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Review: The Mighty (In The Box) Master Fader

In speaking with PAR Editor Strother Bullins about the July issue’s theme, he questioned me about any principle changes in my DAW usage over the past year. After some thought, I realized the biggest difference has been my utilization of plugins on the master fader. While I have long been an ITB (“in the box”) mixer using elements of hardware, it’s now gotten to the point where the software is so good that I use it exclusively. With that in mind, I will detail the plug-ins I use on a daily basis across my mix bus.

Get Loaded

My approach has always been to start the mix with my master fader loaded up with any processing I’ll need for that specific session. Not everyone chooses to work that way but I always want to hear all of my production elements as they will sound in the finished product. Of course, I will print a mix without master processing for any tracks going to formal mastering. But otherwise, I go in with all guns blazing. For example, when mixing drums, my approach to bus compression may be sonically different if I have my usual compressor/limiters across the master. Also, if I’m using any tape simulation on my master, I may EQ the drums differently (or any other instruments, for that matter). 

Over the course of the mix, I will occasionally turn off any master processing to hear exactly what it’s doing. In my world of composing for television, I may have to overdub additional parts quickly. As a guitar player, the processing on the master makes the latency too long for doing overdubs. My solution is to simply turn the master output off (versus removing everything on it), then put it back in line when I’m done with the part. It’s an easy way to quickly work around the latency issue.

But When In Doubt …

Sometimes I also realize that I’m pushing the actual master processing of the tracks too far; that’s when I lighten the load or remove something entirely. That may either be the processing on the master itself, the individual tracks within the mix, or a combination of both. Overall, I try not to rely on the master processing too much, so that the change is not overwhelming when I remove it from the bus path. Yet, more often than not, good use of plug-ins on the master can make a mix really pop.

First Things First

The first thing I use on my master fader is the SSL Duende Native Bus Compressor (pictured here). Adapted from the center section of a 1980s-era G Series console. It does just what the legend says: it “glues” the mix together and delivers punch. Being a soft knee compressor, it’s quite smooth and transparent, but I don’t hit it very hard either. I tend to set the Threshold fairly high, just catching the occasional peak or two. I tend to prefer the 4:1 ratio with a .3 ms Attack and Auto release (optimized for bus usage). Then I add a few dB of make-up gain to get things cooking, which can be re-adjusted later in the process.

Next I turn to the Universal Audio Manley Massive Passive EQ – mastering version. As an owner of the hardware version, I can say this thing is a monster. But I also use it sparingly, primarily focusing on its great midrange. Pushing the 4 kHz frequency with a slight bell boost can literally pull things out of even the densest mix. I tend not to use the lows and highs of the Massive, but will sometimes cut frequencies like 560 Hz to clean things up a bit. 

Another EQ I will often use is the Brainworx bx1. What I like about this EQ is the Stereo Width knob, which literally can widen the L/R image of your mix without any odd artifacts. Also, I can EQ the M/S (Mid/Side) separately, where I tend to remove lows and highs from the side, and using its solo isolate feature, I’ll pull any oddball frequencies from the mono aspect of the mix. It really helps clean things up.

The next insert is also a constant in my master plug list: the Sonnox Oxford Limiter. There are a lot of excellent limiters available, but this one I turn to because of a small but important feature called Enhance. While the technical description of the Enhance slider is to “provide sample value limiting and overall programme loudness improvement,” it basically just adds a sense of air to a mix like nothing else quite does. While I can literally push this feature to 125 percent, I will run it anywhere from 30 to 40 percent. Just to make sure I’m hearing what I think I’m hearing, I’ll turn it down to 0, then push it up gradually. Sure enough, this air band stands out in the mix in a way that EQ alone cannot seem to deliver. Sometimes I also use the Limiter Input gain feature to kick a mix up more, as well as setting the output level just below 0dB to prevent any overloads. 

The next slot I tend to use for a variety of things, depending on the mix. For good in-your-face rock mixes or guitar heavy TV tracks, I like to use the Universal Audio Ampex ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder plug-in. No, not because it’s cool to use “tape,” but simply because it sounds so good. My usual go-to is 456 tape at +6, running 1/2-inch at 15 ips. I also turn to the Left/Right Shelf EQ, using it to darken the mix. Sometimes I’ll also drive the input to the “machine” with the Record level, which can deliver some extra tape saturation. 

For cleaner, vocal-heavy mixes, I’ll often turn to the Steven Slate Digital FG-X Mastering Suite. Focusing on its Level section, I use the Lo-punch and Detail knobs in the Transients section to vary some of the mix detail and presence. I’ll also use a bit of Dynamic Perception (a slight air band) and the ITP “Intelligent Transient Preservation” slider, which can literally help smooth out the overall mix transients. 

See Your Sounds

Last but not least, I turn to two separate metering products, both from Waves. I actually have a small 9-inch USB monitor hooked up next to my main monitor where these plug ins reside full-time. First is the PAZ Analyzer, which displays my phase and frequency analysis. When I solo a track, I can easily look at its frequencies in the main GUI screen, and see if anything is sticking out too far. Often, I will see that the low end on various things such as guitars and keyboards can be filtered out, which helps clean up the overall mix. The PAZ simply helps me visually narrow in on those frequencies.

Finally, the last thing on my Master Fader is a Waves Dorrough metering plug. While they also display Phase and Sum/Difference, I use the Dorrough’s purely to display levels. Again, it’s another piece of hardware I’ve replaced with the software versions, and I rely on them heavily to help me set the final levels. Visually, it doesn’t get much better than these.

I use each of these plugins sparingly, but it’s a clear case where the sum is greater than the parts. I consider myself fortunate to have these master fader production tools at my disposal. 

‘Tis The Season For HDX

Being a long time Pro Tools user, I’ve relied on my TDM and RTAS plug-ins to get me through 10 years of solid production. But the time has come where that technology has reached its limit, and it is time to move on. Over the next few weeks and months, I’m (finally) transitioning to Pro Tools HDX, running the latest Pro Tools 10 software. 

Has my old HD system served me well? Absolutely – and it could continue to do so for a few more years if I really wanted. It’s lived through several generations of Macs, several different I/O options and seen a lot of changes in my workflow and techniques. From mixing 100-plus tracks of 5.1 surround to scoring to picture for TV to simple acoustic/vocal mixes, it’s been a trusted friend. And it always got the job done.

But time and technology march on, and with all the good feedback about HDX I’m getting from my compadres who make records for a living, I’m starting the shift. Apparently, the sonic difference is a no-brainer and the fluidity and flow of their sessions, along with lots of headroom and updated converters, make the difference worth the investment. Hey, this is what we do for a living; we may as well use the best tools we can get our hands on.

And there’s a lot to learn in this upgrade, all of which I will be openly sharing with you readers (as in “the good, the bad and the ugly”). The first few questions most of us have are about the new AAX (Avid Audio Extension) plug-ins, including “How do they work?” “What companies have released AAX plugs?” “How do we open sessions that have older versions?” “How much are the upgrades, and what if companies don’t make them?” 

For example, a handful of folks I’ve talked to are quite concerned that AVID’s own Amp Farm 3 is not being ported to AAX (no Echo Farm, either). As a guitar-centric producer, I rely heavily on Amp Farm 3 because as a TDM plug-in, the latency was low enough to track through it, not to mention that I have literally hundreds of sessions with it employed deeply and throughout. This is just one real world production issue involving AAX that needs to be addressed. 

TDM plug-ins that are replaced by AAX versions will show up as DSP plug-ins, and the RTAS versions will be referred to as Native plug-ins. Other features I’m anxious to experience the effects of include that AAX plug-ins are 64-bit ready and that HDX and HD Native now run 32-bit floating point on the Processing depth and 64-bit floating point on the Mixer depth. What will the system feel like having RAM-cached record/playback, real-time fades and lots more DSP? That is all to be determined.

So let the games begin. My credit card is ready, the system has been ordered, and I’m already upping the RAM in my Mac. Stay tuned; this should be interesting.

Rich Tozzoli is a Grammy nominated producer/mixer/composer and the software editor for PAR.