Free Real-Time Effects Processing Using Usine

Today I discovered Usine, a free bit of software for Windows that enables you to wire VST effects together. This is so much fun that I had to share it with you and give you a quick guide to getting it up and running. If you're a music techie already you can probably breeze through the first bit.

What I'm going to explain here is for Windows (specifically Vista, although it shoudl work in other versions). First download and install Usine from Sensomusic's web site. I've got the free version for now, although if I carry on using it I'll probably upgrade to the paid-for one that has more features.

First plug your guitar into your computer (probably into the microphone socket unless you have a fancy soundcard) and plug your computer into your guitar amp (probably from the headphone socket). Don't have your amp turned up too high -- you don't want to spike it. Make sure the volume on your computer is turned up. Check it by playing some music (e.g. a YouTube clip) on your computer and make sure you can hear it through the amp, but not too loudly.

A word of warning: unless you have a low-latency soundcard there will be a small delay between playing a note and hearing it coming out of the computer. This will make it pretty much impossible to use live or even when playing along to a backing track. If you decide to use real-time processing with any seriousness you'll need to invest in a suitable soundcard. In the interim, try to close down as many applications as you can so you have plenty of resources to play with.

OK, now open up Usine. It's organised into "tracks", and each track processes your audio input and sends it out again; you can balance the levels of the tracks using their volume sliders at the bottom of the screen.

When you first open it up it should look something like this:

There are three important things to notice. First, the bug button that says "OFF" in the top left corner -- when you're ready to start processing your guitar, click this to turn everything on. Until then you won't hear anything.

Second, the rounded box underneath the word "grid" in each column. This is where your patches will go, and the patches are where the action happens. Third, the rounded box underneath it, which is where you can balance the volume of each track.

Now right-click that rounded patch box and choose "open patch". It'll give you a blank workspace. You can put anything you like in here but let's start very simple. Right click anywhere in the grey space and choose "Audio Input". Do this twice -- you should now have two little boxes and if you look at them closely you'll see that one is right and the other's left.

Now do the same thing again, but instead of "Audio Input" choose "Audio Output". Now here's the good bit: click the little yellow box on the right input and drag it to the right output; a "wire" should appear linking the two. Do the same for the left and you should have a patch that looks like this:

All you've done is wired up the input to the output. Now hit the "OFF" button to turn it on and, if your computer's audio is working OK, you should be able to play your guitar through the computer. You won't hear any effects on it, of course, because there aren't any in your patch yet. This just proves it's working.

Click Usine OFF again and find a VST plugin. You can get lots of free ones from DeepSound. All VST plugins are basically DLL files, and you can drag the file straight into that patch editor in Usine. A block will appear with inputs and outputs a bit like a stomp box; make sure your audio inputs are wired to the inputs of the effect and its outputs go to the audio outputs.

Just like stomp boxes you can adjust the settings and wire them up together in sequence, as in this example that passes the guitar sound through KillerRinger (a ring modulator) and then a delay:

As you get more advanced you can control the parameters of each plugin using LFOs and other kinds of input, which is like having the knobs on your effects pedals automatically turning.

Each patch can be as complex as you want, and you can have one in each of four tracks in the free version so that you can actually have several sounds going on simultaneously and mix between them.

Here's an effect I got after playing with it for about half an hour. This is just me noodling in A minor, nothing exciting musically but check out the cool sounds: