IK Multimedia's T-Racks stand-alone mastering software for PC and Mac is now available in a 24-bit version. The suite consists of a 6-band stereo equalizer, a “Tube” compressor, a multiband limiter, a dedicated output section and a stereo “widener.”
T-Racks' entire focus is to simulate the sound of vintage-tube mastering gear, and the unique interface has been designed accordingly. Some may find it cartoonish, but there can be no doubt that the rotary pots, toggle switches and classic analog-style VU meters, all topped by a rack of glowing “tubes,” positively convey the idea that this software is intended to interject analog warmth into digital audio.
T-Racks' GUI has been optimized for an 800×600 screen resolution and is not resizeable. Most of us will be using screen resolutions of 1,024×768 or higher. At the 1,280×1,024 resolution that I must use in my system, I found the text and controls of the interface — though still readable and tweakable — somewhat difficult to negotiate.
The suite consists of four basic modules and two control panels. Each module features a Bypass switch, as well as a Reset switch that resets all parameters to default values. Values for currently adjusted parameters are displayed in a small window in each module. Most of the default values can be changed and saved by editing an internal text file, a real time-saver as these can be created, saved per project and simply dragged into the T-Racks window.
The first module in the suite is the 6-band equalizer. This includes, from highs to lows: a highpass filter from 15 to 5 kHz; a high-shelving-type filter from 750 to 8k Hz; a high-mid peaking filter from 200 to 18k Hz; a low-mid peaking filter from 33 to 5.5k Hz; a low-shelving filter from 30 to 200 Hz; and a lowpass filter from 200 to 20k Hz. The low-mid and high-mid bands are semi-parametric and feature a Toggle switch for either “hi Q” or “low Q” bandwidth. Because this suite is intended to be used as a mastering tool, I feel that variable Q would be preferable; mastering often requires a series of small but precise tweaks. A linear representation of the current EQ curve is visible in the Scope view, but manipulation of the EQ curve on the Scope screen via the mouse is not possible.
Next in the chain (though the order of the first two modules may be reversed via the Patch switch) is the Tube-Comp compressor module. Threshold and release parameters are adjustable, as is the compression ratio, which may be varied from 1.5:1 to 4.68:1. An Input Drive control determines the relative threshold of compression, but, as is the case with many vintage-tube units, even at the lowest setting, some compression will still take place. The stereo widener control, a single knob, is also contained in this module. Oddly, when the Tube-Comp module is bypassed, the widener is also bypassed, so it is not possible to use the widener without having the Tube-Comp also enabled.
The Tube-Comp is followed by the Multiband-Limiter. The fact that this is a 3-band limiter is not readily apparent to the user. The only controls visible on the module interface itself are the Release Time, Overload and Input Drive controls, as well as the Reset and Bypass toggles. The rather ambiguously named Overload control simply varies the way the limiter controls peaks. Setting a lower value results in more frequent gain reduction; setting a higher value will result in less frequent gain reduction but more clipping. Adjustment of Multiband-Limiter crossover points and other parameters is not possible from the interface itself. However, as with other T-Racks modules, many parameters are adjustable by tweaking the internal settings via a text editor.
Last in the signal chain is the output section, which contains the master level control, a set of LED-type peak meters, a Mono Summing switch, stereo balance control, and the master output, level and “Sat” pots. The level control is actually a gain control for a final “clipping” stage. While not a “brickwall”-type limiter, it does allow you to gain a high degree of control over peaks. These peaks, though not usually audible, may need reduction in overall level order to avoid digital overs and thereby cause a decrease in perceived volume level — not a good idea at the mastering stage. The Sat control allows continuously variable control over the shape of the peak limiting. Depending on the program material, harder or softer values may yield optimum results. Last, for CD mastering, dithering may be chosen from the Preference menu. Although some of this may sound a bit confusing to the uninitiated, the excellent online manual does a lot to clarify these issues. Factory and user presets per module or suite are available from this screen as well.
The control panel section allows you to open, play, process and save files, as well as apply fade-ins and outs. Fade time may be adjusted from 0 to 60 seconds, and either a logarithmic or linear curve shape may be selected and applied. The usual transport buttons and timeline are available, and markers may be dropped along the timeline. Finally, a menu bar at the bottom of the screen accesses a snapshot menu, a CPU meter, an Undo button, a large sample-accurate output meter and a Preference menu.
A recently completed CD project gave me a perfect opportunity to see what T-Racks had to offer. As soon as I loaded a file into T-Racks, it was immediately apparent that this software has a sound of its own. T-Racks does an excellent job of imparting the thickness and warmth associated with vintage-tube gear. The characteristics of the compressor and limiter sections were especially authentic, reminding me of some vintage Western Electric units I once owned. The EQ section, although somewhat limited, still had enough range to allow me to make final spectrum adjustments. Because the T-Racks does not have a true brickwall-type limiter, a bit of work was needed to tame the peaks, but the same can be said of the vintage-tube gear that T-Racks emulates! I almost overlooked the stereo widener, but I was surprised to see that it was quite effective in enhancing the overall stereo image, while not imparting any obviously artificial-sounding artifacts. I would like to see this feature independently available from the module it is tied to.
T-Racks may not be the first software you choose for every mastering project, but it does what it is intended to do and does it well. Even with the higher bit resolutions available today, brittle or thin-sounding digital audio is encountered all too often. T-Racks mastering software is an ideal way to put some “fat” back into a skinny-sounding mix.
Special thanks to Derrell Brown, keyboardist extraordinaire, for “Mac testing.”
T-Racks/IK Multimedia, 5911 Hickory Dr., Fort Pierce, FL 34982; 866/243-1718; www.t-racks.com.
Pete Leoni is an independent producer/engineer and, with his partner Morgan Pettinato, the founder of Q-Performance PC Audio Systems, a division of Eastcoast Music Mall.