Unless you have been hiding in an internet-free cave, or you are a freshly minted fan of all things iOS music technology, the odds are you have spent some time wondering just when Apple’s Audio Units (AU) format for iOS was really going to take off. The original introduction of AU was, for many iOS musicians, the highlight of iOS9’s launch but, in practice, the adoption of AU by our usually very responsive music app development community has been…. well, let’s say muted….
This slow pace of change for a technology that, potentially, could enable music production workflows under iOS that mimic the established norms under Windows or OSX, has left many both surprised and disappointed. Having spoken with a number of developers about this over the last 9 months or so, they cite two key reasons. First, AU in its initial iOS incarnation wasn’t necessarily as robust or flexible as they’d hoped. Second, with margins on music app production being ‘modest’ (or non-existent), some developers have held back, not wanting to commit resources until they were sure they could see a return.
Things have changed a little over the last couple of months as Apple updated the AU code within iOS to its v.3 specification. This has encouraged a few developers to finally take the plunge and a steady trickle of AU format iOS music apps have now begun to appear. And while I’ve no insider knowledge to base this on, personally, my fingers are crossed that iOS10 will provide another boost to this technology and the trickle might turn into a stream before – finally – becoming a torrent J
As a platform for music creation, iOS has a long list of pros and, as many of the popular niche forums will demonstrate, also a list of cons. Workflow issues, and the ability to run multiple instances of key apps such as synths or effects, are currently part of that ‘con’ list; AU should be a significant step forward in both these areas….. so we need to encourage the development community as they come to terms with the AU format under iOS.
All of which is a rather long introduction to one of the more recent AU-formatted iOS music app arrivals; 6144 EQ from DDMF. While the company, led by Christian Siedschlag, has been around for some time and has a background in plugin development for the desktop, I have to admit that this is my first encounter with any of their software. So, what is 6144 and, at UK£7.99/US$9.99, it is a worthy contender to add to your iOS music app collection?
The clone wars
In the desktop plugin world, there is a well-established market for software that emulates classic (and often very expensive) studio hardware. If you visit either the Waves Audio or Plugin Boutique websites, you will find a sack full of compressors, EQs, reverbs, limiters and the like, all of which bear their inspiration on their GUI sleeve.
There is, of course, an interesting debate to be had along the lines of ‘does it sound like the original hardware?’. Given that the original ‘classic’ hardware is often considered ‘classic’ because it brings something very distinctive in terms of sound, this question is interesting in its own right. However, given that most of us would never be able to afford such hardware (or have anywhere to keep it), there is a simpler question to consider; ‘do these plugins sound good in their own right?’ And, in my own experience with a number of Waves plugins that I use regularly in my own music production, the answer is most certainly yes….
DDMF are part of this ‘software clones’ market and 6144 has been available as a desktop plugin for a little while. The iOS version represents a port of that desktop plugin. However, if you are a bit of a recording technology geek, you may well recognise the original inspiration behind the plugin; Neve’s highly regarded 5033 hardware EQ which, incidentally, retails for about £1400/US$1750.
The Neve unit – which I’ve never used – is apparently well regarded for its ability to (a) impart an analog warmth even with all the controls set to ‘zero’ and (b) for just how hard you can push it in terms of the gain applied to any EQ band and still have the result sound smooth and very useable; it doesn’t get harsh even when a lot of gain is added. If 6144 gets even close to these two characteristics it would be an impressive bit of software engineering to emulate the properties of the original hardware.
With knobs on….
The 6144 EQ mimics the control layout of the original hardware fairly closely (bar the addition of additional high-pass and low-pass controls in the plugin) so, what you are getting is a 5-band EQ with gain and frequency in the high and low bands, and gain, frequency and bandwidth (Q) controls in the lower-mid, mid and high-mid bands. Each band has an individual bypass toggle (tap the virtual LEDs) and there is a global bypass and input gain (but no output gain) control.
The virtual knobs are…. well…. like virtual knobs in any touchscreen environment…. No, not as tactile as the real thing but perfectly useable, especially on the larger iPad Pro screen. As the app is universal, things might be a bit more ‘interesting’ on the smaller iPhone screen but no more so than for any other app. The actual size of the controls does, of course, depend a little on which host you are using and how the AU plugin window has been implemented.
While I can claim no detailed knowledge of the way the original hardware was constructed, the key to its smooth sound was, apparently, down to some very clever (and quite expensive) component design within each of the EQ filters and how those filters and the gain controls interacted. Obviously, DDMF will have tried to emulate that behaviour as closely as they can within the processing algorithms used by the plugin.
As an AU plugin format only (no Audiobus or IAA support), the app requires iOS9.0 or later and a suitable AU host. I tried the app with Cubasis, AUM and MultitrackStudio and it worked fine in all three hosts. I was, of course, also able to install multiple instances of the app within the same project, one of the key advantages of the AU format.
While AU does include the provision for presets, not all AU plugin currently offer this feature. There are no presets bundled with the app (at least, not that I could find) but I was able to create and save/recall presets within AUM (although not in Cubasis). Maybe this is a feature that will be refined a little later but, as your host will (hopefully!) recall your plugin settings when you reopen a project, this isn’t such a big deal.
The other technical detail to mention is that, at present, I don’t think that you can automate the plugin’s various parameters from within your DAW/sequencer. I’m not sure if this is possible in the desktop version of the plugin but, of course, at some stage, it would be nice to see this option added.
Do it with character
Users of the original hardware apparently comment that it can do its magic to almost any sort of audio signal, be that a solo instrument such as a guitar or vocal, or a sub-mix bus or even a stereo output. I did, therefore, try the plugin in a number of different contexts and with a range of audio sources.
While I’m not so sure I could perceive a really noticeable difference in my sound when simply passing it through the 6144 (with all the gain controls set to zero; apparently the original hardware adds a subtle character of its own even when used like this), in term of being able to pile on the gain in an individual band or two, and still have a sound that fell very useable, the plugin is very impressive.
I’m not sure quite how this is achieved but, whether it is a focussed cut or a broader gain, even with the maximum 12dB gain dialled in, things never really seemed to get out of hand. Whatever Christian has done here in terms of emulating the original, in this regard, he seems to have done a pretty good job of capturing that response.
Just as (more?) importantly, the EQ sounds very good. If you want warmth, then you can add it. If you want to make something a little crisper, then you can do that also…. and, either way, the sound is always somehow made ‘better’ rather than ‘worse’; this seems to be a plugin that it’s very difficult to take your audio ‘backwards’ with.
The flipside of that subtle, gentle or ‘enhancing’ nature, is that 6144 is not the EQ to turn for if you are after more of a special effect or if you want really surgical (corrective) EQ to rescue a problem with a recording. It will help you craft and enhance what you have in a very musical fashion but it is perhaps not a tool for audio restoration.
To put that comment in context though, 90% of what EQ gets used for is not that sort of extreme corrective task. Instead, it is the gentle, transparent, tone shaping that helps each element of your mix find its own ‘space’ within the available frequency spectrum. In this role, 6144 can do a very good job with quite sizable gain changes possible without (in the context of a mix) any noticeable degradation of the audio quality. In fact, if anything, things just sound that little bit ‘better’ (warmer, more analog sounding) once they have experienced a little dollop of 6144.
Join the (E)queue
While the App Store now has a number of dedicated EQ apps – and some very good ones amongst them – iOS doesn’t, as yet, have the same level of choice when it comes to ‘software emulating real hardware’ options…. so the 6144 EQ is actually quite an interesting addition.
If you are just starting out with a DAW such as Cubasis or MultitrackStudio, I suspect that you will get by for a while with the ‘stock’ EQ plugins provided. However, with compression and EQ being perhaps the two most fundamental processing tools required to craft any mix, before long, most musicians (particularly recording musicians) might like a few more flavours in the bag.
If that’s you, then alongside the likes of AUFX:Peak, zMors EQ, Remaster or SilQ Equalizer, then 6144 EQ is most certainly worth a punt. All of these offer somewhat different feature sets (including whether they offer Audiobus/IAA or AU or both) and do, ultimately, sound different; choosing between them is perhaps more a matter of personal preference and the task at hand, rather than what sounds ‘better’. Each will be ‘better’ for different types of job…. so choice (if you know how to exercise it wisely) is a good thing here.
To my ears at least, 6144 is a step up from the typical stock EQs you would find in a DAW/sequencer; more forgiving, more sympathetic, more characterful. If this happened to be your first 3rd party EQ app, then it is most certainly a very creditable choice. And, of course, providing you work with a suitable AU host, the option to run multiple instances of the app is a real bonus in a mix context.
Having been introduced to the DDMP brand, I can now only say that I’d be more than happy to give the desktop version of 6144 EQ a bit of a spin. Equally, it will be interesting to see if other plugins from DDMP’s desktop plugin catalogue also get the iOS port treatment… Oh, wait, that’s already happening… and I’ll get around to reviewing the Envelope AU Reverb as soon as I can :-)
I really like how 6144 EQ sounds. This is not a ‘dramatic’ audio processor but, instead, offers a flexible and very smooth tonal shaping tool in a convenient AU plugin format. If you want to take your EQ options up a notch in terms of quality from those in your iOS DAW/sequencer, then this is a pretty good place to start.
Hats off to DDMF also for taking the plunge with AU for iOS. Slowly (too slowly) AU is beginning to take a hold but, for those of us who would like a desktop-style workflow available in our mobile environment, the format offers the most likely means of achieving it. If you are an iOS musician who wants to see the platform continuing to more forward, that alone might be reason enough to hit the download button and show some love to DDMF. If you do do that, you will also, however, get a very good EQ plugin for your efforts :-)
Note this video is for the desktop version of the plugin but the two obviously share the same underlying processing options and algorithms.