Pro mastering for beginners, with IK Multimedia T-RackS
Should you master at your home? Of course, if you learn how to mix, arrange, design and advertise your music, it is a time to master another skill: mastering with T-RacksS.
by A. Arsov, May 2015
When I heard that IK Multimedia was offering the T-RackS All in All bundle for a limited time, I couldn’t resist. 31 plug-ins for a bit less than $400 USD. Actually, IK Multimedia are always running some kind of special promotion, so you might have missed this one, but I suggest you subscribe to their newsletter. This has been the second offer for T-RackS in the last few months (actually,in a last minute we got an info about new T-RackS promotion – Save over 60 % with the T-RacksS Grand Slam).
During the regular sale you can choose between three basic bundles of T-RackS along with three additional bundles containing mastering plug-ins that are not essential, but they can make a significant difference, putting mastered material on a whole new and very professional level. All these plug-ins can also be bought through the IK Multimedia T-RackS custom shop. T-RackS Classic is for starters, T-RackS Deluxe is a nice solution if you’re on a very limited budget (costing a bit more than your average virtual synthesizer), and T-RackS Grand is a high end, very professional solution containing numerous plug-ins from other plug-in bundles, including the complete T-RackS Multiband Series, along with a few others.
T-RackS Multiband includes Quad Limiter, Quad Compressor, Quad Image and De-Esser. Along with the sound, one of the main benefits is the real time frequency preview. At every moment you get precise information on which frequencies are affected and by how much. All the plug-ins are very simple to use (I only had problems with the limiter, but that was more to do with my lack of experience than anything to do with the plug-in itself), and as long you don’t try to go extreme with the settings, the plug-ins will easily forgive you your lack of deeper knowledge and experience.
The next bundle is T-RackS Vintage Compressors, offering you some user-friendly software recreations of well-known gems from a past. Two to three knobs – what could go wrong there? Actually nothing. You don’t need to be a compressor guru to achieve great results with Black 76, White 2A or even Model 670. I would use them on every channel if my processor would allow me, but anyway, they can do wonders on just a few main groups or tracks.
T-RackS British Studio Series is a collection containing British Channel, White Channel and Bus Compressor. The first two are a combination of compressor, equalizer and limiter, giving great results by simply tweaking a few of those knobs and fine-tuning some of the included presets. The same goes for Bus Compressor – I started with a preset but then improved on it based on advice that I got from a YouTube video.
Years ago I reviewed T-RackS and complained that it didn’t offer some of the options that its competitors had. Obviously I was not the only one, as IK Multimedia added all sorts of additional plug-ins over the following years, culminating in all the bundles and plug-ins that we’ve just described. I’ve been a bit unfaithful to T-RackS these last two years, but after getting this All in All bundle and spending the first two weeks with it, I decided to switch back. The reason is quite simple. First of all, I’m not a mastering expert, so this review is something of an idiot’s guide. After installing the plug-ins I watched all the video clips for T-RackS I could find on YouTube, combining that knowledge with some of the great presets that are available for each plug-in. After some trial and error I made a bit more of an EDM oriented preset that would serve most of my needs, being a little more than just a good starting point.
If you don’t have all these plug-ins, you can still download the 14-day trial versions. (A good source for using T-RackS in rock music is an article I found on this blog).
I’m aware that a skilled mastering engineer can make a great master with nothing more than a knife and fork. So my opinion about which plug-in, or even which bundle, is best-suited for this purpose is not an opinion of a mastering guru. At this point I’m just trying to find and present you with mastering tools that could give you a better results if you have some knowledge of mixing and remember a tip or two about mastering (the green area where most of us are). It happens that with some basic knowledge I achieved a much more defined, cleaner master that just emphasizes my basic mix without changing the relationship between the instruments. Stereo imaging is also much better, and this difference between my older masters and the new ones is very noticeable on headphones (as they are very good at revealing the mistakes that aren’t so obvious on near-field speakers). The end results sound really professional, beyond my initial hopes and expectations.
So here is my preset that works as a starting point for EDM Dance and some rock production purposes.
You can also listen to my “before and after” results for a Trop House song I made recently.
You Touched Me – raw
You Touched Me – mastered
In the next issue we will have an interview with IK Multimedia mastering project manager, Lorenzo Gerace. As well as providing further explanations, he will comment on my preset and let us know exactly where I missed and where I nailed it. So, the story will continue.
Preset – Why and how
As this preset is made to suit my mixing habits, maybe we could go through some settings explaining why I used a plug-in and how you can adopt it to your needs.
In the first slot of the rack I placed a Linear Phase EQ. I more or less use the well-known, so called “smile curve,” suggested on many forums about mastering. Then I cut out some of the lowest end, add a small hole around 10 KHz and slightly boost the mid bass and high end of the frequency spectrum. I made that mysterious 10 KHz cut because I notice that hi-hats or shakers can be a bit annoying in that area.
If you find that your high end is too aggressive, just decrease the sixth band a decibel or two. Linear Phase EQ is an essential mastering tool. It also has a Mono/Stereo option, so if you want to go a bit deeper, you can even make some low end cuts in the stereo image and boost the high end in a center. I usually use this combination on other mastering equalizer plug-ins, but find it works just fine even in a normal “Left/Right” jointed combination.
The next plug-in I used was White Channel, which I used to tame the bass. I’d say that if your low end is too aggressive don’t try to fix that with Linear Phase EQ, just turn down the black gain knob on the lefthand side of White Channel. Same for the high end – decrease the red gain knob in the top right. The only thing you should watch for is the “input – output”indicators in the bottom right corner, as you can ruin your sound if everything goes too much into the red. White Channel is a recreation of a classic British Channel console. If clear and well-defined punchy sound is analog sound, then this one definitely sounds analog. Black Channel from IK Multimedia is very similar, just with a little more old-fashioned sound coloration. I never worked with the original hardware so I can’t tell you the difference, but compared to my other plug-ins this one makes a significant difference. It puts your low and high end on steroids without making them artificial. If you’ve ever tried to overdo it with normal equalizers then you know what I’m talking about.
On the third rack instance is Vintage Equalizer. On the IK Multimedia website they suggest we try it out, and see how it changes the sound even without additional tweaking. I tried it, switching it off and on, and it ended up staying in my rack. I don’t know how it did it, and I don’t even care. It works. I watched some additional video clips for the EQ 73 and EQ 80 equalizers, finding that they can launch the sound directly to the stars just by boosting the high end, or by increasing the mid range by a decibel or two. I tried this setup with strings and guitars and I definitely couldn’t recreate similar results with any other regular equalizer I have. So these IK equalizers are definitely worth every penny, not just as part of a bundle but even at full price.
Next in the rack is Quad Compressor. I complained in a previous review that I missed such tool in the T-RackS assortment, and year or two ago it arrived in all its beauty. I set attack and release time according to advice on the internet, being careful not to overdo the compression, as if you are not too familiar with multi-band compressors it’s better to leave it as it is. The professionals are always warning us how easy it is to ruin everything with a multi-band compressor. At these settings I just tamed some loudness deviations. At first glance it looks like it doesn’t do anything, but feel free to switch it off and on – it tames the overall sound very nicely.
Quad Image, for me, is the holy grail of mastering tools. It has a more centered low end along with a wider high end – a very simple trick that can make your master shine. Maybe I overdo it a bit, but we live in a such times. Enough is simply not enough.
Master EQ 432. It could be that I’m overdoing it, putting so many equalizers in a rack, but it’s always better to use a few equalizers or even compressors in a row, setting each one to affect just a few decibels, than setting extreme gain on a single one. Secondly, every equalizer in this collection has its own character. I watched some video clips, browsed through a few presets, tweaked a parameter or two and the whole thing sounded better. We’ll see what Lorenzo has to say, but until then, enjoy the sound. Master EQ 432, as the name suggests, is intended for mastering purposes, offering a fairly large palette of frequencies ranked over three bands.
The next one is Bus Compressor that gels all my sounds together, making the whole mix and master more united. It is also an excellent solution as a compressor for a drum rack or any other group of instruments (while totally unbeatable for controlling the group channel for live drums is a Black 76 compressor – just set Drum Comp or Drum Comp 2 preset and enjoy). I try to keep my masters between the -14 to -12 dB value according to the Perceived Loudness indicator shown on the bottom of the T-RackS. So by controlling the threshold on Bus Compressor I tried to compress everything just few decibels, decreasing or increasing the make-up gain to hit the desired perceived loudness. If your value is too low, you can also try to increase general gain on the lefthand side of the Quad Compressor by one to three decibels.
So, that was a walkthrough of my general purpose preset. (Every sane mastering engineer will assure you that such a thing as a “general purpose mastering preset” doesn’t exist, but thankfully we are neither sane nor mastering engineers.)
If you produce just a few songs per year then maybe it’s better to pay a mastering engineer, but if your output is a bit bigger then T-RackS comes in pretty handy. Being a pro musician but a less-than-average mastering engineer, I achieved very professional results with this tool just by watching few video clips, a week of trial and error and a few A/B comparisons with the Magic A/B plug-in from Sample Magic.
T-RackS, with all these extra plug-ins, becomes an unbeatable tool for mastering and mixing purposes. It offers a very clean, well-defined, punchy sound and a full arsenal of plug-ins. Yes, it takes some CPU, but not so much that you can’t use it on your DAW’s output, at least if you have any semi-solid PC or Mac.
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by A. Arsov