Ubiquitous samurai/ninja/swordplay/Toshiro Mifune pun goes here
Now that is over with, I can get down to business with Audio Damage's new VST delay plugin, Ronin. By Audio Damage's own admission, Ronin is designed to emulate a classic bucket brigade-style analog delay. This suggests one thing right off the bat - dirt! So despite the fact that Ronin is an expression of precision-programmed DSP, all the artifacts, fuzz, and murkiness of the analog realm are available on your computer. It should be noted that although Ronin is suitable for looping, and that's the focus of this review, it is actually more of a delay laboratory. Ronin's patch matrices allow you to route and process the delayed (or pre-delay) signal in a variety of ways. Two delay lines, two multimode resonant filters, two saturators, two LFOs, an envelope, and some other tricks elevate Ronin beyond a mere ANALOG delay emulation and into modular synthesis territory.
What have we here?
As I mentioned above, Ronin has a dual delay line architecture. Each delay line has the potential to incorporate an input, a delay module, a multimode filter, a saturator, an LFO, an envelope, and an output. None of the individual parts are that unusual. With Ronin, however, these parts become especially significant due to the thoughtful inclusion of a dual patching matrix. The matrix on the right contains Ronin's audio modules and various ins and outs. You can plot the path your delayed (or even direct) signal will take by clicking on crossings in the grid. When you do so, a little circle appears on the matrix to signify that the connection between the selected modules has been made and to show the pathway at a glance (more like at a squint, really). Each matrix is pretty small, due to the space limitations of even an admittedly good-sized plugin window. So I did wind up doing some squinting at my computer screen, which usually bums me out. But to be honest, it didn't bum me out too much.
With these little patch bays you can for example, connect the output of a delay back to its input, allowing for some awesome displays of howling feedback. For a more standard arrangement, you might connect input 1 on your audio interface to Delay 2, then from Delay 2 into Saturator 1, from there to Filter 1, and finally to Output 2. Or if you are feeling it, route first into the Saturator before hitting Delay 1, then patch just the feedback from that signal to Delay 2. Then back. I think you can probably sense the potential complexity here.
The left hand patching matrix allows you to connect a variety of modulation sources and destinations, rather than audio signals. You could very easily use an LFO to pan Output two while you use the simple envelope to modulate delay time and/or filter frequency. MIDI note and gate and MIDI CC#1 can also be used as modulation sources along with Ronin's own LFOs and envelope. This lets you get MIDI controllers involved in manipulating the signal.
The two LFOs spit out the standard sine, saw, square, random wave shapes. A Shape control lets you vary each waveform a bit for some extra flair (the manual refers to "changing the duty cycle" of each waveform with this control). Both LFOs can be synched to host MIDI tempo, for handy rhythmic touches in your modulations. A Reset button on LFO 2 forces it to sync to LFO 1's starting point.
Each delay module has coarse (MIDI sync-able) and fine Time controls, a Feedback control, and a variety of buttons for turning Looping on, Reversing the delayed signal, Syncing the delay time to your VST host's tempo. The delays act and sound convincingly like the analog type, with repeats fading into muffled noise when the Feedback control is cranked up.
Since it's clear we're talking a complicated beast here, the Audio Damage folks kindly include a pretty wide variety of presets to peruse. You'll hear the whole range of echo chambers, outer space pings and zaps, slapback, and panning, filtered, modulated craziness you could imagine. However, since we're talking about looping, you might want to check out the lone preset dedicated to it, at the bottom of the list, entitled "Ex 4: Looping." If you're comfortable around a patch bay, it's possible to jump right in and loop away. Each Delay module has a button labeled Loop. It's hard to miss. Hit this button and whatever's in the up-to-12-second buffer will begin looping. Hit the Reverse button below this sneppah tahw sseug nac ouy dna. Incidentally, when you change the Time value, you'll get those analog-style snapping tape pitch jumps that some other digital delays from the ancient past also reproduced.
In terms of setting up loops, without tap tempo capabilities, you have to do something like assign the coarse Time knob to a controller via MIDI and do it by hand. Set up this way, Ronin would be familiar to people who have used digital delay pedals for looping. If you can't tap the tempo to set your loop length, you basically have to guess. Or rely on a Frippertronic sense of rhythm to work within the time limits of the present loop. Unless you do like I tried and run Ronin inside of a host like Ableton Live. I locked Ronin's delay time to Live's clock by clicking the Sync button, and was then able to tap my loop length into Live using Live's Tap feature. Ronin picked up the clock hiccup free. You can multiply either delay's loop length by clicking the 1-, 2-, 4-, and 8X Mult buttons to multiply the loop by that number -- a very useful feature on any looper, especially since Ronin allows you to assign MIDI controllers to these. To close off your loop, all you have to do is hit the Thru button and your input signal bypasses the delay. It would be easy to dedicate switches on a MIDI floorboard to Ronin's Sync, Loop, Reverse, and Thru buttons. It depends on the player, of course, but I think it would be pretty hard to focus on playing well and operating Ronin without some sort of floor-mounted MIDI controller for foot action. With the addition of a controller, Ronin and a laptop could easily rival many of the familiar looping devices on the market, but with a brazenly analog outlook. It has fewer technical amenities than an EDP or an Electrix Repeater, but if the thought of computers on stage doesn't frighten you away, at the very least Ronin could be a useful addition to a rack mount setup.
Ronin may not be quite as deep as the EDP or the Repeater, but its looping features are direct and useful, if slightly basic. The ability to have two parallel loops, or to feed one loop into another, maybe through a modulated filter or a saturator, is decidedly worthy and adds an enhancement that neither the EDP nor the Repeater offer: custom effects routing. If multiple parallel patching make you dizzy, just return to good old preset Ex 4: Looping as a starting point. Like any modular instrument, it takes a little bit of work to learn Ronin's unassuming interface, but if you are after unusual sounds you will definitely be rewarded.
Since Ronin is, at its heart, an emulation of an old-fashioned bucket brigade delay, you can expect the sound to be anything but digitally clean. With high levels of feedback, Ronin can run away into gritty, sonic excesses. I quickly found that I had a tendency to push Ronin into ever growing levels of distortion unless I kept judicious control of signal volumes. Sonically, Ronin reminds me a little bit of my Digitech PDS 20/20, which also has a nice full-bodied grittiness and breakup. The super resonant filters and the tube-modeled saturators also contribute a lot to Ronin's often blown-out analog sound. The low pass filter will allow you to take some of the harsher frequencies away, if for some reason you want this, but it is also possible to capture a clean loop and seriously mess with it afterward. I spent some time using one delay line as a looper, then feeding the loop into the other delay line for a source of pulsing and evolving noisescapes along side my original loop. Eventually, I sort of pre-patched a variety of modulations that I could turn on at any time to devolve my loops into panning shriek fests and burping swamps. Playing monosynth with one hand into Ronin allowed me to use my other hand to grapple an Oxygen8 to tweak various parameters and fully freak out.
In the end
So you know where I'm coming from, I should note that I have been a looper both live and in the studio with a variety of hard and software since 2001 or so, when I bought my first Line6 DL4, the 21st century's Jam Man. Though I haven't been fortunate enough to use the fabled Echoplex Digital Pro, I have used some decently sophisticated software and hardware loopers with similarly complex insert, replace, multiply, etc., types of functions. I have also used all kinds of simple digital and analog delays to make loops. I keep coming back to delay-type loopers; maybe because of their inherent hands-on simplicity. In analysis, I'd put Ronin somewhere in between the latter and something like the Electrix Repeater. It's basically a dual delay, but with some deep-ish features, some of which involve looping. It bears some similarity to the Mode.Wash plugin from Cycling74, with a patching matrix approach and analog style, but to me it sounded a bit better and is a bit easier to use. Maybe Ronin wouldn't be that great for structured compositions built live with loops (though as I type this, I realize that syncing Ronin to changes in Ableton Live and using the two delays to make separate switchable loops would probably contradict my criticism). That said, I had a ton of fun looping with Ronin inside of Live, using Live to make loops from Ronin's loops and recording everything onto a separate track. Ronin seem to be potentially inspirational looping tool, especially for the soundscaper - possibly because of, rather than despite its limitations.
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