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Mastering in the Box - Mixonline

Mastering in the Box

PLUG-IN PACKAGES TAKE YOUR MIX TO THE FINAL STEP
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IK Multimedia T-Racks 3 Deluxe mastering suite

Digital audio workstations have a long history in the mastering/premastering process, dating back to well before the days when multitracking on a PC or Mac was standard practice in the studio. In fact, early on some of the most successful DAWs — such as Sonic Solutions' Sonic System and Digidesign's Sound Tools — were designed specifically for mastering/premastering tasks. Technology has advanced to the point where nearly every aspect of music production can be handled with the right software, and the mastering process is no exception.

Today, most DAW programs include a good selection of compressors, limiters, equalizers and other DSPs for general audio work, but mastering often requires more specialized tools. With that in mind, an increasing number of software suppliers are offering bundled collections of plug-ins that are designed for mastering applications. With a lot of new products in this genre coming to market, we decided to survey what's available.

Designed as an add-on to its Peak Series of editing DAWs (and included fre with Peak Pro XT), but compatible with other Mac or PC hosts supporting RTAS/AudioSuite, VST or Audio Units, the Master Perfection Suite from BIAS (www.bias-inc.com) is a $599 collection of six plugs, including Reveal (seven-tool analysis suite), Sqweez-3 and -5 (linear-phase multiband dynamics), Repli-Q (linear-phase spectral matching), PitchCraft (pitch correction/transposition), SuperFreq (4/6/8/10-band paragraphic equalization) and GateEx (gate with downward expander).

While the functions of applications such as Sqweez, SuperFreq, PitchCraft and GateEx are more straightforward, some require more explanation. Repli-Q uses a linear-phase equalization algorithm to provide high-quality spectral matching (to add consistency to tracks recorded in different environments) and mastering for different delivery targets, such as repurposing a compressed MP3 track for CD release. Reveal has precision tools for looking at your project, like peak/RMS meters, phase displays and correlation meters, spectrum analyzer and spectrogram displays, oscilloscope and more.

Offered in native (RTAS, VST and Audio Units) and TDM versions, Brainworx Music & Media's (www.brainworxmusic.de) bx_digital provides a 5-band equalizer — 7-band in the TDM version — de-esser, Mono-Maker, and intelligent bass and presence shifters. This expanded software version of the bx1 hardware processor can operate in three modes: left/right and both mid-side (M/S) modes for recording and mastering applications. Features include extensive metering and stereo-width tweaking in M/S modes, solo buttons for mastering de-essing, and the ability to transform all LF content with a stereo track into mono for 100-percent compatibility in radio/broadcast play situations. Pricing ranges from about $400 to $780, depending on the version and exchange rates.

Cube-Tec (dist. by Sascom, www.sascom.com) has long offered a variety of plug-ins — the company refers to these as VPIs (Virtual Precision Instruments) — for its AudioCube hardware system. Rather than purchase a set bundle, users can choose from among various VPIs with discount quantity pricing based on the number purchased. Recently, Cube-Tec has begun offering its Mastering Suite VPIs, which can be used with any DAW (PC or Intel Mac) by those who simply purchase the Cube-Tec dongle. Available VPIs include Loudness Maximizer, a psycho-acoustic process; Analog EQ, a 7-band equalizer that emulates the sound of analog filters; MultiComp, a 5-band compressor; Attack Designer, a 5-band transient shaper; Vitalizer, CubeTec's version of SPL's analog processor; and Analog Comp, a classic compressor interface with analog-style transfer functions.

Priced at $499, the new T-RackS 3 Deluxe mastering suite from IK Multimedia (www.ikmultimedia.com) offers nine digital- and analog-modeled dynamics and EQ processors. Among these are three new analog and vintage emulations (including models based on the Fairchild 670 and the Pultec EQP-1A) and two new digital processors (intelligent, multi-algorithm brickwall limiter and high-precision, high-definition linear phase equalizer), as well the four classic T-RackS processors (compressor, multiband limiter, clipper and equalizer).

Beyond the DSP power itself, the bundle adds features such as a configurable mastering/mixing chain for running up to 12 processes in parallel or series and a metering section with peak/phase/RMS/perceived-loudness meters, as well as a spectrum analyzer with peak, RMS and averaging indicators. Other touches that simplify operations include style-based presets, full chain visualization, an A/B compare function, multiple audio processing in stand-alone mode and single-click bypass of an entire chain or individual modules. T-RackS 3 Deluxe runs in Audio Units, RTAS and VST on Intel or Power PC Macs (OS 10.4 or higher) and RTAS or VST on PCs running Windows XP or Vista. Another version, the T-RackS 3 Standard, offers the four classic TrackS processors within the new application framework for $199.99.

Distributed worldwide by M-Audio, iZotope (www.izotope.com) announced Ozone 4 at the recent AES convention, with this new version of its popular mastering suite shipping next month. Offered for Pro Tools 7 (RTAS/AudioSuite), VST, MAS, Audio Units and DirectX for Mac universal binary OS X and Win XP/Vista, Ozone 4 optimizes the Ozone algorithms for low-latency DAW production. The bundle offers a new Intelligent Loudness Maximizer, Perfect Reconstruction crossovers, mid/side processing for versatile soundstage control and a True Envelope dynamics processing mode, which introduces an alternative to traditional peak and RMS-based dynamics processing that's said to provide exceptionally transparent compression, expansion and limiting. The upgrade includes numerous interface and ease-of-use additions, including an improved preset system for achieving quick results from just a few parameter adjustments. Ozone 4 is priced at $249; users who purchased Ozone 3 after October 1, 2008, are offered a free upgrade. Other existing Ozone 3 users can upgrade for $79.

The Comprehensive Mastering Suite from Sonalksis (www.sonalksis.com) is an RTAS/VST/Audio Units plug-in bundle for Win XP/Vista or Mac DAWs. Software tools within the set include MultiLimit, a mastering limiter with five independent bands of control; the MaxLimit stereo program maximizing limiter; StereoTools stereo-imaging control; and Ultimate-D, an advanced dithering processor. Among the features within the Comprehensive Mastering Suite are 64-bit floating-point precision internal processing, up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution, and various display and monitoring choices, such as phase metering (polar and Lissajous scope graphs), spectral analysis and K-System metering options.

Looking for loud? Sonnox (www.sonnoxplugins.com) offers the Sonnox Enhance bundle, with three easy-to-use plug-ins for stereo mix enhancement. The set contains the Oxford Inflator (to increase the apparent loudness without audibly reducing dynamic range with the musicality of tubes), Oxford Transient Modulator (to accentuate or flatten attacks and transients) and the Oxford Limiter. Sonnox Enhance is available for Pro Tools HD TDM ($1,245), TC PowerCore ($1,024) and $627 native VST/RTAS/Audio Units versions. Sonnox also offers a variety of Flexible Oxford bundles that allow buyers to create their own combinations of individual plugs at discounted rates.

From a price standpoint, the clear winner in the mastering bundles race has to be Sony Creative Software's (www.sonycreativesoftware.com) $34.95 XFX 2 collection, which runs seamlessly with any DAW program that supports DirectX plug-ins. The second in the company's XFX Series, the set includes six discrete plugs: graphic dynamics, graphic EQ, multiband dynamics, noise gate, paragraphic EQ and parametric EQ.

Designed for PowerCore and the Pro Tools HD platforms, the MD3 Stereo Mastering package from TC Electronic (www.tcelectronic.com) includes the MD3 multiband dynamics and brickwall limiter, two algorithms ported from the company's flagship hardware System 6000 processor. The multiband plug allows stereo dynamics processing in three frequency bands, with true split-sidechain structure on dual-mono signals, and other tweaks such as M/S processing and Spectral Stereo Enhancer. The limiter eliminates digital “overs” that generate distortion in consumer CD players, radio processors and data-reduction codecs.

Available for Universal Audio's (www.uaudio.com) UAD-1 hardware/software platform — and soon for the new UAD-2 cards — is UA's Precision Mastering bundle. The $500 set comprises three plug-ins intended specifically for stereo program material. Precision Multiband provides compression/expansion/gating for each of five bands, offering complex dynamics control or basic de-essing processing. Modeled after high-end mastering filters, Precision Equalizer is a stereo/dual-mono 4-band EQ (and highpass filter) with 192kHz clarity and stepped 0.5dB controls. Precision Limiter is a single-band, brickwall limiter with a 1.5ms look-ahead window for zero overshoot performance and comprehensive metering that conforms to Bob Katz's “K-system” metering specs. The limiter plug can also be bypassed, allowing use of the high-resolution metering function by itself.

WaveArts (www.wavearts.com) offers its Mac/PC plug-ins individually and in large inclusive bundles, as well as a $299 Custom Duo for selecting any two, where a combination of FinalPlug 5 and TrackPlug 5 makes for a master-quality tool kit. FinalPlug 5 is a peak limiter/volume maximizer with bit-depth truncation and dither options, 24-bit/192kHz resolution, and presets for CD and DVD-Audio mastering and track compression. While intended mainly as a channel strip, TrackPlug 5's stereo capability opens up its 10-band EQ (64-bit), brickwall filters, dual compressors, gate, sidechain EQs, clean/vintage compression modes, peak limiter, de-essing and spectrum analysis functions to mastering applications, especially when combined with FinalPlug 5. Both plug-ins support hosts using the Audio Units, MAS, VST, RTAS and DirectX platforms.

Waves (www.waves.com) offers more than a dozen bundles, both general-purpose and specialized, with its Masters collection intended specifically for mastering applications. Available for PC or Mac in $900 Native (RTAS/Audio Units/VST/AudioSuite) and $1,800 TDM versions, this bundle includes three key plug-ins. The Linear Phase Equalizer is designed for zero phase-shift operation with nine selectable filter types and five paragraphic bands (with a massive ±30dB gain change range per band) and a dedicated LF filter. Linear Phase Multiband provides five bands of distortion-free compression, based on linear-phase crossovers and technologies such as adaptive thresholds, automatic gain makeup and finite response filters. Also included is the L2 Ultramaximizer, offering look-ahead brickwall peak limiting and level maximization with three dither types and up to 192kHz resolution.

George Petersen is Mix's executive editor and runs a small record label atwww.jenpet.com.

Some Non-Plug-In Essentials

Plug-ins can expand the capability of your DAW, but sometimes a few basic, bundled, stand-alone apps can also smooth the mastering process.

The AudioTools™ AWE Master Bundle from Minnetonka Audio (www.minnetonkaaudio.com) is a set of integrated, iZotope-powered tools designed to address each step of the mastering process: equalization, multiband compression, loudness maximization and ambience reverb. Time-stretch and pitch-shift, with a extremely wide 12.5 to 800-percent range, are also included. Processing chains can be auditioned and saved as templates. This Mac OS X collection runs with any I/O supporting Core Audio.

Going beyond CD? The Dolby Media Producer suite from Dolby Labs (www.dolby.com) supports multichannel, non-real-time encoding and real-time file decoding of Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plug, Dolby TrueHD and MLP Lossless for DVD-Video, DVD-Audio and Blu-ray disc formats. Also available separately, the $11,000 bundle includes four separate products: Dolby Media Encoder, Dolby Media Encoder SE, Dolby Media Decoder and Dolby Media Tools. All are Mac Universal apps for native operation on Intel-based and PowerPC Macs.

George Petersen