Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Review: Roger Linn Design AdrenaLinn Sync

Product: AdrenaLinn Sync Plug-in
Manufacturer: Roger Linn Design
Platform: Mac VST/AU/RTAS (Windows version is coming)
System Requirements: Mac with Intel processor, OS 10.5 or above, any host except Cubase.
Price: $99
Demo: Free 14-day trial

Note: Please see the end of the review for a response from Roger Linn.

They say that in business, timing is everything. Roger Linn probably knows that better than most. While he was working on this plug-in, he received notice that Cycling '74 had dropped support for Pluggo. This was a big problem, as AdrenaLinn Sync was being developed in Max/MSP which requires Pluggo to be installed on the users computer in order to use. So much time had been invested in AdrenaLinn Sync by this point, however, that he decided to forge ahead and release the plug-in anyway, knowing its appeal might be limited by its dependence on a format that may potentially become obsolete with the next major revision of OS X. So I want to be up front about a few things before I even get into this review:

• As mentioned, because this relies on Pluggo to run, this product has a limited life span. Sooner or later, there will be an OS revision that will break compatibility with Pluggo, which will then render this product useless. This isn't an 'if', it's a 'when'.
• Pluggo already doesn't work with Cubase, so anyone using that platform is out of luck.
• This product is also not compatible with Max for Live.

So if you're considering buying this product, those are very important things to consider. From what I understand, Linn intends to create a hard-coded version of this plug-in in the future, but didn't want the development time spent on this version to go to waste. So he wanted to make it available to those who really wanted it. Still interested? Read on...

AdrenaLinn Sync, as the name might suggest, is aimed at being a software version of Linn's heavily praised AndrenaLinn 3 guitar pedal, which specialized in rhythmic filtering/flanging/tremelo and other really cool sounding effects. There are some key differences between the real deal and the plug in, but I'll get into those in a moment.

Before installing AdrenaLinn Sync, you need to download and install Pluggo Runtime, Cycling '74's free "play only" version of Pluggo. If you already have this or the full version of Pluggo installed, you can skip this step. Next, you install AdrenaLinn itself via a standard installer. You authorize your plug-in via a serial number provided by the company using a dedicated License Manager. If you don't authorize it, the plug-in will run in demo mode, giving you a full 2 weeks to run the plug-in through its paces before you make up your mind. Finally, before launching your DAW, you need to run AU Scan to ensure the plug-in shows up on your plug-in menu.

This is a good time to mention customer service. Since I missed that last step of the install, I wasn't having any luck getting the plug-in to show up. I emailed support (which turns out to be Mr. Linn himself) and had a reply within hours. That kind of response is rare these days and it is clear how seriously Linn cares for his customers. I also want to mention that I've seen some incredibly nasty things written about this product on another blog and Linn replied to those posts himself, and with far more patience and grace than they probably deserved. That's really something to be lauded. Anyone who has spent any amount of time on some of the developer forums on KVR can probably attest that there are some companies that make really good products, but their interaction with customers is appallingly bad. Linn deserves credit for this and I think it speaks volumes about why he's been successful at what he does for such a long time.

Although this is a fairly easy plug-in to get your head around, the documentation could be better. Instead of a proper manual, you get a single page diagram of the plug-in explaining what each part does in tiny type. (This page is also available within the plug-in itself.) A more traditionally organized manual might be a little more pleasant to navigate.

As mentioned before, AdrenaLinn Sync is based on Linn's AdrenaLinn 3 guitar pedal. If you're not familiar with this product, it combines amp models, a basic drum machine, filters, delays, and other good stuff all modulatable via LFOs and step sequencers. There are some important differences between the hardware and software versions I want to go into first.

The first difference is that AdrenaLinn Sync doesn't contain the drum machine. I don't see this as a big problem, since if you're running it on a host, you probably already have plug-ins to handle your drum duties. Also missing are the amp models. Linn's reasoning, again, was that you probably already have plenty of amp modeling plug-ins. This may be the case, but I think this particular omission is a bigger problem. I've never actually used an AdrenaLinn 3, but from the demos I've seen of it, the amp modeling was a big contributor to how interesting the pedal sounded. I'm sure this might be a bit more difficult to pull of in Max/MSP, but I do hope Linn will consider adding the amp models back in whenever the hard-coded version of this is available. Happily, the differences aren't all omissions. AdrenaLinn Sync adds some features not present in the hardware as well. Here's a list of some of those differences according to the website:
  • More Control than AdrenaLinn III -- More parameters to fine-tune your filter modulation and filter sequencing effects.
  • More Randomness -- Random sequence generation, random LFO amplitude, plus variable probability of randomly-generated notes or envelope firing.
  • More Swing -- The timing of both programmed and random sequences can be set to half- or full-swing timing.
  • Noise source for Self-Generated Noise Beats -- Use noise with the sequencer to create synthesized drumbeats, or to excite resonant filters into self-oscillation.
  • 2 Simultaneous Modulation Paths -- Separately route LFO & Sequencer, or Sequencer Level & Sequencer Envelope, to simultaneously control filter frequency, volume and pan modualtion.
  • Full Stereo Signal Path -- Maintain full stereo from input to output.
  • Self-generating sequences -- Increase resonance to full for self-oscillating filter or flanger, then use the Sequencer for random or looped self-generating note sequences.
  • Musical Scale Constraints -- Snap the LFO or Sequencer modulation signals chromatic, major, minor, pentatonic, blues, whole tone, diminished or seven other musical scales.
  • Tube-Modeled Distortion -- A very warm and smooth distortion with pre-hipass and post-lowpass filters.
  • Stereo phaser -- A rich, 4-stage stereo phaser.
  • 10 Second Stereo Delay with Ping Pong -- Makes your beat-synced delays and delay loops more useful. Delay loops as long as 8 bars in length (up to 10 seconds).
  • Clean & Simple User Interface -- Clearly shows signal flow and modulation routing.
  • 128 Great Presets -- Includes all of AdrenaLinn III sequenced, random and modulation presets, plus some new self-generating pitched sequences and noise drumbeats.
With that out of the way, let's have a look at what makes this plug-in tick. We start off with the FILTER section, which offers lowpass, bandpass, and hipass flavors, as well as options that provide flanger, vibrato, or phaser effects in place of filters. Optionally, you can check a box to turn on a pink noise source to the filter input, allowing basic, synth percussion parts to be created. Standard frequency and resonance controls are available, as well as a wet/dry control which is helpful if you just want a subtle amount of filtering. The filters all sound decent, but not spectacular. They get the job done for sure, but they don't have a lot of character compared to some other plug-ins.

While it's true that there are no amp models here, there is a rather nice sounding DISTORTION. In addition to the expected GAIN control, there is a pre-distortion hipass control and post-distortion low pass to help you sculpt the tone of the distortion to your needs. This is actually surprisingly versatile, and you can get a decent amount of variation in the sound. The best part of this section, however, is the ability to insert the distortion before or after the filtering. Inserting the distortion before the filtering REALLY helps the sound of the filters and can give you everything from a subtle overdrive to all out, heavy distortion.

Next up is a simple LIMITER with gain, attack, and decay settings. You won't need this for everything, but if you start using the filter settings with a lot of resonance, your ears and your speakers will be glad its there. Guitar players will appreciate this too, if they're looking for more sustain or are after heavier tones.

The VOLUME and PAN controls do about what you'd expect. These set the initial levels for your volume and pan. Any modulations you add to volume or pan will use these values as their starting point.

This is followed by the DELAY section. 3 different delay modes are available including standard stereo delay, ping-pong delay, and L-R swap where the left channel feeds the right and vice-versa. Delay times can be set in milleseconds (0-9999ms!) or, if the SYNC button is selected, as note values synced to the host's tempo with a range of 32nd notes all the way up to an entire 8 bars! This is a lot of fun to play with, especially at absurdly long settings. FEEDBACK and TREBLE controls are also available for further customizing your delays.

The lower row of the interface is dedicated to modulation and routing. The first of your modulation options is an LFO. This features a frequency setting either in Hertz, or, if you have the SYNC button enabled, in note values synced to your host. The range of settings here is again, very wide, starting at 32nd note triplets and extending all the way to 8 bars. 5 different waveforms are available here including sine, triangle, sawtooth, square, and random. The phase of the waveform is fully adjustable and you can select whether the output of the LFO is positive only, or fully bipolar.

Next door to the LFO is the MOD MIXER. This is where you set up the LFO or the STEP SEQUENCER to modulate the filter's frequency, the volume, and the pan. One very cool feature here is actually located right above the LFO section called SNAP TO SCALE. This allows the filter/flanging/etc. modulation to be quantized to various musical scales giving you the ability to create little melodies with the modulations themselves. This is a lot of fun to play with and was probably my favorite overall feature. Getting back to the MOD Mixer, you'll notice that for the FREQ, VOLUME, and PAN sections, there are actually two knobs, an upper and a lower. The behavior of these depends on which MODE the MOD MIXER is set to. In MODE 1, the upper row represents the amount of modulation from the LFO, and the lower row represents the amount of modulation from the STEP SEQUENCER. MODE 2 takes all of its modulation from the STEP SEQUENCER and separates it into controls for the envelope (upper row) and the level (lower row).

The final section is perhaps the most exciting: the RANDOM/STEP SEQUENCER section. This section allows you to select either a 32-step sequencer as the mod source, or a RANDOM output that, you guessed it, outputs random modulation levels in sync with your host. I've always really liked using a step sequencer as a modulation source if only for the amount of control and precision in affords. The step sequencer here is divided into two rows of 16 steps that operate about as you'd expect - you simply click and drag each step to your desired setting and move on to the next step (step size is adjustable from 8th notes to swung 16th notes... a wider range might be nice). Alternately, you can let the plug-in generate random values for you, or automatically minimize or maximize all the levels in the row to give you a blank slate to start from. Basic envelope controls are available to shape the steps, and a number of different envelope modes dictate the behavior of the envelopes. The RANDOM mode operates similarly, except that it selects values at random instead of taking them from the sequencer. It features controls for probability, level range, and a setting for how likely the envelope is to refire.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found that AdrenaLinn Sync sounded best on distorted guitar. There's something about the harmonic richness of the distortion that seems to bring out the best in the filters. The plug-in sounds significantly less impressive when used on synths and drums. That's not to say it sounds bad, but it has a sort of 'cheap' sound. Mind you, this can be a plus if you're looking for a lofi/retro sound, but getting more modern, polished sounds was a challenge with these types of instruments. Still, it's a lot of fun to step sequence flanging, or to tune your filter mods to a musical scale.

I think one of the biggest problems this plug-in faces is that there are already a number of well-established plug-ins from other manufacturers that do more or less the same thing, and for a lower price. Sure, $99 is about a quarter of what a real AdrenaLinn will cost you, but you're buying something you know is eventually going to stop working when you could buy something similar from Audio Damage or Camel Audio for less money knowing that it will continue working more or less as long as the company is around. If there was a distinctive, unique character or sound to this plug-in, it might be able to justify the price, but as it is, there isn't anything especially remarkable about how it sounds.

Roger Linn's legacy speaks for itself, and perhaps that's why I found this plug-in to be disappointing. We've seen what he's capable of and in its present form, this plug-in just doesn't seem up to his usual level of quality or innovation. That said, this is (so far as I know) Linn's first foray into plug-ins and some stumbles are probably to be expected. As it stands, I can't really recommend AdrenaLinn Sync. A hard-coded version (perhaps with a discount for those who bought the Pluggo-reliant version) and a lower price would definitely go a long way towards making this a more appealing product. Bring back the amp models from the hardware version, and it would more appealing still. It pains me to write a negative review of this, as I've always been an admirer of Linn's work. I am confident, however, that he will learn from this first foray into the black art of plug-ins, and come back with something that will knock all of our collective socks off. I look forward to that.


* You stated that we are working on a non-Pluggo version of AdrenaLinn Sync. This is correct, and our site offers a free upgrade to all owners of the current Pluggo version:

* You state that the manual is a single page with tiny type. In fact, it is only tiny type if you shrink it down to fit on a single page. :) Personally, I find many plug-in manuals to be longer and more verbose than they need to be, and given AdrenaLinn Sync's clear and functional panel layout, I created a manual consisting merely of a picture of the control panel with explanatory text bubbles pointing to each panel section. I think it's very clear and useful. By the way, the plug-in's View menu doesn't present a copy of this same manual as you state, but rather an additional Quick Start Guide.

* You compare AdrenaLinn Sync with AdrenaLinn III, but it is not intended to be AdrenaLinn III. In fact, our site states that it "provides the same unique beat-synced filter modulation and sequencing effects of our AdrenaLinn III guitar pedal. However, it goes even further...". Our goal was to focus on--and enhance--these unique rhythmic filter effects that are at the heart of AdrenaLinn III, without making a product that is unnecessarily complex or confusing. And our customers tell us that that we've done a very good job in that regard.

* You state that there are a number of other plug-ins that do roughly the same thing for less, and cited two fine products. However, I'd say that each of these products offers its own unique take on rhythmic filtering and all are all valid in different ways. In AdrenaLinn Sync, I think that an LFO that sweeps through a resonant pentatonic scale is innovative, as is a looped sequence of filter tones in a half-swing rhythm, providing a very natural human feel; or a self-generated series of random tones falling on major, minor, lydian, diminished, pentatonic or other scales; or self-generating filtered-noise drumbeats or random drumbeats, again in swing or half-swing timing. AdrenaLinn Sync is also unique in that it offers a bias toward guitarists, and its 128 presets--representing the best of 3 models and 8 years of AdrenaLinns--allow guitarists to get to inspiring effects immediately, and the clear and straightforward panel layout allows them to tweak these presets to taste very quickly. The focus of my AdrenaLinn effect pedals has always been on providing innovative yet simple ways for guitarists to spark musical creativity without slowing down the creative process, and I think AdrenaLinn Sync maintains that tradition very well, at what I believe to be a very reasonable price.

1 comment:

iwaiwa said...

I tried the 14-day demo Windows version. I too was disappointed. Most of the sounds came out distorted (in a fuzzy lo-fi way) and I had major problems with getting Wet / Dry balances under control. I tried this as an Insert effect and a Send effect.

I appreciate the "rhythmics" of what Mr. Linn was trying to do. Maybe guitars are more forgiving since they are typically mid-range frequency focused. But when running full tracks through the plug, as well as pads, beats (for DJing and LivePA) the results (for me) were muddy. I even tried my own INIT patches and had to work too hard to get anything reliable and musical out of it. I can do much more and get better sounds running things through NI Guitar Rig and Line6 Pod Farm.

Just my opinion. Thanks for your honest opinion also.

Mr Linn has some great concepts here. But I think (in execution) there is something missing on the control, tones and algorithms. All signals should start at "unity" and maintain clarity as amplitude, tones and pulses are added to the signal. I know this is difficult (and a digital magic art in practice), but the end result of sound (quality) is what matters most. There is something missing in terms of (maintaining) sonic beauty with this VST. (in my opinion).