Zen of Recording

T-Racks 5: Mastering, Mixing, and More

I have been a user of IK Multimedia’s T-RackS digital mastering software since it was first introduced in the early 2000s and I have always absolutely loved this program. From the start, the product’s mission was to impart the sweet, warm characteristics of analog audio components to the often bitter cold of digital recordings. Through their brilliant “virtual circuit modeling” of time-honored studio gear and an excellent selection of preset starting points developed with a variety of scenarios in mind, they accomplished a major achievement in digital audio design and developed a “go-to” tool in my mastering arsenal.

Versions 1 and 2 were an “all-in-one mastering suite,” which chained an equalizer, tube compressor, multiband limiter, and an output clipper/tape saturation stage. This sort of “one-stop-shopping approach allowed me to arrive at a great sounding result quickly and intuitively.

The company continued to improve its digital modeling technology and Version 3 introduced the Custom Shop concept, wherein users could purchase different components separately and mix and match them according to their varying needs and tastes. Many of these components are derived from recognizable studio stalwarts, like the Teletronix LA-2A leveling amplifier (“White 2A”), the Pultec EQP-1A equalizer (“EQP-1A”) or UREI 1176 compressor (“Black 76”). These models performed quite admirably and sounded great, but I instantly missed the stand-alone version, which could be opened and ready to go in seconds without the added steps of auditioning and chaining the different components into a (subsequently repeatable) mastering chain within my DAW.

There IS of course a huge upside to this approach, in that these individual plugins can all be utilized in the recording, editing and mixing of individual tracks and subgroups throughout the recording process, in addition to the final mastering stage.

T-RackS 5 MAX ($199, PC/Mac) represents an indisputably incredible value, by offering 38 of these high-end audio processors at one ridiculously low price. If that somehow weren’t enough, Version 5 (re)introduces a stand-alone version of the program with a large array of signal chains and presets (several developed by successful music producers), an audio montage assembly window with a variety of output options and a versatile and fully featured monitoring section.

Among the plugins offered are four brand new entries: Master Match, Dyna-Mu, ONE and EQual.

Creating a new project in T-RackS brings up a simple chain consisting only of ONE and a present but disconnected Master Match, which resides at the end of the chain. Pressing (+) in the Clip List window allows you to browse to the location of your audio and import it for processing. This relatively simple process can bring most users to a very listener-friendly result quickly, making it a great “end of session” treatment for assessing the day’s work on the drive home, without having to reach for the car’s volume or eq knobs. One’s controls are smartly labeled for artistic types, with eq controls like “AIR,” “FOCUS,” and “BODY.” “BASS PUNCH” boosts and tightens the low-end, “ANALOG” adds harmonic enhancement, and “TRANSIENTS” affects the mix’s impact. A “WIDTH” control enhances the stereo imaging, “PUSH” quickly and easily provides some great-sounding compression, and the “VOLUME” knob provides loudness through some tasteful limiting. Fast, intuitive and great sounding results all in “ONE” plugin!

Connecting the Master Match plugin to the chain is a similarly helpful tool to pros and amateurs alike. If you have a certain song or album’s sound you’re aiming toward, you can import it into Master Match, which will analyze it and adjust your mix’s eq and loudness to match it.

EQual is a very cool and versatile 10-band(!) equalizer that marries classic EQ curves, bumps and dips that are characteristic of popular analog designs from SSL, Neve, and API with the laser-focused precision digital equalizers. The result is a “best-of-both-worlds” sound that experienced engineers have long clamored for.

Dyna-Mu ably emulates the Manley Variable MU compressor, known for its creamy tube warmth and “gluing together” of mix components. It’s definitely aimed toward the seasoned palates of more advanced users, but its excellent sonic results will be readily apparent to all.

Obviously, there’s not enough room here to go into the relative merits of all 31 plugins I haven’t mentioned, but I will say that the Opto-Compressor was an excellent performer, with the ability to go from a subtle touch to tons of attitude. The EQ 81 lent some beautifully British Neve color and the Echoplex-based Tape Echo is a spot-on replica I reach for every day. Have a look at all of the included plugins here: http://www.ikmultimedia.com/products/tr5max/

In my opinion, the greatest performer of all 38 is IK’s own design, the Stealth Limiter. Built to win the loudness wars once and for all without destroying your audio, this baby does exactly that. By way of “an inter-sample peak-limiting algorithm that gets around this issue by predicting the converted analog waveform of the digital source,” I was able to jack my audio to a much louder perceived level, with far less audio artifacts. To that end, there is a “Unity Gain Monitor” switch that keeps you from thinking “louder is better” by playing back your effected audio at the same level as your non-effected signal, so you can listen for any signal degradation that might be introduced. Harmonic coloration can be kept out or added in incrementally, sub frequencies below 22Hz can be filtered out for even more gain enhancement and dithering to 16 or 24 bits is also available. In use it performed incredibly, absolutely crushing the results of Waves’ L2 Ultramaximizer, the de facto standard for use in the final output stage to now.

The metering section provides almost every option one could think of, with settings for musical style and music streaming services, a spectrogram, a real-time analyzer and phase and correlation meters as well as a precision loudness LUFS meter compliant with ITU-R BS.1770-4, covering the majority of loudness standards worldwide.

I really liked the Audio Montage feature, where I could lay out the and rearrange the whole album’s mixes, experiment with different effect combinations and settings, control fade-ins and fade-outs and edit info like CD Text and ISRC codes.

So, what’s not to like? Well… the manual, in a word: sucks. Skimpy on info and fraught with typos and omissions, it won’t be much help to most users in its current state. The most glaring error is its constant referral to the ability to automate plugin parameters, only to discover after much effort and many lost hours that you cannot do that in the stand alone mode, only with the T-Racks Suite shell inside your DAW. Here’s hoping they vastly overhaul their documentation soon, as the help button only pulls up this terrible PDF. My only other gripes were that final rendering of a CD master was almost real-time slow and there’s no “master effects” slot for global processing of the entire project.

Still, you can’t beat the ability to use all of these tools in your VST compliant programs and at $200, you’ll never find a better deal. I highly recommend T-RackS Max to anyone wishing to utilize the best sounding modern and vintage processors in their recordings, mixes and masters.

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning producer, songwriter, performer, and mastering engineer.

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