The idea of bringing to market a plug-in that is deliberately difficult to hear but easy to feel is no mean feat. However this is ostensibly what Waves has done with the Saphira, the first plug-in from the new Cobalt series. The plug-in offers a combination of modulation and harmonic shaping designed to add a little je ne sais quoi to programme material. Waves is by no means a newcomer to the harmonic distortion game having released NLS and other plug-ins that achieve some level of harmonic shaping.
The theory surrounding harmonic distortion and generation is often oversimplified but it is worth bearing in mind that harmonic content is heavily influenced by an entire circuit rather than just the presence of valves, op-amps, tape or transformers. Yet as a generalised refresher we can bear in mind that Tape typically clips symmetrically and creates third order harmonics. Solid state circuits often distort creating warm (fuzzy) odd harmonics, while the even order harmonics of triode valve circuits tend to add weight with more clarity since they are octaves of the fundamental.
The top half of the plug-in GUI presents us with an input meter, including a peak hold figure (reset by left-clicking) and a segmented LED style VU display. The output meter is essentially a mirror image of this on the right of the plug-in. This is useful in ensuring we are not falling into the trap of just making the output louder, since the Fletcher Munson effect will of course make us perceive that this is better. It should be noted at this point that akin to some other Waves plug-ins, there can be a gain change in certain mode presets. To be fair to Waves this would be difficult to avoid as the output does not scale linearly with input source material.
Nestled between the two meters are two pairs of faders each with an On button and metering — a send and return fader for Even Harmonics, labelled Edge, and Odd Harmonics labelled Warmth. Essentially the Edge control adds crisp detail and Warmth fills out the thickness of the sound. The send controls are used to control how hard the inputs hit the two algorithms and the return allows blending of the level into the dry signal.
Below the centre section we have a set of radio buttons that allow for selection of different harmonic modes. Buttons are labelled A through G and offer differing blends of various order harmonics. Beneath this we have an EQ section and a bargraph display of the selected mode's harmonic content. Bizarrely Waves has opted to label the harmonics H1 to H6, with odd numbers showing the even harmonics and vice versa. The logic of this can be understood if we think of the sets of harmonics as being groups that are numbered from the fundamental. Conveniently we can see the ratios of harmonics change as we adjust the return faders. Interestingly these do not behave in a linear manner (at least on the graph). For instance in mode G, H6 reaches a point where it begins to attenuate as H2 increases. The various modes certainly offer a range of sonic options, at first it is very tempting to go for broke and pile in as much harmonic content as possible. But after a little fine tuning and studying of the included presets, a more effective use certainly seems to be to blend only very subtle levels. Setting C offers the simplest set of harmonics and I found myself gravitating towards it for use on buses.
The 4-band EQ section allows shaping of the outputs of each algorithm, for instance you might like to clear out a certain space within the frequency spectrum while thickening another, so shaping and sculpting of a busy mix is certainly possible. The first and third bands of the EQ offer shelving or high/low pass and these filter options can be used to great effect.
At the bottom left is a Tape section. This offers drop-down selection for tape speed with 7.5, 11.25, 15, 22.5, and 30 IPS options. Below this is a depth control (as a percentage) and a bypass button. The idea is that the modulation effects of tape is used to add to the programme material. This operates after the harmonic stages as an insert rather than as a blend. Modulation frequency increases with tape speed.
Finally at the bottom right we find the master output fader. Sadly this is a shorter fader than the others so a little more difficult to control and awkwardly the fine control modifier did not seem to be implemented when tested in Pro Tools (Mac). Level matching is hugely important to assess the actual effect of the processing. It would have been nice to see an auto gain control here similar to that offered by Mellowmuse in its harmonic enhancement-based plug-ins. However, with a little riding it is possible to level match. A collapsed and expanded mode for the plug-in GUI permits the harmonics graph and EQ area to be hidden. Notably this shrinks the master output fader further.
Saphira is simple to use and tempting to overdo. Fortunately the crispiness of the resulting sonic will let all but the most inexperienced mixer know when they have overcooked it. The fact that the modulation and the harmonics generation offer such a wide range of parameters leads to some interesting experimental effects.
Waves suggests starting off by placing Saphira across the master bus of a completed mix. It can really add something interesting here, certainly different to merely adding a little EQ and it is possible to achieve settings in the spirit of an Aphex Aural Exciter. The textural qualities offered are certainly different to products like Avid's HEAT, Slate VCC and Mellowmuse's CS1V. Saphira should be considered to be more of a harmonic shaper than an emulator and that’s likely to make more sense to engineers of the in-the-box inclination. There is no reference to any hardware in the controls or presets so don't expect to press a button and get the distortion of a given piece of classic hardware. It’s an approach that makes Saphira stand out as something different in my opinion.
When applied to drums the even harmonics add a cutting detail as you would expect but not necessarily the thickness you might get from a valve preamp when adding third order harmonics. Processing horns and crunchy electric guitar proved quite interesting — by pushing the odd harmonics channel and filtering out the top end you get a definite thickening of the tone.
Mixing is all about personal taste and preference and it is fair to say that Saphira will not be for everybody. However, it is likely to be a powerful tool for those who understand and adopt its slightly more abstract approach to harmonic enhancement.