So you’ve spent large on a professional 24/192 soundcard, you have enough plug-ins to bring a room full of computers to a standstill and your tunes are happening, but every time you listen to your mix there seems to be something missing…sound familiar? If so, then what you might be missing is mastering.
Known as something of a black art, mastering is the final stage of processing before a mix is committed to disc, be it vinyl, CD and/or DVD. Its aim is to correct any problems in the mix (sonic ones that is, not bad musicianship), ‘sweeten’ it, extract maximum loudness and, in the case of an album, to make it sound like a coherent body of work, rather than of a bunch of individual tracks.
All this is achieved through a combination of equalisation, compression and limiting and up until recently was pretty much the sole preserve of the mastering engineer, who, in theory, had the right combination of experience, know how, golden ears, specialist equipment and ‘perfect’ monitoring to be able to achieve the desired results.
But things change. Digital has become dominant and mastering for it is much easier than mastering for vinyl, added to which, it’s no longer necessary to spend vast sums on expensive mastering hardware, as nowadays, practically everything can be done in software…which is exactly where T-RackS comes into the picture, as it’s an entire software based mastering suite in a box.
Currently there are two versions available, the plug-in version, which I’m checkin’ out in this review and the stand alone version. The former is the more flexible of the two, because it can be used on individual tracks as well as for mastering. But if you have limited computing power, you may prefer the latter, which saves on resources that would otherwise be consumed by a host sequencer/audio editor. It’s a shame that IK Multimedia don’t follow Native Instruments’ example and offer just one version, that can be used for both as a plug-in and in stand alone mode, because there are times when you want to master from within host software and times when you don’t.
Take one look at T-RackS’ interface and the country of origin will become immediately obvious…the brash yellow and purple colour scheme, the sexy curves…the big knobs…it could only be Italy.
Presented as a rack of analogue modelled modules, it contains a six band parametric equalizer, a stereo tube compressor, a multiband stereo limiter and an adjustable soft clipping output stage.
The equalizer is comprehensive comprising:
4th order high-pass filter – 30 Hz – 2 KHz
Low shelving filter – 30 Hz – 2 KHz
Low-mid peaking filter – 15 Hz – 20 KHz (with adjustable low & high Q)
High-mid peaking filter – 15 Hz – 20 KHz (with adjustable low & high Q)
High shelving filter – 1 KHz – 20.4 KHz
4th order low-pass filter – 1 KHz – 20.4 KHz
Adjusting EQ is a piece of hash cake, thanks to the huge ‘scope-screen’ located above the controls, which displays your EQ curve. You can independently switch each band on or off and, of course there’s an output control.
Although T-RackS is primarily meant to be used as a mastering suite, each of its four modules can also be used individually as plug-ins, which is good news, because, whilst the equalizer is capable of subtle sonic shifts, it’s also more than capable of doing some serious damage, making it an excellent plug in effect…in fact, I’d go so far as to say that it sounds better and is easier to use than most of the dedicated DJ filter effects I’ve used.
The compressor is EQually easy to use, thanks, to its tres retro VU meter and straightforward controls. There’s an input drive knob to control the amount of compression, a stereo enhancement knob to control the stereo width of the mix, a sidechain HPF control which adds a high pass filter at the detection stage, making it progressively less sensitive to low frequencies, plus, of course, attack, release, ratio and output controls. As for how it sounds…very Italian…it’s warm and it’s fat…just the way I like my…compressors…
The limiter is also fairly easy to use. Six knobs control the threshold & level for each of its 3 bands, 2 knobs control the cross over points and there are knobs for input drive, release time, overload (to control gain reduction output) and output. Because it is a multiband limiter, the VU meter shows only the average limiting across all three frequency bands. Being able to toggle between individual bands would have been a nice touch. Sonically it’s a more subtle than the compressor, but still has that characteristic T-RackS analogue modelled sound.
Finally, the soft clipping stage allows you to ‘turn it up’ by cutting the peaks that would otherwise mean you’d have to turn it down. It has just three controls, one of which, the ‘sat’ control, allows you to adjust the clipping shape from soft analogue to hard digital…allegedly, though I think you’d be hard pressed to spot the difference between the two. As with all of the other modules, there is also an ‘order’ button that allows you to select where in the audio chain of the suite, it is placed.
At the top of the rack is a drop down menu offering a variety of presets. Although these include some classic EQ FX and useful compressor patches, there are only a handful of suite wide patches to choose from, some of which are a little obscure…and shockingly, there’s no suite wide preset for vinyl mastering, which is a major oversight.
Since most musicians don’t know their attack from their elbows, what would be really helpful here, would be an extensive list of presets covering multiple recording and mastering scenarios, musical genres, final destinations…and vinyl destinations…
Having to select presets from a menu up to four layers deep, lets down what is otherwise a very user friendly interface. I say take out (or shrink) the purple dinosaur logo on each module and replace it with ‘LED windows’ displaying the selected preset (assuming one has been). OK, so the modules wouldn’t look quite so analogue, but let’s face it, they’re not in a 19” rack, they’re on a VDU, so who cares. Add an extra ‘LED window’ at the top of the rack which display any suite wide presets that might be in use and…ecco!
Which leaves just one question…should you be mastering your own music? Yes…and no… Get it right and in the long run you could save a small fortune, get it wrong and it could cost a large one, but one thing’s for sure, if you’re going to go for it, you could go a long way with T-RackS.
More Info: www.ikmultimedia.com
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