Essential metering and
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.
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.
|Fig. 1. Brainworx bx_control V2 offers a boatload of meters, monitoring facilities, and
imaging controls essential to mastering.
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
Not only can
you adjust the
L/R balance, you
can pan the mid
and side channels
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.
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.
|Fig. 2. Sample Magic’s Magic AB plug-in facilitates easy A/B comparisons
between your current program and nine other tracks in turn.
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.
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).
|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.
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
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).