by Craig Anderton
Everyone loves plug-in virtual instruments. And why not? Trying to find a Minimoog, Prophet-5, ARP Odyssey, or other vintage synth in good condition gets harder with every passing year, but modeled versions of these synths do a more than credible job of delivering vintage sounds. What's more, some plug-ins - like Cakewalk's Rapture or Digidesign's Transfuser - go beyond vintage thinking to deliver instruments that would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement in hardware.
However, virtual instruments do have some limitations. For live use, you're committed to bringing a laptop or other computer, and dealing with latency. Thankfully, newer computers are fast enough to bring latency down to a negligible number of milliseconds, but you still need a reasonably powerful machine to achieve that. Another concern is that plug-ins tend to like CPU power - especially plug-ins with excellent fidelity, as that fidelity comes at the price of additional CPU cycles.
Plugiator is designed to give you the best of both worlds: The stability, low latency, and minimal hit on your CPU of hardware, but with the flexibility and cost-effectiveness of virtual instruments. You can take it on the road and use it live, but you can also route the audio into your DAW of choice. Furthermore, there's a software editor called Plug-In Manager (Mac OS X10.4 and above, Intel/PPC; Windows XP/Vista 32-bit but not Vista 64-bit) that takes advantage of Plugiator's USB interface. It does preset management, but also lets you tweak the instrument parameters beyond the five parameters brought out to real-time control knobs on the unit itself. This is well-suited for putting all needed presets in the Plugiator before taking it out live, but the software also allows for serious tweaking in the studio.
Plugiator has five rotary encoders along the top for tweaking selected parameters in real time. Also note the buttons along the bottom: They allow for rapid preset recall, as well as saving modified presets.
Speaking of the studio, you cannot instantiate Plugiator as a plug-in (VST, AU, RTAS, etc.) within a DAW. However, I don't find that a problem, for several reasons. First, you can send MIDI data to Plugiator via USB, and feed Plugiator's audio outputs into your audio interface's inputs. So, you can record the Plugiator as you would any audio signal, but with the advantage of MIDI editing. Second, as you can instantiate only one instance of a hardware plug-in anyway because the processing is done "out of the box," a plug-in implementation is not as relevant. Third, Plugiator is platform independent - there's no waiting for the RTAS version to appear, the VST version to be updated, or waiting to see what Apple does next with the AU spec. If your DAW can spit out MIDI, Plugiator knows what to do with it.
Given my disinclination to re-invent the wheel, rather than go heavy on the specs, street pricing, and other info, you can go to the web to find out those kinds of details. You can also find sound examples of the various plug-ins, and if you really want to commune with your inner geek, you can download the manual.
Looking at the back, there are 1/4" outs for left and right outs, and a 1/4" stereo headphone jack. There's also an unbalanced mic input for the Vocodizer, and USB for connecting to your computer. However, you can't plug a USB MIDI controller in here; for that, you need to use the 5-pin DIN MIDI connectors (MIDI in and MIDI thru), or plug a USB keyboard into your computer, then send its data via USB to the Plugiator.
Finally, there's the power switch, and jack for the AC adapter. The latter is one of those work-anywhere-in-the-known-universe kinda deals, with snap-in plugs for various countries.
There's enough I/O to take care of all the basics.
Plugiator ships with four modeled instruments, based on the legendary Creamware synths that were a part of their Scope system: The Minimax virtual analog synth, modeled after the Minimoog; LightWave wavetable synthesizer; B4000 Hammond B3 model; and Vocodizer vocoder. The latter comes loaded in Plugiator, but you have to register to unlock it.
There are also optional-at-extra-cost plug-ins, and kudos to Use Audio for keeping the price reasonable ($49 each, or all four for $149): Pro-12, based on the Prophet; Prodyssey, a model of the ARP Odyssey; FMagia FM synth (very cool); and Drums 'n' Bass, which consists of an analog-sounding drum machine and bass instrument (quite handy, because it lets you go beyond just synth sounds). Do the math: For about $600 street, you get eight complete hardware instruments in a small, portable package.
There are effects, although they're rudimentary: Delay (not tempo-synched, unfortunately) and Chorus effect.
Three effects knobs cover delay time, delay wet/dry mix, and chorus wet/dry mix.
Plugiator has eight "slots" that can hold eight instruments, but you're limited to selecting one at a time - for example, you can't layer the LightWave and Minimax unless you have two Plugiators. Each plug-in has 100 presets allocated to it, with a total storage of 800 presets. However, there's a workaround if you want more presets: Load a single instrument into two slots, and each can have 100 different presets - 200 total. Also note that different instruments allow different numbers of voices: as few as ten for the Minimax to 91 for the B4000. I didn't find this to be a significant limitation.
Simple editing is done via a graphic matrix: Select a row of parameters with one knob, then tweak another knob to edit the parameter in a column.
However, these "real time" knobs adjust only five parameters for a given instrument - drawbars for the organ, filter cutoff/resonance/contour/attack/decay for the Minimax, etc. For any deep editing, you need to use the Plug-In Manager software.
Getting Plugiator's Plug-In Manager software working on Windows was not a seamless experience due to issues with Adobe Flash, which is required for the software to run. To make a long story short, if you don't have Flash installed, all is well - Flash installs from the Plugiator distribution CD, and you're good to go. If after installing it some web sites don't play Flash animation, download the latest rev.
If Flash is installed, I found installation worked best with Windows if you un-installed Flash, removed the Flash folder from your Windows folder, and let the Plugiator CD install Flash (then update if needed). You'll know if your version of Flash has issues that require a workaround: The Plug-In Manager won't show instrument GUIs or the virtual, on-screen keyboard. From what I understand, troubleshooting info on this and other subjects will be posted on the Use Audio web site.
Once the software was running, it made working with Plugiator easy. Having a plug-in-like GUI for modifying parameters is wonderful, as is the ability to manage presets. And there's a bonus: You can go online and download additional presets if you're a registered user.
The one thing it appears you can't do is run the Plug-In Manager while you're also running a DAW, as they'll fight over who gets to control the ports. But there's a simple workaround: Use a MIDI loopback applet, like MIDI Yoke. The manual describes how to do this in detail.
I'm not a neophyte at tech topics, but the Flash-meets-Windows thing did stump me for a while. Nonetheless, after figuring that out, I was able to get Plugiator working with both Windows and Mac machines - another advantage to a platform-independent device. Having all that horsepower in a little box that fits on your desktop is pretty cool, too.
But of course, the ultimate question is what does it sound like - and it sounds fine indeed. The Minimax is a little dated compared to the newer synths, but even so, it has a sweetly aggressive sound that's very "analog." The B4000 is suitably funky, and the digital synths have a welcome clarity. I always liked the Scope synths, and being able to take them "out of the box" - or even out of my studio - is something I really appreciate.
Overall, Plugiator is a gem: There's serious cost-effectiveness, sound quality, ease of use, and low latency...with editing software to complete the package. Plugiator might not be a household word yet, but this unassuming little box delivers major bang for the buck.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.