There's nothing like multiband dynamics processing to pinpoint and control troublesome frequencies. The ability to target a specific bandwidth gives you greater command over the amount of dynamics processing applied to a signal overall. By zeroing in on the frequencies that require compression, expansion or limiting, more of the original signal's detail is preserved, resulting in a track that sounds open and unprocessed. The squashing, notching, and pumping artifacts that traditional, full-bandwidth dynamics processors often suffer from can be all but eliminated with a multiband machine.
MasterX, a TDM plug-in from TC Works (the software division of TC Electronic), puts this kind of dynamics processing in your hands (or more precisely, in the plug-ins folder of your Pro Tools system). It retails for $995, a fraction of what a hardware unit with comparable features would cost.
There are three bandwidths to work with; expansion, compression and limiting are available on each. The graphical user interface is well laid out, and there is a unique Target Meta-Parameters feature that lets you adjust several related complex parameters simultaneously, from a single fader on each dynamics module. (I'll talk more about this later.) Based on the same core technology as TC Electronic's Finalizer rack units, MasterX brings the essential components of this popular hardware to the software world of mixing and mastering. I used MasterX Version 1.5 for this field test.
DOING THE MASTER MOVESInstalling MasterX is completely routine: Pop the disk in and run the installer program. One key disk authorization is provided; you can generate a challenge code from the install disk, send the string to TC Works when you register, and they will send you the response code. Then, re-install the software using the response code, put the installation disk with the original authorization someplace safe and sleep soundly, knowing that you never have to worry about losing your hard disk authorization.
When inserted, MasterX eats up 50% of a single DSP chip (the SRAM chip, giving you three chips to work with per Pro Tools MIX card). Two instances will fit on a single chip. It doesn't matter whether the insert is mono or stereo; the DSP usage is always the same.
Considering the amount of processing power MasterX packs, it's very easy to use, thanks to a well-designed main window. There are four basic sections: input/output meters and levels, frequency ranges and levels, the dynamics modules, and parameters for optimizing the digital signal. If you understand the basics of multiband processing and digital mastering, and/or you are familiar with the Finalizer pieces, you will feel right at home.
The input and output meters go from -60 to 0 dB. Above these meters are dedicated clip meters that register samples (not dB) above 0 dB. This is a great metering system because samples are more relevant to digital clips than dB, which are more relevant to analog peaks. On top of each meter, peaks are displayed as numerical values, in dB and samples, respectively. I love being able to see an actual number rather than depend on how accurately I can read virtual LEDs. Peak metering can be set to 6-second hold, infinite hold or off. My only complaint about the metering is that clicking on a peak LED doesn't automatically clear the peak. Clicking on a meter brings up the peak metering hold menu; from here, you have to choose the peak meter reset item. An easier way might be to have a single click clear the peak and a double-click to bring up the menu.
The fader controls for L/R input levels are grouped together by default. (I hate stereo input levels that aren't grouped; they are annoying to adjust.) To move the faders independently, hold down the Shift key while moving your fader of choice. The stereo output level is controlled via a single fader.
The three bandwidths are Low, Medium and High. Each band is graphically represented by a different colored block (low is dark blue, middle is blue, and high is light blue). These blocks help immensely to illustrate the relative crossover points from one band to the next. The low and high crossover points are fully adjustable: Low crossover goes from 20 to 8.11k Hz, and high crossover goes from 39.99 to 16k Hz. The numerical values for these points are above the upper right corner of the block diagram. The width of the middle band depends on where the high and low crossover points lie. There are no dedicated controls for this band, but it doesn't need them since its crossover points are dictated by the high and low crossover points. Each band's gain is adjustable from -25 dB to +12 dB; numerical values are registered directly above each block.
The dynamics parameters are typical. The expander has threshold, ratio, range and release controls; the compressor includes threshold, ratio and release; the limiter offers threshold, softclip and release functions. No special explanations needed here; everything works the way you would expect it to.
There are identical metering windows for each of the dynamics modules in every bandwidth. The elements cover gain reduction meters, LEDs for expansion and limiting and visual representations of the dynamics processing curves. The gain reduction meters are from -1 to -24 dB; the LEDs light when expansion or limiting is active. The meters and the LEDs are invaluable for telling you when the individual dynamics modules begin processing a particular band. The curves show not only the amplitude envelopes, but the relative positions of each dynamics module within the bandwidth itself, and between all three bands together (since you can see them side by side at the same time). For example, moving the threshold of the compressor, or the range of the expander, changes the curves in every band (amount of change is determined by the Target Meta-Parameters).
To solo a band, simply click on one of the three dynamics curves-the curve highlights, and you'll hear just that band. Clicking on another curve adds its signal to the first band. (All three bands can be listened to in this fashion.) This function is priceless, because without it, it would be tedious and time-consuming to fine-tune parameters, and impossible to hear exactly what was happening in a particular band with any sort of objectivity.
The Target Meta-Parameters are TC Works' solution to what the company calls "the parameter 'flood'" of multiband dynamics processors. Instead of inundating the plug-in's interface with the hundreds of parameters necessary to create a comprehensive multiband processor (i.e., cutoff frequencies, filters, Q, slopes, etc.), MasterX simplifies matters by giving you four target mastering curves to choose from. These curves are essentially presets that can be modified via the Target Factor fader located on each dynamics module. Each curve represents a different sonic coloration, a different set of values for the hidden parameters. The Target Factor fader dictates how much the Target Curve's values will play into the processing of the bandwidth. The higher the Target Factor is set, the more noticeable the curve's sonic ingredients will be.
There are four curves: Linear, Pink, Hyped and Smiley. Only one curve can be used at a time. Each curve has an associated graphic that displays its shape: Linear is essentially flat; when this curve is on, the Target Curve faders are off. This curve is useful for processing without exciting any particular frequency (for example, compressing certain notes of an upright bass). In Pink, the high band is less present, less pumped up. Apply Pink when a signal needs dynamics control in the high end without sounding exaggerated (e.g., vocal processing, like de-essing). With Hyped, the high band sounds excited. This is a great curve for mastering dull-sounding material that needs the extra sheen of added highs, without blowing your tweeters. Smiley pumps up the low and high bands; this a great curve for mastering dance music, where the lows need to be bumping and the highs crisp and clean.
For optimizing the digital signal, there are three parameters. A digital look-ahead function anticipates dramatic spikes; look-ahead delay times are 0 (off), 1, 3 or 10 ms. Dithering is available for 8, 16, 18, 20 or 22 bytes. A digital ceiling parameter can act as your final insurance against any overloads. The digital ceiling value can be set at -.01, -.05 or -.1 dB. Think of it as the ultimate brickwall limiter; it stops all samples that might cause a clip exceeding 0 dB. It works like a charm, but it is no excuse for not setting input and output levels properly. It will not remedy signals that are distorting internally within the plug-in itself, and when it is activated, absolutely no peaks show up on the meters. Use it at the final stage of mastering, after the levels look perfect, just to be on the safe side.
MASTERING MATTERS AND MOREMasterX's sound is beefy, but not so phat as to sound unclear; it still has plenty of edge. Sonically, there are many similarities between this plug-in and the Finalizer units. I attribute this to their common technological lineage, applying algorithms and processing in the digital domain. Even MasterX's presets bear a strong resemblance to several of the Finalizer presets (e.g., CD Master, Dance Master, Pop Final and Commercial). Where I do hear a difference is at the D/A stage. Digidesign's converters have a distinctly different coloration than TC Electronic's converters. I like the way the TC Electronic converters sound; you may prefer Digidesign's converters. Either way, the program itself has nothing to do with these differences and can't be held accountable for not sounding exactly like its hardware predecessor. Ultimately, how it sounds is influenced heavily by the converters you choose.
MasterX is great for its obvious intended purposes, mastering and premastering. However, it also works great for pumping up individual tracks. If, for example, you have an upright bass that needs compression, but a full-bandwidth compressor squashes too many of the high-end string noises, this plug-in is the perfect solution: Dial in the low-end bandwidth you need to subdue, and leave the high-end dynamics intact. Many of the presets sound great on individual instruments without any tweaking. The Speech Master preset is great for kicking a dead vocal track into high gear.
Some might think that TC Works has oversimplified the mastering process with its Target Meta-Parameters, that it has made mastering or mixing choices that would be better left to an engineer or producer. I can't really argue with this. But keep in mind, if you want to create your own multiband dynamics processor plug-in, this is certainly within the realm of possibility. If you have enough DSP horsepower, the right
discrete plug-ins and the time to construct the beast, go for it. MasterX doesn't replace a high-end professional mastering suite with a component mastering engineer. However, the bottom line is MasterX sounds great and is simple to use, and those facts alone make it worthy of having in your Pro Tools plug-in arsenal.
TC Works, a division of TC Electronic. U.S. offices: 790-H Hampshire Road, Westlake Village, CA 91361; 805/373-1828; fax 805/379-2648; www.tcelectronic.com.