Danish company tc electronic have become very well known over the years for their sophisticated range of signal-processing devices. Their latest offering, the Finaliser, is described as a studio mastering processor, and certainly appears to be well up to the high standards we have come to expect from tc. Just what is a 'studio mastering processor', though? In short, a device such as this one uses DSP (Digital Signal Processing) technology to provide a chain of very sophisticated signal processors, which may be used in combination to add that final tweak to a stereo mix.
The Finaliser offers:
A high-quality, 20-bit analogue-to-digital converter.
A 5-band equaliser.
An 'analogue warmth' feature.
A stereo width and balance adjuster.
An automatic volume controller.
A multi-band expander.
A multi-band compressor.
A multi-band limiter.
A 20-bit digital-to-analogue converter.
A digital format converter with SCMS (Serial Copy Management System) control.
Digital word-length reduction with re-dithering.
A peak level meter and phase display.
A line-up tone generator.
The Finaliser is housed in a sturdy, 1U-high 19-inch rackmount box, made from steel, with an anodised black aluminium front panel. The rear is fitted with an impressive selection of socketry, which includes an IEC mains inlet (with switch), balanced XLRs for stereo analogue signals (in and out), pairs of XLRs and phono sockets for digital (again in and out, in both AES-EBU and S/PDIF formats), the familiar trio of MIDI connectors, and a quarter-inch jack socket for a footswitch.
The unit can be configured for analogue signals at either -10 or +4dBu levels, and conversion to and from digital is available at 44.1 or 48kHz (32kHz operation is also available when slaved to a digital input). The specifications for noise, distortion, frequency response and dynamic range are all very respectable, and the Finaliser easily makes the grade for use in a mastering room or high-end studio.
The centre of the front panel is dominated by abundant arrays of LED bargraph meters, with an LCD display to the left, and 18 buttons and a control wheel to the right. On the extreme left are a power switch (actually a standby button, as the mains breaker is on the rear panel) and a slot for a PCMCIA memory card for archiving custom settings.
The LCD display is the heart of the machine, as it provides 26 different graphical pages, allowing the user to observe and modify every aspect of the Finaliser's signal processing. A column of LEDs to the left of the display indicates internal overloads, the selected sampling rate, when MIDI data is incoming, and so on. Other LEDs here confirm recognition of a PCMCIA card, and indicate when the DSP system is being re-configured and when a memory preset is being modified.
The stereo input bargraphs, located at the bottom centre of the panel, are relatively crude, with only 3dB resolution at the top end and a 60dB range, but the output meters are extremely detailed -- which is appropriate, because this is where you need the information. These level meters are accompanied by three red gain-reduction bargraphs reflecting the action of the compressor and expander sections. Six separate, but associated, LEDs indicate when the limiter and expander sections are operating (independent LEDs for each band).
The keys on the right-hand side of the control panel vary in size, with the larger ones calling up the operational modes and the smaller ones being used for menu navigation. Normal Finaliser operation is selected by pressing the Main Page button in the first column, with additional facilities, such as the phase display and calibration tone generator, being accessed through the Tools key below it. The Utility button at the bottom provides an extensive range of options for MIDI, memory management and security (all functions can be protected by a PIN number!) and the fourth button initiates a 'Wizard', which requires the user to define the type of material being processed and the level of processing required, before it automatically conjures up a 'perfect' setting. The second column of buttons is used to recall and store memory presets, compare settings (between original signal, stored preset and modified preset), or bypass processing.
The most important buttons are in the third group, adjacent to the Adjust wheel. Eight half-sized buttons provide the means of navigating around the various control screens and their parameters, while a full-sized button above them engages the desired signal-processing blocks or confirms actions, as appropriate. A ninth small button calls up an on-line help system, and the rotary control is used to adjust the various parameters selected in the control pages and choose processing presets.
The order of signal processing in the Finaliser is fixed -- which is a bit of a shame -- but on the whole, the given sequence should be satisfactory for 99% of applications. The input module is followed by the 5-band equaliser, a special effects unit, the gain normaliser block, and then the three, 3-band dynamics units (expander, compressor and limiter). The chain finishes with an output module.
The Input block allows you to select the system's operating level and fine-tune input gain and balance. It also determines the input source (analogue or digital), and the sampling rate or digital format. There's also an adjustable high-pass filter with a default cut-off at 2Hz, for sub-bass and DC removal.
The Equaliser block provides high and low sweep shelf bands (with adjustable slopes between 3dB and 12dB/Oct) plus three bell-shaped bands (with adjustable Q and full 20Hz-20kHz ranges). I often have problems with 20-20 digital EQ sections because it's so easy to forget which band is modifying which part of the spectrum (not a problem in conventional overlapping-band designs, of course). However, the Finaliser includes a real-time frequency response display with floating markers to identify which of the five bands are responsible for each 'lump' in the response. This latter feature is such an obvious solution to the problem that it makes me wonder why the designers of half-million pound digital consoles haven't thought of it. Definitely one up for the Finaliser! Below the response graph, a numerical readout shows the turnover or centre frequency for the selected band, together with the gain and Q, or slope.
The Special Effects section provides three processes (only one of which may be used at any one time): a de-esser, a stereo width/balance control, and a 'Digital Radiance Generator'. The latter adds second-harmonic distortion, to lend warmth to your 'cold and clinical' digital recordings. The DRG has just two controls, which determine how much of the effect is added and invert its polarity for a subtly different effect. The stereo width section has a graph which plots left/right against mono/stereo, so that the current balance or width setting can be seen at a glance. The de-esser is quite sophisticated, with controls for threshold, ratio, attack and release times, frequency and filter shape (bell or shelf).
The Normaliser section display draws the modulation envelope of the programme sound; a pair of dotted lines represent the peak level. Turning the control wheel can cause these dotted lines to be drawn in towards the envelope, thereby adjusting the signal gain. The system includes a soft limiter, and a counter which logs clipped samples.
Skipping over the dynamics processes for a moment, the Output block allows the user to select the digital output resolution (which is properly re-dithered, with the addition of a low-level random noise signal to reduce quantising noise), the output format, and the system operating level. The output is actually available at the analogue and digital outputs simultaneously, and there is a built-in automatic fader with selectable curves and times for the master fade-in or out. This may be remotely controlled by a simple footswitch or a real fader.
The most impressive aspect of the Finaliser is its multi-band dynamic processing. The three processors available (compressor, limiter, and expander) offer broadly similar control facilities, and together comprise an extremely comprehensive and powerful creative toolkit. Audio is split into three bands (user adjustable, but common to all three dynamics processes), with each band having separate threshold, ratio, attack and release times, and, in the case of the compressor, make-up gain. Parameters may be linked across all three bands for easy basic adjustment, and then fine-tuned individually, as needed.
All three sections share a 'look-ahead' facility: a delay is inserted into the main programme path, to give the side-chain advanced information about what the audio is doing, allowing very precise dynamic control. In practice this means an overshoot-free limiter, very accurate compression, and an expander which is hard to catch out.
The Expander page features a graph showing threshold and the slope ratio, which is a great help in understanding what you're doing. The Finaliser manual also provides some very sensible and clear advice about adjusting the attack and release times for the individual bands, to obtain the best results.
The Compressor is very similar to the expander in terms of its control parameters, but it has an additional facility which fine-tunes how it responds to peaks in the signal, as compared to the average RMS value. This is an unusual facility, but one which allows extremely accurate matching of compression characteristics to the programme material.
The Limiter is similar again, but this time has a control which determines how hard or soft the clipper function is. It also has a fine level adjuster which sets the Finaliser's digital ceiling in 0.01dB increments below 0dBFS (0dB Full Scale, or maximum modulation) -- the handbook suggests that this can be used to avoid erroneous overload indications from the master digital recording.
Versatile as the Finaliser undoubtedly is, its extraordinary level of flexibility is both a strength and a weakness. It is a phenomenally powerful machine which can work wonders on pretty much any kind of material when used with care and an understanding of its underlying technical principals. Unfortunately, though, it could also be described as being over-burdened with capabilities, making it rather complicated, fiddly and above all, time-consuming to set up.
If you are patient enough (and have sufficient understanding) to set up each processor section carefully, the results are nothing short of superb -- but in the wrong hands, the Finaliser can wreak more havoc on your music than a second-hand Chinese cassette in a well-used 4-track!
I was very impressed with what could be achieved with the Finaliser. Across a complete stereo mix of rock or pop material, it could produce a very tight, commercial sound, free from the usual side-effects of poor dynamics units. I also had excellent results with a factory preset on a voice-over recording, which added a lot of warmth and clarity. The expander was surprisingly effective at reducing background noise, and was never caught out by opening too late.
The supplied memory presets cover a wide range of requirements, and they offer an easy way to use the Finaliser. However, unless they are tweaked to optimise the various sections and parameters for specific programme material, you will be missing out on the real strength of this machine.
The Finaliser's Tools page provides a Phase Meter, which draws a wiggly line showing the relative phase between the left and right channels, and its Calibration Tone can be adjusted to all the common standard digital line-up levels. Unfortunately, the frequency is fixed at 1kHz, and it would have been nice if this was adjustable. There are two metering tools pages: the first shows a bargraph output meter with a long-term peak-hold display, and the second shows six bargraph displays indicating the notional internal signal level at each stage of the signal path. The final page concerns the digital inputs and outputs. The input side translates the received status bit data flags, showing whether the recording is pre-emphasised, what bit-resolution is being used, and so forth. The output side allows the SCMS flags to be manipulated to define 'copyrighted', 'single copy' or 'no copyright' modes.
The Wizard page requires the user to define the type of programme material, the level of compression, whether to optimise gain and what kind of EQ effect is needed. Once the information has been entered, the system will automatically insert and optimise the various processes to create generally acceptable results. Manual adjustments will always produce better effects, but the Wizard gets pretty close with most material.
A very impressive and powerful device, easily capable of producing very
high-quality and commercial-sounding master recordings.
Requires high level of technical understanding to really get the
best from it.
Fiddly multi-button operation and busy LCD pages make it frustrating and slow
to set up.
Probably not a tool for everyday use, but rewards patience and techy know-how with very polished results.
£ £2056.25 inc VAT.
A Raper & Wayman, Unit 3, Crusader Estate, 167 Hermitage Road, Manor House, London N4 1LZ.
T 0181 800 8288.
F 0181 809 1515.