Crane Song Phoenix II Tape Emulation Plug-In
By Barry Rudolph
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Flight Path Of The Phoenix--History
Phoenix II is the latest version of Crane Song's analog tape saturation plug-in for Pro Tools. Like the original Phoenix TDM-only plug-in introduced in 2003, Phoenix II is the creation of Crane Song founder, Dave Hill and like Phoenix I it was derived from his Harmonically Enhanced Digital Device (HEDD) 192 unit. Phoenix garnered praise for its ability to emulate the desired and pleasing effects of overdriving analog tape in a consistent and repeatable way.
Like analog tape recording technology, Phoenix II can increase the apparent loudness of any audio track or entire stereo mixes--not just the electrical (VU) level. Phoenix's effect is entirely level and source dependent and comes with a choice of five different combinations of analog tape saturation characteristics called Types. Phoenix II is useful on any audio source as a subtle analog 'colorizer' or as a full-on effect--or anywhere in between.
Originally, Phoenix I was coded only as a TDM plug-in with no host-based versions available in 2003. So it remained a kind of secret weapon amongst users of Pro Tools HD TDM rigs--only.
In 2011, with the release of Avid's Pro Tools 10 and its new AAX (Avid Audio eXtension) plug-in format, Crane Song released Phoenix II. Phoenix II is coded AAX-only and is sold as a single plug-in with both Native and DSP versions included at one price. It requires iLok authorization (iLok 1 or 2) and runs on both MACs (ver 1.56) and PCs (ver 1.54).
Because Phoenix II installs as both Native and DSP versions, its DSP load is easily spread between the computer's host resources and the processing provided by the new Avid HDX card(s) installed in your computer.
Phoenix II is optimized for Pro Tools 10 and all future releases when that application becomes full 64-bit. For now, Phoenix II uses 32-bit floating point math-based processing for both Native and DSP versions thus realizing an immediate 10dB lower noise floor compared to the 24-bit fixed-point math of the old TDM version.
New Look, New GUI, New Features
In addition to Phoenix II's new look and redesigned GUI, all five Types are now available in a single plug-in and selectable using its Type rotary switch. Because of TDM's DSP limitations, Phoenix I was a bundle of five separate plug-ins--each one named after the particular Type of process they offered. Having all five Types in one plug-in drastically reduces the amount of time to audition and select.
The new Output Trim control has a +/-6dB range and is useful when checking (A/B) Phoenix's effect using its bypass button. Each Type in Phoenix fills out the sound in different ways and, generally speaking, any Process level greater than about 50 will increase the output level depending on the source and the Type chosen. Phoenix II's GUI now has an Input Trim control now with +/-10dB of range, allowing for resetting nominal input levels--regardless of their actual recorded level.
Internal mixer/plug-in clipping using 32-bit floating-point processing is less of a problem nowadays but at their default settings (when Phoenix is first inserted and both input trim and output trim controls are at 0dB and the Process control at 0), the plug-in is bit-accurate--input equals output.
The Process control sets the level or strength of the selected Type's processing, and ranges from 0 to 100. Note that Process settings do not work the same way for one Type as they do for another because each of the five Types have their own unique collection and blend of analog tape saturation characteristics made up of odd/even harmonic distortion, different amounts of frequency-dependent compression, and other modeled attributes.
The Brightness control is a three-position switch with Opal, Gold, and Sapphire positions. The default, straight up Gold position has the flattest frequency response. The Sapphire position is for a brighter, overall sound and Opal is useful for warming up sounds.
Each Type's Sound
The five Types of analog tape characteristics available from Phoenix II are called: Luminescent, Iridescent, Radiant, Luster, and Dark Essence.
Each is a very specific combination--a 'recipe' of the level, harmonic structure and shape of the frequency response and its influence on the source audio. The descriptions given here are in the abstract--the basic nature of each of the five Types with the Brightness control set to the Gold or flattest position.
Luminescent is the most natural sounding Type and a good starting point to learn Phoenix II if you're a new user. Even with the Process control wound full up at 100, the sound quality is fuller--reminiscent of music recorded on a well-aligned analog tape machine.
Iridescent copies Luminescent but adds more low frequencies and has a thicker low mid-range sound. The Radiant Type takes on Iridescent with slightly more compression in the mid-range area.
The Luster departs the first three Types and last two and is always brighter and louder on all sources and, at extreme settings (Process at 100), Luster goes from the bright side to the dark side, moving towards Dark Essence.
Dark Essence is the loudest and most striking of the five with its effect covering a wider range of frequencies. Dark Essence will reduce high frequency transients and sibilants dynamically in a very smooth way just as analog tape. With the high frequency peaks reduced, more overall apparent loudness is created. Dark Essence is the most effective at the apparent loudness game but will increase electrical level.
Rise From The AAXES
I tested using a MAC 8-core Westmere (OS 10.6.8) with 12GB RAM. My Pro Tools HD 3 Accel TDM rig will run Pro Tools 10.0.1 in a 'hybrid' mode where TDM, RTAS and AAX Native plugs all work at the same time in the same session. The DSP version of Phoenix II was not tested for this review.
My first test was for a guitar-heavy song but for some reason, despite using a huge Deizel amp stack (As I was told), all the guitar tracks recorded sounded thin and very kazoo-like. I used Dark Essence "maxed out" as an effect on one track and then Iridescent on another for a just a touch of lower-midrange enhancement. On a third track, I used Radiant with its sound of compressed urgency when I wanted to hear more definition of the guitar's lower strings during slides up/down the neck. Radiant found those frequencies dynamically and now, with all five Types easier to audition, I quickly determined Radiant as the best choice.
For mixing songs with many double-tracked electric guitar parts, I like being able to choose different Phoenix Types and selectively dial in the amount of their individual 'color' for each guitar track. For me, changing the amount and color of analog tape saturation on the fly is a whole new mixing tool.
All five GUI controls plus bypass are automatable and I found being able to quickly automate Phoenix II and change from Type to Type or bypassing between quieter verses and big choruses was very useful! I could make the chorus guitar tracks immediately louder with not too much of a level jump.
Keyboards with more their complex harmonic structures benefit greatly from the Luster Type. For a crystalline and transparent sounding stereo grand piano, I used Luster with Process set from 50 to 70 and Brightness at Gold or occasionally the Sapphire position.
My favorite Phoenix II effect was using the Luminescent Type on stereo drum room tracks. Insert a multi-mono (stereo) version and turn Process anywhere from 60 to full up at a 100, max out both Trims and stand back or take cover!
You can step through the five Types and hear different colorations from subtle midrange changes (the first three Types) to increased solid bottom end information (Luster and Dark Essence) on everything recorded in the drum room including the acoustics of the space.
This is not like using a massive amount of compression--the sound is related but at these extreme settings Phoenix II does not pump as much. The Opal position cuts the treble globally, so I used Pro Tools 10's Clip Gain feature to lower all cymbal crashes individually--"trench work"--I would do anyway if I was interested in using any significant amount of a bright drum room in a final mix.
The Enduring Phoenix
Level and source dependency, the ability to select a different analog saturation Type for each source and set its precise amount to achieve any desired sonic goal, are my favorite reasons for using Phoenix II. They are all completely individual and subjective decisions for the music mixer and make a good case for Phoenix's musicality and enduring popularity.
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