With the rise in the DIY Mastering ethos for independent studios, a number of companies have put out all-in-one mastering solutions, generally a single program or an all-in-one plugin that handles every major step in the mastering chain. I canâ€™t say Iâ€™m a huge fan.
With the exception of the very-high-end stuff, like SaDiE, most attempt to integrate with an existing DAW and focus solely on the audio side of mastering and ignore the media-output end of things. But thatâ€™s not really why I donâ€™t like them.
Now, to be fair, most of them do their best to provide some fairly impressive functionality. IK Multimediaâ€™s T-Racks suite, for example, has some very lovely options for emulating a Pulteq EQ and a Fairchild 670 compressor. iZotopeâ€™s Ozone has some very powerful options for mid-side processing on material. The problem is that these packages inhabit a very strange no-manâ€™s land in the market. Theyâ€™re more expensive than the software that comes with most DAWs and offer more functionality in many ways, but at the same time, the kind of engineer who is going to need that sort of functionality is going to likely want even finer control and higher-quality than these intro-to-midrange packages can provide.
Itâ€™s sort of the Swiss Army Knife problem. Swiss army knives are really cool. Some of them have a zillion little tools, from tiny screwdrivers to folding pliers to scissors. Theyâ€™re great in a pinch, although some of the fancier ones are rather pricy. Thatâ€™s just it, though â€“ theyâ€™re great in a pinch, but you wouldnâ€™t want to do an awful lot of real repair with them, and for the price of the one with all the fancy little clever tools on it, you could buy a pretty decent kit of basic full-size tools, a socket set, and a respectable power screwdriver. All-in-one suites are pretty neat, but like Swiss army knives, why spend the money on such a fancy one when you can get a bunch of â€œfull sizedâ€ tools for the same money?
Perhaps thatâ€™s a little hard on some of these packages, as they do often have â€œfull-sizedâ€ tools in them. The problem is, as I see it, that not everything in one of these suites is going to be perfect, youâ€™re often paying for a lot of functionality youâ€™re not going to need or want, and quite often you get stuck with a characteristic sound over which you have little control. Take, for example, T-Racks. As I mentioned, the Pulteq EQ and Fairchild Compressor emulator is pretty nice, and certainly for the price it out-competes an awful lot of stuff in the same price class. But some of the other modules are not so great, and you may find that even the really nice stuff isnâ€™t what you need in the mastering stage (but would be more appropriate for tracking and mixing). So you spend $500 MSRP for a bundle with a great compressor and EQ that you never use for mastering, and some middling other plugins that you do. Similarly with Ozone, there is certainly some power under the hood, particularly with the M/S processing. Frankly, though, the overall sound is decent but not pants-wettingly spectacular, and a few of the inclusions seem a bit baffling to me â€“ the â€œmastering reverbâ€ for example, seems like a module of extremely limited use. If youâ€™re at the mastering stage and you find you need to add reverb, something has gone wrong. Itâ€™s not a bad-sounding reverb, but itâ€™s not a great one either. Weâ€™re also back to the â€œwhat market is this for?â€ problem â€“ if youâ€™re mastering your own material, you can go back and add your own reverb to the mix with much more precision than any full-track mastering â€˜verb could; if youâ€™re mastering this for someone else, thereâ€™s a good chance you have already invested in better gear than this and could apply it yourself.
Then thereâ€™s the preset problem. I’ve had the opportunity to bash my way through some of these suites and they all seem to come with a pretty deep library of presets. Thatâ€™s all well-and good, but even in my limited experience as a mastering engineer I can tell you that no two tracks will ever need the exact same settings. Sure, presets always do make a great starting point, saving you a little time dialing in some common settings, but the urge to just fire-and-forget, especially in the neophyte stages of the process, is strong. Some of the presets in any one of the packages have the terrifying ability to sound completely awesome, but only in the context of a good set of speakers. Hit Ozoneâ€™s â€œenhance and widenâ€ preset and youâ€™d get a lush, wide, open mix on a good set of monitorsâ€¦that would sound washed-out and phasy on a club system. Such a preset might help rejuvenate an old mono mix or something pulled off an archival 4-track, but it has the capacity to completely screw up a modern recording. Through the joys of psychoacoustics and comparative listening, after hearing that, every other track will sound dense and narrow and feel like it needs the same effects, which will mean an *entire album* will sound wide and airy on the monitors and then washed and phasy on a club, or ear-hurtingly trebly on a car stereo, or grainy and weird on an ipod.
The kitchen-sink approach is also a little worrisome. I have come across very few mastering jobs that require not merely the same settings, but even the same effects chain. Some wonâ€™t require any extra compression. Some wonâ€™t need EQ. Some wonâ€™t need any maximizing/limiting. So thereâ€™s no need to even have these effects patched in, much less turned on. When you have a suite with 8 or 9 effects available at all times, you have to know and know well what you need and what you donâ€™t, because turning on a multiband limiter when you donâ€™t need one is going to dramatically change the sound of the output. Certainly, messing about with stereo width is always a very dodgy proposition, because the capacity for phase problems is extremely high, so many mastering chains donâ€™t even bother (or, if they do, use some M/S processing for the effect) â€“ so having a dedicated stereo imaging processor available at all times is sort of the mastering equivalent to keeping a loaded gun on the nightstand: you may never use it, but just having it there is risky.
This is not to say these things are not without their place. Iâ€™ve mentioned that Ozoneâ€™s M/S processing is really excellent. The problem for me is that I donâ€™t necessarily need to buy an entire suite to just do M/S EQ or compression, when I already have the ability, albeit with a little extra bus routing, to do M/S processing using any plugin or hardware I like using only the stuff that comes with Logic. Sure, it might be easier to just hit the MS button in Ozone, but because I now know how to accomplish this from first principles, I can get even more precise, and do multiband M/S processing if I really desired, or use M/S processing with anything, not just the processors that have it enabled. Or I could do it as simply as just increasing the relative levels of the mid or the side without processing either one. I didnâ€™t need to spend $400 to keep myself from having to learn a useful skill.
And there, right there, is the crux of it. Mastering isnâ€™t about the gear as much as it is about the ears and the grey mushy thing between them. Donâ€™t get me wrong, great gear is awesome and makes things sound even better, but knowing the deep science of the process and knowing exactly what to listen for is the real trick, and no mastering suite software is going to help that.