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Must-Have Mastering Plug-Ins

June 30, 2014
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Essential metering and monitoring software

THE QUALITY, precision, and feature sets of the best contemporary plug-ins now make it possible to achieve stellar results when mastering in the box. To be sure, there is no substitute for hiring a professional mastering engineer and facility. You shouldn’t even consider mastering your own project unless you have a room and monitors that are virtually flat over an extended frequency response. But if you have the room, ears, monitoring path, and technical chops, here are some essential plug-ins you should have on your stereo output bus for mastering.

Fig. 1. Brainworx bx_control V2 offers a boatload of meters, monitoring facilities, and imaging controls essential to mastering.
Brainworx bx_control V2
This brilliant plug-in provides you with meters that show RMS and peak levels for left, right, mid, and side channels (see Figure 1). Additional meters display dynamic range, L/R balance, and correlation; the last can help alert you that your masters potentially have too little or too much stereo information, which affects the width of the soundstage and mono compatibility.

Solo the left, right, mid, and side channels in turn to hunt down distortion and check that the bottom end is in-phase. (Hint: If you hear the kick drum when soloing the side channel, no amount of EQ will give it the bottom end you seek on the recording.)

Not only can you adjust the L/R balance, you can pan the mid and side channels independently of each other. If, for example, the kick drum, bass, and vocals are not exactly centered, you can correct that using the Pan M control—without affecting the imaging for reverbs and other stereo information. Raising the Stereo-Width control increases the level of the side channel with respect to that for the mid channel; while this widens the stereo image, make sure it doesn’t also adversely affect the balance of vocals and instruments (and keep an eye on the correlation meter!). To focus the bottom end, raise the Mono-Maker control to collapse the imaging of bass frequencies—below your specified cut-off frequency—to mono.

Fig. 2. Sample Magic’s Magic AB plug-in facilitates easy A/B comparisons between your current program and nine other tracks in turn.
Sample Magic Magic AB
Mastering requires having at least two monitoring paths so that you can compare masters that you’ve already rendered to those you’re currently working on for the same project. It’s important to compare loud sections of each program and the transition between the end of one track and the start of the next. In the past, that usually meant switching monitoring paths while navigating DAW markers—a hassle and a perception-warping distraction. Magic AB changes all that.

Magic AB lets you switch playback among nine different masters and your current track— each starting at different timeline locations—in turn, using simple mouse clicks (see Figure 2). The plug-in’s loop functions let you repeatedly compare, for example, the chorus of each track in turn. As you switch Magic AB’s output to successively play each program, the plug-in shows you its crest factor (peak-to-average level) for comparison purposes; this helps you create masters free of unwanted jumps in levels between tracks. Early in the mastering process, you can use each track’s dedicated fader to remove level bias when comparing spectral balances between mixes.

Fig. 3. Sonnox Fraunhofer Pro-Codec offers realtime auditioning of up to five codecs in turn. Here, readouts for the codecs’ maximum bitstream levels indicate clipping will occur using the HE-AACv2 codec at the bottom of the list, unless corrected.
Sonnox Fraunhofer Pro-Codec
When mastering for data-compressed release formats such as Apple AAC (Mastered for iTunes) and mp3, it’s extremely helpful to be able to hear how each associated codec, encoding mode, and bit rate (in codecs where they may vary) will affect sound quality. Sonnox Fraunhofer Pro-Codec lets you audition each of the major codecs at different settings in real time before encoding the file (see Figure 3).

Pro-Codec also displays how much the original file’s output level needs to be trimmed to prevent clipping that would otherwise likely be caused by the encoding process. It provides simple means to execute the adjustment before recording the encoded file to your hard drive. However, you should ideally make any level adjustment before the plug-in’s input in order to optimize gain staging, dithering, and so on. You’ll sometimes find that lowering the master’s output volume an additional half dB or so (below the level required to prevent clipping in the codec) creates a better-sounding data-compressed file.

Pro-Codec can set up blindfold-listening tests in which you can compare the output of two codecs to one another or the output of one codec to the plug-in’s input signal. The plugin can also display how often you correctly identified a source during multiple blindfold tests. Such ABX testing helps you tell whether differences you perceived in codec output were real or imagined and whether your settings will yield virtually transparent results.

Pro-Codec writes very limited metadata to encoded files. To write or edit comprehensive metadata to data-compressed files (for example, artist and publisher credits), use the state-of-the-art Codec Toolbox Manager included in the Sonnox Fraunhofer Codec Toolbox software bundle.

Cover the Basics Every engineer has a go-to equalizer and compressor. Whatever your preferences in that regard, you’ll need accurate and comprehensive metering and monitoring to master in the box. The plugins reported on here deliver in spades.

Michael Cooper is a mastering engineer, a contributing editor for Mix magazine and the owner of Michael Cooper Recording in Sisters, Oregon (myspace.com/michaelcooperrecording).

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