United Plugins Front DAW by Sound-Guy
FrontDAW by SounDevice Digital from United Plugins
United Plugins have grown the past couple years and now have five audio software companies in their roster, and 27 products. One I missed reviewing last year is the latest update of FrontDAW, a clever and very efficient front-end saturation plug-in you can use on every track if you wish. Doing so will vary the processing in each track slightly differently, like analogue gear where tolerance of components makes every channel a little bit different.
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What Do We Have?
As you can see in the screen view, FrontDAW has a simple (if slightly battered!) front panel. There is a preset window at the top and a right-click anywhere on the panel brings up a settings menu, but otherwise it’s all right there. The big blue knob controls input level into the saturation “circuit” which increases saturation levels when turned clockwise. It also affects the frequency response which is “flat” for Input settings of zero or below, but peaks low frequencies for higher settings. It also changes the relative levels of harmonics when it’s cranked above zero. The blue fader along the right edge adjusts output level to compensate for input level changes if needed. The orange knob is a simple high pass filter with a 12 dB/octave cutoff below the set frequency (20 Hz to 500 Hz) and there are also the three “buttons” left of the HPF control that select which type of “circuitry” is employed, British, American or German. This provides different types of harmonic distortion, varying relative levels of second, third, fourth, etc. harmonic at any given signal level.
The red knob near the bottom is called MOJO, and basically increases saturation without changing relative harmonic levels as it is turned up. It defaults to its mid setting of 5 (which is actually 50% when you double-click the knob for keypad entry), and you can use it to create lower or higher saturation levels. In fact, at its counter-clockwise end (zero setting), THD for any of the circuit types is essentially zero.
However, turn MOJO up and saturation starts to happen. I tried various settings of MOJO with the Input control set to 0 (the default) and an input signal at -18 dBFS: setting MOJO to just 1% (you can type it in rather than try to rotate the knob) delivers from 0.003% to 0.02% (British circuits creating the least distortion and German the most). At a MOJO setting of 50% (the default value) these THD values increase to 0.14% and 0.8%, still relatively mild distortion levels. However, increase the input signal level and/or the Input knob setting along with lots of MOJO, and you can hit double-digit THD.
Since FrontDAW is intended to be used on individual tracks there are a couple things to consider. First, how much processing power does it require? The answer is, very little. Adding 32 FrontDAW to my Studio One template showed total CPU load increased by less than 3% and REAPER’s performance meter shows 0.06% to 0.09% CPU load per instance. Latency is always zero samples.
The other feature claimed is the Variable Analogue Random Modelling technology (VARM) that enables each instance to vary its processing effect slightly even using the very same settings – this is tricky to measure, but using a null-processing technique I was able to hear the effect. And yes, it does yield different processing on every instance. The variation I measured using the null technique is dependent on all the settings (Input,MOJO, circuit type, etc.) but is in the range of 30 dB to 45 dB below the track signal level for default settings. This may be difficult to wrap your head around, but was fascinating to actually hear the differences.
But does such variation at these low levels across multiple tracks make a difference in a mix? Again, this is difficult to determine since loudness is likely to vary and, as you should know, even a single dB of loudness difference between otherwise identical mixes will always favour the louder version. So I spent considerable time on a couple mixes, keeping all settings identical except having all FrontDAWs on for one bounce to stereo and all FrontDAWs off for a second bounce, and I matched level to within 0.1 LUFS (with the integrated loudness in the -14 LUFS range). Using mild settings of FrontDAW I could hear no significant difference when I ran “blind” tests between each pair of mixes. It was a guessing game. However, pushing the Input and MOJO settings up started to make audible differences and with these settings cranked up ¾ of the way or more I could hear a notable difference every time – when using FrontDAW the mix sounded more “alive”, clearer, maybe what some people call more 3D, although I’m not sure how they define that.
At any rate, using a good helping of FrontDAW on all tracks in a mix, even with matched loudness, the versions using FrontDAW sounded somehow “better”. Does the variation in each track really contribute to this? I can’t say for sure since using a plug-in with exactly the same processing on different tracks will process each track differently because the signals entering the plug-ins are themselves different! But FrontDAW does add variation that is similar to analogue gear, so it will add some processing variation to any input variation. And of course you can use different FrontDAW settings on different tracks if you wish. I found cranking FrontDAW up on bass and drum tracks made for some excellent results.
There are 16 factory presets which are good starting points. You can modify any of the included presets, and make your own from scratch. There are some other nicely implemented features: the GUI can be continuously varied from 239 x 508 pixels up to your full screen height – and you can also set size precisely, in five steps from 50% to 200% of nominal (748 pixels high). However, there is a caveat here if you use Studio One – Studio One has a problem with some VST3 plug-ins and FrontDAW is one of them. It oddly cuts off the bottom of the GUI for any size less than 200%. The easy fix is to use the VST2 version of FrontDAW. I know of no other DAWs with this issue.
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Adjustment of controls can be made by mouse movement, using the mouse wheel (for very fine adjustment) and by double-clicking a control for a keypad entry. Of course all the controls can be automated in your DAW. Right-clicking anywhere on the panel opens the settings menu with oversampling control (none, 2X, 4X and 8x), GUI size, copy/paste, GPU Acceleration, Sleep on Silence, etc. Sleep on Silence automatically cuts the processing load to almost zero if no signal is present for about 3 seconds and starts it instantly when a signal returns – but does not change latency (which is a very good thing!). This is good for using FrontDAW on all tracks in very large projects since you rarely have more than a dozen simultaneous sounds playing.
FrontDAW is available as VST2, VST3, Audio Units and AAX, in both 32 and 64 bit formats for Windows and 64 bits for Macs. Windows 8/10 (32-bit or 64-bit) Intel/AMD processor with SSE2 support and macOS (10.10 and newer, 64-bit) Intel/AMD/M1 processor with SSE2 are fully supported, but Windows 7 still works fine (you may need to use Ctrl+Click on the Activation button to initially activate the plug-in with your license file – otherwise all works fine). Licensing is simple, either online using your United Plugin account or offline dragging the license folder you receive onto the Trap Tune GUI.
In my test system (PC Audio Labs Rok Box PC with Windows 7, 64 Bit, 4-Core Intel i7-4770K, 3.5 GHz, and 16 GB RAM) a single instance of FrontDAW uses under 0.09% CPU resource and has zero latency. The code is compact and after the first instance (which uses about 60 MB of RAM) each additional instance adds about 10-12 MB.
FrontDAW is a clever take on emulating the minor variations of analogue gear. It is so efficient that you can use dozens in a project with no worry of bogging down your CPU, and its Sleep on Silence function makes it even more efficient. Well worth checking the free trial – just be sure to use it on every track, or at least on every bus. Don’t just pop one instance of FrontDAW on the master bus and expect anything too exciting as did one online reviewer – as they say RTFM!
Excellent sound with 64 bit audio processing and wide range of saturation styles
Very low CPU load and small RAM footprint
Sleep on Silence function frees up CPU processing
Sample rates supported to 192 kHz or even higher
Continuously variable GUI size with clean (if a little scuffed!) layout
Easy installation and authorization
Free trial period and reasonably priced at €49
User manual can be viewed or downloaded as a PDF on the United Plugins site.
No serious cons, but there is the image cutoff bug in Studio One using the VST3 version – this is apparently a Studio One issue and easily solved by using the VST2 version of FrontDAW.
Some people are not pleased buying a new plug-in that already looks like it has 50 years of wear! Might be nice to have an alternate panel design – however, in it’s defence all the control markings are fully legible – something I can’t say for some plug-in designs that look brand new but have rather illegible markings.