Review: IK Multimedia T-Racks 5 - EMusician

Review: IK Multimedia T-Racks 5

Expanded capabilities and a fresh look for this integrated collection of signal processors
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T-Racks has been around for many years and has evolved into a significant collection of mixing and mastering software tools. The recently released T-Racks 5 offers a redesigned GUI, powerful new features and four new modules.

T-Racks 5 functions as both a standalone mastering application and as a series of plug-ins that you can open in your DAW or audio editor, either individually or in effects chains inside the T-Racks Suite plug-in. You can purchase T-Racks 5 in three different-sized bundles as well as à la carte through the free T-Racks Custom Shop application. Currently, there are 38 T-Racks processors in the full collection. The available bundles include T-Racks 5 with 9 processors, T-Racks 5 Deluxe with 22, and T-Racks 5 Max with all 38.

NEW LOOK

The user interface sports a more contemporary look than before and IK gave a facelift to all the T-Racks modules to match the new vibe. More importantly, the GUI for both the standalone version and the T-Racks 5 Suite plug-in are resizable, which provides a lot of flexibility. Both include a prominently displayed effects chain with graphic depictions of the modules. You can drag and drop processors into the chain from a window on the right that shows all your available modules. When you edit a processor’s settings, it appears in an impressively large window above the chain, making editing easy (see Figure 1).

Fig. 1. In both the T-Racks 5 Suite plugin and the standalone version (pictured here) the selected processor—the new module One, in
 this case—is presented quite large.

Fig. 1. In both the T-Racks 5 Suite plugin and the standalone version (pictured here) the selected processor—the new module One, in  this case—is presented quite large.

The plug-in and standalone versions have some significant differences. The latter is a self-contained mastering workstation that lets you load (by menu command or drag-and-drop) multiple songs that you can not only process but also re-order and add metadata to. In both versions, you can set up four entirely different effects-chain options for each track (chains A, B, C, and D), allowing you to try different processors or settings to see which works best.

In the standalone version, each song has its own processor chain, and each chain can have four variations: A, B, C, or D, between which you can switch to compare. One missing feature is a master effects slot. As it stands, if you want to apply the same effect across all the songs in a project, you have to do it one track at a time from the individual track chains

The standalone version has a handy new feature called Equal Gain, which allows you to compare processed and unprocessed audio at the same volume level. It eliminates the “louder sounds better” phenomenon that can cloud your judgment when comparing. In a future update, it would be cool to see this feature extended to the ABCD chains and added to the Suite plug-in.

Support for IK’s ARC Acoustic Room Correction System plug-in (not included) is also provided in T-Racks 5, allowing you to turn it off and on without switching programs.

METER READER

T-Racks 5 offers a revamped and more powerful metering section, part of which appears by default on the upper right of both the standalone version and Suite plug-in. Here you get graphical and numerical readouts for Peak, RMS, LUFS and dynamic range. In the standalone version, clicking on little VU meter icons in the middle of the metering section opens up T-Rack’s full metering suite in its own window. It includes a Spectrum Analyzer, Phase Scope, Spectrogram display and four large VU meter emulations for left, right, mid and side. (Most T-Racks modules give you the option of stereo or mid-side processing.)

The Suite plug-in doesn’t offer the full set of meter features, but you can insert an instance of the T-Racks 5 Metering plug-in, which is fully featured, into an insert slot that’s after the Suite in your DAW and get the full metering features.

LET US ASSEMBLE

Also new in the T-Racks 5 standalone version is the Assembly window, which opens outside the main GUI (see Figure 2). It shows you waveform displays of all the songs you’ve loaded and lets you easily trim the beginning and ends, as well as add and edit track and album names, track IDs, and ISRC codes. There’s even an option for turning on copy protection, although the manual doesn’t give any details about what type it is or how it works. This illustrates a shortcoming of T-Racks 5: a manual that lacks in-depth information.

Fig. 2. The updated metering window is on the left and the new Assembly window on the right.

Fig. 2. The updated metering window is on the left and the new Assembly window on the right.

You can add and edit fades for one track at a time in the Waveform window (a part of the main GUI that toggles with the effects Chain view). You get a choice of several fade types, and once you add them, they’ll show up in waveforms in the Assembly window, at which point you can edit them there as well. Why you can’t initiate the fades from the Assembly window is puzzling.

Once you’ve imported all your songs and added all your metadata, you not only get four dithering options, but you can also choose to export your project in several different professional formats including DDP 2.5, Wav Cue or PQ Sheet. With all its new capabilities, the standalone T-Racks 5 is now a more serious mastering platform.

IS IT THE ONE?

Of the four new processors added in T-Racks 5 (all of which are included in the standard, Deluxe and Max versions), perhaps the most significant is an easy-to-use all-in-one mastering processor called One. Its three EQ knobs—Air, Focus, and Body—can boost or cut in the high, mid, and low frequencies, respectively. Although their frequencies are preset, IK chose them wisely, and they’re effective for subtle tweaks, which is what you want in a mastering EQ.

Another knob, Bass Punch, provides a low-end boost and increased attack. You also get a dedicated Transients control knob, as well as one for Width. The knob called Analog lets you add subtle harmonic saturation.

The GUI features two very large knobs called Push and Volume. The former lets you dial in a compressor with a fixed set of parameters. Volume takes a similar, one-knob approach to limiting, making it easy to pump up your song’s level. As with any limiter, if you turn it too high, you’ll add distortion.

Although One doesn’t offer the precision of a typical mastering processor, it’s great for quickly creating usable settings and will be especially useful to those new to mastering.

WHAT’S MU?

Another new module called Dyna-Mu bears a resemblance to the Manley Variable MU tube compressor, although it’s not a knob-for-knob emulation. It sports two identical rows of controls that can function independently or together, which is dictated by how you set the Link switch. Each row offers controls for Input level, Threshold, Attack, Release (a stepped knob with five settings), and Output level. You don’t get a lot of ratio choices; either 1.5:1 or 4:1, depending on if the Hard switch is on or not. A sidechain for each channel is also included.

If you look at the presets, most are for individual instruments, and I found Dyna-Mu to be an excellent choice on bass, drums, acoustic guitar—pretty much any source I tried it on. Its tube emulation provides a subtle but pleasing fattening to the sound.

SEPARATE BUT EQUAL

The new Equal Module is a 10-band EQ designed to be both transparent and precise. It offers a selection of filter shapes that emulate SSL, Neve, and API hardware EQs among others. Controls for the different filter types vary and are not all fully parametric. Some give you frequency and cut/boost controls but no Q.

Equal sounds quite clean and you can vary the sound by selecting different EQ curves. It’s significantly different from the Classic T-Racks Equalizer that comes in the standard version of T-Racks 5, and it’s a nice addition to the full collection.

YES, MASTER

The other new module, Master Match, is a matching EQ designed to go last in the chain and allows you to match the EQ curve of your music to that of a reference track—or tracks—that you’ve loaded into it. It analyzes the reference material in seconds and creates a visible EQ curve in its GUI.

Once that’s done, you press the Learn Source button and initiate playback of your song (either from your DAW if you’re using Master Match as a plug-in or with the standalone version’s transport controls). Neither the GUI nor the manual tells you how long to keep playback going to analyze the source correctly. I always gave it at least 10 seconds just to be sure.

Pressing Learn Source a second time ends the analysis and you then see a curve from your music juxtaposed with that of the reference. The next step is to press the Match button, and Master Match then automatically sets a level and percentage of matching EQ to apply to the source sound, based on the analysis. You can adjust both of these parameters and even click on the frequency display to create up to eight filters for further EQing.

I tried Master Match with several different types of source material, using references in the same genre or that at least had similar production styles. In most cases, I found that the matched EQ curve improved the sound of the source, at least a little. It’s not a magic bullet, but definitely a useful tool.

RACK ‘EM UP

From the four new modules to the upgraded metering to the sleek new look, T-Racks 5 is a significant upgrade that’s well worth the price. The changes made to the standalone version—particularly the addition of the Assembly window and the new export options—make T-Racks 5 a viable platform for DIY mastering. And with the new pricing for T-Racks 5 Deluxe and Max, it’s more affordable than ever.

STRENGTHS
Assembly window for album projects. Expanded metering. Multiple export options. All-in-one mastering using One. Dyna-Mu module. Equal offers filter shapes from classic EQs. Master Match frequency matching.

LIMITATIONS
No master effects slot. No Equal Gain features for ABCD effects-chain comparisons. Manual lacks detail. Can’t add fades from Assembly window

T-Racks 5: $149
T-Racks 5 Deluxe: $299
T-Racks 5 Max: $499
Ikmultimedia.com

Mike Levine is a composer, producer, and multiinstrumentalist from the New York area. Check out his website at michaelwilliamlevine.com.