I'm always on the lookout for plugins that can offer realistic distortion tones in the box—distortion is, in my opinion, the hardest process from the analog domain to really nail in digital—and there's only a handful of options I can reliably turn to when I want to push a bass, synth, or other sound hard (or into oblivion).
If there are only a handful of distortion pedal plugins capable of authentic tone, I can count even fewer that are designed hand-in-hand with the legendary manufacturer of famous hardware—but that's exactly what Neural DSP is offering with their new Darkglass Ultra release, which was developed in tandem with Darkglass Electronics, manufacturer of wildly successful bass pedals used by countless players the world over. In this review, we'll take a look at Darkglass Ultra and see where it stacks up amongst our favorite distortion and pedal options in the box.
Setup and First Impressions
Setup is easy and straightforward—download the Darkglass Ultra installer from the Neural DSP site, install, and unlock either a free trial or full license using an iLok 2 or 3. Darkglass Ultra installs in VST, AU, and AAX formats, so it's usable in just about any DAW.
Opening Darkglass Ultra for the first time reveals a plugin GUI that's nearly identical to a real Darkglass B7K Ultra pedal, complete with the same 8 white-notched rotary knobs anyone familiar with the hardware will recognize instantly. With the flick of a switch, the plugin GUI changes to white, reflecting a nearly spot-on model of the Darkglass Vintage Ultra. While the plugin offers two spot-on models of real pedals—Neural DSP claims they are 'algorithmically perfect'—the developers have added a few digital-only enhancements to these famous units: both feature a linked/unliked EQ option, a stereo on/off control (the hardware units are mono), and a low/mid/ high-quality switch, offering various levels of oversampling and HQ processing. I'm always a fan of plugins which pay homage to great hardware while leveraging the advantages of digital, and Neural DSP has certainly accomplished this with Darkglass Ultra.
Darkglass pedals are, by design, made for use on electric bass guitar—and they're considered some of the finest pedals around, offering tone that ranges from subtle drive to shredding distortion. While I don't play bass guitar, I do often layer in bass guitar along with synth bass in my productions for a more authentic tone, usually turning to Spectrasonics Trillian or IK Multimedia MODO Bass to do the job. While both instruments do an admirable job of recreating some of the nuances of bass guitar, I don't typically find their built-in amp and cab models all that convincing, so this was the first area I put Darkglass Ultra to the test. While I haven't had the chance to try either the B7K or Vintage Ultra hardware pedal, I can confidently say Darkglass Ultra is the real deal—it offers the most impressive distortion tone I've heard in a pedal plugin to date, helping bass guitar to pop right through even the most crowded of mixes. Popping the Darkglass Ultra plugin on a bass guitar track gives you an authentic tone reminiscent of countless records, and it simply helps a bass track sit in the mix better than any other plugin I've tried to date. The Attack Boost feature is phenomenal on both the B7K and Vintage Ultra model, pulling out the pluck of a guitar or synth in a natural and convincing way.
While Darkglass Ultra is phenomenal on bass guitar, I'll be the first to admit I'm far from a connoisseur of bass tones—and as a publication focused mostly on Hip-Hop and Electronic producers, you might be wondering why we're reviewing a bass guitar pedal in the first place. Put simply, it's because pedals are one of the most overlooked tools for many Hip-Hop and Electronic producers, and they're often a one-stop-shop for taking a dull and weak synth sound and pushing it to the extreme in a far more powerful way than a combination of saturators, compressors, and limiters typically can. Pedals have become my first tool of choice on a wide range of sounds when I need to hype something up or make sure it cuts through a crowded mix—if you're still using Sausage Fattener for beefing sounds up, I'd highly recommend you trial a few pedal plugins.
While both models—the B7K and Vintage Ultra—offer a similarly convincing tone, there are some important and noticeable sonic differences between the two. For starters, the B7K offers more low-end beef than the Vintage Ultra at identical settings; if you're after room-shaking bass, the B7K is more likely to get you where you need to go. In contrast, the Vintage Ultra's tone feels a bit more lo-fi and, well, vintage; it's a good bit lighter in the lows and low mids, with a more mid and upper mid focused sound at identical output levels. Similarly, the B7K offers a more in-your-face and aggressive distortion growl when pushed hard; while both pedals can easily get dirty, the B7K offers a good bit more in this department.
Both models are outstanding on a wide range of sounds well beyond bass guitar; they're capable of adding grit and tone (ranging from subtle to extreme) to everything from an 808 to a backing vocal or vocal synth. While the hardware pedals are mono only, Darkglass Ultra offers two-channel operation, which comes in handy when you're searching for convincing distortion for a stereo signal with reverb or delay. The Blend control—which blends the dry input signal with the overdriven signal, acting as a dry/wet mix control—is also key if you're after relatively subtle tones; many synth bass sounds just sit better in the mix with heavy overdrive applied, mixed in lightly using the blend control around 90/10 or 85/15. Both models—but especially the B7K—are simply outstanding on clean 808's, giving them beautiful midrange and high-end saturation tones while adding even more bass to the low end. While Darkglass Ultra sounds great at any sample rate at its default Low setting, its definitely worth employing the high-quality setting when bouncing or printing audio, especially at higher levels of overdrive at 44 or 48kHz sample rates—there can be a substantial increase in clarity and quality as the oversampling algorithms ratchet up.
Neural DSP has a stellar debut plugin on their hands with Darkglass Ultra—it's the best sounding overdrive pedal plugin I've tried to date, and while it's designed for electric bass guitar, it's useful on a wide range of sounds Hip-Hop and Electronic producers use daily. Even if you've never laid hands on a proper electric bass, we'd recommend you give Darkglass Ultra a try if you're after more convincing overdrive and distortion tones than your DAW's standard plugin lineup is capable of. Highly recommended.
- Sounds outstanding
- The most convincing bass overdrive/distortion plugin around
- Linked EQ is highly useful for comparing B7K and Vintage Ultra models at identical settings
- Useful on all sorts of sounds beyond bass