Softube Weiss Bundle Review: DS1-MK3 is a Home Run

The DS1-MK3 is, quite simply, the most incredible compressor/limiter plugin we've ever heard.
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Introduction 

Every once in a while a plugin or hardware device comes along that completely changes the game—something that sounds so superior to everything on the marketplace that there's simply no going back once you've tried it for yourself.

While these releases are few and far between, there's no question that the Weiss DS1 Limiter/Compressor was a watershed moment for mastering houses worldwide. The unit is considered arguably the most transparent and ubiquitous mastering processor ever made, earning praise from legends including Bob Katz, Howie Weinberg, and many of the biggest names in the profession.

Softube's recent release of the Weiss DS1-MK3 plugin—the first and only recreation of the legendary hardware in plugin format—is already shaping up to be the most talked about and hyped release of 2018, and with good reason; the DS1-MK3 is, quite simply, the most incredible compressor/limiter plugin we've ever heard.

In this review, we'll take a deep dive into the DS1-MK3 and the more budget (and beginner) friendly MM1, which takes a few key features from the DS1 and wraps them into a greatly simplified interface. 

Setup and First Impressions 

We've run through Softube's installation and setup process in our previous reviews of Softube Tape and the Softube Volume 2 Bundle, so there's not much new to cover here. Like Softube's other recent releases, the Weiss bundle uses Gobbler as an installation manager, or the plugins can be downloaded and installed manually. As with all Softube releases, the Weiss plugins require an iLok account, although you do not need a hardware dongle—machine based authorization works just fine here.

The Weiss bundle installs as three plugins: the flagship DS1-MK3 Compressor/Limiter, the MM1 Mastering Maximizer, and the Weiss Deess. While all 3 plugins are highly useful, there's no doubt that the DS1-MK3 is the most hyped part of the release and the one that will get the most attention here. Opening the DS1-MK3 for the first time reveals a large, modern white interface that's nearly identical to the DS1 hardware's faceplate, right down to the black rotary knobs and LCD display. Much like the original hardware, Softube has done a great job packing an immense amount of functionality into a relatively streamlined interface. While the DS1-MK3 definitely isn't the simplest processor you'll find, many of the key controls are easy to understand and tweak without consulting the manual.

While almost everything from the hardware DS1 remains intact here, Softube has added a few key visual features, my favorite of which is the real-time waveform compression display. The display makes it incredibly easy to understand and visualize how your signal is being compressed and limited in real time, making it clear how parameter adjustments (such as a tweak of the attack or release knob) changes the dynamics of your signal. Softube has also added a mid/side button which cannot be found on the original hardware, allowing for independent compression and de-essing of the mid and side channels of your mix—a huge addition for any mastering engineer or sound designer.

Unlike the DS1, both the MM1 Maximizer and the Weiss Deess don't recreate real-life hardware, but Softube has kept the design and GUI between all 3 plugins very consistent—once you get familiar with one of them, you'll be using all 3 with ease. Weiss Deess is built around a large frequency spectrum display, with two independent bands for advanced de-essing available, while the MM1 features a radically simplified GUI reminiscent of the DS1; even though the MM1 has three main control knobs, it's essentially a 'one-knob' version of the DS1's compression and limiting algorithms, making the incredible sound of the flagship hardware unit more accessible to beginning producers and engineers. While it's easy to overlook the MM1 given the hype around the DS1-MK3's release, it would be foolish to do so: the MM1 is capable of some absolutely incredible dynamic controls and effects, exhibiting much of the same sonic transparency and flexibility as it's bigger brother.

In Use

What makes the DS1-MK3 so good? To hear Softube tell it, their plugin isn't merely an emulation of a famed piece of hardware, but rather a line-by-line code port of the original Weiss DS1-MK3's algorithms—and as it turns out, this is a critical point to understand when considering why Softube's DS1 feels so much more 'like hardware' than many analog emulation plugins. Unlike, say, an 1176 Compressor or an API 550 EQ—two pieces of hardware with no digital code, just analog circuitry—the original Weiss DS1 is, in fact, a digital processor and one known for incredible transparency at that. As such, many of the unpredictable and difficult-to-emulate aspects of hardware, like oscillator drift or tube saturation, aren't a part of the gear being cloned here. The same algorithms that powered the Weiss DS1 hardware are recreated line-by-line in Softube's plugin version, lending a truly authentic sound to the emulation.

As I alluded to earlier, the Softube DS1-MK3 is the best software compressor I've ever heard—I've tried just about everything on the market at some point, and this is, by far, the most transparent and smooth compression/limiting I've encountered in the digital realm. The DS1 excels at a range of mixing and mastering duties, and I found it to be a surprisingly flexible dynamics tool. While I think of the DS1 as a legendary unit for transparency—which, to be clear, is here in abundance at conservative settings—the DS1 can add more punch and cohesive gel to stems and masters than any other plugin I have in my toolbox, and it's capable of incredible amounts of gain reduction while avoiding many of the typical side-effects of over-compression, such as pumping and distortion.

The DS1-MK3 features a number of controls typical for any compressor; attack, ratio (starting out at a light 2:1 by default), threshold, soft-knee, and gain make-up (with auto gain compensation) are all on offer on the right side of the plugin's GUI. The release controls, however, hint at some of the more advanced functionality on offer once you dig a bit deeper into the plugin's GUI. Rather than a typical single-stage release, the DS1 uses a dual-stage fast and slow release, with a third knob used to set the weighting (or average) release time between the two. The simplest way to think of the fast vs. slow release is in terms of Peak vs RMS signal detection; the fast release time is how quickly the compression circuit will release after fast peaks, while the slow release time determines the release time for longer, RMS level detection—although how heavily the compression circuit will rely on the short or long release time is highly customizable using the Average control. The dual-release behavior is one of the many reasons the DS1 sounds so transparent, and the waveform visualization feature comes in very handy when trying to understand how your input signal is interacting with the gain reduction circuitry and its release time.

In much the same way, many 'conventional' compression controls on the DS1 are built with more advanced usage in mind. The attack parameter, for instance, offers a unique Preview feature, which allows the compressor to catch quick transients while still shaping the overall signal using longer attack times. It's a feature roughly similar to the 'Auto-Fast' button on the famed Elysia Alpha mastering compressor, and it's highly useful both in mastering and mixing situations involving percussive or transient-heavy material. Similarly, while the vast majority of compressors merely offer a single internal sidechain filter—typically only a High Pass Filter to allow low-end material to pass through the detection circuit without distortion—the DS1 offers High Pass, Low Pass, Band Pass, and Fullband options, including continuously variable controls for both bandwidth and frequency/crossover.

While the DS1-MK3 is a line-by-line code port of the original hardware, Softube and Weiss have added a few impressive new features. For starters, there are two new Limiting algorithms, in addition to the original DS1 code; Type 1, which offers a more modern take on limiting, and Type 2, which pushes Type 1 further into the realm of True-Peak limiting, ensuring the output signal will be completely free of inter-sample peaks. Mid/Side mode is here as well, in contrast to the stereo-only operation of the original hardware DS1. It's worth noting that even in stereo operation, the DS1-MK3 plugin can use ganged (grouped) or unganged controls, allowing for separate compression parameters of each stereo channel. 

And then there's the DS1-MK3's take on parallel compression, which simply has to be heard to be believed. The amount of apparent volume increase on tap here—without increasing peak levels one bit, and with absolutely zero pumping or distortion—is mind-boggling. I've never heard any software compressor do what the DS1-MK3 can in this regard, and I haven't really heard any hardware do it this well for that matter either. Using the DS1-MK3 in parallel mode takes an already transparent compressor to the extreme, and it's about the closest thing to compression alchemy I've ever heard. Considering the DS1-MK3's parallel compression capabilities gives us a nice place to segue to the MM1 Maximizer plugin, as the way in which each plugin approaches the technique shows the substantial difference in complexity (and approachability) of each plugin.

While the DS1 requires some fairly unusual controls to adjust parallel compression—there is no Dry/Wet control—the MM1 Maximizer features only 3 knobs on its user interface, one of which is a large Parallel Dry/Wet blend control. The MM1 is, in almost every way, a radically simplified but still phenomenal sounding version of the DS1 hardware, using many of the same algorithms and approaches to gain reduction in a radically simplified interface. While there's simply nothing bad to say about the DS1, I do fear it's so outstanding that the MM1 may be a bit overlooked by many producers and engineers. For those who aren't ready for the DS1's steep price tag (more on that shortly) or it's complex control scheme, the MM1 offers an incredible array of sounds with very little knob tweaking. The MM1's algorithms are fairly straightforward, and for the most part they do exactly what it says on the tin: Punchy will add some serious smack and punch to just about any source material, Loud is capable of pushing your RMS levels to obscene heights if pushed hard, and Wide is, well, a really incredible one-button solution to make your mix wide, punchy, and really, really loud. The MM1 lies somewhere between an enhancer, brickwall limiter, and single-band compressor, and it's useful for just about any sound, stem, or mix you'll encounter.

So, is there anything bad that can be said about the DS1-MK3 or the MM1? Not really—both are outstanding dynamics tools, and the DS1 is simply in a class of its own amongst competing plugins in my opinion. If there is one downside to the DS1, it's the price; at $499, its the most expensive effects processor I've come across in some time, and definitely the most expensive compressor plugin I've found to date. If you're a professional engineer or producer, especially one who makes a living off mixing and mastering, I do think the DS1 is well worth the price of admission—this is the rare type of plugin that simply can't be reverse engineered by stacking 10 of your DAW's native plugins together, and your clients will likely hear the difference. If you're just a hobbyist, $500 is quite a bit of money for a dynamics tool, and the DS1 certainly isn't for everyone in that regard. For those who find the DS1's asking price too steep, I'd highly recommend checking out the MM1, which is available as a separate plugin for $199 (purchasing the DS1 also gets you the MM1 as part of the Weiss bundle, along with Weiss Deess), as it's an incredibly useful tool for anyone looking for a uniquely powerful dynamics processor.

In Conclusion/Recommended 

For Softube has hit a home run with the Weiss DS1-MK3 plugin, and it's shaping up to get my early vote for plugin of the year in 2018; I've simply never heard a compressor plugin do what the DS1 does before. Bringing all the benefits of the legendary Weiss hardware to DAW's everywhere—meaning you can use multiple instances of the most transparent compression available—is an impressive feat and has seriously raised the bar for compression and limiting, whether in-the-box or in the analog domain. For those who find the DS1's price tag prohibitive, we'd highly recommend checking out the MM1 Maximizer, which packs much of the incredible sound and functionality of the flagship DS1 into an easy-to-use and far cheaper solution.

10/10

Pros 

  • The most transparent compression available anywhere.
  • The best sounding compressor/limiter I've found to date.
  • DS1 offers highly flexible compression, expansion, limiting, and de-essing.
  • MM1 is a home run plugin, ideal for intermediate and beginning engineers. 

Cons

  • Expensive

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