Arturia has been building out its collection of effects plugins over the last few years. One notable blind spot was distortion. It wasn't until FX Collection 3 launched in June that the company would introduce its first dedicated distortion plugins. Dist OpAmp-21 and Dist Tube-Culture are solid, if unspectacular entries in the world of dirt effects. But the new Dist Coldfire is something different. It might just be the most interesting and most versatile distortion plugin I've ever used.
Where OpAmp-21 and Tube-Culture were emulations of classic effects units, Coldfire is something completely new. It takes an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach similar to the company's Pigments (still my favorite soft synth on the market). It's a dual distortion engine — meaning you can combine two different drives simultaneously. There are 11 different distortion algorithms, ranging from the subtle warmth of tape to the harsh howl of a wavefolder. Many of them even have multiple modes, giving you a grand total of 33 variations to play with. And you can run any of them independently or paired in series, parallel, split stereo, mid/side or band split.
That alone is pretty solid. But there's also a multimode pre filter and a simple two-band post filter on each channel, a three-mode dynamics module (limiter, compressor, multi-band) that can be pre or post distortion, and a feedback unit (basically a very short delay) for creating wails of cascading noise. Plus many of the parameters (though, not all), can be automated using the robust modulation section that has six slots that be any combination of LFOs, function generators, envelope followers or 16-step sequencers.
If that sounds like a lot to wrap your head around, I don't blame you. Arturia included over 150 presets with helpful categories and tags as a jumping off point, though. Plus there's plenty of tutorial content to help you get familiar with the various pieces.
Once you start exploring though, Dist Coldfire is actually surprisingly straightforward. At least if you're familiar with Arturia's general interface practices. There's clearly labeled and color coded buttons and knobs. Modules are laid out in a pretty intuitive manner, and modulation is easily assigned and attenuated (click the assign button, then dial in the amount by clicking and dragging around the parameter you want to target).
While it would be easy to cut the company some slack if some of the sounds were underwhelming, considering the breadth of options available, I'm happy to report that almost everything sounds pretty good. Some of the distortion algorithms have smaller sweet spots than others. And not all are going to be to everyone's tastes, but they're pretty successful in achieving the vibe they're looking for.
For example, the Gentle Lo-fi preset is one of the most immediately usable right out of the box. It adds a healthy amount of tape saturation, a dash of bit crushing and just a touch of modulation to give you a sort of wistful and retro sound. It's easy enough to up the modulation too, to give it an even more worn character. But hey, maybe not everyone is like me and looking to make everything they record sound slightly broken and old. Maybe you want the harsh digital sound of mid '90s industrial metal — well combining the tube drive and waveshaper can get you there.
Or heck, maybe you want full on digital oblivion. Combining multiple bit crushers with some random LFOs and you get something resembling a malfunctioning computer. Take it even farther by adding modulated notch or bandpass filters. The point being that, there's probably something here for everyone.
Now, are the analog distortions here 100-percent accurate and indistinguishable from their real world counterparts? Absolutely not, despite Arturia's TAE marketing claims. The company's technology remains much better at capturing the vibe of vintage analog synths than it is at recreating the warmth and growl of a well loved tube amp. That being said, it's not bad and hardly discernible in a fully mixed track. Just don't go cranking most of them.
Of the analog emulations — tape, tube, transformer, transistor, germanium and force — I found only tape and force really usable with the drive set to max. The transistor and germanium in particular have a somewhat unpleasant digital harshness at the highest levels. Some modes are also better fits for specific instruments and sounds. While you can obviously slap a waveshaper on an intricate piano melody if you like, the result might not always be ideal.
Dist Coldfire is versatile enough to be your only distortion plugin. But it probably won't be my go to when looking to add a touch of warmth or saturation — even though I can easily see myself slapping Gentle Lo-fi on everything and calling it a day. It's a complicated plugin whose true power lies in its more out there capabilities. It's also a bit resource intensive — for a distortion plugin at least.