All systems check. Energy shield activated. Prepare to commence the astronomical reverb effects shootout: we are comparing Eventide Blackhole, BABY Audio Spaced Out, Valhalla Supermassive, and AudioThing Frostbite.
Buckle up and clear to engage!
Reverb Plugin Shootout
Are you in the market for a new reverb plugin? This shootout looks deep into four hailed reverb/delay units.
Will the winner be the TEC Award(ish) laureate Blackhole? Or maybe SuperMassive, free VST effect of the year at BPB in 2020? Or why not the cool Frostbite 2, a bit of an alien perhaps, but favorably reviewed on BPB a year ago? Or the hot and good-looking newcomer Spaced Out? Read on to find out!
The last few years have seen a surge in affordable colossal VST reverbs, paired up with delays and filters to create space-like effects. I’m the first to admit that, physically speaking, this “space” label is a huge misconception. Without a fluid such as air, sound waves cannot travel. As they put it on the Alien poster: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
Let’s just say that for the four VST effects in this shootout, an understanding of astronomy is less important than the quest for – erm – stellar sound. Undertaking a comparison of these four reverb plugins has been a fun process.
As expected, they aren’t entirely comparable, as they have slightly different foci, features, sound, and – not least – user interface philosophies. What they do have in common though is an aptness for spaced sound and to some degree for sound design. As will be seen, two of them also stand out in terms of pricing, and another in processor use. This shootout will look deeper into a few specific categories:
- Features can be what makes or breaks a multi-effect unit, but it doesn’t have to. In this particular shootout, some units have more features than others, and with more features follow more versatility. Multi-effects also tend to use delay and reverb in conjunction to achieve fresh-sounding results.
- Sound is quite a subjective topic. This shootout focuses on the overall sonic experience. Basically: if it sounds good, and if it’s useful on at least some sound sources, then that’s all we can ask for. Note that sound is much linked to CPU performance. It should be understood that this is typically a deliberate tradeoff: a reverb with high sonic fidelity often means fewer instances of the plugin can be run.
- User interfaces (UIs) need careful consideration by the developer, for several reasons. First, they allow for tweaking and creativity. Second, they give access to an assortment of underlying parameters. Third, a good-looking UI will inspire the user to run the plugin more often. Anyone with a background in programming knows that the end-user will never get access to every single parameter of the software. Thus, there is always a tradeoff between ease of use, looks, and tweakability.
- The performance of FX plugins is an often overlooked but vital subject. This might be a less important matter for a space-sound plugin though, as it’s often used sparingly (say, for a distant-sounding vocal or an atmospheric pad). Still, all of the four units can also be used in an everyday context, and given that quality reverbs can be power-hungry, performance is a major topic.
Final words before takeoff: A shootout isn’t truly a shootout unless there’s a declared winner. Don’t worry – there will be one!
Link: Eventide Blackhole ($199)
This is a lovely product, and as its name reveals, it’s perfect for generating huge spaces. The price tag may seem astronomical, but in reality, Eventide often discounts their products heavily, so I regard Blackhole as a product priced similarly to Frostbite 2 and Spaced Out. Not many days ago, Eventide won the TEC Award for its phone/touchpad version of Blackhole, so if that interests you, be sure to check it out.
Features: Blackhole is a cool concept, and as typical for this genre, it comes with a few more or less unique parameters, such as “gravity” which reverses slices of the reverb. A feature I appreciate is the ability to freeze the reverb, meaning one can have infinite reverb tails (which can then be altered creatively using other effect units).
Sound: Blackhole wasn’t designed to be your everyday reverb (though Eventide surely has them; look at SP2016 for vocals, for example, with its useful proximity effect). What you find within the plugin is a collection of features designed to make for long-lasting reverbs, with or without a touch of quirky effects added. Sonically, the reverb yields mixed results, but on piano it’s beautiful: lush and “expensive”.
UI: With a limited but useful set of knobs and sliders, Blackhole is inspiring and fun to use, though quirky parameter naming means it is less usable than necessary. For this plugin, the 1980s hardware effect UI style works well, reminding the user of good old sci-fi movies. That being said, I personally wish Eventide would step up and either redesign their entire UI scheme or add some more visually helpful parameters. After all, there’s a reason why the last three (!) decades have included “novelties” such as moving graphics as indicators.
Performance: The plugin performs quite well, and one can load many instances of it without issues.
AudioThing Frostbite 2
Link: AudioThing Frostbite 2 (€59)
Not to be confused with the original Frostbite, Frostbite 2 was favorably reviewed here at BPB last spring. Since that time, both Supermassive and Spaced Out have been released. Let’s see how Frostbite 2 stacks up to the competition today!
Features: This is not your everyday plugin, featuring ring modulation, powerful feedback, spectral freezing, and more effects, in addition to a reverb capable of creating huge spaces. A ducker (explained below) would have made it even more powerful.
Sound: Of the four plugins’ names, “Frostbite” is the only one that doesn’t allude to space. Rather, its cool name implies it’s not the warmest of effects. And this is very true! However, like the other effects, it provides space and creative delay effects to any type of sound, which is why it is included in this shootout. Perhaps more importantly, it can change whatever is run through it in dramatic ways. While Frostbite 2 sounds good on most sources, special effects are where it shines, as shown in the included presets.
User interface: The UI is rather well thought-out. The user has good control of the parameters and there are options to drag the effects in the desired order. What’s more, the UI looks very appealing and allows for many creative uses.
Performance: For all its onboard effects, the plugin performs surprisingly well.
Link: Valhalla Supermassive (FREE)
Back in uncharted territory in galaxies far, far away, Valhalla’s Supermassive lives up to the illusion of space sounds.
Features: Even though Supermassive is capable of generating choruses and a few other more normal effects, it was designed primarily for epic sounds. The different – and sometimes unique – features make the plugin surprisingly versatile. That is to say, you can get quite many space sounds out of it, just not a whole lot of bread’n’butter reverbs.
Sound: As with other Valhalla reverbs, this plugin sounds gorgeous. If you need a lush reverb that reaches beyond Pluto, then this is it. Like the other plugins, Supermassive is also capable of producing some more intimate effects (as also shown in the well-crafted presets).
UI: Looking good or not? Well, however one feels about them, the graphics are clean but not exactly impressive. More importantly, this plugin is unique in both its parameter naming conventions and in what the parameters do. This makes the plugin a bit difficult to get a grip on. Thankfully, there’s a tooltip section that lights up as one hovers over a knob or so, explaining – or at least hinting – how the parameters relate to each other.
Performance: Somehow, despite the name, Supermassive is anything but heavy on the CPU.
BABY Audio Spaced Out
Link: Spaced Out ($69)
Spaced Out is this quartet’s newcomer, released in November 2020 (and reviewed on BPB earlier this year).
Features: Of the four units compared here, Spaced Out has the highest number of features. The two most important are the 16 step delay sequencer and the reverb. These are complemented with low and high pass filters, compressors, etc. Something unique for this lineup is the ducker, an essential tool in a modern effect unit. A ducker is helpful, as it temporarily brings down the effects when there is incoming audio – say, lead vocals – to help the direct sound come through, whilst providing a beautiful soundscape when the audio phrase rings out. Over-using the ducker can result in a pumping effect which is very intriguing.
Sound: Spaced Out sounds awesome – of the four, this is the plugin that would do best in a normal pop music setting, with its blend of delays and reverb types. The reverbs are very clean and deliciously lush, on some sources similar to the Supermassive reverb, though I couldn’t get it as appetizing as Valhalla’s plugin. The delay unit is fun, useful, and musical. I’ve found it problematic though that it isn’t possible to pan the delays. First, I’d like to pan them differently to spread out the sound (think: Eventide QuadraVox). Second, with certain settings anyway, they make the resulting sound constantly too much panned to the left, and unlike in Frostbite 2, there is no central pan for the delay to sort this out.
UI: The UI is inspiring and good-looking, and the (relatively few) feature parameters available are within easy reach, accessible at all times. I’d like to have more control though. Perhaps BABY Audio should learn from Output’s visually similar Portal granular effect. Here, an advanced tab gives access to many of the goodies under the hood. The limitations of the UI also make certain settings impossible, such as getting lots of delay and reverb at the same time (they counteract one another).
Performance: due to the high number of effects, a certain CPU consumption rate is to be expected from this plugin, but at least on my Windows 10 64 bit system, it is still too high for my liking (*), especially compared to Frostbite 2. Prepare to do some bouncing and freezing if you want to run Spaced Out on many tracks. My advice to you is to demo Spaced Out carefully before purchasing it, to see if it works well on your system, and for your style of music.
* UPDATE: BABY Audio released an updated version of Spaced Out which reduces the average CPU consumption by 20-25% and further improves the CPU performance when bypassing modules.
An other(wordly) matter: Automation possibilities
The number of parameters available for automation also says something about the versatility of the plugins.
From few to many, here they are, the available automation parameters as listed by my DAW:
- SuperMassive: 14;
- Blackhole: 19;
- Spaced Out: 44 (of which 16 are for the delay steps);
- Frostbite 2: 50.
This list is surprising, as it tells how many more parameters Spaced Out could potentially offer control over. With allegedly 50 effects and only about 30 unique parameters available for automation, I can imagine another 100 or 150 could be made available from an advanced screen.
Reaching for the stars
As promised, this shootout will present a winner. Unlike the Among Us space game, BPB won’t eject the loser(s) out in space, partly because we’re nice, but more importantly, because all four units are valuable and capable.
To sum up:
Frostbite 2 is an impressive feat: fun, fast, and easy to use and with a good and clean sound. While I wish it would have had more versatile effects (among the presets especially), if used carefully, it has the ability to spice up just about any sound. I hope that in a future update, a ducker can be included, and why not some more bread’n’butter presets. Despite the number of onboard effects, the CPU performance hit is negligible. If the other three plugins were mainly made to make heavenly sounds, Frostbite 2 is perfect for your trip to the dark side of the galaxy.
BABY Audio’s Spaced Out is a refreshing newcomer, and it will be interesting to see what will change in upcoming versions. I hope for much less CPU strain, as this plugin is so overall versatile and sounds great. In addition, this plugin begs for an advanced screen, providing access to many more of the fifty onboard effects. Spaced Out also looks smashing and is really fun to use. Like other hands-on and UI-rich effects units (the lovely 2getherAudio G8tor comes to mind), it begs to be tried out, so be sure to download the demo before the introductory pricing ends.
Just two years back, Blackhole was one of my favorite plugins. Not that I used it on every song, but when it was called for, it performed excellently. However, it feels a bit limited today, so its onboard creative possibilities are less impressive than those of the other units. So has Blackhole become like a favorite old X-wing? You know, the one you don’t want to sell off because it feels awesome, but that’s getting less and less mileage for every year, and which is now only used for the annual ride to the galaxy nearby? Well, not quite. On some sources, piano not least, it does sound fantastic. However, like that old X-wing, at the full asking price it just can’t compete with newcomers such as…
Valhalla’s Supermassive is also Super Impressive – not least for the price. The dedicated “space” sound makes it less versatile than Frostbite 2 and, particularly, Spaced Out. Still: had all the four plugins been equally priced, Supermassive wouldn’t have lagged behind. Crowned winner among last year’s freeware effects at BPB, it’s a must-have, to be used frequently or for special effects, depending on your sonic style.
Speaking of sonic style, the piano ballad below compares the four units. Each take on the same piano part, about thirty seconds long, in the following order: Frostbite 2, Spaced Out, Blackhole, Supermassive.
A winning lap is run by the winner of the shootout (revealed in a few sentences), appropriately accompanied by some Hans Zimmer strings. The piano part is deliberately played with a broad velocity range, to truly bring out the reverbs from the plugins.
Obviously, as there is no universal “space reverb” setting for the plugins, they aren’t exactly comparable here, but the test case will at least give you an idea of their capabilities. Also, note that especially Spaced Out and Frostbite 2 can do a range of other things than shown here.
Master of the universe
All of these plugins have their fans, and that is for a good reason; they’re all excellent products. While they differ in features, price, and performance, they all sound great, so sonically, you can’t go wrong with any of them. With that said, here’s the list:
- Valhalla Supermassive (though limited in features and quirky naming, you can’t beat free);
- BABY Audio Spaced Out (great versatility, but it’s CPU-hungry and some features are hidden from the user);
- Blackhole (to be expected, limited in features and similar to Supermassive, albeit with an equally supermassive price tag);
- Frostbite 2 (also to be expected: it’s a great plugin, but after all not really made for space reverbs, so admittedly a bit of a dark horse here).
To nuance this list a bit, here are three use cases:
- If you want a beautifully sounding space reverb, go with Supermassive. After all, it’s free and it’s at least as good sounding as Blackhole and Spaced Out, which would be the other choices (given Blackhole is discounted). Listening back to the tune I made for the shootout, Supermassive truly sounds amazing, and giving away this power is generous by Valhalla, to say the least.
- If you want sound experimentation, like space monster speech, go with Frostbite 2. Its large array of parameters, features, and configurations, put in a CPU-friendly package, makes this an attractive tool. Again, Blackhole would be the second choice, and would also allow for a few effects that you can’t get with any other of these plugins.
- For the best-sounding plugin to put on normal stuff, like lead vocals, pads, acoustic guitars or plucks, and if your system can take it, Spaced Out should be your choice.
Whatever plugin you choose, get ready for an exciting journey into space!