Blackbox Audio HG-2 Plugin Review – A ‘Bettermaker’ For Your Mixes?

Blackbox analog design have a beautiful machine that sits in a black box on a master buss rack on many studio engineers of consequence. Dave Pensado views it as one of the three outboard boxes that go on his every mix. Bob Horn swears by it, as do Bob Horn and Richard Devine.

The BlackBoxAnalogDesign HG-2 is a stereo tube saturation processor. It’s a box with several tube circuits within it, that add delicious harmonic distortion to the sound passing through, giving it that extra oomph that engineers always struggle to describe with words; Colour, sparkle, sheen, lush, warmth, punch, bigger, and so on and so on. What it adds is somewhat described by those words. It basically sounds better – a ‘bettermaker’ outboard piece of gear.

Here’s a video of the actual HG-2 in action for starters.

In working with Plugin Alliance, the creative brains at Blackbox have come up with a software version, at under a 10th of the cost of the original hardware, and boy does it deliver.

The HG-2 is a smorgasbord of different tube flavours. There are 4 different vacuum tube stages combined in series and parallel to enable a really wide range of colours to add to the sound. The Four different tubes have been faithfully modeled as close as possible with software to emulate the original.

Good Looks

The plugin GUI is a replica of the hardware box with every parameter available, plus a few extra software bits thrown in. The four tubes are represented by the Saturation (with alt tube button), Pentode and Triode knobs. These can all be dialed in differing amounts, and depending on what is selected, and how much, will greatly affect the coloration of the sound. This is the signal path of the processor:

So hitting the in/out button at the bottom left of the GUI will instantiate the Parallel Saturation processing, whereby you select the frequency of material that you want to apply the processing to, from full range, low or high. This is a very useful selection, as you can really affect certain portions of the sound here, as opposed to the full range. Just selecting low will give immediate weight and body to the sound. Selecting high will add more excitation to the sound. More presence. You can choose between two different tubes here by clicking the ALT tube button. Your ears will come in handy at this point. One of the tubes is decidedly more aggressive than the other, so you will want to be selective which version you use on what material.

The pentode tube is Even order harmonics – analogous with electric guitar distortion. Triode harmonics are third order, which is distinctly dirtier than the pentode. Because they’re in series, the more pentode you add, the more the triode is driven.

At the end of the signal path, before the output level, is the Air: this gives a nice sheen/sparkle/madeupwordfornice edge to the upper end of the frequency range. You can choose the amount of air once selected. This is specific to the software here – the hardware has a L/R trim knob before output level.

The software adds several more options to the processing:

There’s a calibration menu, which adjusts the frequency response to the distortion. The options are: Dark/Norm/Bright, and they’re reflected in the sound reproduced.
Density is sort of like auto gain, but at input and output. So you can keep the signal processing the same, but reduce the input and gain the output, playing with the amount of signal passing through, while keeping the level the same. This affects the density of the sound, and can be very useful if you’ve got the right vibe going through the plugin, but want a bit less of it without affecting the tone.
Mix – this one is really useful, basically enabling parallel processing whereby you select the amount of wet/dry signal.
Presets – these are excellent for inspiration, and showing just the vast capabilities of tonal shaping this plugin can produce. Created by Eric Racy and Trevor Case, they give almost 40 presets as a great foundation to work from.

Conclusion

I mean, I have had no experience with the hardware unit. But I’ve definitely been ogling from a distance. With the plugin version, it feels like I’m within reaching distance.

I found that it naturally compresses sound in the way that a guitar amp does when it breaks up. The sound is slightly squashed as well as thicker. I love the variance between the tones of the tube emulations. Varying the amount of pentode, triode and parallel tube circuitry enabled a really wide variety of colour, useful for driving guitars harder, adding weight and punch to drums, or just making vocals sound thicker. It works fantastically on anemic mixes, or on sounds that need colour or richness. It’s very useful if you’re working in the box, as it adds a lovely realism to sample libraries.

The plugin doesn’t seem to use much in the way of CPU – so I got to using it on separate instrument tracks as well as on the master buss. Using the parallel saturation worked wonders in bringing crappy drum sounds to life, and using the low freqency selection meant I could add some serious heft to the kick drum without adding too much colour to the rest of the kit on a room mic.

I loved the way it smoothed out stuff on vocals, transients came through, but much less harshly, sibilance was less piercing. And the air just gave the voice that lush smooth presence that gives the sound real class.

It truly makes a massively beneficial impact on the sound. It’s flexible enough to work with the material you throw at it to shape the sound in subtle or aggressive ways. It’s a must on my mix buss chain. If you’re wanting to throw a quick master up for demo purposes, I can’t think of a plugin that works as well as this at getting that luscious sheen that you hear on some records. It just makes music sound sweeter. Absolutely phenomenal. Seriously. Well worth the investment.

Blackbox Audio’s HG-2 plugin retails for $249 and is available from Plugin Alliance.

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Blackbox Audio HG-2 Plugin Review – A ‘Bettermaker’ For Your Mixes?

by Andy Dollerson time to read: 4 min
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