Sonnox Ltd. has long been a leading designer of audio processing plug-ins for many years, with devoted customers spanning a range of audio applications, including mixing for music production, broadcast, TV, and feature film audio post production. Sonnox plug-ins are also at the top of many live engineers’ toolkit, and are now available as the Sonnox LIVE Bundle for both VENUE TDM and AAX systems, including the new VENUE | S6L system. I recently spoke with Nathan Eames, senior sales and marketing manager at Sonnox, to learn more about the company’s history and approach to designing plug-ins.
DH: Take me through the history of how Sonnox became a plug-in company?
NE: Sonnox was spun out of Sony Oxford in 2007. The Sony Oxford group had been established as an audio R&D lab twenty years earlier, and notably developed the OXF-R3 digital mixing console for Sony. In the early 2000’s, while the OXF-R3 was becoming a flagship product for Sony, the designers had the vision to diversify and started to port the DSP effects—initially the EQ and Dynamics sections—to new platforms such as Pro Tools. These new plug-ins gave Pro Tools users the same features and processing quality that made the million dollar OXF-R3 so famous.
This plug-in business has continued to grow with new products and new supported platforms such as AAX, with Sonnox now three times the size it was in 2007. With a group of seven designers this growth will continue as we have a long list of new plug-ins coming soon.
DH: What were the initial plug-in offerings?
NE: The first two plug-ins were the Oxford EQ and the Oxford Dynamics, which were taken directly from the channel strip of the console. If you look at the consoles, the plug-in GUI is an exact footprint of the EQ in the dynamics sections of the console. The Dynamics plug-in contains six modules—gate, compression, expander, limiter, side-chain, and warmth control—which is great for live, because you only need to use one insert and you’ve got all these different modules within one rack space, which is cool.
After releasing the first two plug-ins, we started branching out from the console and developing other unique plug-ins for professional mixing. The Inflator and the TransMod came first, followed by the Reverb, Limiter, SuprEsser, and others.
DH: How were the plug-ins received by Pro Tools users?
NE: Very, very well. I remember at demonstrations in the UK people were impressed and saying, “Wow. This is unlike any other EQ we’ve heard. Somehow it doesn’t sound digital, it’s not harsh or brittle, it just sounds very transparent and musical.” Essentially it sounds exactly like the console as it’s the same algorithm. In fact, [nine-time Grammy winning engineer] Mick Guzauski had an OXF-R3 console which he obviously knows very well, having mixed many platinum Sony records on it. He uses the Oxford plug-ins and finds it hard to tell the difference. I think that’s what sets Sonnox apart from many other plug-in brands that primarily emulate existing gear. Don’t get me wrong—they do a fantastic job at it. There are many great emulations out there of classic hardware. But at Sonnox, we’re not trying to emulate a piece of classic analog outboard. They were always digital algorithms, and we’ve just taken that code and moved it to a different platform. So when you buy an EQ or a Dynamics plug-in, you’re literally buying the same channel strip from the original million-dollar console.
“I’ve been using Sonnox plug-ins since 2001 now. I always liked how accurate the Oxford EQ was, and finally it kind of hit me to use it to tune the PA. That way, I could use it instead of the Dolby Lake EQ. It’s just as accurate, and I could save it with my VENUE show files for later recall. I also use it on the important instruments and vocals, in this case on Jennifer’s vocal. It’s the EQ—there’s nothing else out there that is more accurate.”
– Rick Camp, FOH engineer for Jennifer Lopez
DH: After porting the original console algorithms, how did the team approach developing new plug-ins?
NE: Well, that was quite a fun time creating completely new algorithms. The engineer who had designed the Oxford EQ and Dynamics—and much of the SSL G-series channel strip in the 80’s—had been a sound engineer since the 1970’s and wanted to create the kind of processors that no hardware was able to provide before. With the Oxford Reverb, we spent a long time developing it, and in the end came up with a sonically superior reverb to anything that had come before, because previously it wasn’t technically possible! There are some amazing presets in that Reverb, as it also uses an EQ inside the reverb to color the tail.
The same was true with Inflator—we set out to create a process that would add something that you couldn’t get from any other hardware or software. There are all kinds of exciters and similar effects to add harmonics, but there’s nothing that quite achieves what Inflator does to add warmth and presence.
DH: Beyond not chasing analog emulations, how would you describe Sonnox’s design philosophy in approaching new plug-in development?
NE: Our design philosophy, I would say, is to create the highest fidelity audio plug-ins that sound very clean and transparent—that’s what we’re known for. What’s interesting is that a lot of people are using analog emulations in conjunction with our plug-ins. So you’ll quite often see some classic hardware emulation plug-ins on a channel, adding some color, and then the Oxford Dynamics plug-in after that to compress and transparently level a vocal or something.
That’s what we went for when we designed the SuprEsser. A lot of people, especially at the professional level, wanted de-essing that you don’t hear. That’s really the whole point of de-essing, isn’t it? You don’t want to hear it. You shouldn’t be able to tell that there’s a de-esser on the channel—it should just be completely transparent and natural sounding.
“Simply put, I like the way they sound. They’re not too extreme. For example, if you crank the EQ up, it doesn’t start fragmenting and become noticeable. I’ve been using it on and off for over 15 years if you include my work with the Sony console. It’s like an old friend.”
– Ben Findlay, FOH engineer for Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Jeff Beck
DH: How would you characterize the Oxford Reverb in comparison to other reverbs that are out there?
NE: At the time it was released, convolution was the flavor. And then we came out with this straightforward stereo, reverb generator. We felt that you don’t have as much control with a convolution reverb, where you take an ambience from a room and you can’t really tweak it and change it too much. With the Oxford Reverb we wanted to give people complete control to define and create a space from scratch. You’ve got separate processing paths for early reflections and reverb tail, and you can blend between the two. Even though you’re artificially creating space, they sound very natural and realistic. Another thing that’s great for live with the Oxford Reverb is that the controls are all sliders rather than knobs, which is especially useful for engineers using touch screens.
“The Oxford Reverb is the most open sounding spatial tool I’ve heard to date. I use it on the main vocal and it doesn’t sound like reverb, but more like a true space.”
– Mike Prowda, Monitor Engineer for Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie, The Eagles
DH: So let’s talk about some of the other plug-ins that are in the Sonnox LIVE bundle like the TransMod—when did that come out?
NE: TransMod has been around a long time—it came out around 2005. It’s fantastic for hardening or softening attacks. There are a few transient manipulation-type plug-ins out there, but TransMod does it in a slightly different way. It gives you a lot of controls, including how much of the transients you’re kind of eating into, overshoot, recovery, etc. It can be used creatively too. In live sound it’s obviously most often used on drums, because you’re not getting the artifacts of heavily compressing. You’re just toughening up a snare drum that’s a little bit soft, for example, and just getting that real edge to it. It’s nice on bass as well to get real pluck and make it really clear. But you can also move the slider in the opposite direction and kind of shave off the original transient. So if it’s a funky guitar that’s bright but cutting through too much and taking too much attention, and you want to just round it or soften it down a little bit and just take off the initial edge, you can do that. You can just back off the transients on that, so it works both ways.
“I use the Transient Modulator a lot. It sounds great on the snare drum and the bass as well. It helps to get some of the front end sharpened up. I’m an absolute Sonnox addict.”
– Andrew “Snake” Newton, FOH Engineer for Duran Duran, Robbie Williams
DH: How about Inflator—where does that fit in?
NE: There was a sort of incarnation of Inflator in the console, but the design team then took it a step further. Without giving away all the secrets, it’s basically harmonic enhancement, but in a very clever way. Many people would just describe it as some kind of magical thing that makes everything sound better! It’s very simple to look out, but with some clever stuff going on behind the scenes. You can bring things forward and make them more present with just a touch of Inflator, often without even needing to EQ or compress. It’s fairly transparent—it does add a little bit of warmth, but without really adding much color.
DH: Tell me about the SuprEsser DS—I know that’s specifically for live use, correct?
NE: Correct. The original SuprEsser came out in 2008 and it was native only for technical reasons. It’s quite a complex algorithm—lots of heavy code. And when we tried to port it to TDM, the DSP didn’t fit in the chip. With the new HDX chipset, that all changed, so the SuprEsser DS is an AAX DSP-only plug-in included in the LIVE Bundle focused specifically on de-essing. We wanted to design the highest, best-quality de-esser that we could while keeping it completely transparent. It’s got some convenient functions in there, like “auto-tracking” for example. When mixing vocalists with wide dynamic ranges, they might be singing quietly in a verse so if you set a fixed threshold to take care of S’s in the verse, you’ll have a problem when they start belting the chorus. They’d be essentially crossing the fixed threshold by a lot more, so a lot more de-essing would be applied, which could sound a little bit unnatural. So with auto-tracking, SuprEsser DS will follow the average input level and apply the cut proportionately.
DH: How was the adoption of Sonnox plug-ins by the live community when you released the first VENUE installers?
NE: Absolutely fantastic. We’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of top-rated engineers using our plug-ins in support of some of the world’s biggest artists. For example, Peter Gabriel’s guys at Real World used them a lot because they had R3 consoles and were always big, big Oxford plug-ins fans. Even before VENUE existed, Peter insisted on using our plug-ins. I remember one instance—I think he was singing at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Torino about ten years ago—and he would only sing through the Oxford Reverb plug-in, so his engineer Dickie Chappell had to hook up a Digidesign 002 rack, and feed an aux through the Reverb plug-in, out through the 002 and then back again. I guess Peter Gabriel thought pretty highly of the Oxford Reverb!
“Overall, I have to say the Sonnox plug-ins sound amazing, they’re incredibly powerful tools with a vast range of possibilities. The Sonnox LIVE bundle is a vital part of my touring rig.”
– Andy Carrington, FOH for FKA Twigs