It’s not often that a new plugin gets released for Universal Audio’s DSP-powered UAD-2 and Apollo platforms aimed primarily at electronic producers rather than engineers working in rock and pop, so the release of Softube’s emulation of the sought-after OTO Machines Biscuit is big news.
Like the real thing (of which only a few hundred were made between 2010 and 2013), the comparatively primitive outward appearance of this virtual box of lo-fi tricks belies the depth, quality and character of the sounds it makes, but nonetheless, all but the greenest of music technologists will be able to master its intuitive front panel in minutes.
OTO Biscuit 8-Bit Effects (VST/AU/AAX/RTAS) is a digital distortion unit incorporating an analogue- style filter and four “Brain” effects. The top half of the interface handles bit-manipulation, sample rate reduction and filtering, while the bottom half (which doesn’t exist in the hardware, its controls instead modally laid out on the buttons and knobs above) houses the effects: Wave Shaping, Delay, Pitch Shifting and Step Filter.
The first stage of the signal flow is the Drive circuit, which emulates a diode clipper and gets decidedly nasty when pushed hard. This harsh clipping is part of the point rather than a phenomenon to be avoided, and the Bypass button - which lights up green when inactive, counterintuitively - flashes red when it happens, not that you’ll need it pointing out! Next to the Drive knob, the Naked and Dressed controls set the dry and wet output levels respectively.
The digital distortion at the heart of Biscuit is applied using the bank of eight “Biscuiting switches” and the Clock knob. Each switch represents one of the eight bits in the signal, with the Least Significant Bit (LSB) at the left hand end and the Most Significant Bit (MSB) at the right. Clicking a switch toggles it through three states - on (white), inverted (red) and muted (unlit) - and the severity of the resultant distortion increases the further to the right the bits are inverted or muted, from subtle noise at the LSB end to total decimation when MSB is punched out.
The Clock knob, meanwhile, progressively sweeps the internal sample rate down from 30kHz to 250Hz for a smoother flavour of disintegration - it’s a prime candidate for live performance and automation.
With Biscuit’s distortion being potentially so extreme, the inclusion of a 12dB ‘analogue’ resonant multimode filter at the end of the chain is an architectural masterstroke, enabling instant curtailment of its outrageous sonic excesses. Inspired by the filter on the Korg MS-20, it features low-pass, high-pass and band-pass modes, and is as silky, fluid and responsive as they come. Shift-dragging the Clock knob moves the filter Frequency knob in tandem with it - again, great for DJs and live performers.
Brain and beauty
The bottom section, activated by the Brain button, plays host to Biscuit’s four effects modules, only one of which can be used at a time. The effect itself is chosen using the four buttons at the bottom, and the four knobs to the right are contextual.
The Wave Shaper module offers eight shapers, the first five comprising positive
and negative rectifiers, foldback distortion, ‘fifth-down’ distortion and bit swapping, while shapers 6 to 8 are in fact simple pitch-tracking synthesisers, intended mainly for thickening up bass sounds.
Biscuit’s fourth effect module, Step Filter, brings groovy rhythmic modulation of filter cutoff, resonance and even mode via a simple step sequencer interface. The cycling sequence can be 2, 3, 4, 6 or 8 steps long, and made to play Forwards, Backwards, Alternating between forwards and backwards, or jumping randomly between steps. You can sync it to the host DAW or set the speed with the Tap Tempo button or - annoyingly - the Time control in the Delay module. The Speed knob multiplies the set note value or tempo by up to x24, to a maximum of 1/96 or, er, 144,000bpm.
The cutoff Frequencies for all active steps are adjustable within the sequencer by dragging the tops of the vertical green bars up and down. Beyond that, though, with a step selected, altering the Freq and Q knobs in the top section sets the filter to the dialled-in values for that step, and clicking the Filter button cycles it through high-pass, low-pass and band- pass modes. Thus, complex frequency-shaping patterns are easily designed, and the only things we find ourselves wishing for are a swing control and envelope attack and release parameters for smoothing out the transitions between steps. Well, we can dream, can’t we..?
Shadowing the input with Sawtooth, Lo Sawtooth (an octave down) or Lo Square waves, they also apply envelope filter modulation, merging the input signal and synth nicely. The first five shapers are wicked, further extending Biscuit’s distortion credentials, but the three synth shapers we could take or leave.
Unlike its hardware mono equivalent, Biscuit’s Delay module is in stereo, with up to five seconds of host-synced or free-running delay time, a feedback circuit, and note values from dotted 16th to 1/4.
The Pitch Shifter transposes the sound by eight musically meaningful preset points within +1 to -2 octaves, using a very short delay buffer that naturally imparts chorusing between the dry and wet signals. The jewel in the Biscuit effects crown, however, is the Step Filter, which is discussed in Stepping out.
Take the Biscuit
As was the case for so... well, the few owners of the original hardware, we’ve become hopelessly addicted to Biscuit. It’s capable of far more than just the searing bitcrushing and waveshaping for which it’s best known - it also serves as a versatile warming and enhancing processor with a unique sound and style.
Experimenting with Biscuiting switch combinations doesn’t actually open up as broad a range of distortion colours as you’d expect, with the right-hand end being so dominant over the left; but that doesn’t matter - you’ll often find the edge you’re looking for by just inverting or muting one or two of them anyway, before losing yourself in the Clock, Filter and Brain controls, which make for a compelling set of sound design and performance tools.
Our only bugbear is that, in adherence to the original hardware, you can only use one Brain effect at a time, although there’s presumably no technical reason why all four couldn’t be made active together. We can understand Softube and UA’s reluctance to break the mould, though, and ultimately, OTO Biscuit 8-Bit Effects is a fine addition to the UAD larder, and one that every suitably equipped electronic musician and DJ needs to get their teeth into.