Hands-on review: Sunset Sound Studio Reverb plug-in
Image credit: IK Multimedia
Take your recordings to the one of the best studios in sunny LA, without leaving your house – the perfect sonic vacation.
These are lockdown times. We're all less inclined to leave our homes. Musicians have been using the enforced downtime to record new songs, but are they missing the sound of a top-tier professional recording studio? What if you could envelop your new tracks in the sonic cocoon of a legendary space while simultaneously practicing safe distancing?
Reverb plug-ins are the answer. Whether used directly as track inserts, or for multi-channels in a send/return configuration, or on the master bus for the whole mix, reverb plug-ins for your digital audio workstation (DAW) are arguably the most important effect for your final mixdown.
They've been around for years in one form or another, getting better all the time as computing power has grown exponentially. They can be digital mathematical models of known wave behaviour within a given space (e.g. a shorter reverberation time for a small studio space; longer for a cathedral); straight-up digital emulations of classic studio gear, theoretically modelled down to component behaviour level; or convolution reverbs, where the acoustic impulse response of a space is captured (usually by firing a starter pistol into the space and recording the reverberation decay) and your own recorded tracks can then be 'positioned' within that space, affected and coloured by the captured acoustic response. All approaches have their merits, charms and drawbacks.
In recent years, there has also been something of a shift in attitude regarding some of the world's most famous recording studios. Where once the sound of some of the finest recording spaces in the world was fiercely guarded, solely the preserve of rich and famous musicians, now an egalitarian spirit of openness and inclusivity hovers in the artificial plug-in air.
Legendary places such as Abbey Road Studios, Ocean Way and Capitol Records have all opened their best-known rooms to plug-in companies, who gleefully, gratefully, piled in with multiple microphones to meticulously capture much of the serene sonic signatures of these special spaces. You want to use the same echo chambers as your favourite artistes, from The Beatles to the Beastie Boys? Buy the plug-in, take the ride. All from the comfort of your own recording engineer's chair.
It is in this gloriously enabling spirit that IK Multimedia has released Sunset Sound Studio Reverb, a comprehensive plug-in that promises to spirit you away to one of Los Angeles' most famous recording locations. Sunset has been home to countless musicians since the 1960s, from The Doors and The Rolling Stones, to the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Prince, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Whitney Houston, Miles Davis, Elton John, Smashing Pumpkins, Sheryl Crow, Rage Against The Machine, Ryan Adams, Beck and countless more. Even the 'Frozen' soundtrack. If all that's not enough to whet your appetite, you're probably reading the wrong article.
With Sunset Sound Studio Reverb, IK Multimedia is giving us the keys to all the recording rooms at the storied LA studio complex, as well as full use of some of the studio's classic reverb equipment, such as vintage plate and spring reverb units.
The reverb effects in this plug-in were all captured via Sunset's in-house pristine vintage mixing desks and outboard gear, so it's about as close to actually being there as it's possible to get (without an all-access pass and a heck of a lot of money).
A new addition to IK's T-Racks plug-in suite, Sunset Sound Studio Reverb (SSSR) was designed to capture "the sonic mojo of each one of these echo chambers, live rooms, booths, plates and springs, as well as the unique vibe of their custom consoles and classic mic collection". Plus, the thing just looks really cool. The GUI here is friendly and engaging: there's a 'vibe' to it, which simply makes using the plug-in more fun. Selecting a studio brings up a 360° visualisation of the space, so you get more of a sense of being there. It's a small thing, but it's a good thing.
Developed with the full and enthusiastic participation of studio owner Paul Camarata (the son of Tutti Camarata, a director of recording for Disney Studios, who opened Sunset Sound Recordings in 1958), SSSR replicates in virtual form the great-sounding acoustics of the real-world facility. The slanted walls, ceiling and floors of the former automotive repair shop on Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, gave Sunset Sound ideal acoustics for performing and recording music (you can read more about acoustic design principles and recording studios in this recent E&T article), with a different response in each room. The rooms and equipment have been maintained across the decades to preserve the sonics of Sunset, so the sound today is pretty much identical to when it first opened its now world-famous doors.
Rather than simply emulating selected rooms, echo chambers or vintage gear, SSSR is effectively a complete studio complex in a single plug-in. There is a total of 12 spaces, with three live rooms, three vocal booths and three echo chambers, plus a vintage EMT 140 plate reverb (offering three decay times: low, mid, high), an Echoplate mechanical plate reverb (nine decay times, 300ms-6 seconds), and an AKG BX-20E spring reverb (low, mid, high). This gear has been in daily use at the studios from the 1960s to the present day.
You might wonder what difference one vocal booth can make, never mind three, but it does frequently make a surprising – and flattering – improvement to a vocal performance. There are very good reasons why professional studios have them. It's worth noting that Abbey Road Studios recently undertook very careful remodelling work in its own legendary Studio Two ("the Beatles room") in order to build a new dedicated vocal booth.
In the planning stages for SSSR, IK worked closely with Sunset’s engineers, reviewing hundreds of session sheets from decades of hits recorded there to select the optimum mic positions and placement for each room. It's a timesaver for the modern DAW recording engineer: if a specific set-up worked for an A-list artist's platinum-selling album, chances are it'll probably work well for you, too.
On the other hand, it is a shame you can't move the mics around in the virtual room yourself to more freely experiment, like you can with some other reverb plug-ins. Presumably this is a compromise reached between Sunset and IK. With SSSR, you get one impulse response for the live rooms of Studios 1 and 3, while Studio 2 has three different mic positions. If this seems at at all limiting to you, at least be assured that they all sound excellent.
It's the same story for the iso booths and echo chambers: fixed mic position impulse responses, but hardly a dealbreaker as they also sound excellent. Especially regarding the echo chambers, the mics inside those real-world spaces have been fixed in the same position for decades. If it ain't broke, don't break it.
There is still ample provision for fiddling and fine-tuning the reverb sound: the mic positions might be fixed, but there's no 'fixed sound' here. There are variable room-dampening options, pre delay and decay time controls, high and low-pass filters, high and low shelving EQ, mono or stereo mic selection, width control (0-100 per cent), and dry/wet signal controls with solo buttons.
There's also the not-insignificant matter of Sunset Studio's console preamp and signal path modelling to consider, imbuing as it does some delightful additional harmonic content for a beautifully deep, warm and rich reverberation that sounds like your recordings inhabit a real and very musical space.
With SSSR, IK uses its own unique Volumetric Response Modelling (VRM) – what the company calls an "advanced hybrid convolution technique" – to deliver the highest-quality reverb effects possible. Not only was the signal path through Sunset's three vintage consoles (an API-based Sunset Sound custom, a Class-A Discrete NEVE 8880, and an API/DeMedio Sunset Sound custom) modelled to component level, the spaces were also recorded using the Studio's own vintage microphones.
IK claims that the results of which SSSR is capable should be "indistinguishable from recordings made in the real rooms". Without having a plane ticket to LA and an open invitation to tour Sunset Sound to hand (hint, hint), we can't verify that claim, but our own ears, in our own room, tell us that SSSR sounds really, really nice. Impressively natural.
The plug-in is part of IK's 'T-Racks Custom Shop', so can be used either as a standalone plug-in or as part of the T-Racks shell, in which you can daisy-chain multiple plug-ins and set up custom cable routing, e.g. series or parallel, and test out quick A/B setting comparisons. All the major formats are supported by SSSR on Mac and Windows platforms (AU, VST2, VST3, AAX), with 64-bit native support, 32-bit floating-point processing up to 192kHz sample rate.
On our mid-spec test Mac (a 2015 MacBook Pro, 8Gb RAM), the CPU hit was acceptable, actually less than we expected, and there was enough latitude to run SSSR across a multitude of tracks in a mix. We tried it both as an insert on individual tracks, as well as on send and returns and mix busses. Note that each example of SSSR in your DAW can only deliver one reverb option at a time. You make a choice, e.g. Studio 1 main room. If you also want to use the AKG spring reverb in your mix, you have to open another SSSR, as you might expect.
As alluded to above, musicians today can traverse the globe, virtually recording in one stellar studio or special space after another. Other highly regarded reverb plug-ins (Audio Ease's Altiverb, for example) offer a wider range of physical spaces (opera houses, concrete tunnels, the interior of a Transit van, that sort of thing), intended as much for use in film and TV post work as well as music recordings. Some plug-ins max out the more ethereal side of reverb (e.g. TC Electronic's Black Hole), taking your sound into outer space, crafting otherwordly textures that sound like nothing on Earth. Still more plug-ins (reverb is very popular) offer a selection of choice gear and spaces from a famous studio (e.g. Waves' Abbey Road collection), but stop short of offering the whole building.
SSSR is expressly designed to give you the closest virtual experience possible of booking into the real Sunset Sound Studio, throwing some microphones up in a beautiful room and then playing and singing live, capturing it all through a vintage console. When you're writing and recording songs, going "into the studio" is the crucial stage in getting your work finished and producing the best results possible. It's very cool to be able to step into this impressively equipped, great-sounding virtual studio any time you want with SSSR.
Having the freedom to explore the studio complex – including trying out room combinations that aren't even possible at the physical location – from a single neatly laid-out plug-in interface is inspiring. When you've got so many excellent reverb options all in one place, you can easily test and compare SSSR's different rooms and hardware to find which is the most suitable for every element of your mix.
This is a reverb plug-in almost perfectly designed for the task of recording and mixing music. If you want to follow in the footsteps of all those classic albums that inspired you in the first place, Sunset Sound Studio Reverb is where it's at.
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