IRCAM Tools Trax Plug-in
IRCAM (the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics and Music), based in Paris, has been at the forefront of innovation within the fields of electroacoustic and electronic music for over 30 years. Founded by pioneering composer Pierre Boulez, its studios have developed, researched and released upon an admiring public a vast array of musical works, theoretical papers and, more recently, musical tools which are beginning to shape the way electronic music is composed, whether it's intended for the concert hall or for more commercial music settings.
Max/MSP is perhaps the most celebrated software to have emerged recently from the IRCAM stable and its implementation within Ableton Live is bringing awareness of its extraordinary power to a wider range of users within a popular DAW environment. Also new is a suite of IRCAM branded plug-ins developed in collaboration with Flux, a company based in Orleans, France. Its expertise is in building tools for post-production and mastering and its development of sonic engines capable of radically shaping sound should, in collaboration with IRCAM, prove a match made in heaven for sound designers. Enter Trax.
Trax is one of three plug-ins, alongside Spat and Verb which form a suite of plug-ins called IRCAM Tools, though this review will focus primarily on Trax as it can be purchased separately from the other two. The bundle is downloadable from IRCAM's website with licenses for full, purchased versions protected via an iLok key. If you want to dip your toes before deciding whether to dive in, you can trial the suite, without need of an iLok via a website download too. Trax can be used on four types of material, Voice, Instrument, Music and Polyphonic, with Mode buttons at the top of the GUI clearly labelled to launch each of these algorithms. While its parameters can be applied to produce hugely interesting results to a wide range of sonic material, perhaps its most interesting use is as a vocal processor as it offers a different tool set from established vocal plug-ins such as Autotune and Melodyne to more fundamentally break sounds into component pieces and allow you to control and change these elements separately.
Firstly, though, you need to tailor Trax's settings to the material you're processing. This is done on the left-hand side where the voice type you're working on can be chosen (male, female, tenor, bass, soprano etc) below which you can select the fundamental frequency of the sound you're running through the plug-in. You can choose these frequencies manually or press the "Learn" button, where analysis of the signal is carried out as you run a few seconds of your audio into the plug-in; the relevant numbers then appear in the boxes above.
Following this stage, you can get busy warping the sound and, to the right, some fascinating parameters can be tweaked. For instance, the formant qualities of your sound can be altered individually (these can be thought of in similar ways to harmonics within synthesised sounds as related overtones above the root fundamental frequency) so that it's possible to change the gender of your singer from male to female, for instance, at the same time as changing the age of your performer, turning older voices into ones with a more youthful quality or adding richness to younger voices by making them sound older. Breath characteristics can also be enhanced so that if you're looking to bring a breathier quality to your lead vocal, this can be added in post-production rather than at the recording stage. You can also create remarkably faithful transpositions here of up to two octaves either up or down or create weird and wonderful formant shifts, with these parameters linkable so that formants and transposition changes move together.
These tools are radical enough but further to the right, things get more interesting still. The component parts of the sound can be adjusted independently in the Remix pane, with sliders for Sinus, Noise and Trans(ient) allowing the pieces of a signal to be broken down and either enhanced or reduced in volume. The Sinus slider accounts for the main pitch of the note as dictated by its fundamental frequency whilst Noise, predictably, controls more noise-based components in the material being processed. The Transient slider lets you control the percussive, initial stage of the sound passing through the processor, with the Relax slider next to it letting you decide whether this will be changed immediately upon detection or later, much as the Attack stage of a compressor determines whether signals are processed immediately or after a short delay.
In practice, you can use these sliders either to enhance a sound subtly or radically change it to the extent that it's no longer recognisable and if either sound design or unusual and innovative production tricks are your areas of interest, these sliders alone will keep you smiling for hours. In the top right hand corner, high and low pass filters are provided to cut tone from either extreme of the frequency spectrum while at the bottom, separate panes exist for you to fine-tune transposition or formant settings. Finally, at the bottom, a Spectral Envelope pane allows you to remap the behaviour of the frequency spectrum of your sound. In real terms, this allows you to change the behaviour of the analysed frequency content of the incoming sound and, like the Remix pane, allows for some wonderful sound design possibilities.
Reading this review, I'd forgive you for deciding that Trax is a specialist plug-in which will appeal to only those lucky enough to have more "fundamental" plug-in needs met and, to an extent, that's true. However, what can be achieved with this plug-in regularly shocks and excites and, if you're looking to bring radical and unique sound treatments to your productions, rather than being dismissed as a niche product, Trax deserves your attention. It's certainly fair to say that I've never really come across any plug-in which can warp sounds in quite this way and if you're someone who wants to stand out from the crowd in terms of the sounds you combine into finished mixes, Trax will provide some powerful ammunition.
All major native formats are supported
•Windows - XP, Vista, 7 all in both 32 and 64 bits.
•Mac OS X - 10.4, 10.5, 10.6 in 32 bits.
The RTAS version requires ProTools 7 or later.