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Master Works

Digital Performer Tips & Techniques
Published February 2015
By Robin Bigwood

Adding a master fader to Digital Performer’s Mixing Board makes many mixing and mastering tasks easier.

Look at almost any hardware mixing desk, and many virtual DAW software equivalents, and you’ll see a master fader alongside the inputs, frequently as part of a more sophisticated master or ‘control room’ section. As well as allowing simple output–level adjustment, this will often provide other useful facilities for processing sound at the whole–mix level, and managing your monitoring.

However, the same can’t be said for Digital Performer’s Mixing Board — at least, in its default layout and mode of operation. If you start working with a new, empty project, the Mixing Board will be completely empty too. Then, DP’s way of doing things is to give all audio and instrument tracks configurable audio outputs, via pop–up menus in the Mixing Board, Tracks Overview and Sequence Editor. They default to the main outputs of your audio hardware, and because it’s the actual mix bus (as opposed to an output fader) that’s taking care of mixing multiple tracks together, there’s nothing to think about. Indeed, you could use DP for years, for hundreds of successful projects, without ever thinking about (or even noticing) the absence of a master fader.

A typical master fader configuration in DP, from a  small–scale classical recording job I  did recently. The master fader channel on the right gathers the output from all the other audio tracks, and hosts a  mastering–style reverb, a  stereo processor and, finally, a  mastering limiter, PSP’s Xenon.A typical master fader configuration in DP, from a small–scale classical recording job I did recently. The master fader channel on the right gathers the output from all the other audio tracks, and hosts a mastering–style reverb, a stereo processor and, finally, a mastering limiter, PSP’s Xenon.At the same time, though, there’s a lot to be said for regularly using a master fader in your DP mixes. We’ll discuss these in a moment, but first here’s the insanely easy way to get a master in your Mixing Board: choose Project menu / Add Track / Master Fader Track, or (on the Mac) use the keystroke Ctrl+Command+M. Master faders have only an audio output assignment, and that, too, will most often default to your main hardware outputs. So there’s almost never any additional configuration to be done. Just make sure all your audio tracks (or at least the ones that aren’t specifically routed elsewhere) are feeding your hardware outs, and the master fader is too; then everything will automatically connect and you’ll be away.

Master Morality

So what are the benefits of using a master fader? Well, for one, the master fader is the place to add plug–ins that work across your entire mix. The obvious candidate is the ‘brickwall’ mastering–style limiter, like DP’s bundled Masterworks Limiter or the usual third–party candidates such as Waves’ L2 and PSP Audioware’s Xenon. They can add that last stage of gain to match the levels of commercial recordings, and perhaps more importantly, prevent the output from clipping if the mix exceeds its 0dBFS ceiling. Other plug–ins that go well on a master fader are EQs, compressors, stereo scopes and width controllers, noise reduction tools and virtual headphone mixing processors. Just make sure that any of these precede your limiter, so that any gain they add can be safely dealt with by it.

Another advantage to using the master fader is that you get output metering in the Mixing Board. Even if you haven’t opted to instantiate an output limiter, the master fader level meters will show you if your mix is clipping (by lighting the topmost red indicators, which ‘latch’ on). Equally, you’ll easily see if your output level is a bit puny. The same information is available in the Outputs and Bundles views of the Meter Bridge window, but this way, you needn’t keep the Meter Bridge open when mixing.

You can’t place audio on a  master fader track, but it can hold automation data. Here a  fade–out has been programmed, just using the track’s Insert menu in the Sequence Editor.You can’t place audio on a master fader track, but it can hold automation data. Here a fade–out has been programmed, just using the track’s Insert menu in the Sequence Editor.A master fader also has a Mute switch, which is very useful if your audio hardware doesn’t have any easily accessible monitoring facilities and you quickly need some silence in the studio.

On a stereo master fader the fold–down pop–up menu lets you instantly audition your mix in mono. In a multi–channel environment, you can go to stereo or mono, with rear and centre channels being mixed to front left and right as appropriate. This gives you an insight into how your mix might sound when played on radically different replay systems.

The accompanying master fader track, easily editable in the Sequence Editor, can host automation data for not only the master fader’s plug–ins, but the fader itself, making it ideal for creating fade–outs.DP_02_15_02 In the Sequence Editor, click the track’s Insert pop–up menu, choose Volume, then click in the track lane with the pre–selected pencil tool to write an automation point. Click on the line again to add another. Drag the first to 0dB (unity gain) and the second to minus infinity. Then choose Play from the Auto menu to enable automation playback.

Do It Your Way

The great thing about DP is that you’re in control: if these benefits are of use, then go for it. If not, don’t worry. You can create a master fader at any time, even when you’re deep into your project, without affecting its sound or behaviour.

All In A Dither

Most of us probably now record audio at 24–bit, but reduce the resolution to 16–bit at the output of our mixes using a dedicated mastering plug–in for generating a final master via the File menu’s Bounce to Disk command. A good plug–in will offer ‘dither’ algorithms that retain much of the low–level detail associated with the 24–bit source material for just a small (psychoacoustically skewed) noise penalty. Everyone’s a winner.

Simply put, the DP master fader is the ideal place to instantiate your preferred bit–reduction and dither processor, because it’s conceptually at the end of the mixing signal chain. However, some care is required to do things right, because it’s all too easy to immediately increase the digital resolution again and undo the plug–in’s good work.

Compare these two adjacent channels’ plug–in slots. At the bottom of the left-hand channel you can see the little ‘notch’ handle that turns into a  blue divider when dragged, as on the right-hand channel. It lets you decide which plug–in slots are pre–fader and which are post–fader in the channel’s signal chain.Compare these two adjacent channels’ plug–in slots. At the bottom of the left-hand channel you can see the little ‘notch’ handle that turns into a blue divider when dragged, as on the right-hand channel. It lets you decide which plug–in slots are pre–fader and which are post–fader in the channel’s signal chain.It’s worth looking at this in some more detail, but first I’m just going to give you the two–part solution. First, put your bit–reduction and dither plug–in in a lower slot than any others, so it’s the last plug–in in the signal chain. Then, either keep your master fader exactly on a 0dB ‘unity gain’ position or, if it’s at any other position, or you’ve got it automated for a fade–out, make sure that the insert slot occupied by your mastering plug–in is in a post–fader position. How do you do this? Take a close look at your master fader’s (or indeed any channel’s) plug–in slots. Just to the bottom left of them is a tiny, inconspicuous grey ‘notch’. DP_02_15_03Hover your mouse pointer over it and the pointer turns into a hand — the notch is draggable! Drag it up to just above the last empty plug–in slot and it should change into a blue divider line. Then drag and drop your mastering plug–in into that empty slot, so that it’s now beneath the blue line. That’s all there is to it.

Now for the explanation, if you’re game. DP carries out all mixing tasks with 32–bit floating–point resolution, regardless of whether your actual audio files are 16– or 24–bit, and even for something as apparently simple as a level cut or boost dialled in with a channel fader. Meanwhile, by default, all DP’s plug–in slots lie in a pre–fader position, which is to say that audio flows into the mixer channel, first through the plug–ins, then through the fader, and on to the output.

Back in our mastering scenario, the dither plug–in is carrying out some really clever maths, effectively distilling (or ‘quantising’) the signal chain down to 16–bit, which is what we need for a CD master. If we place another plug–in in a lower slot fail! Its processing will have caused the digital signal to revert to 32–bit format. Similarly, if the master fader is set to somewhere other than at the 0dB position, and therefore applying some level cut or boost it’s more 32–bit processing and another fail! What we need to do is put the fader before the plug–in, so that the plug–in really is the last thing in the signal chain — and that’s what dragging the plug–in slot divider is for. Plug–ins above the divider are pre–fader, while plug–ins below it are post–fader. So by placing the mastering plug–in post–fader, we make it absolutely the last thing in the signal chain. The fader can no longer mess up our dither process, and indeed we can now use it to control the level of the mix hitting the plug–in, or to do that cheesy fade–outDP_02_15_04

Published February 2015