THE FREAKS ARE ALRIGHT
I know I’ve been somewhat outspoken on this at times, but I can get a little bored with the miasma in the world of plug-ins. Oh, a new 1176 limiter? Much excite! Oh, but wait – NO! There’s a fifth “ratio” button and a variable attack time?!?! Excuse me while I mop up all this liquid excitement that’s pooled up around my chair.
That’s why, in this redundant world of clones (and clones of clones), tripping across developers who are hellbent on journeying beyond the self-imposed boundaries of this business keep me inspired. Now that we’ve perfected getting the tape echoes and plate reverbs of yester-era just right, it’s a happy day when we can get our hands around a plugin or piece of hardware that does something that nothing else does – even if it’s presented in the most gnarled and psychiatrically-troubling way possible.
Look, it’s okay to be a little bit scared of Freakshow Industries. Fear and apprehension are healthy. It’s actually your brain’s fight/flight instinct letting you know that, after millions of years, it’s still there to try and protect you. I’m sure that this is my iconoclastic and morbid sense of humor taking the wheel, but Freakshow Industries’ fragmented, malevolent innovations are the sort of thing that every plugin folder should have.
WELCOME TO THE FREAKSHOW
Freakshow Industries are relatively new to the fold, headed up by two former residents of iZotope Island who left to do “their thing”. That “thing”, such as it is, seems to be creating truly pug-fugly, destructive processes for the often more prim world of audio engineering. To date, they’ve brought three of their little piggies to market (with a fourth somewhere in development) that are just completely bent. Apprehensively peering into the nihilistic netherworld of their site, it’s obvious Freakshow Industries are here to serve up pure audio poison, but not without a self-satisfied smirk and a welcome sense of humor.
Featuring the death-by-tape destruction of “Mishby”, the chaotic reversals of “Backmask” and the dissociative resonant pitch modulations of “Dumpster Fire”, you’ve no doubt already figured out Freakshow Industries aren’t in business to dig up some other 1960’s relic EQ to dangle before your vintage-obsessed eyes. But in chaos, there is order. And having a few plug-ins that exist solely to unleash the hounds of hell on your pristine audio is a great way to kick creative recording and mixing decisions into gear.
To be honest, I would encourage those interested to sit through one of Freakshow Industry’s promo videos first. Imagine a mashup between MemoryHole, Venetian Snares and Tim and Eric, as edited by the BTK Killer on a Newtek Video Toaster and you’re pointed in the right direction. This isn’t the “witch costume” Marilyn Manson-kinda “darkness” here where everything supposedly sounds skawwy through a RAT pedal. This is the real stuff. The single malt. A lot of people are going to turn and briskly walk away, spines stiffened to prove to themselves they’re not scared. But not me, I’m going in…
MISHBY: THIS BIG BROKEN MACHINE
If you had to (and I do mean had to) put some sort of category around Mishby (Mac/PC, VST/VST3, AU, AAX, 64-bit only, $50), it would be emulating the idiosyncratic byproducts of lower-quality analog tape recording and delay with an added block of glitching and downsampling. But, uh… not so fast. We’re not adding .01% to the wow/flutter and daring other engineers to claim they don’t hear the difference. Mishby is beyond destruction… it’s probably more like “rebirth through extinction”. Excuse me while I go comb my Cannibal Corpse LP covers for a better term… and yeah, “Hammer Smashed Audio” is a little too on-the-nose.
Yes, Mishby models the artifacts of tape machine playback – that much is true. But instead of subtly changing biasing and adjusting azimuth, we’re melting the tape AND the machine under the hot sun like a sociopathic nine year old with a magnifying glass at an ant hill. You are given a suite of controls, armed with little more than cryptic glyphs and illegible demarcation to invoke Mishby’s chaos. In other words, you’re supposed to run blindly through Mishby’s twisted bloody hall of mirrors until you either panic and run back to the safety of something else – or find something that truly speaks in ancient Sumerian to your tortured soul. Even seemingly pedestrian type controls like sample rate and depth seem to have a particularly haunted quality, though that may be in some small part to the patently disturbed interface.
Just in case this wasn’t abundantly clear, it’s ALL pretty disturbing with Freakshow Industries. Mishby gives you all kinds of dubby-stutters, warped tape modulations and glitchy goodness. Granted, subtlety is not Mishby’s strong suit, although I suppose you could bring it off the bench for subtle pitch warp or downsampling. But why would you want to do that? This is sweet, sweet destruction, provided you have the appetite*. Run it off the taps of a vocal delay or reverb tail and gradually increase the weirdness as it fades, making your listeners go “wait, what was… that?” Or if you have a podcast or voiceover client you don’t like and never pays you? Run this on the stereo bus and destroy their career once and for all.
(*Subtle GnR Reference WIN!)
The glitch-and-freeze function could just as easily be a plugin unto itself. Automating it in for just little bits and bobs while sweeping any (or all) of its four parameters will net you either an effect that would otherwise take hours to create or a flaming bag of unlistenable garbage to be hastily ctrl-z’d out of existence. That is, of course, subjective. You’ll have to earn your pittance deciding which one is which. But it is a very novel and unique way to create the modulations of the damned. If you get a lot of work doing audio post for horror movie trailers, get ready to be happy.
Mishby’s lasting intent seems to be leaving you huddled in a blanket on a cold floor wondering to yourself what it was you just actually experienced. PTSD survivors and those prone to mood disorders are well-warned to lay off this one.
BACKMASK: “LIVE” SPELLED BACKWARDS
Ever since Eddie Kramer and his ilk had the inspiration to flip the tape machine’s reels upside down, engineers have had a long standing love affair with reversing all kinds of things. Be it for a rhythmic effect, creating tension or just plain getting weird with it, it’s one of those bits of studio trickery that, done right, makes the guy pushing the buttons part of the band. Using a DAW to do this is obviously a pretty simple thing to do (as it was on samplers before that), but Backmask (Mac/PC, VST/VST3, AU, AAX, 64-bit only, $20) takes this once-novel idea and puts it on a steady diet of research chemicals.
Again, the controls are intentionally cryptic and the GUI seems more interested in your burgeoning career as a serial killer than telling you how many milliseconds. So you click one of the six parameters and grab the big central jog wheel and start twisting. Thankfully, Backmask does include the wet/dry control that Mishby lacks. Your poor audio is now being reversed in weird, wild and wonderful ways. For all my head-scratching, I was never able to actualize a specific task like “set the reverse to three repeats at a dotted quarter note” – but that’s generally the sort of thing you can do with basic track editing if what you’re looking for is precision. Nay, this is far more in the experimentalist corner: Click buttons and turn knobs blindly until you find that “there, right… there” moment.
I suppose you could try to bin this as an intelligent-reversing analog-modeled delay, but it would be just as apt to call it a “reversturating cloven-hoofed hallucinaphonic disregulator”. You do get the benefit of an imitation bucket-brigade pitch sweep if changing delay time, so remember to try creating and editing automation passes. Changing out the sample size is going to be the most audible change – that is until you can no longer hold off on that “chaos” button on the lower right.
So the real question lingers here… just what the hell are you supposed to actually use something like this for? And that is a good question. We’re not rolling of 3db at 5.5kHz with a 12db/oct filter here. This is destructive in the best way possible. Of everything I tried in using this “normally”, I had a right good time creating a duplicate clean guitar track with Backmask enabled and randomly sliding notes and phrases into it. Not whole bars, mind you – just little snips to create a “did-you-just-hear-that?” sort of trickery.
Backmask is also quite a fun process to sneak onto vocals – particularly the vocals’ effect sends where you can twist reverbs and delays into boomeranging towards the listener. Not so much a huge, obvious effect – more used with subtlety in otherwise predictable places. Those producing even the most pop-ified of music can still find a hundred ways to work this devilish little critter onto instruments and vocals. Go light if you don’t want to overdo it.
DUMPSTER FIRE: CONTORTED DELICIOUSNESS.
Trying to properly describe just what the everloving crap Dumpster Fire (Mac/PC, VST/VST3, AU, AAX, 64-bit only, $20) does is pushing the outer limits of my journalism degree. I suppose for the pedants among us, it’s a multi-voice pitch-shifter that reconnoiters the affected signals to create all manner of chorus and ring-modulation. That sounds about right. But I eventually gave up on classifying the Freakshow stuff and created a “WTF” folder in Cubase where all three plugins now reside.
With parameters such as “fire” and “aether”, you’ll be no doubt unsurprised that these nebulous terms all do something, but good luck on Freakshow Industries giving you any tangible, scalable indications of the madness contained within. You grab a knob, wince in hesitation and turn. One clearly affects pitch, another adds additional voices and so on. But this is not for “oh, that one vocal could use a nice doubling effect on this phrase”-type chores. Frankly, you have at least four of those in your plugins folder already.
Dumpster Fire is the most subtle and least freakish of the Freakshow Industries assemblage – at least for those keeping the boat close to shore. You can pull it in for a lush thickening of reverbs or background vocal groups. But give in to your darker urges and you’ll be rewarded with hollowed-out bizarre results from the twisted beyond. Anything you care to throw at it – be it rhythmic, tonal or otherwise – metamorphoses into the HP Lovecraft (or HR Geiger) version of its former self.
It does bear mentioning that the actual fidelity of the pitch engine is quite good. I’ve heard pitch shifting algorithms that lend considerably less towards experimentation and more towards integrity that fall short. Good luck pulling this in to fix a bunk note, however. Frankly, I wouldn’t even know where to start. Melodyne? You’re safe. For now. Dumpster Fire kills it on the right sound and application – the onus is on you to take the risk.
STEAL THIS SOFTWARE
Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy or a healthy dollop of industry self-awareness, but the deviants at Freakshow Industries have decided that, if you’re going to steal their software, you might as well steal it from them directly. You can pay whatever price you want for a legit license, albeit with their caveat that tech support is “if we feel like it” and you may not be getting upgrades. Seems fair, doesn’t it?
Never without their trademark black humor, Freakshow also launched CrimeHole.com, a none-too-subtle microsite-shaped dig at the internet’s shadowy corners where warez are distributed. In all fairness, all three plug-ins are available as of press time as the “Back Alley Bundle” for $79. Even though I received my licenses gratis (well… I did write this 2000+ word dissertation about how cool this stuff is so… you know… quid pro quo, Clarice…) I still have to order a t-shirt. Support the scene, maaaaan.
No, but in all seriousness, if you want to unleash Freakshow’s terror on your audio but can’t scrape the dough together, I get it. Paying gigs in our industry are not easy to come by – and if you think all these reviews I write are for untold riches, you would be wrong. But stealing from a small upstart company like this should fill your soul with shame. Pony up something.
AUDIO FOR THE END OF DAYS
If most plugins are Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, Freakshow Industries is their Syd-Barrett-era “The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn”. Those who admire the early, technologically-contorted stylings of Brainiac, Ween or Butthole Surfers now have an entire bacchanal of bizarre, circuit-bent gadgets and guitar pedals packed into a single set of controls. Or, if you fancy yourself more a fan of the bizarre corners of electronic artists inspired by Einsturzende Neubauten, Throbbing Gristle or Aphex Twin, you too will likely be an instant fan of Freakshow Industries’ sonic dementia. These aren’t “effects”…. Reverb is an effect. Delay is an effect. This is running your audio through nitrous oxide in a decommissioned mental hospital. On Halloween. Inexplicably clutching a headless, baby doll for dear life.
So I uh… I made a thing… One self-help tape, two synth drones, and as much Freakshow Industries as I felt like.
My gripes are minor. A wet/dry control on Mishby and Dumpster Fire would come in handy when trying to keep these rabid dogs more easily on the leash. The controls bear no real quantifiable (or discernible) semitones or milliseconds, meaning that you’re going to be trusting your good old earballs to find a sweet spot. And a more “thanks, captain obvious” way to synchronize rhythmic effects to track tempo would be a nice addition down the line. I suppose that these would have been simple to add, but leaving them out reinforces the idea that these are to be used creatively and experimentally. I dunno, I’d ask the guys at Freakshow about this stuff, but I worry about the likelihood of waking up three days later naked (except for a cowboy hat) in the trunk of a limo somewhere outside Reno.
Everything about Freakshow Industries and their software (and their marketing, user-interface and YouTube channel) is a refreshing and much-needed stick in the eye of just how stale production plugins can be. This is like Everything Is Terrible got into pro audio. I suspect some people might do an about-face from their thumbtack-gargling sound design tools and anti-everything marketing. But even if you simply don’t have any use for this kind of insanity, you would still hopefully admire that someone finally took things this far into lunatic fringe.
Freakshow Industries are clearly not here to bring you the latest convolution reverb or Neve compressor clone (though I would love to hear them take on a dedicated compression/distortion box). These are for the psychedelic cosmonauts and I almost resent it being available for mass consumption, same as I could never stand Spencer Gifts selling septum rings and Dead Kennedys t-shirts to preteens in Topeka. But it’s here. The call is coming from inside the house. Stick this in your VST-hole and let the madness find you.
Go, freaks, go.
Good luck finding anything else like this available anywhere.
For the right chore, these are creatively inspiring and very usable.
No tempo sync. That’s gonna cost you half a star.
The GUI will give you nightmares.
I feel like I’ve made new friends with Freakshow. Sometimes we just talk all night on AIM about which boys we want to make out with at school this year. Also, they sent me my first ever accolade for audio industry journalism. BTW, the sticker pack is too funny to open.