In the interests of transparency, let me begin by admitting to a persistent interest in the “One big knob to rule them all….” school of user interface design. There are probably several reasons for this.
- It started a long time ago when I read an interview with Brian Eno in which he expressed an interest in having a synthesizer with only one knob – but a knob whose every position produced interesting results. I’ve been thinking about that ever since (more on this in a minute).
- While I understand and benefit from the cost-containment urge when it comes to creating hardware synth knob/button/slider interfaces, the results can be confusing or tough to navigate. While a knob for everything approach may be expensive/infeasible, its opposite is a daunting proposition.
- I tend to think of presets on synths and effects as “sweet spots” rather than specific voices - a snapshot of a specific set of possibilities within a complex set of parameters. Often, they’re not the voice I want so much as the place I start tweaking from. The possibilities inherent in that approach also show up in software librarians that allow you to “morph” between two parameter snapshots or let you randomly set all the parameters in your device as a place to start.
One side effect of wandering around thinking about that stuff has been a regular flirtation with ways of doing Max patching that lets me explore those spaces of possibility. The outcome of those explorations has been the realization that - as seductive as the “one knob to rule them all” approach may be, implementing it is a very challenging undertaking.
Here are a couple of really simple example Max patches that will help to describe the problem space a little bit. While they're fairly straightforward to patch, the implementation details can get pretty hairy pretty fast. First, here, an example of a single knob that uses the pattr system’s ability to morph between preset parameter values. Imagine each of the sliders in this patch as parameters to your synth or effects processor:
You can use multislider objects as lookup tables and translate the output of your single dial to any one of several different control functions, too. Here's an example of a single dial producing mapped outputs to three destinations simultaneously (so each color would be a parameter in your synth or effects processor.
Lots of other folks are interested in ways to generate variety by minimal means. Here is an example of some approaches you might take in Ableton Live. There's also no shortage of folks out there thinking about ways to use a small number of parameters to efficiently map to complex outputs (check out the Eurorack world for interesting examples of this). After a lot of trial and error (some of which lives in my performance rig to this day) with the descendants of the patches above, I’ve come away from those investigations with two specific interests that are the result of all my experimentation
- I tend to be on the lookout for plug-in designers who go for a large knob to control the most interesting feature of their plug-in, and then provide some simple pre/post controls to modify The Main Effect, and there are extra points for situations in which those controls are set up in such a way that just about any combination of parameters gives me something. The sight of a large knob in the center of a plug-in or stompbox or synth is catnip for me - it suggests that I may have found a kindred soul
- I’m also very interested in a particular type of plug-in that strives to provide a range of great results rather than offering a billion possibilities. Sure - I’ve got all kinds of complicated and impressive ranges of control in my studio for those times when I really want to fine-tune some particular result. But there are times when you want to dial up a quick silky reverb or an interesting delay-based sound castle up on stage with a minimum of Repetitive Stress Disorder.
I guess that you’d say that one outcome of my Max patching life has been a respect for just how technically challenging those two tasks can be.
It’s the reason that I sat down for some serious time on the Korg Montage 8 investigating how they implemented their “Super Knob,” and also why I have such respect for Tom Erbe’s Erbe-Verb Eurorack module, which tames complex parameter interactions to create a reverb playable under voltage control.
This time out, I’d like to show you a quartet of plug-ins - the Mikron series - from the folks at 112dB that hit both of my sweet spots - intelligent big-knob control design and the ability to quickly give me a smaller range of really nice choices. They did nearly all of the heavy lifting for you, and the price is as sweet as their sound.
The quartet consists of three real bread and butter modules (a reverb, a compressor, and a delay) and a fourth more exotic soundscape creator. They’re all closely related to larger and more feature-heavy 112 dB products, but they’re tweaked and tuned and given user interfaces that make it easy to grab what you need. The ease of use is perfect for my live rig (pretty light on the CPU, too!). Let’s run ‘em down, one by one.
The Mikron Reverb plug-in shares its DNA with 112dB’s top of the line Redline reverb, but it opts for a design based more on a stompbox-style design that goes for fewer, simpler controls that are tuned under the hood to let you get similar results with less fiddling. To quote the folks at 112dB:
...when you dial in a certain kind of reverb, you will usually not be interested in the reverberations of all possible rooms and positions in those rooms, but only those that will give you a superb or interesting sound. It’s those great sounding reverberations that we tried to capture in our algorithm.
We’ve all got our own little collection of reverb plug-ins for those big projects (Altiverb) and smaller/club outings (That used to be a Valhalla, in my case), so your ears will have to be the judge. To my ears, this one’s in Lexicon territory. The front panel controls are really simple - you’ll notice the “spin” dial over on the right. You’ll see it elsewhere in this plug-in quartet - it’s a nifty bit of pitch modulation you can add to add a little something extra to your effect. An insert select, nice long reverb times (attention ambient fans), and it’s easy on the CPU cycles, too.
The Mikron Compressor traces its lineage from 112dB’s Big Blue Compressor. I don’t know about you, but compression is one of those areas where I’m a real preset guy rather than someone who loves the endless tweak loop of parameter tuning. Once again: only a couple of intuitive knobs - attack and release, a choke knob that lets you go for tube-style compression, and a mix knob that lets you go for parallel (“New York”) compression with little in the way of mess or fuss - just dial in the ratio and you’re off to the races. And the really low latency makes it perfect for live situations - easy peasy lemon squeezy.
The Mikron Delay implements an array of bucket-brigade style delays (choose the BBD 1024 option to conjure your old Electro-Harmonix 16-second box, higher numbers for more high end) and a tape delay effect. The big knob chooses the delay time (of course it does), and you can dial in your feedback, tone, mix and add a little of that “spin” for some thickening. Quick, intuitive, and it feeds back beautifully.
The fourth and final plug-in of the 112dB Mikron quartet is also delay-based, but a completely different kind of animal. The Mikron Cascade, like its Mikron cousins, began its life as part of another, larger 112dB product; in this case it was originally an effect for their Cascade softsynth. The basic effect, in turn, was based on early 1990s explorations from Austrian composer Peter Ablinger. Yeah, that's right - the same guy who brought us the talking piano. The plug-in is based on some of his earlier work that used networks of tape recorders as a set of cascaded delays.
The Cascade tamps down a lot of complexity and mayhem by delivering a half-dozen delay network models in combination with a “freeze” option that lets you effectively achieve overdub effects on the constantly recycling delay networks. The module is much easier to understand by dialling up a setting on the nice big Density knob, followed by some quality time with the time, feedback, and tone controls. The results run the gamut between a nice ambient reverb (a la the Valhalla’s shimmer), grain clouds, and evolving soundscapes of many kinds. This is a seriously deep little plug-in.
There Are Two More Very Nice Features
The devices come with a 60-day trial period, so you'll have a lot of time to get used to them and decide that they're impossible to live without.
Each of these bad boys costs $39. Pretty sweet deal, huh? Of course, your mileage may vary — cruise over to the 112dB website and download and try them out for yourself.