TC Electronic have upgraded their already impressive Finalizer mastering processor to include a number of new features, most notably 96kHz capability. Hugh Robjohns finds out if it's still at the top of the tree.
TC Electronic were the first to introduce the concept of the all‑in‑one 'mastering processor' with the original Finalizer, which I reviewed in Sound On Sound back in December 1996. A simplified version of the machine, the Finalizer Express, was released just over a year ago and was reviewed here in February 1999. The latest evolution of the Finalizer has come about thanks to the ceaseless advance of DSP speed and power, which now bestows on the machine the ability to operate at the elevated sampling rates of 88.2 and 96kHz, as well as the more usual 44.1 and 48kHz, all with up to 24‑bit resolution.
The Finalizer is, for many, not only the first but also the best all‑in‑one mastering processor. The latest 96K version helps TC Electronic to maintain its market position against some very strong competition from the likes of Drawmer and Dbx, to name just two. Running version 3.0 software, the new machine actually adds little to the original, very highly specified Finalizer.The A‑D and D‑A stages are up from 20‑ to 24‑bit resolution; there is a sample‑rate converter on the digital inputs; a number of innovative dithering options have been added with variable resolution down to 8‑bits; and 'double‑fast' (see below) high‑sampling modes are supported via all three digital ports (AES‑EBU, S/PDIF and Toslink). The unit also boasts a new multi‑band stereo width function.
Overall, the new machine looks identical to the original Finalizer apart from its name badge, so rather than go over the panel layout in detail again, I'll refer you to the 1996 review. The order of the machine's signal‑processing stages is fixed but remains as comprehensive as ever, with the emphasis on multi‑band dynamics facilities supported by a host of well‑thought‑out signal‑conditioning processes. The analogue inputs are handled by a 128‑times oversampling delta‑sigma A‑D converter providing a 24‑bit signal. Digital inputs are accepted on XLR (AES‑EBU), phono and optical (S/PDIF) connectors. A sample‑rate converter accommodates asynchronous digital inputs, as well as allowing the source sample rate to be changed (for instance from a 48kHz DAT to 44.1kHz for CD mastering).
The 96kHz sampling mode employs the 'double‑fast' connection protocol where the digital ports are clocked at double speed. However, not all 96kHz equipment conforms to this standard — many devices require the 'double‑wide' format which employs two AES‑EBU interfaces running at the standard clock rate (one to handle each channel of a stereo pair). In many ways the double‑wide protocol is a better engineering solution, because it is more tolerant of cable and interface deficiencies.
As with the original Finalizer, the input and output interfaces not being used for the main programme path can be used to provide an external insert send‑and‑receive loop. This is derived from the start of the Finalizer's internal signal processing chain. The insert point can also be used to accommodate a set of internal effects processors. Options here include a 'Digital Radiance Generator' which adds some second‑harmonic distortion to warm the signal up, 'Stereo Adjust' to manipulate stereo width and balance, and a 'Dynamic Equaliser' which is a kind of supercharged de‑esser. Further options are a five‑band equaliser with upper and lower shelves and three fully parametric mid sections, and an MS encode/decode facility. The Finalizer 96k is also equipped with a 'Spectral Stereo Image' insert processor which allows the stereo width of the material to be adjusted separately in three frequency bands.
The next stage is a 'Normaliser' function combined with a peak clipper. The Normaliser provides a graphical waveform display with guidelines to indicate the optimum peak level. The Clipper is provided to catch any transient peaks that slip through and can be operated in two modes: a soft‑clip mode replicates the progressive saturation‑type distortion of analogue tape recorders, whereas the hard‑clip mode offers the more familiar digital clipping of over‑level peaks. A numeric display counts the number of clipped samples per second.
The Expander, Compressor and Limiter functions (presented to the signal in that order) are all three‑band processors; the crossover frequencies are common to all three functions. The threshold, ratio, and attack and release times can be adjusted independently for each band and for each process, and a short delay (1 or 10mS) can be introduced into the main signal path, effectively to advance the side‑chain detection so that dynamic changes can be made in advance of signal peaks. The Final processing stage conditions the Output with facilities for bit‑reducing and dithering the digital outputs, adjusting the analogue output level, and pre‑setting the auto‑fade facility.
In the studio, the new Finalizer 96K was just as impressive as I recall the original to have been. The new converters are definitely better — no surprises there — and the enhanced flexibility in dithering (with uncorrelated, coherent and opposite‑polarity dither options for the two channels) is most welcome. Whether high sample rates such as 88.2 and 96kHz are here to stay, or just a passing fad, the new machine covers both bases and is therefore a more secure investment. In the 96kHz mode, the Finalizer may also have more appeal to the analogue die‑hards who covet the benefits of digital processing but won't suffer the inherent compromises of 48kHz sampling. For these people, however, a range of calibration tone frequencies would be an essential addition (see the 'Finalizer Tools' box, above).
For the digital devotees it is a shame that TC have not provided for the 'double‑wide' interface format and, if high sample‑rate working is an important consideration, compatible equipment will have to be selected carefully. I thought the inclusion of the stereo width facility in the original machine was one of its major strengths. However, the new multi‑band version is significantly more powerful, allowing stereo‑width to be increased for middle and high frequencies without messing up the bottom end.
The Finalizer 96K remains an extremely comprehensive and capable machine with enormous flexibility, providing all the tools one could possibly need to add the right degree of polish to any track. However, this is definitely not a tool for the novice user, and a good understanding of the underpinning technical principles is required to make best use of it. Sure, it has 'standard' and 'expert' menus, and an instant Wizard setup facility, but if you don't know what you are doing, these aids don't help much! For the casual user, the Finalizer Express will remain the better choice of mastering processor. For the professional or very serious semi‑professional, however, the latest Finalizer remains at the top of the 'best‑buy' list.
Whichever way you look at it, the Finalizer 96K is a complicated machine to use simply because of its vast array of facilities. The user interface, although well up to TC Electronic's usual high standard, is involved and can take a while to work through when designing a sound palette from scratch. TC Electronic realised that this might inhibit some users from making the most of the machine and so they provided a 'Wizard' to help guide the process.
The Wizard provides a very fast and easy way of setting the major components of the Finalizer's signal processing by answering a few simple questions. It doesn't replace the need for careful auditioning, though, and the system usually benefits from further tweaking, but the Wizard gets the machine 90 percent of the way there very quickly.
You start the Wizard by pressing its own dedicated button. A screen then asks you to select the type of input signal (soft, medium, or hard), the amount of compression require (also soft, medium or hard), whether the gain should be optimised, and the kind of equalisation you want (flat, loudness, bass lift, or air). The Wizard then makes the necessary adjustments, all of which can be tweaked if required.
One of the inherent problems with such sophisticated signal processing is in trying to determine whether subtle changes to the various parameters have really benefited the material or not. The obvious way to check is simply to bypass the unit and compare the original input signal with the processed output. However, the use of gain normalisation and compressor gain make‑up often makes this very hard to do.
TC have tackled this difficulty really well. A special 'Compare' facility allows the user to monitor the original signal (in a full bypass mode) with the processed signal which has been attenuated by an adjustable amount. In this way the peak level of the original and processed signals can be matched and a better idea obtained of the effectiveness of any processing. A further option within this function allows a recalled memory preset to be compared with its current edited and tweaked version — again to see if alterations have really enhanced the signal or not.
The Finalizer 96K is equipped with a broad range of monitoring tools which allow the user to keep an eye on how the Finalizer is working, and assess various technical aspects of the signal. The metering tools include a 'Flow Meter' which provides a series of miniature bar‑graph meters indicating the signal level at each of the signal‑processing modules, a peak‑hold meter showing the precise output level as a bar‑graph display and with numeric readouts accurate to 0.1dB. There's also a phase meter which presents a scrolling graph of the phase correlation against time.
Three other very useful tools are included. The first is a calibration tone generator providing a fixed 1kHz tone source at various preset levels between 0 and ‑20dBFS. When I reviewed the original Finalizer three years ago I suggested that providing a few alternative oscillator frequencies would be a very useful addition, but sadly TC Electronic have chosen not to implement such a facility.
The last tool relates to the status bits of incoming and outgoing digital signals. A Received Status page simply translates the status information of the input AES‑EBU or S/PDIF signal to provide a tabulated display of pre‑emphasis, source description, copyright (SCMS) and audio or data settings. The Digital Out Status page allows the format flag to be set (consumer or professional) and, in consumer mode, the SCMS status can then be selected from the usual copy‑enabled, no‑copying, or one‑copy‑only modes.
- The tool for the job.
- The audio equivalent of a lifetime's supply of Brasso!
- Improved converters.
- Very sophisticated dithering facilities.
- Superb multi‑band stereo width control.
- Not capable of interfacing with 'double‑wide' 96K equipment.
- Requires technical know‑how to use well.
The benchmark mastering processor has just got better. Improved converters, sophisticated dithering and the ability to operate at high sample rates put the Finalizer back on top.