Sonic Charge has to be one of the most interesting audio software companies in the game today. The plugins created by the Stockholm-based developers have a level of uniquity that's downright refreshing in today's crowded market. From Synplant's randomly generated organic sonic palette to Bitspeek's real-time vocal re-synthesis, the stuff they make is infused with a sense of personality. Although the Sonic Charge brand is somewhat new, the body of work of the folks behind it goes back a surprisingly long way. In addition to their recent plugins, they are also responsible for the technology behind Propellerhead Recycle, the REX audio format, and the Maelstrom synthesizer within Reason. They've even dabbled in hardware, developing an alternative OS for the Yamaha TX16W sampler called Typhoon.
With that track record, we were excited to see Sonic Charge announce a new multi-effect plugin called Permut8. In keeping with their usual creative streak, the announcement was accompanied with a sliding block puzzle on their website that users could solve to get a preview of the plugin.
The Permut8 manual, which is essential in getting familiar with the plugin, states that it "embraces the sounds of primitive digital signal processing hardware." Digital is the key word here, as a general understanding of the binary numbering system (the language that computers speak) is helpful to be able to control the plugin. Two rows of switches (16 in each row) are used to control the playback of a buffer of audio that is continuously being sampled from the input. They do this by constructing parameter values for two "instructions," one for each row, which can almost be thought of as LFOs or modulators for the playback head of a digital delay. This is a pretty ingenious design, as it allows for multiple types of processing engines to be controlled by a single design.
So naturally Permut8 can do the regular delay thing, but it can also get more advanced, with sophisticated beat-repeat, bit-crushing, flanging and other circuit-bent processing all possible. It does all this using the two instructions, which both have four different "operators" (you can think of them as effect types) to choose from. These operators have names rooted in binary math operations like AND, OR, XOR and MSK which makes them tough to grasp, even for those who "speak" binary—but with some experimentation and a read through the manual things become much more clear. For example, the MSK operator for instruction 2 masks out the effect of the instruction above it, creating a choppy sequenced effect.
Permut8 provides some additional helpful visual cues to show you what's going on underneath the covers with respect to the way the two instructions affect the playhead. Each switch has an LED underneath that serves as a guide for the overall operator's effect at the current point in time, and there is also an invaluable strip of LEDs at the bottom of the plugin window that show the positions of the record and play heads of the digital delay line. Even without any understanding of binary, you could learn this plugin by simply playing around with the switches and watching these visual cues. Sonic Charge made this easy by adding the ability to control the switches via MIDI notes, so you can "play" the plugin with a MIDI keyboard.
Besides the digital delay processing, Permut8 also features some analog-modeled signal processing. There are the usual controls for dry/wet mix and input and output levels, and there is a switchable limiter on the input that can be used to add distortion or bit-crushing effects on its own by increasing or decreasing the input level, respectively. For even more destruction, there is a feedback knob that sends the output signal back into the input with switches to flip the left and right channels or invert the phase. Finally, there is a filter that can be used in both low-pass and high-pass modes that can be placed in three different locations in the signal chain. With this combined signal processing, there is an incredible amount of sound sculpting possible here.
The way that Permut8 samples incoming audio is pretty unique for a plugin. As expected, the audio buffer can be synchronized to the host tempo, so that it cycles through the buffer in the normal increments (bars or beats)—but it can also be set to run free of the tempo. The sampling rate is controlled using the CLOCK FREQ knob, which can range from 0 Hz (full stop) to 352.8 kHz when running free. Interestingly enough, following the mechanics of digital sampling, the clock frequency has a direct effect on the audio quality—the faster the sampling rate, the clearer the sound, and vice versa. This is a pretty refreshing take on things that makes Permut8 really feel and sound like a piece of hardware.
It's hard to fathom developing something like Permut8, with all of its sound altering potential unlocked from a surprisingly small amount of controls (perhaps Sonic Charge's past hardware development helped them out with that). After baking in all of that functionality, it would still be an impressive achievement if they left it at that—but something astounding is hiding behind the covers. If you click on the Permut8 logo of the plugin, a Commodore-64 style terminal opens for you and awaits your typed commands. Using this terminal, you can load alternative "firmwares" for Permut8 that range from the normal (ring modulator) to the incredible (a speech synthesizer). They even ported a fully functional version of the classic text-based adventure game from the late 70's. Yes, you can play a game in a plugin running in your DAW. Incredible.
Overall, it's easy to recommend Permut8. It certainly has a digital feel to it, with its 12-bit sampling engine, but all of the analog-style processing has anti-alias logic built in to tame that edge. It's not an easy plugin to fully grasp, but with a little bit of reading and playing you can reach a point of familiarity—and along the way you will undoubtedly crack a smile when you realize what you can do with it. If you're still unsure, Sonic Charge provides a three-week demo on their website—it's worth a try.