Audio quality is a preeminent consideration for mastering applications. A low-fi plug-in might sound great on a grungy electric-guitar track or kick drum sample, but pristine processing is of paramount importance when treating an entire mix. Waves, one of the planet's most highly regarded purveyors of plug-ins, has created an awesome software bundle specifically for this purpose.
Waves' Masters Bundle V4 includes three plug-ins: two linear-phase plug-ins — Linear Phase Equalizer and Linear Phase Multiband — and the company's L2-Ultramaximizer (the latter available for the first time in native formats). Linear phase response is part of what makes the Waves equalizer and multiband plug-ins sound so pristine. Conventional analog and digital filters — used in most equalizers and multiband processors — shift the phase of various frequency bands by different amounts, causing transients to smear and clarity to become compromised. Waves' linear-phase plug-ins, on the other hand, use Finite Impulse Response filters that shift all frequency bands by the same amount, preserving detail and transparency in the treated program material.
Despite the intense calculations that linear-phase processing requires, Linear Phase Equalizer and Linear Phase Multiband can both process audio in real time. The trade-off is that both plug-ins cause latency — between 42.6 and 60.9 ms for Linear Phase Equalizer (depending on the sampling frequency used) and roughly 70 ms for Linear Phase Multiband. Unless you plan to use these plug-ins for multitracking applications, however, latency should not concern you. Latency is virtually never an issue in stereo mastering applications, where live musicians are not performing and static settings are almost always used for processing program material. Of course, you can use single or multiple instantiations of any or all of the Masters plug-ins in a multitrack setting, as long as your CPU can handle the load.
Masters Bundle V4 supports WaveShell-DAE 4.0 (for TDM, RTAS, and AudioSuite) and WaveShell-VST 4.0 (for VST-compatible host applications, such as Steinberg's Nuendo and TC Electronic's Spark) on both the Mac and the PC, as well as WaveShell-MAS 4.0 (for MOTU's Digital Performer v. 2.72 or higher and AudioDesk v. 1.02) on the Mac. There's also support for DirectX and DirectX 8 (with automation) on the PC. Mac users take note: although Masters Bundle V4 supports OS X, Apple's Audio Unit plug-in format is not supported with this release. Waves has promised Audio Unit support with the next update, due around the time you read this. Also, Waves will support Digital Performer running under OS X in an upcoming version. Users who buy or upgrade to V4 will be entitled to free updates for one year. For this review, I used the MAS version in Digital Performer 3.11 with a dual-processor Mac G4/867 MHz loaded with 768 MB of RAM running OS 9.2.2.
All of the plug-ins included with Masters Bundle feature 48-bit processing, can dither to 24-bit output, and support 44.1 and 48 kHz sampling frequencies in all WaveShell formats. In addition, L2-Ultramaximizer can operate at up to 192 kHz sampling rates in both native and TDM formats, and both Linear Phase Equalizer and Linear Phase Multiband can provide 96 kHz operation in native versions.
I regard Masters Bundle as consisting of four plug-ins instead of three. That's because Linear Phase Equalizer can be instantiated in two quite different forms, LinEQ Broadband and LinEQ Lowband. Each LinEQ version shows up as a separate item in Digital Performer's Insert menu. LinEQ Broadband offers six bands that, taken as a whole, cover the entire audio spectrum, while LinEQ Lowband is endowed with three bands that focus with generally greater precision on bass and low-mid frequencies only. Both LinEQ plug-ins are capable of mono and stereo processing. Let's begin our in-depth tour of Masters Bundle by taking a closer look at each of the LinEQ plug-ins.
LinEQ Broadband provides five overlapping “general” bands of EQ that each operate in the 258 Hz to 21.963 kHz range, and one special “low-frequency” band that works between 22 Hz and 1 kHz. Nine filter types are available for each of the five general bands. These include a bell-curve (parametric) filter and two flavors of each of the following types of filters: lowpass, highpass, low shelf, and high shelf.
The two flavors for the shelving and high- and lowpass filters are Variable Slope Precision Filter (or “V-Slope”) and Resonant Analog Modeled Filter (“Resonant” for short; see Fig. 1). The V-Slope filters produce exactly the kind of curve on a graph that you'd expect to see and sound very precise, focused, and transparent. The Resonant filters, on the other hand, were designed to incorporate the best attributes of vintage API, Pultec, and Calrec analog EQs, and their curves look quite different from what the V-Slope filters produce. The Resonant filters cause a resonant peak and dip in response both above and below the corner frequency. The degree of resonant overshoot can be adjusted with the band's Q control (more on Q in a bit). I found that all the Resonant filter types sound quite analog in that they are warmer but mushier than their V-Slope counterparts. Neither filter type sounds better than the other for tonal-shaping purposes, but the V-Slope filters offer a more predictable response when performing surgical tweaks to correct narrow-band equalization problems.
LinEQ Broadband's special low-frequency band offers the same filter types as the general bands with the exception that resonant-type filters are omitted, for a total of five filter types. (Fortunately, as you'll soon see, LinEQ Lowband includes some resonant filters for sculpting the low end.)
Each of LinEQ Broadband's six bands offers independent gain (providing ±30 dB boost or cut), frequency, and Q adjustments and a separate bypass button. Of course, the Q control sets the bandwidth for bell-curve filters. For shelving and cut (that is, lowpass and highpass) filters, however, the Q control adjusts the steepness of the filter's slope and the amount of overshoot in the Resonant filters.
You can edit the gain, frequency, and Q parameters by dragging their numeric values with a mouse or by selecting the field you want and typing in new numbers; the latter method will make the parameter jump to the nearest value available. Or you can simply drag the band marker for each band in the graphic frequency-response display to create the EQ curve you want (within the constraints of each filter type, of course). Keystroke-and-mouse combinations expedite editing any band's Q, filter type, or bypass status from within the graph. The graph can be scaled to show a ±12 dB or ±30 dB response range.
A fader controls attenuation of the plug-in's output gain, and there's a corresponding numeric readout above the fader. I wish this fader also provided gain boost, but it does not. Although you might be able to apply makeup gain in a downstream plug-in or channel fader, the inability to do so in both the LinEQ Broadband and Lowband plug-ins precludes effective A/B comparisons between dry and processed sounds when applying EQ cut to program material.
LinEQ Broadband also provides separate L/R meters for stereo program material (or one meter for mono tracks), permanent-hold peak-level readouts, and a very useful trim function that automatically adjusts the fader for 0.1 dB headroom at the plug-in's output. Only overall attenuation, and not boost, is possible with the trim function. That is, although the trim function can boost a fader that is set lower than 0 dB (unity), it cannot provide boost beyond unity makeup gain. You can dither the plug-in's 48-bit output to 24 bits if you like.
You can also choose from three rather subtle methods of EQ-curve generation — Normal, Accurate, and LowRipple — that affect the smoothness and slope of EQ curves in all but the low-frequency band of LinEQ Broadband. The Accurate method is your ticket for creating the deepest notch filters. The LowRipple method creates a smoother curve than Normal or Accurate when used on filters of all types, but it does so at the expense of attaining a slope that's less steep. Use your ears to determine which method sounds best for your application.
LinEQ Lowband differs from its Broadband sibling in only a few major respects. Lowband offers only three bands of EQ (see Fig. 2). Its lowest band ranges from 10 to 600 Hz, while the two higher bands each offer a 32 to 600 Hz range. Bell, low-shelf, and highpass filters (including V-Slope and Resonant variations of the latter two filters) are included, for a total of five filter types; it wouldn't make sense to offer high-shelf and lowpass filters on a lowband equalizer meant to treat broadband mixes. The center or corner frequencies available in LinEQ Lowband are generally changed in 11 Hz steps when you drag a band marker in the plug-in's graph. LinEQ Broadband's five general bands offer roughly 86 Hz adjustment increments, giving you comparatively fewer choices of frequencies in the low mids. Fortunately, LinEQ Broadband's low-frequency band can be adjusted in 1 to 8 Hz increments (increasingly wider as you move from low to higher frequencies). Used together, LinEQ Broadband and LinEQ Lowband offer enough flexibility to satisfy even the pickiest EQ microsurgeon.
LinEQ Lowband's ability to hone response in three bass bands at once makes it a great tool for shaping tone at the bottom end of a mix, although I generally prefer to use the low-frequency band in LinEQ Broadband to remove rumble because of the exacting 1 Hz increments the latter offers. I love the fact that I can employ both a rumble filter (that is, a highpass filter set between roughly 21 and 40 Hz) and a low shelf simultaneously with one plug-in; either LinEQ plug-in will do the job in this application. Of minor concern is the fact that in both LinEQ Lowband and the low-frequency band in LinEQ Broadband, you don't hear the results of moving a band's marker until you release the mouse. Real-time response would make it a little easier to sculpt the low end of a mix.
LINEAR PHASE MULTIBAND
Linear Phase Multiband (LinMB) is an improved version of the Waves C4 Multiband Parametric Processor, offering linear-phase crossovers and additional innovative features. LinMB divides mono or stereo program material into five independent frequency bands and then allows you to perform different processing — EQ, compression, limiting, or gating — in each band. Of course, you can always apply the same type of processing to each band to fashion, for example, a split-band compressor.
LinMB lets you adjust four overlapping crossovers that define the split points between its five frequency bands (see Fig. 3). Of particular importance, LinMB's lowest crossover frequency can be adjusted as low as 40 Hz. This is much lower than what most competing multiband plug-ins provide (PSPaudioware.com's VintageWarmer being a notable exception) and offers outstanding control over the perceived “weight” of a mix (thank you, Waves!).
Each band also has its own user-adjustable (text-based) threshold, attack, release, makeup gain, and range controls. Gain can also be adjusted in each band by dragging its respective band marker in LinMB's outstanding graphic display. Small threshold-setting arrows can also be dragged up or down alongside meters that show the spectral energy present in each frequency band; this arrangement provides a clear visual indication of how the current threshold relates to signal level in each band.
The range control substitutes for a ratio control but goes one step further: not only does it adjust the intensity of processing, it also limits the amount of gain adjustment due to dynamics processing in its associated band. In addition, each band features its own bypass and solo buttons. Bypass buttons greatly facilitate activating and deactivating processing in select bands while retaining your painstakingly wrought settings. Per-band solo buttons allow you to monitor the effect of processing in an individual band or group of bands.
Global controls in LinMB's master section let you adjust all the threshold, attack, release, gain, and/or range parameters up or down as a group, while preserving parameter offsets in each band. LinMB's master section also includes the same type of output-level fader, output-level meters, peak-hold readouts, clip indicators, trim control, and dither function as LinEQ. There's also an Auto Makeup feature that can apply makeup gain in excess of unity when needed.
Also in LinMB's master section, you can choose between two different release curves (dubbed “opto” and “electro”), select a soft- or hard-knee processing response (or any response in between), and switch between manual and autorelease (program-sensitive release) times for all bands. Regarding the latter feature, activating Waves' ARC (Auto-Release Control) function does not disable manual control but rather modifies your manual settings as needed to better handle the current program material without pumping or causing distortion.
Another innovative (and pioneering) feature in LinMB's master section is the Adaptive threshold function, which automatically varies the processing threshold of a band to minimize frequency-masking effects. (Frequency masking is a phenomenon in which loud, lower frequencies tend to progressively obscure quiet, higher frequencies as the former get louder.)
LinMB is an extremely versatile plug-in. By adjusting a band's range control to be a negative number, I performed compression (or, with a hard-knee setting and fast attack times, limiting) in that band. Conversely, boosting the range control into positive territory prompted upward expansion. And by dialing in a zero value for all the range controls and boosting or cutting each band's makeup gain, I turned LinMB into an equalizer (albeit one that was far less flexible than LinEQ). Space constraints preclude my detailing how various other applications work, but suffice it to say that split-band noise gating (think noise reduction), bootstrap (or “bottoms-up”) compression, and automatic loudness contouring (boosting lows and highs at low signal levels only) are all a snap to accomplish with the chameleon-like LinMB. This plug-in rocks!
Waves' Masters Bundle makes the critically acclaimed L2-Ultramaximizer plug-in available in native formats for the first time. L2 is essentially an improved version of the seminal L1-Ultramaximizer. L2 combines an ultratransparent “look-ahead” peak limiter and level maximizer with Waves' outstanding IDR word-length reduction system. (IDR stands for Increased Digital Resolution, and, believe me, that's no empty claim.) Full mixes can be processed with L2 to reduce very brief peaks caused by drum and percussion hits and plucked instruments, and the output level automatically rises to exploit the newly gained headroom. The result is dramatically increased loudness and, often, a more aggressive sound.
L2 offers by far the simplest interface and operation of all the plug-ins offered with Masters Bundle (see Fig. 4). First, set the maximum output level you want your mix to attain by dragging the output-ceiling control with your mouse to the appropriate value (typically just barely below 0 dBfs). Then adjust L2's Threshold control to whatever level gives you the desired amount of brickwall limiting. Input-, output-, and gain-reduction level meters, along with associated numeric readouts, guide you in making your adjustments. You can set the limiter's release time wholly manually or activate Waves' ARC function (which works identically to the same feature found in LinMB). Choose the bit depth you want to dither L2's output to and the type of dither and noise shaping you want (if any), and you're done!
IDR can dither L2's output to 24, 22, 20, 18, or 16 bits, and features ninth-order (54 dB per octave rolloff) noise shaping that greatly reduces the audibility of noise caused by dither and/or requantization (word-length reduction). Two types of dither and three different noise-shaping curves are offered with L2. Dither and noise shaping can also be independently turned off.
You wouldn't want to use L2 to master classical music or any other style where a completely faithful reproduction of the live performance is sought. But for other forms of music, such as rock, country, R&B, hip-hop, and even adult alternative, a little bit of L2 processing can make a mix sound like it's on steroids. Heavy L2 processing can make your mix sound like it's exploding out of your speakers! Because L2 is intended for use in mastering (and, in fact, as the last process used on a file), it is offered only as a stereo plug-in. I wish it were also available in mono format, however, so I could process individual tracks with it before mixing.
Each of the Masters Bundle plug-ins allows you to save your custom settings as application-wide or file-specific presets and toggle between two alternative setups (for example, different EQ curves), designated as “A” and “B,” for comparison purposes. Unfortunately, LinEQ Broadband and LinEQ Lowband share the same user-presets menu. Since the two plug-ins understandably cannot invoke each other's settings (as they have somewhat different parameters), all EQ settings are nulled (zeroed) in the plug-in's current Setup when you attempt to load a LinEQ Lowband preset into the LinEQ Broadband plug-in, or vice versa. Hopefully, Waves will provide separate user-presets menus for each of the LinEQ plug-ins in a future update.
Helpful factory presets are provided as starting points for working with each plug-in. Each plug-in also offers a global bypass button and one level of undo. Unfortunately, you can't undo a preset recall. All parameters for all Masters Bundle plug-ins are automatable; that said, most of the time you'll be using static settings for mastering applications.
The Masters Bundle plug-ins (especially Linear Phase Multiband) devour hefty amounts of CPU resources. With Digital Performer's buffer set to 1,024 samples on my dual-processor Mac G4/867 MHz, one instance of each of the four plug-ins ate up 85 to 90 percent of my available CPU power and dramatically slowed down screen redraws — including critical metering. You rarely use more than four plug-ins when mastering, however, and low buffer settings aren't required for this application. Use Masters Bundle with the fastest dual-processor G4 or Windows machine you can get your hands on and the highest buffer settings you can tolerate.
Waves' Masters Bundle — in particular, Linear Phase Multiband — is a bit more difficult to learn and use than its plug-in counterparts from other Waves bundles. But the learning curve and extra effort are well worth the rewards. Simply put, DAW-based processing doesn't get any better than this. Masters Bundle provides the discerning mastering engineer with a formidable tool set capable of handling virtually any EQ or dynamics challenge, and with grace. I was particularly impressed by how superior Masters Bundle is in addressing the critical bottom end of a mix, which is where many competing products come up short.
If you're in the market for some serious mastering processors or simply want the highest-quality signal processing for critical multitracking applications, Waves' Masters Bundle will not disappoint you. Two wildly enthusiastic thumbs up!
EMcontributing editorMichael Cooperowns Michael Cooper Recording, located in beautiful Sisters, Oregon. Cooper's studio offers a wide range of recording services, including mastering for CD.
Minimum System Requirements
Masters Bundle V4
MAC: G4/450; 256 MB RAM; Mac OS 9.2.2 or OS X 10.2.2
PC: Pentium III/800 or AMD Athlon/500; 128 MB RAM; Windows 98SE/2000/ME/XP
Masters Bundle V4 (Mac/Win) signal-processing software
native versions (Mac/Win) $900
TDM version (Mac only) $1,800
FEATURES4.5EASE OF USE3.5DOCUMENTATION4.5VALUE4.5RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Pristine sound quality. Extraordinary control over critical bass frequencies. Interactive graphic displays greatly facilitate editing. Innovative trim functions. Expansive selection of filter types.
CONS: Plug-ins are voracious CPU hogs. Cannot apply positive makeup gain in the master-output section of either LinEQ plug-in. Can't undo preset recall. L2 cannot process mono tracks.