REVIEW: Softube Weiss DS-1 MK3
The Softube Weiss DS-1 MK3 is a plugin for audio engineers based on the legendary hardware, that is a mastering grade digital compressor, limiter and de-esser. It is not an emulation, but an actual line for line porting of the digital code that was used in the original hardware. You can’t really get much closer to the original than this. The only differences I noticed are that the hardware used 40bit floating point, and the plugin uses 32bit floating point calculations. It is hard to believe this has that much affect on the sonics, but then again, I will not rule it out. Also the hardware processed at 88.2kHz or 96kHz (it was upsampled if 44.1kHz or 48kHz), whereas the plugin can work up to 192kHz. Finally the limiter now has 2 new options (Types 1 & 2) not previously available in the hardware, and there's also a new Waveform display.
Much to gain
We have an input gain to go into the compressor, make-up gain as it leaves, then onto the limiter gain, and finally the output gain. So these different gains can be used in various stages to either match the gain all the way in and out of the plugin, or to add small stages of gain into each section. I find some stages feel better to drive into than others depending on the source material - for example using the make-up gain instead of the limiter gain to drive the limiter does not excite me as much sound wise, as using the limiter gain instead (as intended). I feel this is also about where and how the various gain stages appear in the chain - which is rather complex when you view the diagrams in the manual.
(Am I allowed to use pictures from the manual? Is it not worth using the diagrams here anyway?)
Onto The Knees
There is a setting called ‘soft-knee’ to adjust the compressor’s knee from soft to hard. Left 0 (hardest) to right 100 (softest). This too affects the threshold point you would want to use, as getting 1-2dB’s reduction on the same source needed -14 on the fullest soft setting, and -20 on the hardest knee setting. So bear this in mind and check the compressor is still catching anything on the GR meter if you start altering the soft-knee control. The soft setting is marvellous and has worked at 100 (softest) for a lot of what I have driven into it. Yesterday I had a track that was still great in this setting, but I wanted to add some more aggression at the stage where the DS-1 MK3 was in, and so found reducing it to 60 was perfect. Also I altered the threshold ever so slightly in order to get the same gain reduction happening. The big screen in the middle shows the knee shape in a visual form, and you can adjust the resolution of this in the settings if necessary.
Release of the Average
Along the top buttons is the expected attack button for the compressor. Also too, there is a release. Well actually there’s two releases. Well technically there’s three release buttons! Now before shutting off and thinking this sounds too complicated let me try to explain why it is so great and useful to have this much control. One button is fast release to help grab peaks, the other is slow release to work on the overall main body of the audio (RMS). These can be adjusted to taste from no fast release taking place (with no flickering light action) and just the slow release working, or vice-versa with only fast release working, or a sweet combination of both. Now there are 2 more buttons which are confusing as you don’t often see these, and took some time to get my head around.
'Release Delay' allows you to move the point at which the release begins. This seems unusual but is highly useful, and has been the button that makes all the difference once you have already dialled in what seems decent release settings to begin with. Used minimally the delay you add can be the thing that takes the result from decent to awesome.
'Average' changes the point where the RMS is figured out, compared to the peak. It is a ratio between the peak and average RMS level. You can alter it so that the gain reduction works more on the peaks by going anti-clockwise, or mostly the RMS level by turning the botton fully clockwise.
Now the trick I recommend is to find a tasteful balance between the two so you make use of both the fast and slow release functions. If you do you can end up with a quite fairly compressed but very transparent sounding result. Even if it doesn't make sense completely, if you tweak the 'release delay' and 'average' buttons (after you have set the release fast and release slow settings) you can find an even deeper effect on the audio. Transient domination with more of the fast release, or transient excitation with less, but both can still be with a full body using the slow release (even if used just slightly). Just try it. Then re-read what those settings are supposed to do, then tweak again, then re-read, then tweak again, etc. Give it a go as it's sure worth the learning curve!
There are a multitude of meters to keep any M.E. happy. From seeing the input, output, compressor gain reduction, and limiter reduction. Plus there’s also bar graphs of the other parameters for the Preview (look ahead parameter of the compressor), Attack, Delay, Fast Release, Average, and Slow Release in the box towards the left. There are also sample peak or true peak numerical levels and lights (user changeable), and just underneath are numbers that read out the current RMS levels. There are also lights for ‘overs’ for when you have taken things way too far!
Pressing the options button brings 3 new pages into the main screen by using the ‘browse’ arrows to navigate back and forth between them. Here you can alter the dithering from off to 16/20/24bits and (if the same as the hardware which I would presume it is) should be POW-R dither. Next you can change the limiter type between the original DS-1, and the new (non hardware versions) Type 1, and Type 2. Then an RMS Detect where you can alter the averaging time for RMS detection, and the Preview pane allow changing of the look-ahead capability of the processor. Next a useful Copy function as there are A and B buttons on the bottom left of the DS-1 MK3 front panel for creating two different settings to choose between. This copy function allows you to copy from e.g. A to B if you want to try something that uses the settings you currently have but are wondering about a slight tweak and want to A/B them to see which works best. The copy function also lets you copy channels one and two which is especially useful when using the compressor in Mid/Side mode and need a similar starting point for each. There is an internal and external side chain option too depending on how you want to trigger it.
Onto the next page you can change the resolution of the compressor and limiter meters to display 3dB’s right up until 24dB’s. I always adjust to 3dB resolution of both for mastering. You may adjust the peak meter to show sample, or true peak. The knee range can be adjusted from 15dB to 70dB, and the meter text can be changed to hold the peak value or continuously update as the peak changes, along with a reset hold.
On the final page there is an auto on/off for the peak reset to possibly manage it better for more a productive use of it. You can determine how many sample overs in a row it takes to display the red lights, and lastly there is a manual/auto setting for the make up gain if you prefer not to do it manually.
The monitor button is very useful so you can hear the side chain that is feeding the compressor. This is where the bandwidth and frequency pots come into use. The bandwidth ranges from 1/6 to 8 octaves. The frequency ranges from 41Hz to 17.74kHz. With it's linear phase split band filter of the low pass, bandpass, high pass filters you have a very sculpt-able internal side chain that has proved it itself useful many times over. Obviously using the high pass filter you have a de-esser, or to control the low end of a track you use the low pass filter, but as a useful mid range grabber (which is new to the plugin and not found on the hardware) you would use the bandpass filter.
Where the input is added to the output. We can vary the amount of compression vs original signal using the make-up gain pot. The chosen blend of the compressed, and dynamic original, are then both sent to the limiter gain stage - prior to the safety limiter. Handy in many ways to balance out beforehand.
Regarding the WF button which opens the waveform screen, those who use a lot of other modern limiters will be happy, as this seems to be a useful (and perhaps now familiar) screen that would not have been found on the original hardware - but is possibly expected in most modern limiter plugins. I don’t really use it much to be honest, but I know lots of people will want it present, which is a great addition to the plugin.
5/5 it is impeccable. It has depth which is often missing in anything ITB in my opinion. As the last plugin in an analogue digital hybrid mastering chain it is a thing of beauty and the perfect final touch. If you’re expecting a huge tone from it then it may disappoint as it’s rather transparent. You can lose a little low end but usually at the gain of a more defined centre (as if a low frequency imager / elliptical filter had been used) which gives you the idea of a stronger low end. Also the ‘safe limiter’ choice can change how it responds to the low end too I found, and therefore your first limiter choice can sometimes change as you re-tweak other compressor settings during the mastering process. From what I have learnt from using the different limiters over time are: the original DS-1 is great, but tightens the bass and centre sometimes too much for some material without having to add it in again later in the chain with a post EQ. The Type 2 is superb and adds a punch to the mids, but retains slightly more low end than DS-1 although sometimes still has taken away some of the orignal's. The Type 2 is wonderful at times when more bass is wanted, it can be a gentler limiting, and it adds a kind of stereo widening to the material compared to the others (similar to when using MS the sides feel less compressed/obvious than the mid section does). All are superb, and your choice for one song will likely be different for another. Having the 3 options more than makes up for not having user adjustable release settings. They are all spectacular, clean and pristine.
Ease of Use
4/5 if you follow the advice to RTFM! I believe it’s a requirement as it’s not a pick up and play type of processor really. It’s designed for mastering engineers, just as the hardware was, for those very at home with this kind of complexity. Although it has also been marketed to all levels of engineers they may not be the ideal target audience. If we are talking about a general engineer including newbies then the ease of use score may be 1/5. For those quite clued up it’s 3/5. For those who read the manual it’s 4/5. If you own the hardware then you may not need to read the manual but as there are a couple of new features compared to the unit - perhaps it still is.
4/5 if you accept that this is a de-esser, compressor, and limiter. The features it has are all great, and excels at them all. So the features it has, are all quality. I would have liked an option to change the limiter release settings more - but it seems to work so well using one of the 3 different settings which varies with each project. So 4/5 only due to not being able to get your hands as dirty with the safety limiter. But as it just works perfectly so often, it’s hard to not be 5/5.
True Peak limiting only works on the Type 2 setting, which is a real shame - but can be compensated for by the final output gain being set to the -0.2dB or so that it doesn't go over. So if you must not go over a certain figure such as -1.0dBFS perhaps set it to -1.2dBFS instead for the true peaks to be on or under your target. But according to Wavelab meters and a global analysis of rendered files using it, the type 2 still shows as going fractionally further than expected, so adjust -0.05 more than your target. So for a -0.1 target, set Weiss DS1 to -0.15dB to be safe. Alternatively don't worry about it!
Bang for Buck
5/5 if you have lusted after the several thousand pounds hardware for decades, as I have, you now can have it for a few hundred in it’s almost perfect form. 4/5 if you have to be critical and wish for extra controls on the safety limiter, and are upset with the true peak not being exactly that so you end up having to compensate with the final output gain (but this is just knowing your tools’ capabilities right?) or you can add a different final limiter just set at the same ceiling with no gain to catch the stray true peaks. 1/5 if you are a newbie who might struggle to understand the manual, let alone how to use the plugin, then it may likely be seen as highly overpriced useless rubbish that you can't tell it's doing anything anyway, ha ha.
Warning: Politically Incorrect statement ahead! This may sound harsh but no matter how widespread an audience this plugin may be marketed to, it is not for amateurs or newbies. In my honest opinion, it is a deadly serious tool for professionals, and it is astonishingly good. But you must RTFM…once at the very least…to learn how to truly reign in this beauty.
Depending on what level of engineer you are at, I would imagine this is how this plugin would be awarded:
Parallel comp on DS-1 works blending the untouched signal with the compressed signal, using the make up gain to determine the amount of compressed signal you want in. Sometimes you’ll need to balance between the input gain and the make up gain to find the right balance of wet and dry ratio.
You have the ability to unlink the side chain (which would be more useful in MS mode than standard) and also to gang or ungang channels 1 & 2 (LR or MS) which provides a grand selection if required. The bandwidth and frequency selection can sculpt your chosen internal sidechain input signal for the compressor. You can choose between full band, split bands - de-ess using HPF, or low end control using LPF, and bandpass for a specified area most commonly the mids. These crossover filters are of the linear phase variety and provide pristine control.
Using both the split band filter and Parallel comp together make it so you can bring up specific amount of whatever you have chosen to home in on with the frequency and bandwidth selector. Using the low pass I used it to feed only low end parallel compression into the signal on a job. Also the bandpass made to focus in on the mids allows to blend in a parallel enhanced vocal area.
I have used it to add some more dynamics back into a file. In expander mode there are so many stages at which the signal can be reduced such as input gain (e.g. -1.70dB) to feed the upward compressor with less signal. The ratio can go up to 1:5.00 for expansion. Then having set your limiter so it’s virtually not touching it compared to the original (e.g. -1.0dB) you can use gain make-up in minus values (reduction) as a way to reduce what is being sent to the limiter (as the limiter gain option is all additive). The result went from a -8.5LU file to a -11.0LU (integrated) file, adding 2.5LU’s of dynamics back in. Besides the obvious volume difference, the tonality was quite similar, as the expansion is done very cleanly.
It can even work as a band pass EQ. By selecting a certain frequency range with the threshold set so it isn’t catching anything compression wise, I used one of the instances of the Softube Weiss DS-1 MK3 to bring up the mids only vocal area for one master. It worked great.
Not always right for everything. But almost!
Also you can lose a fraction of bass at the enjoyment of upper clarity, and tightness in the bass. Albeit you can usually find the low end again - either by altering the soft knee and threshold if it can work for the track in question, or maybe changing the limiter choice to one of the 2 new ones Type 1 and Type 2.
32 bit float, with up to 192kHz processing.
Split band filter (linear phase).
How can it not get 20/20 when I’m so happy with it, and see it as a required tool for me now!?! Well if I have to use this rating system for a fair review, it’s just the fact that you need to learn how to use this plugin, plus limiter release settings would have been nice (but turns out it's not a necessity). But that is it. Many approved masters I have sent out (since being sent this for review) used it in some way. It is superb. I need this in my toolbox. Period.