Field Test: TC Electronic Native Bundle 3.0

Oct 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Michael Cooper

TC Electronic's Native Bundle 3.0 adds an adventurous plug-in called Filtrator and new functionality to the suite of production tools previously offered. In addition to Filtrator, the MAS/VST plug-in bundle includes a graphic equalizer, parametric EQ, compressor/de-esser (with companion sidechain plug-in), limiter and an improved version of TC's Native Reverb (now dubbed Native Reverb Plus). Version 3.0 also adds user-friendly functionality, such as A/B-preset comparison and outstanding preset storage/recall organization.

Minimum system requirements for the bundle include a 233MHz or faster Mac G3 with at least 128MB RAM, running Mac OS 9.1 (or higher) or Mac OS X. PC patrons can use Native Bundle 3.0 with a 500MHz or better Pentium III, 128MB or more RAM, and Windows 98 SE/2000/XP. Of course, you'll also need a MAS, Audio Units or VST-compatible audio application on either platform. I reviewed the bundle using Digital Performer 3.11 and an 867MHz dual-processor G4 loaded with 768MB RAM.

Installing and using Native Bundle is a breeze, as long as you take one important precaution: If you've installed FreeMIDI 1.48 and use Digital Performer, then make sure you pull the Raditec SAC 2.2 Free-MIDI driver V. 1.0.10 out of the FreeMIDI folder that resides inside your System folder. A conflict between the SAC driver and the TC plug-in shell (installed with Native Bundle) causes Digital Performer to freeze when quitting the program. Ditch the Raditec driver, and everything will be hunky-dory.

A quick overview of common para- meter controls and metering is in order before we dive into each plug-in's unique features. All of the plug-ins, except the sidechain plug-in SideChainer, offer I/O level controls and meters. (SideChainer offers only input meters, which is logical.) I/O meters feature a defeatable peak-hold function, and you can also manually clear the meters. All of the plugs, except the SideChainer, Limiter and Native Reverb Plus, also include TC's defeatable SoftSat function, which subtly emulates tube gear's saturation characteristics. With the exception of Native Reverb Plus and Filtrator, which are stereo-only, all of the plug-ins can process either mono or stereo sources. Finally, all of the plugs will work at 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96kHz sampling frequencies. With that, let's explore what each plug-in has to offer.

SQUEEZE ME
All of the usual parameter controls are included with the Compressor plug-in: Attack, Release, Threshold and Ratio. Additionally, a Hold-Time control allows you to delay the onset of the compressor's release phase. You can also adjust the compressor's knee continuously from hard to soft, access one of two possible key inputs (sent from the SideChainer plug-in, which I'll discuss shortly), enable/disable the above-mentioned SoftSat function and/or activate auto makeup gain.

Auto makeup gain automatically maximizes the compressor's peak output level to be 0 dBFS before the plug-in's output fader, a real time-saver compared to manually applying makeup gain. I found that auto makeup shaves off transients and brings mic bleed up significantly in level, which is not always appropriate, especially on drum tracks. It's a very useful and flattering tool, however, for processing vocals and electric guitars (including bass). You can always disable this function when you don't want to use it.

Without auto makeup active, the Compressor delivers very transparent dynamics processing. That said, I found the Compressor to be far more effective and flexible when used on nonpercussive sources such as vocals, bass and electric rhythm guitars. Although its Attack and Release controls are fairly wide-ranging, I could only make kick and snare tracks pop a little bit using the Compressor. I couldn't coax extreme 1176- or Distressor-type drum sounds out of the plug-in.

The Compressor also features a user-friendly and transparent de-esser section. Its Threshold control is really a Range control, as the de-esser's processing is level-independent. A Monitor function lets you listen to the sidechain signal, making it a snap to fine-tune the de-esser's corner frequency.

When you instantiate the SideChainer plug-in on a track and choose it as a key input, the track's audio output serves as a sidechain input to any Native Bundle Compressor plug-in. This makes it easy, for instance, to duck instrumental tracks under a lead vocal. Native Bundle offers two key inputs, and multiple compressors can key off the same SideChainer. You can also mute the audio path output of the track that SideChainer is instantiated on so that the track serves strictly as a sidechain signal that is not heard in the mix. Nice!

Native Bundle's Limiter plug-in offers Threshold, Attack, Hold and Release controls, plus a defeatable, automatic make-up gain function similar to that used in the Compressor. A histogram shows the average level of your audio file — either on input, output or both — over time. The Limiter worked great when used to maximize lead vocal and electric bass tracks that had a wide (unprocessed) dynamic range. Used during a mastering session, the Limiter's action reminded me somewhat of the Waves L1 and L2: taming runaway transients and maximizing the output level to produce a much louder mix. However, the Waves L1 and L2 sounded clearer, and the TC Limiter tended to pump ever so slightly when pushed moderately hard (unlike the Waves plugs). For these reasons, I much prefer using TC's Limiter on single tracks.

TONE CONTROL
Native Bundle also provides two high-quality equalization plug-ins: Parametric EQ and Graphic EQ. Parametric EQ offers a choice of parametric, notch and low- and high-shelving filters on each of seven stereo bands. All of these filters offer 20 to 20k Hz range, providing optimal overlap. Except for the notch filter, which produces a fixed infinite cut, all of the filter types provide up to 18dB boost/cut. Regrettably, high- and lowpass filters are not included in the filter offerings. However, using a shelving filter with maximum (18dB) cut and a 12dB/octave slope will, in most cases, accomplish much of the same thing. (You can adjust the steepness of each shelving filter's slope from 3 to 12 dB per octave in 3dB/octave steps.)

Even when fed mono sources, each of the seven above-mentioned bands features linked left- and right-channel faders. You can unlink the channels to make independent L/R fader adjustments or bypass one or both channels' EQ completely. If you link the channels again, you can move the two boost/cut faders for each band and their offsets will be preserved. One band's parameter values can also be copied to another band.

The Parametric EQ's defeatable joystick control provides additional stereo EQ options: Two shelving filters simultaneously and proportionally boost/cut highs above 6 kHz and bass frequencies below 250 Hz, and a third filter boost/cuts frequencies above 4 kHz.

The SoftSat function should be implemented with caution when using large amounts of EQ boost within the Parametric EQ. Even though SoftSat will prevent the plug's output from exceeding full-scale, driving SoftSat too hard will cause unpleasant distortion. And a more moderate EQ boost often seems unresponsive with SoftSat engaged, as the latter's compression effects fight the equalization gain.

Native Bundle's Graphic EQ plug-in can be configured to provide seven, 14 or 28 bands of equalization. The plug-in features a slick graphic interface in which you can click or click-drag the mouse in each band to set its boost/cut. Alternatively, you can draw an EQ curve with your mouse by command-dragging (Mac) or right-clicking and dragging (PC). A very useful scalar-fader acts as a multiplier to expand or shrink the degree of boost/cut on all active bands simultaneously. (You can also use the mouse to create smaller groups of contiguous bands under scalar-fader control.) You can even use the scalar-fader to create an inverse EQ curve to your original settings.

Parametric EQ and Graphic EQ both provide very high-quality equalization. Their high-resolution parameter controls let you fine-tune spectral balance. Parametric EQ is especially noteworthy for its ability to adjust critical bass-range center/corner frequencies in ultrafine (as low as 0.7Hz) steps.

GIVE ME SPACE
Native Reverb Plus gives you a choice of three different room shapes — round, curved or square — and provides independent controls to edit parameters for those rooms. Parameters include dry/wet mix, room size, diffusion, color (timbre), low- and high-frequency damping, and decay time. You also have independent control over pre-delay times and initial levels for both early reflections and subsequent diffuse reverb. The plug-in's graphic user interface makes custom tweaks an intuitive affair. But, unfortunately, the reverb tails sound fluttery, ringy, grainy and/or fizzy unless you keep their decay times very short. As a secondary reverb used for creating low-level ambience (emphasizing early reflections), however, Native Reverb Plus sometimes comes in handy. Overall, this was the only plug-in in the bundle that I found to be subpar in quality. WILD THING
Native Bundle's Filtrator can process any stereo audio source in real time with highly programmable, synthesizer-style filters. The plug-in's filter and amplifier sections can both be modulated by an LFO (synchable to MIDI clock) and/or envelope follower to create a variety of positively wild sounds. Using Filtrator, I transformed acoustic drum tracks into percussive bubbles and metamorphosed an electric bass guitar track into a rhythmic, pitched chainsaw. Filtrator is not the kind of plug-in that you'll reach for often on traditional music productions, but if you ever want to turn Debbie Gibson's sweet string pad into a disturbing synth patch from Blade Runner, then this is your highway to the dark side! I love plug-ins that dish out unique sounds that jolt me out of creative malaise, and Filtrator does just that. SAVE ME
You can store your custom presets for all Native Bundle plug-ins in folders and subfolders (for example, to group together reverbs of the same type or save each of your client's presets seperately). When you're ready to load a preset, Native Bundle will navigate the directory's hierarchy directly from a drop-down menu in the plug-in! I wish more plug-in manufacturers would offer this level of ease to save and load presets. That said, it's unfortunate that the title of the current preset is not displayed and there is no indication of whether or not it's been edited since it was last recalled.

Aside from the lack of an Undo command and a few other minor interface issues, TC's Native Bundle is very user-friendly. The plug-ins are also very efficient: I could instantiate many Native Bundle plugs with very minimal drain on my CPU. The owner's manual — available only in .pdf form — is fairly good but omits important information (mostly regarding various displays and specifications) that TC promises will be added in the next release.

Costing only $499 list, Native Bundle delivers a really good bang for your buck. If you're looking for a wide variety of production tools in a cost-effective package, then be sure to check it out!

TC Electronic (formerly branded as TC Works), 805/373-1828, www.tcelectronic.com.


Mix contributing editor Michael Cooper owns Michael Cooper Recording in beautiful Sisters, Ore.



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