One thing that often causes new DP users confusion is the task of turning a completed Project into a sound file (or files) suitable for burning to CD or for Internet distribution — what you might call the 'two-track mastering' stage.
The confusion arises particularly when the Project you've been working on has multiple sound sources — external synths, virtual instrument plug-ins and stand-alone soft synths routed into DP via Rewire or Soundflower, not to mention 'conventional' Voice and Aux tracks. Some users might even be using hardware effects units accessible from within DP, having connected them into an audio interface in-out 'loop'.
The first thing to realise is that DP doesn't, and will probably never be able to, offer a simple 'Export Mix As...' function, in the way that much more self-contained applications such as Reason or Live do. That's primarily because DP can drive external MIDI hardware, and while it can send appropriate MIDI messages, on the right channels and at the right time, that's where control of that hardware ends. It could never control, for example, where the audio output from your synths was being routed, so could never ensure that signals from them were reaching DP, let alone your audio interface. The first challenge, then, is how to best gather together external audio sources, properly synchronised and at appropriate levels. That's what I'm going to cover this month, with the remainder of the process, right up to CD-ready stage, coming next month.
Swarplug is the only sample playback plug-in I know of that is devoted entirely to Indian instruments, and I'm pleased to say it's working well in DP4.12, running stably under the latest version of Audioease's VST Wrapper v4. Swar Systems, who make Swarplug, currently have two sound libraries on offer, called North Volume 1 and 2, and between them they encompass folk instruments, hand percussion, sitars and tamburas, and any number of timbres ideal for both traditional Indian folk and more contemporary 'crossover' styles. What's particularly nice about Swarplug is that it doesn't rely on loops, but instead works in conjunction with a separate application, Swar Librarian, which stores literally hundreds of 'proper' Indian melodies, accompaniments and rhythmic cycles as MIDI phrases which can be auditioned in the application and then simply copied and pasted into DP. They can thus work well at a range of tempos and still allow you to tweak the MIDI data to get exactly the effect you need. Swarplug and Swar Librarian, with both sound libraries, cost $200 for the download versions, available from www.swarsystems.com
Taking care of your external audio sources should be fairly straightforward: route them to your audio interface, create new audio tracks for them in DP, and hit record to 'print' their audio into the sequence. There's nothing to say you couldn't record them all to one stereo track, but that would, of course, make it impossible to treat just one with effects at some point down the line, or even tweak its level independently. It's definitely safer to record each to a separate track, although you'd need a multi-channel audio interface to get them all in one recording pass.
Next, you do the same for any software synths running in DP or being routed into it via Rewire or Soundflower. Remember that to record the output of a synth running in one of DP's Instrument tracks you need to set its output as a buss or buss pair, and choose that same buss as the input for a new Voice track. You can't record directly on to the Instrument track, and matching up busses like this links the two tracks together via DP's internal routing structure. You may already be using multiple Aux tracks to handle the inputs of Rewire or Soundflower instruments into DP, so either route these to corresponding Voice tracks via individual busses, or just set up the same number of Voice tracks with appropriate Rewire or Soundflower inputs.
A completely different approach to recording virtual instruments is to use DP's Freeze Tracks feature. You select both the Instrument (or Aux) track handling the soft synth and the MIDI track that's driving it, and then choose Freeze Selected Tracks from the Audio menu. You can do this for multiple synths in one go. There's more about this feature in July 2003's Performer Notes.
With the audio from hardware and virtual MIDI instruments safely in DP (this is a good time to mute their MIDI tracks, by the way), things start to get a bit quicker. You're now in a position to make a two-track bounce of all the audio tracks in your sequence, and there are a surprising number of ways to do this, ranging from the purist to the downright quick-and-dirty. I'll be covering all of these in next month's column, as well as looking in depth at the last stage of all — the production of a single audio file that gathers your DP project into a form suitable for distribution to the world at large.
All the mastering limiters and compressors in this month's roundup are quite capable of boosting a mix right up to 0dBFS, the maximum level that any digital system can accommodate before nasty hard-clipping starts to occur. When preparing mixes for distribution, though, it's more sensible to make the loudest signals about 0.3-0.5dB below that threshold. The reason for this is that domestic CD players and other consumer playback devices sometimes employ cheaper D-A converters that can introduce distortion with signals that hit 0dBFS, and even high-end players are not immune, particularly those that use oversampling converters.
If you were one of the many people who took advantage of Native Instruments' Komplete 2 upgrade offer, you may well have noticed that Komplete's B4FX plug-in, which is so useful for Leslie treatments, no longer passes the AU inspection process. According to Native Instruments, though, if you previously owned B4 you can continue to use the B4 plug-in that was part of that 'individual' installation. If not, they may be able to supply you with the older version until a fix comes along.
It's ironic that many engineers wouldn't dream of recording with anything other than 24-bit resolution but then happily squash mixes into about a 10dB dynamic range at the mastering stage. Although almost all of us know it's not particularly clever, final limiting with a view to maximising the loudness of mixes is pretty much taken for granted these days, especially in dance, pop and rock genres. To some extent that's fair enough — true dance music should be consistently loud, and for many other styles it's often preferable to err on the 'hot' side — even though luminaries such as Bob Katz have shown that it can ultimately be self-defeating. Whatever the arguments for or against, a mastering-style limiter is a handy thing to have at the final stages of the mixing process, and can help avoid digital overs just as much in classical music as in drum and bass. Similarly, although they tend not to be capable of producing such huge increases in overall level, mastering-style multi-band compressors can do wonders for changing the overall tonal balance of a two-track mix and are ideal for ironing out differences in balance between album tracks recorded on different gear, for example, or even for just helping to compensate for less-than-ideal monitoring. There are quite a few mastering limiters and compressors available for DP4, and these are some of the best.
MOTU Masterworks Compressor & Masterworks Limiter
The great thing about MOTU's Masterworks Compressor and Limiter is that they come free with DP, and they're actually pretty good. They're very different beasts, though, the Compressor being a multi-band design capable of quite extreme tonal reshaping, in contrast to the single-band, brick-wall Limiter, which tries to be as self-effacing as possible. It has to be said that neither is capable of producing huge increases in loudness without introducing distinct compression artifacts, or (in the case of the Limiter) some distortion. But for tweaking those last few dBs from a mix without spending any extra money, they're both useful. For detailed information, see my Performer Notes article from the April 2002 edition of SOS.
Waves L1 & L2
These are single-band, brick-wall limiters, but they're capable of far greater levels of distortion-free compression than MOTU's Masterworks Limiter. Both of them incorporate look-ahead techniques and release times that constantly adapt themselves to the audio they're processing. L1 is often said to be the 'meatier' sounding of the two, but for me final limiting doesn't come any better than the L2, which, on a wide range of material, can apply huge amounts of limiting before it begins to sound at all artificial. Both the L1 and L2 are spectacularly easy to use, too, with simple threshold and ceiling controls virtually the only things the user needs to interact with. However, both also incorporate high-end dither and noise-shaping options useful for the preparation of two-track masters prior to CD burning, for example. See www.waves.com for the pricing options.
Waves C4 & Linear-Phase Multi-band
Linear-Phase Multi-band is to the C4 as L2 is to L1, in that they achieve roughly the same thing — four-band compression — but the Linear-Phase is more recent, sounds better, and has extra bells and whistles. Although these are multi-band compressors, their user interfaces lack a conventional ratio control, replacing it with 'range' instead, making sense of Waves' own preferred 'Parametric Processor' terminology. Certainly, these plug-ins can be envisaged as dynamic EQs almost as easily as compressors, and they're complex and subtle tools that can be put to a range of uses. Again, check out the Waves web site, as above, for pricing.
* PSP Audioware Vintagewarmer $149
Vintagewarmer is a funny one, rolling into one package aspects of single-band and multi-band compression, peak limiting, and valve and tape saturation. As such it's perhaps more of an all-rounder than most of the other mastering tools mentioned here, but it's certainly still a handy plug-in to pop on your Master fader. Vintagewarmer doesn't have most of the controls you'd find on a conventional compressor or limiter; instead the overall level of compression and consequent gain increase of quieter signals is set with the Knee control. A switch at the lower right toggles between single-band and multi-band operation, and clicking on the Vintagewarmer name opens up a 'hidden' set of parameters, which includes Saturation controls for each of the three frequency bands, for when the plug-in is being used in multi-band mode. Think of these as threshold controls, allowing the relative volume of each band to be controlled, and you won't go far wrong. Visit www.pspaudioware.com to purchase.
WaveArts Finalplug $149.95
This comparatively new plug-in is from the makers of the Powercouple reverb and channel strip, and takes its cue very obviously from Waves' L2, with almost exactly the same set of controls. However, perhaps because it uses a fixed release time, it's not as transparent as L2, although it seems quite capable of giving L1 a run for its money. Check out further details at www.wavearts.com.