Whether you’re looking for a stand-alone mastering suite or a comprehensive plug-in bundle, the latest iteration of IK Multimedia’s T‑Racks has much to offer.
Software-based DIY audio mastering is now an accepted necessity for many independent musicians, and IK Multimedia’s T‑Racks is one of the longest established options for that task. Paul White reviewed the original release of T‑Racks back in SOS February 2000, and more recent versions have been covered in the April 2009 and May 2013 issues, with consistently positive conclusions. So does the release of T‑Racks 5 continue both the steady development of the feature set and the solid reputation that IK Multimedia have built for the application?
T‑Racks started life as a stand-alone application offering mastering-style EQ, compression and multiband limiting. The feature list has expanded considerably since then and, more recently, IK have made all the individual processing options available as separate plug-ins. The latest iteration of the software, T‑Racks 5, continues the cross-platform ‘stand-alone plus plug-ins’ format, with VST2, VST3, AU and AAX formats all supported. Meanwhile, the feature set continues to grow, with four interesting new modules added, a stylish redesign of the stand-alone workflow, improvements to the underlying audio engine, more comprehensive ‘broadcast-ready’ metering tools and options for album-style mastering with a montage view for sequencing tracks. The latter includes export options such as Disc Description Protocol (DDP) format for replication purposes.
T‑Racks 5 comes in four flavours, including the free T‑Racks Custom Shop shell, which includes the Classic EQ module and an in-app store for buying further processing options. Three paid versions called T‑Racks 5, T‑Racks 5 Deluxe and T‑Racks 5 MAX also feature this store, but ship with bundles of nine, 22 and 38 processors respectively. For the purposes of this review, I had access to the MAX version, which is available at a substantial discount for existing IK Multimedia customers.
MAX’s 38 processors can be divided into four categories; EQ, dynamics, spatial, and a ‘catch-all’ of other things. This last category includes both the Master Match and ONE processors that are new in version 5 and which, alongside the equally new Dyna-Mu compressor and EQual plug-ins, are present in all three paid versions.
The stand-alone interface has had a significant makeover in T‑Racks 5 (see above). Beneath the topmost menu/control strip, the default layout splits the resizeable windows into six panels. On the left are the Preset Browser, with the Clip List beneath it. The former offers presets for both full signal chains and individual processors, while the latter is where you load and sequence individual audio files. Each clip can have its own processing chain specified.
Top right is the metering panel, which includes peak, RMS, LUFS and dynamic range readings as well as options to customise the metering displays for different musical and broadcast applications. Beneath it is the processor browser from where you can drag and drop modules into the larger, lower central panel that, by default, shows the processing signal chain for the current audio clip. Each chain can contain up to 16 processors, the last of which is always the new Master Match, even if it is not active. These can be reordered and arranged into parallel configurations if you wish. Finally, the top central panel shows the interface for the currently selected module.
The signal-chain panel can also be toggled to a waveform view, which includes basic audio editing features such as clip trimming and adding fades, but also provides access to a Snapshot automation function, allowing up to eight different settings configurations for your processing chain to be matched to positions along the waveform timeline. In addition, the menu bar also includes four slots (labelled A to D) that can hold four different signal-chain configurations for each audio clip, making it easy to explore alternative processing strategies for a given clip as you work.
There is one further item on the topmost menu strip that’s worth paying attention to: the Equal Gain button. With this option engaged, T‑Racks does its best to match the apparent level of the processed and unprocessed versions of the audio. This makes it easy to check that your processing chain is preserving the sonic quality, without your ears being fooled simply by volume increases. This is an important, and very useful, feature.
Another new stand-alone feature is the Assembly window. This offers a two-lane waveform display where you can sequence, trim and edit a series of audio clips loaded within the current project. When you are ready, you can export either individual clips, multiple clips (WAV, AIF and FLAC formats are supported) or the full montage.
T‑Racks 5 still isn’t a full-blown audio editor in the same vein as, for example, Steinberg’s Wavelab, but the stand-alone environment now offers enough editing tools for routine mastering tasks, both for individual flies and album-length projects. The visual design and workflow are slick and, if you have passed your ‘Loudness Wars 101’ class, the metering options offer more than enough to help keep you on the straight and narrow when it comes to getting your output levels in the loudness sweet spot for your musical genre.
There are 12 different EQ modules/plug-ins supplied in the MAX edition, along with the ONE processor which we’ll return to later. As well as some of IK’s own designs, these include a number of ‘inspired by’ offerings, including full channel strips with dynamics such as British Channel and the SSL-inspired White Channel. The EQ-73 and EQ-81 draw on classic Neve equipment, EQP-1A is a Pultec homage, while EQ PA, EQ PB and EQ PG are based on API designs and the Master EQ 432 emulates the Sontec 432, a hardware unit revered by many mastering engineers. IK’s own designs are the existing Classic and Linear Phase EQs, plus the new EQual. With 10 bands, very transparent operation and extremely precise control, this is a sophisticated tool.
It’s a similar story within the dynamics section. MAX offers 14 dedicated dynamics options, including hardware tributes such as the VC670, White 2A, Black 76, the SSL-aping Bus Comp and the Neve-inspired Precision Comp Limiter. New for version 5, and included in all three paid versions, is the Dyna-Mu, which pays homage to the classic Manley Variable Mu — and which, like the VC670, does a very forgiving job on any bus or master bus even when pushed quite hard.
IK also have their own ‘classic’ Compressor, plus a multiband limiter, compressor and de-esser. The last of these is particularly nifty, letting you really target the frequencies you want to attenuate. You get mid-sides processing options and some modules also feature a frequency-based triggering filter but, currently, there is no full side-chain facility for any of the plug-ins. This is one of the few criticisms I’d have of T‑Racks 5 as a plug-in suite for mixing, though it’s less of a concern for mastering.
The ‘everything else’ category includes some very interesting tools. I’ve already mentioned the metering options, but MAX also includes the Classic Clipper, an alternative means of taming peaks, plus the four-band Quad Image stereo width processor and Saturator X. The last of these is an interesting take on tape saturation, with multiple modes. Used gently, it can add some subtle analogue-style warmth in a mastering context, but you can also really cook things if you want something more obvious for an individual track within a mix.
The Deluxe and MAX versions also feature IK Multimedia’s Mic Room technology. In concept, this is similar to Antares’ Mic Mod EFX in that it models the sonic characteristics of classic studio microphones from a Shure 57 to a Neumann U87. Results obviously depend upon the character of your original recording, but it does provide some interesting tonal options, particularly for vocals.
Two new processors round off this catch-all category: ONE and Master Match. Both are included in all paid versions and both are worthy of a few words. While T‑Racks is, first and foremost, a mastering suite, ONE is designed to be a complete mastering solution in a single processor. Across the nine controls offered, you get a combination of EQ, compression, exciter, enhancer, stereo width adjustment and limiter. For example, the Air control allows you to boost/cut the high end, while Focus changes the way the mid-range is perceived. The Body and Bass Punch settings provide control over the low end, while the Transients control changes how the attack of sounds is handled.
The two largest knobs are Push and Volume, and respectively control how hard the compression is pushed and the overall loudness. Both include a red scale/LED meter showing how much gain reduction is being generated as a consequence of the processing. As with the other controls, I suspect each knob is actually changing a number of underlying parameters within the processing algorithms. Obviously, if you push too hard on any of these settings, then things will eventually get messy, but I was actually very impressed at how easy ONE makes it to do a basic mastering job when your starting point is a solid mix. It’s perhaps not flexible enough to perform surgical corrective moves, but that’s not what it’s there for, and I can imagine those new to DIY mastering finding this a really great place to start.
In concept, Master Match is similar to the Master Assistant within iZotope’s Ozone 8, in that it aims to analyse your audio and suggest processing that will take it where you want it to go. In a simple three-stage process, Master Match takes the spectral balance and perceived loudness of up to three references and then applies both EQ and level adjustment to get your track to try and match them. You can, of course, apply your own choice of mastering processes in front of Master Match, and then just use Master Match to nudge you a little closer to your sonic target. Like ONE, this is a very useful tool for those taking their first steps in DIY mastering and, providing you don’t expect miracles (it will not make a duff mix into a radio-ready hit), it can do a very decent job.
For mastering duties, the new T‑Racks 5 front-end offers a pretty comfortable working environment, and I can’t imagine new users having too many difficulties finding their way around. Equally, as a mastering tool, T‑Racks 5 is sonically up there with the obvious competition. Those new to DIY mastering will appreciate the accessible front end and the contributions made by ONE and Master Match to get them started. The bottom line here is that even the standard edition is a perfectly capable mastering package; by the time you reach the MAX version, it offers an almost endless set of options including the ability to add ‘character’ using the various emulations of classic EQ and dynamics hardware.
So what about the other potential role for T‑Racks 5, as a plug-in bundle for mixing? Aside from one technical gremlin — the Metering plug-in sent Wavelab belly-up on me a few times — I had no problems using any of the T‑Racks 5 plug-ins in the various hosts I tried. The standard version offers a well-targeted selection of plug-ins for routine mastering duties, but few of them could be considered essential mixing tools. However, the (admittedly pricy) MAX selection provides a hugely impressive collection of emulated hardware that is just as tempting for mix engineers as it is for mastering. If you are currently just working with the stock plug-in selection supplied with your DAW, T‑Racks 5 MAX would provide a significant upgrade both in terms of choice and in adding ‘character’. There are a few things that might still be required — a compressor with an external side-chain input, a workhorse delay and pitch correction, for example — but for the most part, T‑Racks 5 MAX would take you from zero to hero in one step.
That is, assuming IK’s emulations stand up sonically to the competition. As I happened to have a number of equivalent emulations from Waves Audio on my test system, I spent a very interesting hour or two making direct comparisons. IK’s White 2A and Waves’ CLA‑2A not only produced comparable results, but the response of their front-panel settings also matched very closely; and although the controls are perhaps less similar, the same was basically true of the T‑Racks EQ73 when compared with the Scheps‑73, or the EQP1A compared to the PuigTec EQP1A. If my experience is representative, then IKM’s take on these hardware classics is certainly up to par with similar options from other vendors.
On the whole, then, I’ve been very impressed with T‑Racks 5, and particularly with the vintage hardware emulations in the MAX edition, which make it highly desirable for mixing as well as mastering. That said, MAX is not cheap. So just who might the various flavours of T‑Racks 5 suit?
With the standard edition, I think that answer is pretty easy: if you are just finding your feet with DIY mastering, T‑Racks 5 provides a great choice. There are enough options included to do routine mastering work, it’s easy to get to grips with, the metering is more than adequate and ONE and Master Match provide useful tools for the less experienced. You also get a few useful plug-ins to add to your DAW arsenal and the option to extend the module library through the Custom Shop as time goes by.
The cost of the Deluxe and MAX editions means their market is likely to be a more select one. However, for the more experienced music producer who is looking to both step up his or her DIY mastering options and round out a plug-in collection with a set of tasty emulations of hardware classics, T‑Racks 5 is a pretty simple way to kill two birds with one stone. In that regard, if the price doesn’t make you wince too much, I think MAX is actually pretty good value for money, if you really want lots of choice and don’t already own similar plug-in emulations from other vendors. Of course, with the T‑Racks 5 store, you can also pick and choose what you might want, albeit at a higher price per plug-in, just as you can from those other plug-in sources. Whichever version suits your needs, this is a quality product that has matured nicely to offer both a comprehensive mastering package and a really good collection of plug-ins for mixing duties.
The most obvious alternative is iZotope’s Ozone 8. It too comes at different prices, offers individual components as separate plug-ins and has some truly innovative options such as the Tonal Balance Control. It is very powerful and flexible but perhaps not as instantly approachable as T‑Racks 5. Alternatively, you can, of course, also build your own mastering signal chain from individual plug-ins, but you won’t get the stand-alone mastering environment found in products such as T‑Racks.
The MAX edition of T‑Racks 5 includes four reverbs and an emulated tape-based echo: not obvious essentials for mastering, but nice to have, nonetheless. The reverbs cover hall, plate, room and ‘inverse’ options and all, colour scheme aside, provide similar control sets, with an ADV (advanced) button opening up a large number of further controls if you want to dig past the Easy mode options. It would be easy to overlook this selection, but these modules are actually capable of some seriously good reverb treatments. I experimented with a range of vocals, acoustic guitars, solo pianos and drums and have no complaints about the results that can be obtained.
The ADV options in the plate reverb module include an Echo section offering delays up to 500ms, and the only other delay option is the Tape Echo plug-in. This is a characterful emulation of an Echoplex hardware unit. It’s good at what it does but, for my taste, provides rather too much emulated tape noise for routine delay duties — not that that is really an issue for mastering.