Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Review: PSP Audio N20 (aka Nitrous)

Product: N20 filter and semi-modular multi-effects plug-in
Developer: PSP Audioware
Formats: PC (Windows 2000 and higher) and Intel Mac (10.4 and higher) RTAS, VST & AU
Price: $149 (crossgrade for existing Nitro users - $99, although crossgrades are cheaper until January 21st. See site for details.)
Demo: Downloadable demo version available.

For many years, PSP Audioware's Nitro filter plug-in was one of my favorite sound manglers. It did standard filter duties quite nicely, and it had more than a few surprises up its sleeve as far as serious sonic deviancy goes. But Nitro was a flawed gem. Although it sounded great, the interface suffered from trying to cram too much stuff into too small a place and programming it was anything but intuitive. Given that Nitro had been out awhile, it was probably inevitable that we'd see Nitro get a facelift some time soon, and now we do in the form of N20 (pronounced "Nitrous").

Calling N20 a "facelift" to Nitro probably isn't fair. In fact, along with a heavy visual redesign, this plug-in goes far beyond mere filtering by adding effects like reverb, delay, bit reduction, and many more, all of them semi-modular and freely routable in any configuration you like. Add this to a significantly flexible series of modulators including step-sequencers and you can see the potential this plug-in has for taking whatever you feed into it a long way from home.

Installation is nothing unusual. Follow the instructions in the installer, enter your serial number to authorize, and you're done.

Alright, I hate to start off with a beef, but I feel this needs addressing. There is no manual for N20, per se. Or rather, there is, but it's just a single page with a link on it to PSP's YouTube channel where a series of video tutorials for N20. Now don't get me wrong, the tutorials are well done and helpful, but they should be available in addition to a written manual, not instead of one. Sometimes I need to look up a specific bit of information on a plug-in when I'm working in the studio, and I don't always have time to sit through a bunch of loosely themed videos just to find that one nugget of information. Not to mention that it means you can't even do that unless you are hooked up to the internet. I hope PSP will reconsider this decision and release a printed manual. I know they're probably a drag to write, but they're necessary.

The first thing you notice upon opening up Nitrous is how much cleaner and less cluttered the larger interface is. It's safe to say that PSP addressed the rather significant problems with Nitro's interface and have made it significantly easier to understand right off the bat.

At the top of the interface you'll find the Global section. This area is used for selecting which modulators and operators are being displayed in the windows below, selecting the mode of the center window (it can be used to view the mod matrix, the routing of the effects, or the preset browser), as well as adjusting preferences.

Below the Global section are a series of 3 equal-sized displays. The one on the left displays info on the modulators being used, the one in the center functions as described above, and the right displays info on the operators (modulation destination) being used. The displays are easy to read and the less-cramped spreading out of information makes it a lot more pleasant to use than its predecessor. They also provide visual feedback in the form of animated displays of, for instance, the shape or phase of an LFO, the envelope of the incoming signal, etc.

At the bottom of the interface, you'll find realtime input and output meters, knobs for adjusting input and output levels and mix, as well as 8 user-assignable knobs - 4 on the operators side and 4 on the modulators side. The assignable knobs give N20 a lot more real-time tweakability the Nitro, and should be a favorite feature of live performers.

So a big thumbs up from me on the new interface. It makes so much more sense than before and is a lot easier on the eyes.

The basic idea behind N20 is that you have 4 modulators (LFO, envelope follower, and step sequencers are available) being used to modulate effects parameters on up to 4 effects (operators). And boy did they expand the toy box of goodies you have in that department. In addition to various state-variable, Moog clone, and biquad filters, you'll find a compressor/expander, a very flexible delay, a reverb, a pitch shifter, a phaser, bit reduction, distortion, panners, a formant filter, and more. None of this would matter if the effects were crap, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that every one of them sounds excellent. So often with 'multi-effects' plug-ins, it's a case of quantity over quality, with effects that are merely passable, but each of these effects is worthy of PSP's reputation for high sound quality.

Building your effects consists of setting up your modulators and operators as desired via a very standard mod matrix. How these operators are routed obviously has a big effect on the resulting effect, so a Routing area lets you define the order of the effects as well as the ability to feed back effects into themselves and others. N20 comes with a number of predefined algorithms, but you can edit these and create your own giving you complete flexibility as to how your sound is routed. Amazing!

You can probably already tell that I really loved N20. It took everything that was good about Nitro and expanded it and then fixed everything that made Nitro a bit of a bear to use. The flexibility of the routing is phenomenal, and some of the presets are absolutely awe-inspiring on the right material. The addition of a step sequencer as a modulator was something that should've been on the original and adds a new level of rhythmic fun. I feel like PSP has raised the bar for sound-mangling multi-effects with N20. If you like to beat your sounds beyond recognition, you'd do well to start here. [9.5/10]


Darren_Halm said...

How's the CPU? Nitro could be a processor hog sometimes.

Tom said...

Darren - It depends on the effects used. Many aren't too bad, but some eat up quite a bit of CPU. Also, I noticed there is a significant spike when changing presets... sometimes up to 75% on my quad core 2.66ghz machine..

Darren_Halm said...

Thats just lazy programming IMHO. When I can run Guitar Rig with 12 million effects going on or anything Audio Damage with modest CPU usage, theres really no excuse for such draining.