IK Multimedia take home-studio mastering to the MAX — and beyond!
Software-based DIY audio mastering is now an accepted necessity for most independent musicians. IK Multimedia's T‑RackS is one of the more long-standing options for the task. Paul White reviewed the original version way back in SOS February 2000 issue, while more recent versions have been covered in the April 2009 and May 2013 issues, with consistently positive conclusions. It has now arrived at version 5, with four interesting new modules added, a stylish redesign of the stand-alone interface, 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) image for replication purposes.
On The Racks
T‑RackS started life as a stand-alone application, offering a modest, but well-featured, suite of processors comprising mastering-style EQ, compression and multiband limiting. The feature list has expanded considerably since then, and all the individual processing options are now available as separate plug-ins for use within any suitable Windows or OS X host. The latest iteration of the software continues the multi-format approach, with VST2, VST3, AU and AAX plug-in versions included alongside the stand-alone program.
T‑RackS 5 comes in four flavours. The free T‑RackS Custom Shop includes the Classic EQ module and an in-app store where you can buy further processing options individually, while the paid-for T‑RackS 5, T‑RackS 5 Deluxe and T‑RackS 5 MAX come with bundles of nine, 22 and 38 processors respectively. There is a substantial discount on the MAX version for existing IK Multimedia customers, and the in-app store is available in all versions, so you're not limited to the tools bundled with the standard or Deluxe versions. For the purposes of this review, I had access to the MAX version.
Making A Stand
The stand-alone interface has had a significant makeover for T‑RackS 5. Beneath the topmost menu/control strip, the default layout splits the resizeable windows into six panels. On the left are the preset browser and clip list. The former offers presets for both full signal chains and individual processors. The latter is where you load and sequence your individual audio files. Each clip can have its own processing chain.
Top right is the metering panel, which offers peak, RMS, LUFS and dynamic range readings, customisable for different musical and broadcast applications. Bottom right is the processor browser, from where you can drag and drop processors into the larger, lower-central panel that, by default, shows the processor signal-chain for the current audio clip. You can also reorder the signal chain and create parallel processing pathways. Each chain can contain up to 16 processors, the last of which is always the new Master Match even if it is not active. Finally, the panel top centre shows the interface for the currently selected processor.
The signal chain panel can also be toggled to a waveform view, with a Snapshots function allowing up to eight different settings configurations for your processing chain to be switched automatically along the waveform timeline. The menu bar also includes four slots that can hold different signal-chain configurations for each audio clip, making it easy to explore alternative processing strategies for a given clip as you work. The waveform display also includes basic audio editing features such as clip trimming and adding fades.
One further item on the topmost menu strip is worth paying attention to: the Equal Gain button. With this option engaged, you hear the processed and unprocessed versions of the audio at similar overall volumes when you then toggle the processing chain on and off. This makes it easy to check that your processing chain is preserving or enhancing the sonic quality, without your ears being fooled by simple volume increases. This is an important, and very useful, feature.
New to the stand-alone version is the Assembly window. This offers a two-lane waveform display where you can sequence a series of audio clips loaded within the current project. Features include editing clip data, reordering clips and clip trimming. When you are ready, you can export either individual clips, multiple clips (WAV, AIF and FLAC formats are supported) or the full montage.
This doesn't turn T‑RackS 5 into a full-blown audio editor like Steinberg's Wavelab, but it does mean the stand-alone environment now offers sufficient editing capability for routine mastering tasks, allowing you to make your final adjustments to individual files and album-style projects. The visual design and user experience 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.
EQual To The Task
MAX's 38 processors can be divided into four categories: EQ, dynamics, spatial and a 'catch-all' of other things. Twelve different EQ processors/plug-ins are supplied, not counting the ONE processor which I'll come to shortly. As well as some of IKM's own designs, there are a number of 'inspired by' offerings, including channel strips containing dynamics processing as well as EQ. The British Channel and the SSL-inspired White Channel fall into this category. You also get the Neve-inspired EQ-73 and EQ-81, the Pultec‑esque EQP-1A and the API homages EQ PA, EQ PB and EQ PG, while Master EQ 432 emulates the Sontec 432, a hardware unit revered by many mastering engineers. Original IK equalisation modules comprise Classic EQ, the new EQual, and Linear Phase EQ, the first two of which are included within the standard version of T‑RackS 5. The new EQual is particularly impressive, with 10 bands, very transparent operation and notably precise control making it a sophisticated tool.
It's a similar story within the dynamics section. MAX offers 14 dedicated dynamics options, including processors that emulate classic hardware from Fairchild (VC-670), Teletronix (White 2A), UREI (Black 76), SSL (Bus Comp) and Neve (Precision Comp Limiter). New for version 5, and included in all three paid versions, is an homage to the classic Manley Variable Mu compressor called Dyna-Mu. Along with the existing VC-670, this does a very forgiving job on any bus or master bus, even when pushed quite hard.
IK also have their own 'classic' Compressor, Multiband Limiter and Clipper offerings, plus a 'quad' selection that includes both a multiband limiter and a multiband compressor. There is also a rather nifty multiband de-esser that lets you precisely target the frequencies you want to attenuate. The compression modules can be operated in Mid-Sides mode and some also feature a frequency-based triggering filter but, currently, there is no external side-chain facility for any of the plug-ins. This is perhaps less important for mastering, but does represent a limitation on the use of T‑RackS 5 as a plug-in suite for mixing.
Reverb isn't an obvious mastering tool, but MAX's spatial category includes no fewer than four different reverbs and an emulated tape-based echo. The reverbs cover hall, plate, room and 'inverse' (a faux-reverse reverb) options, and all, colour scheme aside, provide similar control sets. They also include an ADV button that opens up a large number of further controls if you want to dig past the Easy mode options. It would be easy to be underwhelmed by this selection compared to the EQ and dynamics offerings, but each is capable of some seriously good reverb treatments. I experimented with a range of vocals, acoustic guitars, solo pianos and drums, and had no complaints about the results that could be obtained. Delay-wise, the ADV section of the plate reverb includes an Echo section offering some short (500ms) delays, and the Tape Echo plug-in/processor is a characterful emulation of an old Maestro Echoplex hardware unit. It's good at what it does but, for my taste, provides rather too much emulated tape noise to be used for routine delay duties. A more general workhorse delay would therefore be welcome (though hardly an obvious need for mastering!).
Finally, the 'everything else' category includes some very interesting tools. I've already mentioned the metering options; also in this grab-bag are the Classic Clipper, which uses soft clipping rather than limiting to tame peaks, the Quad Image four-band stereo width processor, and Saturator X. This last 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.
Less conventionally, both the Deluxe and the MAX versions of T‑RackS 5 include IK's Mic Room technology. This is conceptually similar to Antares' Mic Mod EFX in that it models the sonic characteristics of classic studio microphones from a Shure SM57 to a Neumann U87, theoretically allowing you to make sources recorded with one sound as though they were recorded with another. Results 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 as a whole is, first and foremost, a mastering suite, ONE is designed to be a complete mastering solution in a single processor. Its nine controls offer a combination of EQ, compression, exciter, enhancement, stereo width adjustment and limiting. For example, the Air control allows you to boost or cut the high end, while Focus changes the way the mid-range is perceived. Body and Bass Punch provide control over the low end, while the Transients control changes how the attack of sounds is handled.
The two larger knobs, Push and Volume, control how hard the compression is working and the overall loudness. Both include a red scale/LED meter showing how much peak 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, things will eventually get messy, but I was actually very impressed at just how easy ONE made it to do a basic mastering job when your starting point is a solid mix. It's perhaps not flexible enough if you require more surgical corrective moves as part of a mastering task, but 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 then apply some suggested processing. Master Match allows you to load up to three reference tracks, analyses the spectral balance and perceived loudness of these references and then applies both EQ and level adjustment to get your track to try and match the reference tracks. 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. As with ONE, this is a very useful tool for those just 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 creditable job.
From Mix To Master?
The new T‑RackS 5 front end offers a pretty comfortable working environment for mastering, and I can't imagine new users having too many difficulties finding their way around. Nor is T‑RackS outdone sonically by any of the obvious competition. Those new to DIY mastering will also appreciate the helping hand offered by ONE and Master Match. The bottom line here is that the standard version of T‑RackS 5 is a perfectly capable mastering package, while the MAX version offers an almost endless set of options including the ability to add 'character' using the various emulations of classic EQ and dynamics hardware.
As we've seen, however, many of those MAX modules have applications that go far beyond mastering, and all are available as individual plug-ins. So does it make sense to embrace T‑RackS 5 as a plug-in bundle for mixing? This is certainly fine a practical point of view: apart 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. And from a desirability point of view, although the standard version offers a well-targeted selection of processors for routine mastering duties, it is likely to prove 'useful' rather than 'killer' for mixing.
However, by the time you reach the (admittedly pricy) MAX selection, you're getting a hugely impressive collection of emulated studio hardware. 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 a full side-chain, a workhorse delay and pitch correction, for example — but, otherwise, T‑RackS 5 MAX would take you from zero to hero.
Of course, all this assumes that T‑RackS's plug-ins perform as well as their obvious rivals. As I happened to have a number of equivalent emulations from Waves on my test system, I spent a very interesting hour or two making some direct comparisons. Side by side, the White 2A and Waves' CLA-2A not only produced comparable results, but the response of their front-panel settings also matched very closely. While the controls are perhaps less similar, the same was basically true of the EQ-73 when compared with the Scheps 73, and of the EQP‑1A compared to the PuigTec EQP-1A. While I didn't have alternative emulations for all the T‑RackS 5 plug-ins, if my experience is anything to go by, IKM's take on these hardware classics is certainly on a similar level with equivalent options from other vendors.
During the course of this review, I've mentioned a few modest gaps in the T‑RackS 5 experience but, on the whole, I was very impressed with what's on offer, particularly in the MAX edition I had access to. I'd have no issues at all if I found myself with one of my own mixing or mastering projects to undertake and T‑RackS 5 MAX to complement what's available in my DAW. The range of tools is impressive, and the mastering environment within the T‑RackS 5 front-end is straightforward. 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 is a great choice. There are enough options included to do routine mastering work, the workflow is easy, the metering more than adequate and ONE and Master Match provide useful tools for the less experienced. Oh, and you get a few useful plug-ins to add to your DAW arsenal.
The market for the Deluxe and MAX editions maybe a more select one, but for the more experienced music producer who is looking to both step up his or her DIY mastering options and round out their DAW 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... but only if you really want lots of choice and don't already own comparable plug-in emulations from other vendors. Of course, with the T‑RackS 5 store, you can just 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.
Whether you need what T‑RackS 5 has to offer or not, I think IK Multimedia have a quality product here that, in version 5, has matured very nicely. Whether as a mastering solution, or as a collection of plug-ins for mixing duties, T‑RackS 5 does an awful lot very well indeed and misses very little. The range of price points also make T‑RackS 5 accessible to a number of different groups of potential users: those new to DIY mastering are a prime target for the standard addition, while those already fully committed to building their in-the-box mixing and mastering system are likely to find MAX an impressive and powerful addition to any DAW.
Izotope's Ozone 8 is perhaps as the most obvious alternative. It too is available in different editions at a range of prices, offers individual components as separate plug-ins, and has some truly innovative options such as the Tonal Blanace Control. It is very powerful and flexible but perhaps not as instantly approachable as T‑RackS 5. Steinberg's WaveLab 9.5 with the Master Rig suite provides a comprehensive audio editing/mastering environment but might be more than is required by a user with basic mastering needs. IK's own Lurssen Mastering Console provides an analogue-styled option for DIY mastering and, like ONE in T‑RackS 5, offers an intuitive interface. You can, of course, also build your own mastering signal chain from suitable individual plug-ins from a range of other manufacturers such as Waves, UA, Slate Digital, FabFilter, Softube or Brainworx.
- Standard edition is a great choice for those new to DIY mastering.
- MAX collection contains some excellent emulations of hardware classics, making it a good choice for mixing as well as mastering.
- Stand-alone version offers an easy-to-use and slick mastering environment.
- MAX edition is a significant investment.
- Considered as a mixing tool, it's a little light on delay and modulation effects, and would benefit from the option of external side-chaining in the dynamics plug-ins.
The standard edition of T‑RackS 5 is a great place to start for those interested in DIY mastering, while the MAX edition, if your budget can stretch that far, provides a comprehensive plug-in suite for both mixing and mastering duties that includes some excellent emulations of classic EQ and dynamics hardware.
T‑RackS 5 £159.99; Deluxe version £317.99; MAX edition £529.99. Prices include VAT.
T‑RackS 5 $149.99; Deluxe version $299.99; MAX edition $499.99.
- T‑RackS 5 MAX.
- Apple iMac with 3.5 GHz Intel Core i7 CPU and 32GB RAM, running Mac OS 10.12.5; Soundcraft Signature 12 MTK.
- Tested with Steinberg Cubase 9.5.10 and WaveLab 9.0.20.