Last updated on April 1st, 2017 at 11:14 am
Black Rooster Audio are plugin developers from Germany, offering a growing range of plugins which, for the most part, emulate vintage audio hardware units. This review focuses on their Vintage Mixing Bundle, although I also recommend checking out the freeware plugins available on their website, such as the Canary drum transient designer. We are also giving away one free copy of the bundle to one lucky BPB reader (scroll all the way down the page for more info).
The Vintage Mixing Bundle consists of four hardware emulations, namely the VLA-2A compressor, the VLA-3A compressor, the VHL-3C filter, and the VEQ-5 EQ. Before diving into each of the four plugins, it’s probably worth saying a few words about the hardware units being emulated and what makes them relevant nowadays.
Traditionally, people coming into the world of music production would have most likely begun in a studio, mainly using hardware methods. The names and uses of these legendary pieces of equipment were known and taught, and professional studios would be equipped with them. Nowadays, the world of audio is very different and has been for some time. People are able to produce music on a laptop, learn techniques from YouTube, and make a start without ever having to enter a conventional music studio. After all, this website is named after musicians who produce music in their bedrooms. Along with that, the quality and ergonomics of stock DAW plugins have come such a long way that it is perfectly possible to put together a great mix using little to nothing else.
Therefore we now have an entire generation of producers making music in their bedrooms, setting up their virtual studios and finding new ways of using technology to achieve great sound. It also means that many aren’t familiar with vintage units, or why they are so highly vaunted. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing or criticism; it just means that nowadays a budding producer is more likely to load up their first EQ processor, rather than plug into it.
So what are the merits of these often-cloned units? Well, the plainest answer is that they sound great. In fact, it’s pretty hard to get a bad sound out of them. They are legendary for a reason and permeate the great recordings of the past 50 years. This also leads to a slight psycho-acoustic effect. Professionals use them, so to us, the listening public, they sound professional. Dedicated producers even go as far as to buy entire consoles, purely on the merits of the records that were produced on them.
The Vintage Bundle
Onto the audio plugin bundle at hand. The installation process is slightly odd, but not difficult. In essence, whatever Black Rooster products you buy, they all download and install together in a bundle. They will all show up in your DAW plugin library, although you won’t be able to use any that you don’t have a license for.
First up is the VLA-2A. This is, of course, an emulation of the Teletronix LA-2A compressor. This classic tube-based hardware unit has been in studio use for over half a century and at its inception was a major breakthrough. It was an optical compressor, with a beautiful, musical compression, owing in part to the T4 cell within. Black Rooster’s emulation is instantly recognisable as the LA-2A, although with a slightly more rounded look.
The controls are as simple as in the original. There is, of course, an on/off switch, which (in plugin land) can be used as an A/B switch (a technique I would imagine is not recommended on the original!). Next is a switch to toggle between compression and limiting modes, essentially altering the compression ratio. The ‘gain’ dial controls the makeup gain, and ‘peak reduction’ controls the gain reduction. Centrally, there is a VU meter, which can be switched to show the input, output, or gain reduction.
The sound of the VLA-2A is superb. The compression is gentle and musical and is quite difficult to distort. Owing to the way an LA-2A works, the release time reacts to a variety of factors and alters over time. Unfortunately, I don’t have the original hardware unit to compare it to, but we can all dream. I did compare it to other emulations of the LA-2A and found the differences between them to be negligible. I found that, on vocals, the VLA-2A really shone, both smoothing the vocal I applied it to and bringing it to life with absolutely minimal effort. There is definitely something about the sonic characteristics of this unit, and of course, this emulation of it, that just sounds right.
Next up is the VLA-3A. You may correctly suppose that the hardware LA-3A was a later version of the LA-2A. However, the LA-3A is a slightly different beast, the main difference being that it was a solid state unit. Whereas the LA-2A was smooth, the LA-3A could handle harsher transients better, which made it well suited for purposes that the LA-2A didn’t excel at, such as drums.
Looking at the VLA-3A, again it is familiar but has a glossier, more modern appearance than the hardware unit. The controls are identical to the VLA-2A, although the sound is distinctly different. There is more midrange focus on the VLA-3A, but again everything sounded sweet and musical. I compared it to several other well-known VLA-3A emulations available on the market, again finding it to be just as good as its competition. The only difference I noted was that the Black Rooster Audio version appeared to be giving a little bit more gain reduction when the settings were the same. But, as Black Rooster state that they are modelling the original on a component-by-component basis, even individual hardware units would have some degree of variance between them, so this is no cause for concern.
Moving on from the compressors is the VEQ-5. This is an emulation of the classic Pultec MEQ-5, which is a passive midrange EQ. Generally speaking, a passive EQ has broad, gentle EQ curves that sweeten the tone of the source audio. Also, the passive components tend to cause a significant amount of attenuation in the amplitude of the signal, so a passive EQ will usually also contain a tube stage to return the volume to its proper level, with a bit of pleasing tube saturation to boot. Clearly, you cannot get the same level of precision you might get from a digital EQ, such as being able to use “notching” techniques, but this is not what the VEQ-5 is designed for. Instead, it allows you to use broad, gentle brushstrokes to sweeten your mids. I like to clean up any problem frequencies with a more precise EQ first, then start to adjust and colour the tone with a passive EQ.
The GUI is, like the others, recognisable as an MEQ-5 unit, but a little glossier-looking. Again, the controls are straightforward. You have two boosts which are marked as ‘peak.’ That is the case because the EQ curves are very broad, and this shows the dB boost to the peak frequency, although lots of other nearby frequencies will be pulled up along with it. Next to each peak dial is a frequency control, which selects the leak frequency being boosted. The lower band spans from 200Hz to 1kHz and the higher from 1.5kHz to 5kHz. In the middle is a ‘dip’ control, which attenuates the peak frequency. It ranges from 200Hz to 7kHz.
I tried the VEQ-5 on a number of midrange-heavy instruments and found the gentle boosts and dips to be very pleasing to the ears. Again, comparing it to other MEQ-5 emulations, the difference is tiny and subjective as to which is better. Even just having the plugin activated, with no boosts or dips, seemed to add a layer of colour to the audio. I loved the sound of the VEQ-5 on distorted guitars, adding a lot of focus to the mids.
Finally, there is the VHL-3C, which is modelled on a Pultec HLF-3C filter unit. This plugin is the simplest of the pack, as it’s simply a passive high and low pass filter. It is actually available as a free download on Black Rooster Audio’s website and was recently featured in our news section. The controls are straightforward, it has a hi-pass dial, allowing you to roll off the low end between 50Hz and 2kHz, and a low-pass dial, ranging between 1.5kHz and 15kHz. I believe the original had a 12dB per octave slope. I put the VHL-3C side by side with a couple of other EQs with the same settings and slope, and this does appear to be the case with this emulation also. I’ve not come across other emulations of this unit, although there are probably some out there. VHL-3C is a great example of a simple plugin that does its job well.
I found that a great way of using these plugins was to first use a modern EQ such as Fabfilter Pro-Q to clean up and notch the audio, removing problem frequencies, whistles and resonances. I then used the vintage emulations to add colour and general tone shaping. This approach combines the best of both worlds, as you can achieve the precise results of the modern plugin with the musical tones of the vintage emulations. Another useful exercise is to place a spectrum analyzer behind the Black Rooster Audio plugins so that you can see what kind of changes it is making to your audio.
It may be an obvious point, but it’s worth mentioning that the original hardware units were limited by their inputs and outputs. In the digital world, your only limit is your processor. There is nothing to stop you having a VLA-2A on every channel in your mix if you wanted to (it probably wouldn’t sound too good, but you could give it a try), a feat that would be, if not impossible, then prohibitively expensive in the hardware realm.
Vintage hardware units cost thousands of pounds each. Even modern clones tend to sit in the £200-£4000 mark, although some companies now offer more affordable versions in the high-hundreds. Needless to say, they tend to be out of the price range for most home producers.
With that in mind, great emulations of these units are essential. Black Rooster Audio’s emulations are as good as any other I’ve tried, with minor and subjective differences. The main tipping point in Black Rooster’s favour is the price. The whole bundle costs $189. I’d expect to pay that for just one of the units from a competitor. As I said, the difference between them was negligible, and at this price point, I find it difficult to find fault with this bundle.
The elephant in the room is a couple of units that I’d expect to see paired with the ones already produced by Black Rooster. Pultec also produced the EQP-1A, which covers the high and low end, and Urei (who bought the design for the LA-2A) went on to design the famous 1176 compressor. If Black Rooster Audio has plans to emulate these units in the future, then they will have a much more complete and appealing line-up of plugins.
If you already own good emulations of these units, there’s nothing new for you here. However, if you are looking to start adding some classics to your plugin collection, the Vintage Mix Bundle is a great choice available at a decent price point, especially during the sale period.
More info: Vintage Mix Bundle ($327 regular price, $189 on sale)
Black Rooster Audio is giving away a Vintage Mix Bundle license to one lucky BPB reader! To enter the giveaway, simply submit your name and email address in the form below. You will be subscribed to BPB’s mailing lists, with the option to unsubscribe at any point. You can further increase your chances of winning by completing the bonus entries (subscribing to our YouTube account, following us on Twitter, etc.).
The winners will be announced on Friday, March 31st. Good luck everyone and thanks for reading BPB!Black Rooster Audio Vintage Mix Bundle
Vintage Mix Bundle Review
If you already own good emulations of these units, there's nothing new for you here. However, if you are looking to start adding some classics to your plugin collection, the Vintage Mix Bundle is a great choice available at a decent price point, especially during the sale period.