Tech \ Gear \ Gear Reviews

REVIEW: BT Phobos by Spitfire Audio

The polyconvolution contortionist of your sound design dreams

2017 May 17     
2 Bit Thugs

A standalone virtual instrument from Spitfire Audio which combines and morphs rhythmic, melodic and harmonic sounds to create otherworldly sonic textures

Phobos, in Greek mythology, was fear personified. It's a handsome and highly apt name for an instrument whose ethereal, cinematic and hybrid sounds blur the lines between organic and electronic, creating a suspenseful fearscape. The 'BT' part of the name comes from its designer - none other than trance/progressive house legend Brian 'BT' Transeau.

Convolution, in music technology, is a term normally reserved for reverbs emulating the real world. This is achieved by capturing the reverb characteristics of a physical place in an impulse response file to reuse in your DAW - allowing you to simulate what your breakbeats would sound like in (eg) Abbey Road Studios or the Royal Albert Hall. This instrument works on the same principles, but applying the salient sonic characteristics of a sound, rather than of a space, to another sound. The prefix ‘poly’ means ‘many’ - in this context, it means the instrument lets you play hefty chords (as opposed to monophonic instruments which allow single notes only).

Contrary to what it says on the tin, Phobos is a standalone sampler, using audio files and clever sound manipulation techniques to create what feels like a synthesizer experience. The main interface allows you to load four different sound sources, which are affected by three convolution sections. This culminates in the central triangle section, which allows extra blending and tweaking. Most of the controls you would expect are present and work well: envelopes, pitch, filters and dry/wet. However, the way that they have been combined is what makes this plug-in interesting to use.

Getting started
Downloading and installing Phobos was simple enough after reading the instructions and FAQ page - albeit only after multiple failed attempts trying to put the library on a non-compatible external drive. The library is just under 23GB but you will need to double that during installation.

The army of presets are split into harmonic, atonal, melodic and rhythmic categories. These sounds can then be combined and manipulated to creative effect. The main appeal is convolution processing. One interesting use for this is taking a drum sample, applying an ‘atmospheric’ impulse response, then removing the dry drums. The result is an echoic, harrowing blur of sound. You can hear the original file but it has been shrouded by a sonic mist.

The workflow of Phobos tends to put you in an experimental frame of mind. Fine details and precise control are lurking under the hood, but this is not the focus; bone-chilling, dramatic, vivid sounds are the priority here. High quality samples are provided, to combine into your own sounds. This is a testament to the ethos behind the instrument that “nothing new will ever happen in the arts again. It’s all about studying what’s already been done and how you combine things.”

One criticism of the instrument is that you are not able to load in your own sounds, a feature would make the instrument more appealing to the dedicated sound designers who regularly record their own audio samples. Sonically, it could also benefit from a master EQ and limiter section inside the instrument itself. In testing, it seems exceptionally easy to create huge amounts of audio energy at the extreme ends of the frequency spectrum, and this could be troublesome if played at excessive volumes.

An aesthetic criticism is that any use of convolution seemed to add a reverbed, spacious feel to the sounds, even when implementing tight envelope settings. This is acceptable to an extent, yet for dry, tight sounds you may find you have to remove the convolution processing, effectively leaving you with a high-quality sample pack. Finally, anyone considering this plug-in should also consider the gremlins that plague sound manipulation in general. Any implementation of pitch-shifting or convolution is going to cause some sound degradation, no matter how well made the instrument.

The verdict
BT Phobos could be very helpful for producers who want to create cinematic-style drama in their intros. It could also be used for film soundtracks and game design, particularly for horror/thriller/suspense titles. The price is £269, which aims it more towards the professional market and serious home producers. There is also an education discount program which is positive.

There are very few plugins that offer similar functions to Phobos, giving the price some legitimacy. GRM Tools come to mind: the sound manipulation style is comparable, and these are €500 for a bundle. It should be noted, though, that GRM tools are audio manipulation plug-ins, not instruments. NI Absynth can also produce similarly eerie results through synthesis, sampling and granular processing for £129, though it does not utlise convolution processing.

Overall, Phobos is robust and fulfils its purpose of creating cinematic, dramatic sounds. The provided samples are interesting and high quality, and the convolution concept is more than note-worthy. Phobos could easily be implemented into productions creating creepy ambience and interesting sonic one-shots, and adding tension and intrigue that will strike fear in the hearts and ears of your enemies.

Words: Matt Chapman

Review score: 4/5

More info:





Tags: BT Phobos, Brian Transeau, Spitfire Audio, plugins, plug-in, virtual instrument