With the DAW plugin market being flooded with hundreds (if not thousands) of options for sound processing (effect plugins) and creation (synths and samplers), we've recently seen an increasing number of developers turning their focus to an equally, if not more important, part of the creative process: songwriting, harmony and melody writing, and chord progression generation.
PluginBoutique's Scaler is one of the more notable releases in this new breed of songwriting assistants. Scaler aims to simplify the process of chord progression generation, harmonization, and scale detection for both advanced and novice writers and producers. In this review, we'll take a look at Scaler's strengths and weaknesses, as well as offer a few tips on the best way to integrate it with your production workflow.
First Impressions & Setup
Scaler is downloadable from the PluginBoutique website, and upon purchase, you'll receive a license file which can be loaded into the VST/AU plugin on the first launch. Opening the plugin for the first time reveals a relatively streamlined interface, although at times I couldn't help but feel like things were a just bit cluttered and in need of minor refinement and simplification. The Scale Explorer area of the GUI, for example, requires a lot of scrolling and could potentially be cleaned up a bit. Scaler is built, from top to bottom, around five main compartments, each with specific functionality. There's a Control Bar for overall plugin settings, a virtual keyboard which depicts incoming MIDI notes, a Browser which allows you to select from a wide range of preset scales and chord group presets (sortable by Artist, Song, or User), a Scale Explorer which contains all possible chords in your selected key or preset, and finally, a Progression Builder which allows a series of chords to be stored and exported as MIDI to your DAW.
Scaler is pretty self-explanatory—I was up and running in a few minutes without much need for the manual, which is definitely a plus. In use, the plugin is responsive, easy-to-understand, and offers a truly impressive collection of varied chords, chord voicing, and inversion options. Most users will want to fire up the VST version of Scaler as AU plugins are not capable of sending MIDI to other channels or devices; PluginBoutique has created an identical Scaler AU MIDI Effect for Logic users which allows the plugin to function as a trigger for other synths and sound generation plugins in the AU-only DAW.
I've used a handful of chord and songwriting tools over the past several years to help my writing, particularly when I'm traveling and don't have access to a proper MIDI keyboard; in my opinion Xfer Records Cthulu has long been the leader in this space, so this was my initial point of reference when using Scaler. In fairness to PluginBoutique, it's not entirely fair to compare Scaler and Cthulu, as Scaler is in many ways capable of much more than rival plugins.
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For starters, Scaler is a truly impressive tool for producers and writers who are looking for an extensive library of chords, voicings, and inversions to browse through and learn from. While other tools have a number of advanced chords hidden in presets, Scaler's Browser allows you to easily select any key, see all chords in the key (ranging from your vanilla standard triads all the way up to highly complex voicings and extended chords), and add them to a track. I consider myself pretty well-versed in music theory and progressions, but I was quickly discovering more esoteric chords and voicings within minutes of browsing around Scaler.
Though it's certainly helpful to have a solid understanding of music theory when using tools like these, there's no doubt they can be a very helpful educational tool for just about any level of producer, especially beginners. Additionally, Scaler places a big emphasis on its chord detection features; simply play some MIDI or set your sequencer to play through a MIDI clip, and Scaler's Detect mode will narrow down the most likely key of your tune. I personally didn't have much use for Detect, but I can definitely see it being useful for music theory beginners. Scaler also comes with a really impressive batch of presets, which are organized in Song, Artist, and User categories. 'Song' is actually a bit of a misnomer—the category is really focused on sorting chord presets by genre, not specific tunes—but there's some very cool material here. If you're an electronic or hip-hop producer who typically works with the same chord progressions over and over (as most of us do), you can find some nice surprises in the Song—> Jazz section or some of the other more eclectic genres.
The Artist Presets category is similarly impressive, featuring chords that are taken from songs by MJ Cole, Carl Cox, and other house legends, and there are definitely some unique voicings and sounds to be played with here. One of the real strengths of Scaler is the Transpose control within the Browser; in practice, it allows you to transpose any set of chords (for example, Carl Cox 1, which by default is in Eb Mixolydian Mode) to any scale you happen to be working in. There is one small frustration here: in a perfect world, you could set a static scale which wouldn't change as you browse through presets in different scales (basically, an auto-transpose), as in practice, the transpose feature can get a bit tiresome to use for each new preset you browse through.
In Conclusion/Recommended For
We'd recommend Scaler to any producer or songwriter looking to beef up their chord progressions, learn more exotic chords and voicings, or find inspiration from some stellar artist and genre presets. Scaler is easy to use, affordable, and a highly useful tool for songwriters of all levels.
- Straightforward and easy-to-use songwriting tool.
- A vast collection of keys, modes, voicings, and chords.
- Impressive preset collection.
- Chord Progression Builder holds 16 chords at once.