Much like its predatory namesake from the Jurassic Age, T-Racks, by IK Multimedia, has been prowling about the industry for some time now. The program started as a stand-alone application; however, with its most recent version, the software has been reinvented as a plug-in. The point of this software has always been to provide quality analog-modeled mastering through a suite of four processors — Equalizer, Tube-Compressor, Multiband-Limiter and Soft-Clipper — and this setup has not changed. But now that you can insert T-Racks directly on a mixer channel in your digital audio sequencer, it can be employed not only for mastering but also for mixing.
Every popular plug-in format is supported and included on the T-Racks installer CD-ROM. The fact that all of the native formats are bundled together is not surprising, but what is surprising is that the HTDM format is also included. As a rule, TDM plug-ins are always sold separately from the native formats and are much more expensive. Major kudos to IK Multimedia for being the first kid on the block to really have all of the top plug-in formats wrapped up in one convenient package and not charge an astronomical fee for it.
Installing IK Multimedia products is simple enough, but getting the software authorized always takes me a couple of tries. It's a challenge-and-response system but with a slightly different twist: long strings of numbers instead of random words. Get one number wrong, and you're doomed to type in the entire string over until you get it right. I installed the program on a Mac dual G4/500MHz computer running a Digidesign HD2 system, Pro Tools version 6.1 and a 192 I/O.
YELLOW BRICK PLUG-INS
The look and feel of T-Racks has not changed markedly since its most recent stand-alone incarnation. It still has a striking (some might say annoying) goldenrod-yellow faceplate and a purple-and-black Tyrannosaurus logo on each module. For those who would prefer a less-obtrusive color scheme, perhaps the good folks at IK Multimedia could include a “change skins” feature. The knobs and miniature toggle switches look and feel decent, and I particularly like the Equalizer module's oscilloscope-style EQ curve window, as well as the simulated VU meters of the Tube-Compressor and Multiband-Limiter modules.
Each of the four modules is available independently as a discrete plug-in or collectively as the Mastering Suite plug-in. The only difference is that each of the modules in the Mastering Suite features a Patch function, a set of small LED buttons that allow you to select where a processor falls in the signal-processing chain. Although the need for this feature is clear, the implementation could be better. For example, it would be much simpler if you could just drag-and-drop the processors right in the Mastering Suite's virtual rack to change their order.
Every plug-in has a built-in Bypass toggle switch in addition to the host program's plug-in bypass feature (usually a button at the top of the plug-in window). Strangely, the HTDM plug-ins were missing the Pro Tools plug-in Bypass button, even though their RTAS counterparts were not. This was not a big deal on the single plug-ins, thanks to their individual Bypass toggle switches. But when it came time to bypass the Mastering Suite plug-in, muting each processor one at a time wasn't working. The ability to bypass the entire plug-in is a necessity for comparing your processed and unprocessed signals, which is especially crucial for mastering applications.
MODULE BY MODULE
The Equalizer features six bands of parametric EQ: highpass, low-shelving, low-mid-peaking, high-mid-peaking, high-shelving and lowpass filters. New to T-Racks are the fully sweepable mid-peaking bands and a high-end response that has been refined to better emulate the best qualities of top analog EQ devices. Working with the Equalizer's controls is straightforward, though I was disappointed that I couldn't use a mouse to draw a curve directly in the EQ curve window — an intuitive way to EQ that is a standard feature in several competitors' plug-ins. Including this feature in a future version of the Equalizer would make it more user-friendly.
The Tube-Compressor has all of the essential compression parameters (such as attack, release and ratio) and a few extras. Added to this version is a sidechain highpass filter that can be employed to decrease any unwanted pumping of the compressed signal by filtering out troublesome low end from the compressor's path. Another parameter not often found on a compressor, especially an analog model, is the Stereo Enhancement control, which can be used to increase or decrease your mix's stereo imaging.
T-Rack's Multiband-Limiter module features three bands of frequency-specific brickwall limiting. Each band has an individual Threshold and Level control for really fine-tuning the amount of processing applied to these frequencies in your mix. Also new to this version are Crossover controls that let you precisely adjust the frequency split points of the individual bands. The Multiband-Limiter is a powerful tool with a warm, vintage sound that is distinctive among multiband compressor plug-ins.
The final stage is the Soft-Clipper module. This allows you to “clip” off any last peaks in the signal that may not have been caught by compression and limiting. Such peaks can push a mix's overall volume down, so it's important to catch these last spikes of the levels. Setting the Gain control to 0 dB will ensure that no peak will exceed 0.05 dBfs. The peak clipping shape can be adjusted to best suit the material that you're mastering, and there is a Saturation LED that illuminates when you're overdriving the Soft-Clipper.
FEEL THE BITE
Despite T-Racks' cartoonlike color scheme, its sound quality is no laughing matter with the ability to conjure very subtle sonic sweetness to smack-in-your-face analog loudness. I should qualify my experience by explaining that the Digidesign HD system paired with the 192 I/O helped make T-Racks sound exceptional. Indeed, I've heard the program on lesser systems and was not so nearly impressed by its algorithms — the HTDM plug-in really shines. Of course, I'm sure that the native plug-in formats can sound comparably good when used with an equally high-quality system, but it's just a reminder that everything you hear out of your computer can only sound as good as your audio interface.
T-Racks has a wealth of presets that really show off its capabilities. Although there are several useful presets (like Vintage 1 or Sparkle) for the Mastering Suite plug-in, I really favor the Equalizer and Multiband-Limiter presets. Equalizer includes a couple of EQ effects presets, such as Micro Radio and Telephone, that demonstrate beautifully its usefulness as a channel EQ during mixing. The Multiband-Limiter has some nice tape-emulation presets, Half-Inch Tape 15 ips and 30 ips, and a handy FM Radio preset for creating that classic radio-land compression sound. Just be aware that when you're auditioning presets, some of them can be really loud.
Versatility is the name of the game these days, and this most recent version of T-Racks has the bases covered. For $399, you get not only all of the native plug-ins and the HTDM plug-in but also a suite of plug-ins that is equally useful for channel inserts during mixing as it is for serious mastering. (If you already own the T-Racks stand-alone application, you can update to the plug-ins version for $199.) Although learning the craft of mastering can take years and procuring an arsenal of high-end outboard gear for mastering will cost a small fortune, T-Racks can put you years ahead of the game by comparison. But be careful: With such power also comes the ability to royally screw up your mixes — put this beast on a leash.
T-RACKS >$399; $199 (STAND-ALONE CROSSGRADE)
Pros: All top plug-in formats included, even HTDM. Excellent analoglike sound. Great presets. Individual plug-in modules equally useful for mixing as for mastering.
Cons: Can't manually draw a curve in the Equalizer module's EQ curve window.
Mac OS 9: HTDM, RTAS, VST
Mac OS X: HTDM, RTAS (VST, Audio Units coming soon)
Windows 95/98/ME/2000/XP: HTDM, RTAS, VST, DirectX