- One of the key traits in defining the sound of studio kit is harmonic distortion. Nonlinear harmonic distortion isn't just a trait—it's a characteristic of the sound of analogue, and clichés such as warmth, depth and presence can all be explained by it. Realistic, variable harmonic distortion was once out of reach for plug-ins, with the near-infinite potential response of a piece of hardware too much for a CPU to handle and for programmers to accurately clone. Recently, Slate Digital's Virtual Console Collection, Waves' NLS and UAD's range of emulations have not only caught up with their hardware counterparts but offer the added benefit of potentially endless instances, portability and low cost. While there's no shortage of emulated analogue channel strips, tape machines and master buss processors, they tend to offer limited control or adhere to the original design. Waves' new Cobalt Saphira aims to give you in-depth harmonic control for under $150.
The plug-in sports a new and fairly confusing interface. (Cobalt is said to be part of Waves' new range of plug-ins so expect to see this style of interface again.) Saphira is based on sends and returns inside of the plug-in, essentially operating in parallel. Even-number harmonics—Edge—and odd-number harmonics—Warmth—are added by increasing the send levels and adjusting the return to taste. The more signal you send, the more harmonics are added to it, and the more return, the more that effect is audible. In very simple terms, even number harmonics are enhancing what's already there by increasing in volume the bite and presence of a sound, while odd number harmonics fill in the gaps, giving a weak sound depth and thickness. For an example of even harmonics, think a piercing DX7 bell; for odd, think of overloading a Moog filter.
Although you may be familiar with parallel processing, it takes some getting used to within Saphira. Because the result can be so subtle, the temptation is to do too much. The manual acknowledges this and suggests using Saphira only in the context of the mix, never solo. Of course the result can also be unsubtle; driving both send and return of Edge delivers a rounded-off distorted ball of compressed sound, while dialing in Warmth to the extreme is like running a whole mix through a guitar amp. Speaking of whole mixes, Saphira performs better on busses and masters than it does on individual sounds, simply because, while adding harmonics to everything individually might sound good in isolation, it won't help the full mix once they add up. You're better off processing key groups of sounds together, assigning a little more edge to some and warmth to another, depending on taste and source. As the return is increased, the level of the mix is compensated automatically, so there should be no increase in volume as you bring up the return. I wish Waves had included the option to turn this compensation off, offering true parallel.
This blending of harmonics really does require patience—once you overcome the impulse to overdo it, you must learn Saphira's harmonic modes. Further down the GUI, letters A through G differentiate between the harmonic modes, with A, B and D representing a more natural tone, C representing "punch" and E, F and G offering "dirt." (There's no indication of this on the GUI—I got this information from the manual.) Every mode is represented visually using a graph showing the fundamental frequency and up to six harmonics that adapt as you apply Edge and Warmth. Again, the difference is subtle and varies hugely depending on the source material. Saphira's 55 presets offer plenty to play with, even if you're not sure what you're doing at first.
The EQ section is where Saphira stands out alongside other harmonic shaping tools. Both Edge and Warmth have their own four-band EQ to further shape the harmonic response. I find it slightly odd that the EQ has been placed in the chain after the harmonics have been applied but before they're mixed back in with the original signal. You are essentially boosting or cutting the signal post-harmonic distortion, which means that any extra harmonics generated are still present further up the frequency scale, even if you've cut out the fundamental or first few harmonics. As low-end harmonic distortion can often create mud in the mix, it would be great to have the EQ in place before the harmonics are added, so that the very low frequencies can be removed from the process, with the low-mids and highs still benefitting. The only way to do it is to run Saphira on an auxiliary channel and place an EQ before the plug-in. This works really nicely to bring out basslines and kicks in the mix without low-end clutter. Hopefully Waves add the option to move the EQ in a future version.
At the end of the chain, Saphira offers a tape emulation function with some variable speeds. It's perfect for taming and compressing wayward harmonics generated by the plug-in, but as is customary with Saphira, it has a subtle tone and is more audible on busses than single sounds.
Overall, Saphira is a great plug-in. At its best it can bring a mix to life, gently filling the gaps between frequencies. That's similar to what a good master buss compressor can do but with much more control and a lower price than most. You've got the best of both worlds in both Edge and Warmth and once you learn that less is more, it's unlikely you'll leave it out of another mix. A well considered plug-in and an excellent start to Waves' new Cobalt range.
Ease of use: 3.5