Native Instruments have teamed up with fellow software designers Softube to create an interesting bundle of three plugins that all model tube gear. NI is of course known for their synths and DJ software among other things and Softube is intrinsically known for capturing the essence of vintage tube gear. The collaboration of these two companies is an exciting notion.
The Premium Tube Series bundle includes the Vari Comp compressor, the Passive EQ and the Enhanced EQ. Although they don't say it on the website or in the manual, these all are software versions of Manley tube gear, some of the best (and priciest) on the market. Vari Comp models the Manley Variable Mu compressor, which itself is created in the style, but is not an exact replica, of the Fairchild 670. It is commonly used on stereo mixes for a "glue" effect to have cohesion between the elements. Passive EQ is a model of the Manley Massive Passive. The actual hardware version would normally set you back around $6000 and is something you might find in the rack of a real deal mastering engineer. Enhanced EQ is an emulation of the Manley Pultec EQP-1A, which is very close to the original Pultec EQ but with some extended frequency options and modern circuitry.
The Vari Comp is the only software emulation of the Variable Mu on the market. "Mu," when talking tubes, means "gain." So the name means "variable gain." The ratio and knee adjust automatically in response to the level of input, keeping the compression sounding smooth. The harder you drive it, the more intense the ratio and knee become. The ratio range in limit mode is from 4:1 to 20:1 depending on how hard you push the input. In compression mode, the ratio begins as 1.5:1, for a more subtle compression with a softer knee, but is definitely very warm sounding with the ability to drive the input.
Some features that the Vari Comp has that the hardware version does not include a high-pass filter in the detector circuit for full range material, side-chaining and parallel compression, which is available via a simple "dry" knob. The plugin definitely does what it's supposed to, sounding great on stereo mixes as well as single tracks or drum busses. On stereo mixes, sometimes it helps not only glue the mix together and warm things up, but also adds some punch to the drums, specifically the kick. You never know what mixes will pair well with certain compressors, but having options in your toolkit is a good strategy and the Vari Comp is a very solid option.
Passive EQ is a stereo four-band parametric EQ with lowpass and highpass filters. Each of the four bands can be set to boost or cut, in a bell or shelf shape with a considerably large range per band. In stereo link mode, whatever knobs you turn on one side applies to the other. Passive EQ operates in regular stereo mode or in mid/side—which is not available on the original hardware version—for some very interesting widening possibilities. Even when used subtly it opened up the stereo spread nicely. I must say this EQ kills across the stereo bus and is definitely my new processor for that function. It has the pleasant ability to be boosted rather far in the higher bands without becoming harsh or brittle. This is a testament to the tube modeling and the EQ curves we consider "musical" to the ear. It is pretty CPU-intensive so I can't see it being used on every track, but maybe some individual ones or subgroups that need its special color. I can't front, even some of the presets sound good right off the bat. One thing that would have been a nice addition is the ability to shift-click multiple knobs on so they can be turned together.
Enhanced EQ is a three-band EQ in the Pultec tradition, meaning that each band has its own style of controls and sound. The low-frequency shelf has knobs for frequency, boost and cut. The boost and cut do not operate like most EQs; when both boost and cut are applied, they do not cancel each other out. Instead they create a very musical curve which can do wonders for bass instruments, like kick drums. This is an old-school Pultec trick that is fairly well known. I compared it to a real Pultec and although obviously not identical, it gets close. The high frequency band in the middle is a basic parametric EQ with a boost and bandwidth control but no cut. That is reserved for the high cut section to the far right with its own selectable frequency. An output gain knob is provided for controlling the resulting level after processing with EQ.
All three plugins have the same menu bar at the top for dealing with presets and it includes a handy A/B function allows you to easily jump between two different settings to compare the sounds. I'm not sure why every plugin in the world doesn't have this feature. The Premium Tube plugins do require quite a bit of processing power when compared to many other EQ or compressor plugins. All in all, the plugins definitely sound warm and do their commonly known tricks very well, with room for pushing them even further. They are priced very reasonably too when compared to other plugins, let alone their hardware counterparts. As with all processors that have a certain color or characteristic to them, it takes a bit of experimenting to see which work well with different source material, but all three of these are most welcome additions to the market place.