not only is it great for creating instant mayhem, but it really augments material that may not be apparent in quieter audio, such as field recordings. The “Fierce” setting is especially effective with along with another FSU-type plug-in in the chain (the Digital Grimebox, for example)
Along with the atomic compression values comes more noise (as part of the analog modeling process). If you find this undesirable, you can remove it by deselecting the Noise option.
The Über Compressor comes with only a handful of presets. I understand the point of this – it’s really not a Swiss army knife type of effect, after all – but it would be nice to have more of them to quickly try things out, particularly when you first start using the plug-in. For example, there is a preset called “Smart” which is great for drums and percussive type basses (anything that needs a “popping” kind of presence), but I’m not sure I would have tried those specific settings quickly without initially taking the plug-in for a sonic test drive with different types of instruments and audio files. The few other presets included are also one-word descriptors, which seem helpful but don’t really indicate what type of material they’d be good for (“Colour”, “Filth”, etc.). Again, I get this; the point is to encourage experimentation. It would still be nice to have another 10 – 20 presets that essentially tour the plug-in (it comes with 8). Another possibility would be to include a “Suggestions” section in the manual, which is also a bit weak.
A Few Last Words
I really like this compressor, which is very creative, fun to use, and most of all, great-sounding. Aside from the too few presets and weak manual complaints, it also doesn’t have MIDI learn. The MIDI settings are listed in the manual, which you need to download separately from the installer. For me, this is not a huge issue, because the controls are all labeled and easily accessible from the automation menu of a DAW. However, if you’ve just installed the plug-in and/or want to play live, you need to setup whether the plug-in parameters will be controlled by “wheel” or “key” in the configuration menu and use the MIDI chart in the manual for specific CC values to manipulate the plug-in parameters with an external controller. It’s not the kind of compressor you’d want to use for one-size-fits-all track or bus compression. It is, however, a great tool to add punch to percussion and bass, extreme compression for FSU applications, enhancement for ambience (by itself for added character or as part of a sound-design chain to augment the characteristics of another plug-in). A very unique compressor that sounds great and is a steal for the pricepoint Sonalksis is selling it at. Definitely worth adding to the arsenal.
Price: $40 plug-in only or $100 for the Creative Elements suite (Über Compressor / Creative Filter / Digital Grimebox)