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Review: Six Plug-In Stars

Here are an easy half-dozen standout plug-ins that we were lucky to have on hand for our 4th annual recording retreat in St. John, USVI.

Pro Sound News reviewer and noted TV music composer Rich Tozzoli recently held his annual private St. John Recording Retreat with friends and colleagues, and used the opportunity to review gear in paradise—like this:

Here are an easy half-dozen standout plug-ins that we were lucky to have on hand for our 4th annual recording retreat in St. John, USVI.


The Valhalla Plate from Valhalla DSP is an easy-to-use plate reverb that simply sounds fantastic. The first thing you notice is how big the controls are on the GUI. There’s a huge Decay knob, followed by Size, Width, Low and High Freq, and LowGain and HighGain in the EQ section. For MOD, there’s the usual Rate and Depth. Finally, there’s PreDelay and a Wet/Dry Mix knob. Whether used directly on a track or on an aux return/bus configuration, this thing has a great overall sound and is quick to dial in. I had never used it before the island sessions, and to top it off, it’s only $50! I look forward to trying more of Valhalla plug-ins soon.


AvidBlack Spring is a take on the classic Fender Spring Blackface reverb from Avid’s stomp box collection. Available in the Pro Tools 12 HD access bundle, its usefulness is both in its sound and its ease of use. Since it’s a mono plug-in, I put it directly on a guitar track. Having never used it before this trip, I was taken by the depth of the spring; it’s quite substantial and warm. As for ease of use, it offers Mix, Decay and Tone controls. That’s it. Blend in the Mix, like a wet/dry, turn the decay up or down to increase or decrease the decay time, and turn the tone up or down for a brighter or darker sound. With all the plug-in guitar amps I use that have no reverb, this will find its place in my lineup on a regular basis.


UAD’s Manley LabsVOXBOX became one of the surprise stars of the trip simply by accident. We were doing overdubs of instruments one at a time—guitar, bass, drums or percussion. Some of the tracks for a variety of ambient cuts were extremely close-miked toms. We’d position the mic, either a Shure SM7 we had or the Lewitt LCT 640 TS, an inch from the drums and play them with hands and fingers. In order to get a superhot signal, we put the VOXBOX in the Unison slot of the UAD Apollo. Cranking up the master Gain knob as well as the Input gave us a super hot, punchy signal on both mics. Then we kicked up the High Peak and Low Peak EQs to exaggerate the touch of skin on the drumheads. By doing that and adding UAD’s AKG BX20 reverb, we got huge sounds out of some small drums. We also used this exact setup on shakers, voice, acoustic guitar and overheads. The VOXBOX in the Unison slot can really punch tracks over the top when needed.


Since we were cutting a lot of island or reggae-inspired tracks, UAD’s AmpegB15 N was used quite a bit to add an old-school sound. Bassist Hank Skalka played a 6-string Zon VB6 through it, and we used every ounce of this 30-watt 1X15 classic dual 6L6 tube monster. Our ears preferred the 1966 Bias just for the extra punch, and since it was reggae, we turned down the treble and up the bass, pushing the volume until just before clipping. Can’t beat a good B-15N.


Sometimes when you first discover a plug-in, you can overuse it. I will admit, I put this thing on everything I could possibly assign it to upon discovery, and just because I could. I’ll also admit that none of us read the manual; we just put it on tracks and started turning knobs. It’s a vibe-monster for those reggae guitar lines that follow the bass.

Based on the original dbx 120XP Subharmonic Synth, this UAD Brainworx release breaks out the bottom end three-band Synthesized Frequency section into 24-36 Hz, 36-56 Hz and 56-80 Hz, allowing you to push them individually. Then there’s the master Subharmonics knob, a saturation section, I/O metering, a filter section, M/S section and the most important knob, MIX, which lets you push it to overload, then dial it back. I used it on bass, clean guitars and on those close-miked drums, adding a synthesized, deep undertone while retaining the human finger touch. Amazing.


Spectrasonics‘ Keyscape received the most use of any virtual instrument on the trip. Since part of my work was composing ambient tracks with rhythm and drama/crime music, Keyscape was the perfect companion. Standing alone as a VST/AAU/AAX plug-in or integrated directly into Omnisphere 2, Keyscape is an 80 GB library packed with 36 impeccably-restored collector keyboard models with hundreds of sounds. If space is at a premium, you could choose to do a 30 GB “lite” installation. I opted for the full install because I knew how much I would use Keyscape—and wow, I was correct.

Like Omnisphere itself, it’s a wealth of instant inspiration. Working inside of Omnisphere 2, it’s called Keyscape Creative, and it features over 1,200 sounds combining organic Keyscape keyboards with additional processing options. What I like most about it is that you can take it way beyond the original instrument sounds and use them just as a fundamental starting point to build upon. Using things like vari-speed Echo in the Effects tab can get downright creepy, in a positive way (thus perfect for television). Or the Clavinet C through a Retro Amp is all grit and grime.