Aug 29
Wormhole plugin review

Zynaptiq Wormhole: a Review

If you want a plugin that gives you three ways to create a wide stereo image, eight octaves of pitch shifting, 8000 Hz of frequency shifting, two instances of reverb, a spectral warping effect, a delay between the dry and wet signal, the ability to create glitchy, harsh, broken sound like a bad transmission or clean, well-defined, unusual sounds, to create washes of dark and eerie sound, to morph between the dry and wet signals in two ways that don’t include cross-fading, to introduce chorus and comb filter effects, then read on. Wormhole may be for you.

One of the difficulties with creating original sound design, particularly when you’re trying to produce sounds for things that don’t really exist, is making the sounds transparent, i.e. making them in a way that means it’s not obvious how you made them. A monster sound effect that contains too much pig, lion or tiger might jar a listener’s suspension of disbelief if they know the sounds that animal makes well enough to recognise it for what it is. In the same way, anyone creating sound effects or trying to create a unique vocal texture for an alien, robot or supernatural being could encounter the same problem if the effects they use are recognisable for what they are. Flanging, for example, is a popular and much used effect. If your alien villain’s voice just comes through a flanger, a listener might say “oh I know how that was made. He’s talking through a flanger” or, if they don’t know the jargon, they might say “that’s the same effect used on that song!” This takes them out of the story. Great sound design should go unnoticed. Effects should, in as far as possible, make their contributions modestly and discretely.

 

Enter Wormhole

Wormhole by Zynaptiq is a highly configurable multi-effects plugin comprising some familiar effects and some more obscure ones. Its highly original and transparent sound comes not only from its individual effects themselves, but from the different ways they can be combined, which includes the ability to morph between the wet and the dry signals using Zynaptiq’s proprietary structural morphing technology, which allows you to super-impose spectral and amplitude characteristics of one sound onto another. Although these effects make the plugin ideal for sci-fi and supernatural sound design of all kinds, it’s important to know that it also has plenty to offer the musician.

I could talk at length about discontinuity effects, spectral inversion, 96 DB of carrier suppression for the frequency shifter, which is a “gazillion freq shifters wired up like a neural network”, to quote the developer, modal resonators and so on and I probably will touch on these concepts, but that’s not really what Wormhole’s all about. That’s just the back end. Focusing too much on that here would make it sound like you need a degree in astrophysics to use it, which fortunately you don’t. It’s actually surprisingly easy to use and you can get interesting sounds out of it very quickly.

The important thing here is how it sounds and what it’s good for. It wasn’t the tech specs that blew me away and caused me to buy the plugin as soon as it came out, it was the two demos below.

 

 

First Impressions

It’s probably obvious by now that this review isn’t so much about whether or not I think Wormhole is a good plugin, but why I think it is. The plugin has a very compact feel. It can produce a vast range of different sounds but, considering that, there are relatively few parameters. It’s easy to dive in and get interesting sounds very quickly.

 

The Controls

The Warping Section

The warping section is my personal favourite because it provides a sound like nothing else I own. Basically what it does is jumble up the frequency components of your audio in ways dictated by the ‘Warp Depth’ slider. Low values affect only high frequencies, the mid range brings in the mid range and maximum warp depth affects the whole spectrum. It doesn’t simply turn the spectrum on its head though like other warping software I have used. The fact is, I don’t know exactly what it does and all the technical explanation in the world won’t show you how unique it sounds so here are some examples at various warp depths, starting with the unprocessed version of each sound first.

 

 

As you can hear, using the warp circuit can allow you to produce multiple variations of a sound, which is ideal for game audio application. It could also be used to create organic sci-fi vehicle sounds.

It’s great for vocal processing as well. I find that it’s useful to think of the warp circuit like a musical instrument when delivering vocals. You have to play it right. As you can probably predict, when using Wormhole’s warper as a vocal processor as with any other application, it’s going to change the tonality of your vocal in unpredictable ways. Sometimes, when your inflection goes down, it will bend it up and vice versa. You get the best results by tailoring your inflections to suit the process. Experiment to find the sweet spot.

Here are some vocal phrase pairs. It’s the same phrase delivered in different ways. The first phrase in each pair hasn’t been processed with Wormhole, but has been fed through the formant pitch shifter that comes with Reaper to give Wormhole something a bit beefier to work with. The second phrase in the pair has been warped. Note the inhuman inflections, particularly in the final phrase. It reminds me of the first appearance of the cybermen in 1966 Doctor Who. It was decided to give them a strange rhythm to their speech and strange inflections to emphasize their alienness.

The performance could be made more sinister and inhuman by automating the warp depth slider between words or even automating the warp circuit bypass. This works well when paired with another effect such as the formant pitch shifter used above so that the whole texture remains processed in some way.

It would be particularly important to modulate the ‘Warp Depth’ slider between words because of the nature of the process. As the slider moves, the whole spectrum of the audio the plugin is receiving has to be rearranged. This cannot be done smoothly so the transition points are audible. Here’s a sine wave processed through Wormhole with the ‘Warp Depth’ slider automated.

 

 

However, when using Wormhole’s other functions, automating the ‘Warp Depth’ slider can still provide the basis for some interesting results. I randomly automated the warp depth while it was processing a sine wave, fiddled with some other controls and this was the result I got.

 

 

The warp circuit has a much more mundane, but still very useful application if you’re not using a spectrum analyser. It’s great for detecting unwanted sub-sonic content in your audio at certain depths because it shifts it into the audible range, resulting in a distinct, tell-tale ringing sound. I’ve found this handy in the past. As a corollary to this, you might want to put a filter before your instance of Wormhole to influence the content that the warp circuit locks onto.

The warp circuit is great for enriching pass bys, particularly at lower warp depths, where it enables you to have your cake and eat it. You know how, when you listen to a passing car or plane, although the main elements of the sound pitch down according to the Doppler effect, there still seems to be an element of something sweeping upwards as well, as in this example? Well, if you set the ‘Warp Depth’ slider correctly, you can impart this effect to a pass by that simply descends.

Here are four instances of a magic spell pass by, the first dry, the second with a warp depth of 51%. The third instance has the same warp depth, but I brought in another control, the ‘Warp Mix’ parameter, which governs the ratio of pre and post-warped content that is fed forward. Having the warped content only slightly mixed in gives a more realistic sound to my ears. The final instance keeps the ‘Warp Mix’ slider at the same, lower level, but decreases the depth so that the rising tone is more like a jet whine.

 

 

Here’s another example using a bram I made, first dry, then with warp depth at 87% so that the pitch-bend is completely inverted, then with the depth lower and the mix backed off a bit so that the ascending and descending tones that result are better balanced.

 

 

A whole new realm of possibility is opened up once you factor in the ‘Warp Tilt’ control, a bipolar slider which shifts spectrally prominent features up or down. The manual describes the effect as being somewhere between frequency shifting, pitch shifting and formant pitch shifting. Once again, it makes far more sense to listen to what it does. Here’s a warped drone with the ‘Warp Tilt’ control slowly increased all the way from -1 to +1, pausing for a little at 0.

 

 

Note how much more gravley the drone sounds at higher tilt settings. This effect becomes even more pronounced when the warp depth is lower. This is where those discontinuity effects come in and how Wormhole can be used to produce some very glitchy and broken effects. With the warp depth low and tilt control high, you get sounds that seem as though they’ve been fed through bad sample rate conversion, very harsh and tinny with lots of aliasing type sounds, ideal for all things lo-fi including replicating the sound of children’s toys etc.

To regulate this effect, there is a low-pass filter. Interestingly, this can be placed either before the tilt stage so that plenty of grit still comes out, or after the tilt stage so the the high frequencies can be tamed.

The ‘poles’ control is where the comb filtering comes in. As it’s increased, resonance becomes stronger. The lower the warp depth, the higher the pitch of the resonance. It also seems to narrow the band width of the signal that comes through. High values of this parameter put the CPU through its paces.

All these controls used in conjunction with one another mean that you can get a lot of different sounds. It would be a mistake, however, to overlook the ‘Warp on/off’ swittch, which means you can bypass the warp circuit entirely so that you’re only using Wormhole’s other features.

Pitch and Frequency Shift

The eight octave pitch shifter is pretty clean. I made this sound by creating a drone using Adaptiverb, also by Zynaptiq,  fiddling with its ADSR envelope to make it a bell and then pitch shifting it to make this notification tone.  I didn’t start by using Wormhole as my pitch shifter though. I used one of its competitors in the pitch shifting market and found that Wormhole was significantly more transparent. It’s now my go to pitch shifter when I don’t want to mes with formants and I want a clean result.

Two algorithms contribute towards the shifter’s transparency by allowing you to tailor it to the content you feed it. The ‘Tight’ pitch shift mode is better for sound effects and so on, whereas the ‘Smooth’ mode lends itself more to the processing of melodic material. All content is different though and I just experiment to see what I like best.

There are two other algorithms though, ‘Detune A’ and ‘Detune B’. These allow you to offset the pitch of each channel of a stereo audio source. Needless to say, in these modes you don’t shift between +/-48 semitones, but by +/-48 cents. because all you’re trying to do is to detune the channels from one another slightly. The upshot of this is to widen the stereo image. Here’s a mono impact widened using various settings of ‘Detune a’ and ‘Detune B’.

 

As always, the key thing with such processes is to watch your mono-compatibility.

The ‘Shift Mix’ control comes in very useful here. It is possible to detune the channels from one another to such an extent that there is an audible difference in pitch. This may be what you want, but if it isn’t, if you’d rather have a chorus effect, bringing in some of the pre-pitch shifted signal will give you just that.

Here’s a little guitar accent, first dry, then detuned, then with the detuned signal blended with the pre-shifted signal.

 

 

Of course, this facility also means that you can create harmonizer effects and perform in octaves. This same accent sounds really nice glossed with a copy an octave above using the smooth algorithm.

 

 

I really like how Zynaptiq gives you mix controls at every stage so that you could potentially have three different sounds coming out of Wormhole. The dry, the warped and the pitch shifted sound. It’s even possible to swap the order of the warp and shift sections to afford greater flexibility here. And, of course, the pitch and reverb sections can be turned on and off just like the warp section.

Another useful application of the ‘Shift Mix’ control is for the frequency shifter. Blending the shifted and pre-shifted signals without using the pitch control can produce interesting, tremolo-style effects.

It’s important to note here that, technically speaking, the frequency and pitch shifters are not separate stages, but part of one process. The ‘Pitch Shift Mode’ algorithms therefore have an effect on the sound of the frequency shifter as well, which isn’t immediately obvious.

Here’s a drone with a small amount of frequency shift applied and the ‘Shift Mix’ control at 50% processed by all of Wormhole’s shifting algorithms.

 

 

The differences between some of them are profound and the sounds produced have a different character to other frequency shifters at similar settings, which impart more resonance. Regarding this particular effect, this isn’t necessarily about better or worse, I like the greater resonances sometimes, but I don’t know of any other frequency shifter that has distinctly different voices.

Effectively, you get two differently scaled frequency shift controls for the price of one because there is a switch that allows you to alter the response curve of the frequency shift slider. One setting is more useful for shifting small amounts and the other linear setting is better scaled for larger shifts. This makes the interface more ergonomical.

What really sets this frequency shifter apart for me is the ‘Decay’ parameter, which mimics how different frequency components of a sound behave in the real world. Again, rather than focusing on the technical details, I find it’s much less brain-breaking to talk about how it sounds.

I seldom ever like to frequency shift sounds up by large amounts because they always get a characteristic ringing sound as frequencies seem, subjectively, to bunch together. The decay parameter counteracts this. Here’s that same drone shifted up by 1480 Hz. Then the decay parameter is decreased. The main effect is that the sound gets significantly quieter, however, if we turn to another section of the plugin, we can negate the volume decrease and still end up with a more interesting sound.

The Blender

Wormhole provides a dry/wet control on steroids. Of course, if you want to cross-fade between the affected and unaffected signals, you can do that with the ‘FX Blend’ control, but the ‘Blend Mode’ switch provides two other possible ways for blending the wet and dry signals other than cross-fading, which involve Zynaptiq’s morphing technology.

The algorithm ‘Morph A’ imposes characteristics of the wet signal onto the dry, whereas ‘Morph B’ does the opposite. This means that, with either of these two latter blend modes, with the ‘FX blend’ control at 50%, instead of hearing two distinct sounds, the wet and the dry, you hear one sound that, while having characteristics common to both, sounds distinct from both.

By setting the blend mode to ‘Morph A’ and dialing down the ‘FX Blend’ control, just a tad, the volume reduction imposed on the frequency shifted drone by the decay parameter is negated, but we have a less monotonous sound.

 

 

Here’s another example. I created this pulsating drone using a granular synthesis plugin called Crusher-X. First, I frequency shift it down by the full 4000 Hz, then pitch shift it up 23 semitones. Finally, pausing along the way to demonstrate the intermediate state, I bring it back to our galaxy via the ‘FX Blend’ slider set to ‘Morph B’. I’ve also automated the ‘Wet Gain’ control so that things are roughly gain matched. Because of the amount of frequency shift, a lot of the sound disappears.

 

 

Here’s the same via ‘Morph A’.  I love the sound as it’s transitioning. This is the thing about Wormhole. When looking for suitable audio to provide examples, I didn’t know what I was going to get. Especially once you start factoring in the morphing controls, things become more unpredictable and alchemical. Of course, I could set about automating warp parameters as well to get things really going crazy.

Delayed Gratification

Now that we’ve seen what the Morphing module can do, the presence of a delay line takes on a new significance. This would be true even if it were simply a pre-delay, but the delay control is bipolar, allowing you either to shift the wet up to 500 milliseconds behind the dry, or to shift the dry behind the wet. This means that you could morph a dry kick with an affected snare, a gun-shot with its affected tail, one phrase with another etc. You could automate the delay line to produce flanging or metalize your audio with a short static delay.

Before you get your head around that, let’s introduce Wormhole’s second stereo widening trick. The delay line has an ‘L/R inv’ control. This delays one channel of the dry sound and the opposite channel of the wet sound for more stereo widening goodness.

This is me reading a children’s poem first adjusting the delay line with the invert switch on, then bringing in the detune widening feature as well. Next I mess with the FX blend, morphing between the wet and the dry, before switching pitch shift modes to demonstrate how morphing between the dry and a pitch-shifted copy can produce formant shifter-like effects. Finally, I bring in the warp section, increasing the tilt and decreasing the warp depth and then opening the delay line out to full delay to produce a broken connection sound that throws intelligibility to the winds.

 

 

Reverb

Last, but not least, Wormhole offers a simple but nice-sounding reverb, which can be routed in one of three ways – either before the blend section so that is is fed by the warp/shift circuits, after the blend section or two instances can be inserted, one before and one after the blend section. This enables you to create etereal washes, drones and textures, much like my ‘Sine Through a Wormhole’ example earlier. The ‘reverb mix’ control means that you can have your signal exactly where you want it and damp and size controls complete the configurable picture.

It’s important to note that, as with the ‘Warp Depth’ slider and the reverb in Adaptiverb, adjusting the reverb size requires some complex calculations so automating the reverb size slider probably won’t produce realistic results.

The reverb module provides the possibility for a third stereo widening technique all by itself. Simply by turning everything else off, setting the reverb mix to 100 and the reverb size to 0, things widen quite nicely. This effect can be altered using the reverb mix control.

Combining the reverb routing options with the blending options further increases the wide range of effects on offer. You can achieve a sound that resembles the pumping of a compressor for example, as at the beginning of this demo, or you can use the tail of the reverb processed through the morphing section as a means to add another type of mangling to your vocals etc.

Given that you can have two reverb instances with very long tails and the fact that the shift section enables you to take things so low, it might have been a bonus to include a low-cut filter for the reverb section to control possible mud.

Looking a little more broadly at the plugin and allowing my greed to run wild, another feature it would be great to see in a future version would be a feedback control of some kind. Feedback, particularly when combined with frequency shifting and delay can produce very interesting results and this would broaden Wormhole’s tremendous scope still further.

 

Something to be Aware of

Owing to the complexity under the hood, Wormhole can use a lot of CPU. My humble I5 processor can’t really handle the ‘Poles’ control at maximum when working at a 96000 Hz sample rate. So that I could use Wormhole at its more demanding settings, I initially tended to lower the sample rate of my project for previewing and then put it up again just before rendering. This is inadvisable however because the warp section seems to produce different results at different sample rates so what I was hearing in preview wasn’t what was rendering out.

 

Accessibility to the Visually Impaired

All the aspects of the plugin that I have mentioned so far are completely accessible to the visually impaired. There are just two aspects that are not.

Unfortunately, Zynaptiq’s newly upgraded plugin UI, which offers various benefits for sighted users including UI scalability has downgraded accessibility to the many factory presets wormhole has to offer. The results this plugin produces are so input-dependent and experimentation so simple however, that I never found myself using the presets much anyway, even when they could be accessed. That said, looking at the demos, there are some sounds that leave me wondering “how did they do that?” so regaining access to them would certainly be a plus.

The other inaccessible feature is Wormhole’s intelligent randomization function, which allows you to experiment by randomizing Wormhole’s parameters, but with constraints placed on the limits of this randomization, which organises the chaos somewhat, producing variations on a theme rather than wildly different results.

 

Summary

Wormhole is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts thanks to its intricate routing and configurability. Thing is, all the parts are also top notch, providing great intelligibility and a clean sound…or not depending on what you want, which gives you a plugin that’s really fun to use. I’m still learning new little things about it and being surprised by its results. Considering everything it can do, it’s a bargain at the price too! If I had been involved in coming up with Wormhole’s tag line, I would have gone for “but wait, there’s more!”

Wormhole can be trialed or purchased here.

About The Author

Justin Macleod is a sound designer based in the UK who runs SkyClad Sound. You can check out his sound effects here at zapsplat.com and follow him on Twitter @SkycladSound