Pokey Sticks proudly presents a tippy top new plugin! Free to download, delightful and yummy to listen to! (vst plugin for windows – apologies to mac people!).
The Most Excellent Transformer plugin is a high quality, analogue simulated model of a real world stereo transformer pair. The idea is that adding it to your signal chain inside the computer is just like adding one into the real world part of your gear. Only less of a pain. The sound of the transformer is an important and characteristic part of many pieces of equipment and is a less talked about part of the ‘tube’ sound. However, they are complicated in how they work and other plugins I have used just don’t sound like the real thing! Transformers have unique and characteristic ways they act on a signal. The distortion is highly frequency dependent – acting very much more on the low frequencies compared to the high. Typical valve and transistor distortions tend to squash the top of a wave peak, or both the top and bottom peaks. Transformers and other magnetic components tend to squash the front of the wave compared to the back, making it ‘lean over’. Deffo its own characteristic thing. In the sound, low frequencies cause harmonic products that then mix in with the upper bass and mid. It can be very subtle. Energy gets taken from the very lowest bass and put back a little higher up where it’s easier to hear and easier for speakers to reproduce. It can warm, focus, add a nice little bit of phatness. Products from the bass can reach up and mix with the mid which can smooth and soften it in a rather appealing way. Also doing that ‘glue’ thing to a mix, creating more of a sense of a single unified sound or whole. Or you can drive it till smoke comes out to make it fuzz and buzz!
The plugin is a model of a specific real world transformer, tweaked and tuned so that putting the plugin in your signal chain should both sound and measure like putting the real one in your analogue signal path. On top of that are two controls to give some flexibility and creative fun 🙂
The first is the drive control. Turning it up drives the transformer harder, causing more colouration. Depending on how bass heavy the signal is, at some point it’ll break up into obvious fuzz. Before that and depending on the music, distortion levels can be quite high without being very obvious to the ear (at least until you get used to it). Similar quantities of transistor distortion would be very in-your-face. This is mostly a different and subtler thing! Turning the drive down keeps it cleaner of course.
The simple way to think of the second control is choosing how ‘big’ the transformer is. Turn the dial down for a bigger and thus cleaner transformer. A big transformer will take more drive and lower frequencies before it distorts. Turn the dial up for un-bigness. Un-big transformers colour more for the same amount of drive and bass. In more detail, the setting on the second dial is the corner frequency of the high pass filter the transformer makes with the circuit that drives it. It rolls off the bass below that. Rolling off below 8Hz-or-so is not going to be a big deal in itself! More significantly, it also relates to what frequencies start to make it distort. At a higher setting, the transformer begins to distort at higher frequencies, sending distortion products higher up into the mid and treble and / or breaking into fuzz more easily on the lows. A lower setting and the signal can go deeper before significant distortion. For real world gear – very top end modern stuff may go as low as 2Hz. Simulating really super clean equipment is potentially a little pointless of course. Cheaper gear or retro equipment that never expected to see big sub bass will roll off higher. The default setting comes from measurements on my real transformer adding colouration to a whole mix. You may find around 8 to 20Hz a good sweet spot for adding to a whole mix, adding to each track for a cumulative effect, or adding to FX chains to bring that little bit of analogue colour. Back off the drive if it becomes too obvious. Individual instruments and more creative use may respond better to a bigger yank on either dial…
A quick note on high frequencies. I’ve seen plugins with a dial to add transformer distortion ‘sparkle’. Transformers add far more low frequency components than high and tend to thicken things! In real world cases- say between a microphone and preamp, a transformer can potentially stop the loss of high frequencies by correcting bad impedance matching, but thats actually just the absence of a different problem by restoring the correct eq! A little added top end can sound nice though, to balance out a phattened bottom end. Just add it to taste with your tone control of choice (the Pokey Sticks ones are excellent. Reaper JS versions linked on the previous page and soon to arrive in vst format too!) Magnetic tape certainly uses a lot of internal eq correction and a little finessing can get that nice touch of lose-a-little-detail, gain-a-little-warm-presence thing that can come from good tape.