Three grand’s worth of bou­tique mas­ter­ing hard­ware in a plugin cost­ing less than a tenth the price? We like the sound of that…

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De­vel­oped by Brain­worx, the of­fi­cial plugin em­u­la­tion of Black Box Ana­log De­sign’s gor­geous $3000 chunk of bou­tique hard­ware valve dis­tor­tion is built with mas­ter­ing ap­pli­ca­tions in mind, but is also ap­pli­ca­ble to group busses and even sin­gle in­stru­ment and vo­cal chan­nels in need of har­monic sweet­en­ing, rough­ing up or any­thing in be­tween.

Along with mod­elled in­put and out­put trans­form­ers, four tubes are em­u­lated within HG-2’s (VST/AU/AAX) ar­chi­tec­ture: se­rial 6U8A Pen­tode and Tri­ode mod­els, and a choice of two 12AX7s in a par­al­lel sat­u­ra­tion cir­cuit, switched be­tween with the Alt Tube but­ton. As in the real world, the Pen­tode tube gen­er­ates even har­mon­ics for ‘mu­si­cal’ dis­tor­tion of the gui­tar amp kind, while Tri­ode is all about the edgier third or­der har­mon­ics that come from push­ing a sig­nal hard onto tape. Of the two AX7s, mean­while, Alt-in is the more ag­gres­sive.

Out­side the box

With three sep­a­rate gain and dis­tor­tion stages to con­sider and bal­ance, us­ing HG-2 should be pretty con­fus­ing, but it’s ac­tu­ally sur­pris­ingly in­tu­itive. The in­put sig­nal hits the Pen­tode tube first, where it’s mixed with the out­put of the Sat­u­ra­tion tube, be­fore the sum is sent through the Tri­ode tube, with its harsher dis­tor­tion, then brought back up or down with the Out­put con­trol. The knobs set the in­put gain for each tube, so if ei­ther the Pen­tode or Tri­ode are set fully an­ti­clock­wise, the end re­sult is si­lence at the out­put, as the two are ar­ranged in se­ries. With Sat­u­ra­tion be­ing a par­al­lel cir­cuit that feeds into Pen­tode, though, ze­ro­ing that one just stops it hav­ing any ef­fect.

The Sat­u­ra­tion stage op­er­ates in the broad­band Flat mode by de­fault, but switch­ing it to Low or High fo­cuses it on the low/low-mid or high/high-mid fre­quency ranges.

The tiny bipo­lar Den­sity knob in the top bar over­drives or at­ten­u­ates the Pen­tode and Tri­ode tubes with com­pen­satory out­put gain ad­just­ment, for thick­en­ing up or thin­ning out the sound. Fur­ther gain mod­i­fi­ca­tion is on hand via the neigh­bour­ing In­put Gain dial, giv­ing up to 12dB of boost or at­ten­u­a­tion at the very front of the plugin. You won’t find ei­ther of th­ese – or the wet/dry Mix knob – on the hard­ware HG-2.

HG’s swell

Just like its hard­ware equiv­a­lent, HG-2 is one of those bril­liantly de­signed and cal­i­brated pro­ces­sors with which find­ing the sweet spot for your mix or bus is never a chore; and it delivers ab­so­lutely su­perb re­sults ev­ery time. The Pen­tode tube works in such sweet har­monic en­hance­ment that you’ll want to use it on ev­ery­thing, while crank­ing the Tri­ode takes things into harsher tex­tu­ral ter­ri­tory. The Low and High Sat­u­ra­tion modes prove very ef­fec­tive for plump­ing up weedy mixes or adding shine to overly dull ones, while the Air cir­cuit (see Curved Air) shelves the top end nicely.

The range of sonic colours that can be coaxed from this tubu­lar tri­umvi­rate is truly im­pres­sive, as are its over­all loud­ness-boost­ing ef­fect. It’s not ex­actly a pocket money buy, that’s for sure, but HG-2 is much cheaper than its re­al­world coun­ter­part, and stands as a formidable mix­ing and mas­ter­ing tool for se­ri­ous pro­duc­ers, who are sure fall in love with its beefy ‘ana­logue’ sound, re­mark­able ver­sa­til­ity and orig­i­nal pro­cess­ing par­a­digm.

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