Voxengo Polysquasher 2 Review (Unabridged)
Russian audio-software developer, Voxengo, has been highly-visible on the global audio plug-in radar since a few years now. Voxengo is well-known for producing quality, cross-platform DSP software devices which capably address home/small studio needs for equalization, convolving reverb, modulation, delay/echo, compression, saturation, and etcetera. Polysquasher is purported to be a mastering plug-in - a plug-in that upholds the honourable estate of a studio-grade, mix-glue compressor. It isn’t ‘cheap’, but anyone looking for top-drawer performance on a budget, the $80 (USD) price tag is reasonable.
Do you know what the tongue-in-cheek acronym ‘GAS’ refers to? It stands for: “Gear Acquisition Syndrome”. It is this reviewer’s opinion, that this chronic ‘affliction’ has elicited the ire of more musicians’ spouses than most nearly any other behavioural dysfunction.
*ahem. Present company excluded, I’m sure . . .
Thankfully, Voxengo lessens the strain on many relationships by offering attractive bundle-pricing and multi-item discounts. Voxengo’s discount schedule, at its entry point, will save a customer a tidy 12 percent, when purchasing two or more plug-ins at a time. The savings are even more substantial when a purchase total exceeds $200 (USD). Rather than indulging my perambulatory verbiage on the bundle and multi-item pricing, perhaps you could “case out” the Voxengo web site for yourself.
This cross-platform, double-agent may appear to be a simple, unassuming compressor plug-in, but in all actuality, my dear reader, it is anything but lacklustre or sparing with its features. Complete with 64 bit floating-point internal processing Polysquasher also supersedes expectations by offering the following:
Voxengo plug-ins have a distinct, and visually refreshing design; refreshing like an extra squeeze of lime in a chilled margarita. Their idiomatic GUI design has become popular and immediately recognizable. At a glance, Voxengo plug-ins stand out singularly from the crowd. Very few developers have so successfully ‘branded’ a product-line with their choice of interface design. Not only are Voxengo’s plug-ins capable of producing high quality signal processing, they also exude a unique charm and intuitive work flow.
The graphical presentation of Voxengo’s common GUI design depicts ever-so-slightly rounded corners and subtle curves. Each button, panel, slider, and etcetera is rendered with gentle 3D features and subtle shadowing. Hovering your mouse-cursor over a ‘clickable’ GUI component produces discrete, tasteful ‘high-lighting’ effects.
The more that I dug into this plug-in, the more I found to admire about it. Let’s be real, folks. There’s a dramatic difference between entry-level new-comers and ‘hard-boiled’ veterans such as Voxengo. “Big V” plug-ins not only emanate their own unique characteristics, they exponentially excel in work-flow design. Once a user gets accustomed to using any one Voxengo plug-in, other Voxengo wares seem to be intuitively familiar.
The largest element that the user sees on the GUI is the ‘Graph’. This frame displays a ‘real-time’ graph that represents the compressor’s operation. You may switch between “GR” (gain reduction) graph and the and “Wave” graph. The GR graph displays the amount of gain reduction being applied to the input signal, while the “Wave” graph displays overlaid input and output waveforms. (Note: overlay color is represented by a combination of input and output’s graph colors). With the help of these graphs the engineer can evaluate how ‘deep’ the compressor is working. The “Hold” switch freezes the graph display temporarily for closer inspection.
Voxengo’s five different color-variations match most common DAW and/or OS color-themes. The default is soft, and easy on the eye balls (pictured at the top of this page). The default grey & burgundy color-scheme matched my “GO-TO” DAW (Acoustica Mxcraft 6) perfectly. The clean, anti-aliased sans serif font (HELVETICA, maybe?) used throughout is highly legible and easy-to-read.
Sliders, knobs, labels, preset management, and every other graphical element, are all extremely well laid out. The Voxengo plug-in GUIs are FAST and responsive. The knobs and sliders respond to mouse movements nice n’ smoothly.
Stereo Imaging & 5.1 Surround:
We’ll get to the actual sound quality of Polysquasher 2 in a little bit, but first, put a bead on the ‘first-string’ M/S and 5.1 Surround features built into this gallant little keener. Man, just when I was sure that I had a perfectly-polished, double-tracked acoustic guitar track happening, I slipped “Poly” into M/S mode. Just for grins n’ giggles, I wanted to see what a bit of knob twisting could do. Zowee! The width of the double-tracked acoustic took the express route to “WIDE ville”. Spacious, vibrant sonic-detail fairly leapt through my Sennheiser headphones and dazzled my cochlear nerve.
Noteworthy features that help keep Voxengo a head taller than most, are the sizeable GUI and choice of color-scheme. A user can easily select his/her preference from five color themes and three GUI sizes; 80%, 100%, and 125%. Color-changes are immediate, but the GUI sizing requires that the DAW/host be restarted. It would be even more convenient if the GUI sizing could simply be reloaded without restarting the DAW. (Only a minor niggle.)
Alesky Vaneev has wisely hand-crafted a pleasing GUI design that ‘hides’ advanced feature settings, keeping the plug-in’s work area uncluttered and free from unnecessary distraction. However, all features are easy to get to with minimal navigation. The user isn’t required to click repeatedly through convoluted kludges of GUI mayhem.
While operating this pluggie in M/S or multi-channel modes, the individual audio channels are accessible by clicking on any one of the grouped channel tabs beneath the ‘Graph’, on the main screen. Each channel is processed independently. Again, the plug-in looks rather unassuming, but it extends tremendous range of control to an engineer. For anyone who is just starting out with M/S mastering, Polysquasher makes it possible to achieve professional-like results with relative ease and convenience. I like it. I like it a lot.
I have no doubt that this compressor will be a serious ‘shot-in-the-arm’ for many games developers and anyone involved in video editing (working in 2.1 or 5.1 surround environments). This plug-in will give much greater, cleaner results than most nearly any default compressor included in most DAW or NLE suites. As a matter of fact, it doles out powerful, transparent results than will stand up against most nearly any other compressor plug-in that I’ve ever heard; including those costing two or three times more.
By the way, if you are interested in working with multi-channel audio, Acoustica’s affordably-priced Mixcraft 6 offers capable scoring and soundtrack-editing features. [INSERT OBVIOUS PRODUCT PROMO HERE]
After repeated bench-tests, in a quiet, controlled environment, I kept coming away from Polysquasher with a smile of genuine satisfaction. Throughout my listening tests of various types of source material, this adaptable compression ‘rock star’ performed well beyond reasonable expectations. Polysquasher transparently tames peaks with the finesse of a bona fide professional-grade studio unit. Using the ‘louder’ modes of operation yielded strong, ample sonic punch without taking on any unwanted “squashed” effects.
Voxengo have gone beyond most of their peers with regard to their implementation of oversampling programmed into this compressor. There is not one, but two, oversampling filtering options: Minimum Phase and Linear Phase. One can literally spend dozens of hours researching the differences and benefits of linear vs. minimum phase filters. Without swimming down a ‘red herring’ stream, let me quickly touch on their differences.
In a nutshell, most industry pundits agree that linear phase filters are best suited to final mastering tasks. This is due primarily to their lack of sound ‘coloring’. Linear phase filters require phase delays in order to affect harmonic character, without changing the overall level of the source. Phase delays mean increased latency. Minimum phase, on the other hand, can induce some unwanted phasing artefacts, but function without introducing latency. As a general statement, minimum phase appliances are BEST suited to tracking and individual channel processing.
Even applied on a ‘busy’ stereo bus mix, Poly sounds great in both Minimum Phase and Linear Phase modes. With Minimum Phase filtering activated, this compressor made acoustic guitar and piano tracks gel in a mix very solidly. The acoustic instrument characteristics and natural dynamics were preserved. The compressor was responsive and any processing latency was ‘invisibly’ reported to the DAW. I did not experience any latency problems with Polysquasher, at any oversampling setting; in either Minimum Phase or Linear Phase modes. It should be noted, however, that the Linear Phase settings are more CPU intensive.
On quiet orchestral-like mixes, and soft acoustic pieces, Polysquasher will bring project levels up to modern loudness-range with lucent ease. Your music’s original tonal qualities and dynamics remain intact, but will now be heard with much greater presence. Crucial to bus and mastering compression needs, this plug-in empowers an engineer to mix and master modern loudness-levels with crystalline transparency.
Voxengo recommends that this compressor be used at the 4x oversampling setting to minimize distortion and increase level-detection precision. I temporarily disregarded the rules in my testing though. Even at 1x and 2x oversampling settings, the output still sounded clear and brisk. Ratcheted up to the recommended 4x oversampling does indeed produce hi-fidelity, pure, studio-grade sound.
Effects & Features:
Comp Panel: This frame contains parameters that affect compression. The mode selector allows you to switch between various built-in compressor modes. Preset modes that a user has saved can be selected here as well.
The “Edit” button opens the “Compressor Mode Editor” popup window to a thorough control over the compressor mode. The “Pnch” modes produce strong, “punchy” output. Transients are largely kept intact allowing the processed audio to come through vibrantly. Thus this plug-in truly does deserve to be classified as a ‘transparent’ studio-grade compressor.
Polysquasher doesn’t give the user common compression attack and release settings; its compression algorithms rely on internal timing constants. These constants are influenced by two “Dynamics” parameters - “CENTER FREQ” and “F. DISTANCE”. The user’s manual explains the principle as follows:
“The ‘Center Freq’ parameter specifies central timing constant (expressed in Hertz). The ‘F. Distance’ parameter specifies distance between all internal timing constants. This value is used to multiply a given timing constant and produce a next adjacent timing constant. For example, when ‘F. Distance’ equals 2.0 and ‘Center Freq’ equals 100, this will produce a set of internal timing constants “25, 50, 100, 200, 400”. The actual number of timing constants is not specified.”
Level Detector: Level detector parameters affect the method input loudness (peak level) detection, in multi-channel routings. Rather a simple ‘on/off’ switch, Poly accords an engineer with very fine, granular control over channel-linking within each channel group via the “CH. LINKING” knob; with ‘0%’ being completely unlinked and ‘100%’ forcing maximum linking.
The “GRP AVG MIX” knob grants even more refined control over a multi-channelled configuration. With this parameter, an engineer can specify the percentile between an individual channel’s peak level in ratio to the average loudness level of all channels within the group.
The “HI SLOPE” knob provides control over spectrum slope, as it were. Turned fully clockwise, the compressor is forced to overreact to higher frequency content. This preserves lower frequencies energy facilitating a ‘silky’ top end without over-compression. Increasing the slope also helps to reduce unwanted “ducking” artefacts caused by loud, momentary low-frequency sounds.
Polysquasher is surprisingly light on CPU considering how powerful it is. As such, it can be considered “moderately light”. Especially while linear-phase over-sampling is active, Polysquasher will require a quite a few extra CPU cycles. Please bear in mind that this isn’t something that a home producer or small studio engineer will typically need to be very concerned about. For the most part, linear-phase over-sampling is relegated to mastering and mix-down tasks. Typical mixing (and perhaps tracking) compression duties are be well addressed by this able performer in 2x (or even 1x) minimum-phased over-sampling mode. I deliberately bench-test audio products on my old ‘clunker’ Toshiba laptop that hobbles along on an AMD Turion X2 CPU and only 2GB of DDR-533 memory. Even on such a meager system, Polysquasher operated well.
Voxengo has become entrenched in the home producers and small studio community; for good reason. Experience, hard work, and innovation have catapulted the company to a platform of distinction. “Big V’s” plug-ins are fast, generally light on both CPU and memory. Most importantly, they produce excellent, pro studio-grade results.
Brother Charles is a freelance writer, Gospel music artist and minister. Charles had been a professional touring musician during the nineties; working primarily as a lead guitarist in the Canadian country music industry. Brother Charles is also involved with music production and quality home recording.
Intellectual Copyright - 2013 - All rights Reserved. This review may not be copied or reproduced in whole, nor in part, without express written permission from the author.
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