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In Defence of “In The Box Mastering”

It’s a strange time to be an audio engineer in 2014. Look at the racks of most pro guys in any field and it’s a mostly a mix of incredibly well designed digital plug-ins and the odd analogue processor for that more complex / non-linear audio effects. Of course, many engineers nailed their set up historically and feel no need to catch up with the zeitgeist, and in some ways these engineers with “outdated” gear stuck in that years AES catalogue are the ones I trust most…

When I started Subsequent Mastering in 2009 it was hard to gauge what I needed to kick start a little set up to learn on. On the one hand the Finalizer/Quantum/all-in-one box was still on the market (with a rapidly decreasing resale value) and on the other simple and cost affective plug-ins were overwhelming appearing at a fast pace. The idea of analogue only came to me later when I found a way to acquire tools good enough (to my ears) to make the leap from simple, easily recallable plugins to large chunks of metal which cost more than a half decent car.

I spent some time listening and demo-ing all kinds of stuff I could get my hands on: older plugins, stock plugins, the really expensive stuff (which now in retrospect seems like a large waste of money..). I made some conclusions: this stuff can sound dogshit (early ITB linear phase designs always really upset me) or absolutely brilliant (like the first time I tried to get a “competitive level” from Voxengo’s Elephant, an epiphany for me). I also made the conclusion that there is “something” missing from my tool palette, when listening to other peoples records and how far they got their tone especially, even after months of trying all this stuff, the obvious conclusion? missing the analogue stuff.

In reality what I was missing was a complex and detailed colouring tool, which didn’t have that nasty smudgy thing almost all digital emulation plug-ins seemed to at the time. So I got  a guy to build me a Sontec clone (the one that’s on all the DIY audio sites), fully stereo, fully stepped to see what happened. I was blown away, I loved it, I still love it, I cherish it’s existence. It’s been used on 90% of my masters since I got it about 4 years ago, and although it’s awesome, it doesn’t suit everything.

But what do I use the Sontec clone for? I use it for adding sound that wasn’t there, I use it for pushing something out of the mix by exciting the stuff around it. A friend of mine (Chris at Blacklisted Mastering)  told me the high shelf made it sound like the high elements were coming from behind the music into your ears, and I get what he means. So can this be matched in digital? NO! I tried to null it last night, I used DMG Equilibrium in all the modes, all the impulses, all the shapes, boosts, freqs. Nothing came close, and even the closest thing I had sounded way different when I went on to A/B it.

Hang on! Aren’t you meant to be defending plugins!? Yes! Because although the sound of MY Sontec clone couldn’t be replicated, the desired effects of me using the unit, i.e. “I want to do this abstract thing in my mind to the audio” *reaches for the knobs* can. What I desire when using the Sontec clone I can do with plug-ins now, that sound coming from behind the speakers? yep. And and engineer learning to master for the first time could totally kick ass with a plug-in if it’s the tool they learned. I would NEVER sell the Sontec, it feels like an extension of my brain! but it wouldn’t stop me mastering if I had to.

It’s also a strange time to be a plug-in designer, for years it seems sad that brilliant engineers were chasing their tails trying to make emulations of gear to get “that result”, some designers even making various versions with famous mix engineers names branded to them! See also: emulations of NEW hardware, one of which (the Elysia Alpha) I have used a LOT until recently.

But the tides are changing, the processing power has gone way beyond the days of the SHARC chip Firewire boxes (although some great plugins are stuck on these currently!) and designers in the last few years have really started to realize that if you rethink audio processing and use digital for what it can do irrespective of the past really brilliant game changing tools can be created. Guys like Voxengo, DMG, Brainworx, Fab Filter and a tonne more are developing processors that previously couldn’t exist.

It’s a bit harder to feel the sexiness from a plugin: you don’t get to unwrap it, you don’t get to take a pic of it, you don’t get to come into the studio the next morning and see it in the rack and get all excited. But if we take a step back and be more critical in our analysis of our work I truly believe it’s these processors that are making mastering progress as an art, and yes, they are plugins! anyone can buy them! and this makes some people very uncomfortable…

I believe that the feeling of joy of working with a tool you see older engineers post about their Sontec 430s and original cutting consoles is the same guys like me get from spending the evening getting deep into clicking around with DMG Equilibrium or Voxengo Elephant, for example.

I guess us MEs are kinda at a crossroads, and it causes a few online existential crises for folks: Since when did plug-ins sound good? since when did almost all the big name guys start using the same plug-in I bought for my project studio?

I like it, it’s like a kind of democratization of audio processing. There is no shame in an empty rack, and I totally vibe of guys who go full swing the other way, as long as it’s for the right reasons.

My message to new MEs entering the biz, don’t be ashamed! get those plugins, get incredibly deep into them, configure the additive flavours you desire from them, make your own presets, and when you get some money: spent it building an incredible studio! Get an acoustician in, upgrade your speakers, buy solid and long supported converters and an amazing listening space for you and your clients to enjoy working in. Don’t worry about the analogue stuff until something really catches your ear, and if you fall in love with pushing knobs and pulling faders: jump in with both feet and enjoy it! But please don’t worry about the digital vs analogue gear arms race, it’s over now, stay off the forums or take them with a pinch of salt, your wallet will thank you in a few years when you haven’t got debts holding you back from progressing your career.

Yeah you can’t match the sound of running a mix hot through an API2500 with the threshold not engaged, but that hardness and girth you love from that, it’s in the box if you look and listen too, and your clients and the end users aint gonna give a fuck.

Happy record making!

One Reply to “In Defence of “In The Box Mastering””

  1. Firstly, I master completely ITB. In fact, I use ITB speaker and room virtualization to check my work.

    So, what am I missing?

    "THAT" sound – the unique sound "character" or "mojo" attributed to using analog audio gear.

    It perplexed me when (old school!) ME's would say "ITB masters will never sound as 'warm' or 'organic' or as 'big' as analog masters". As a music technologist, this represented both a challenge and an opportunity. I needed to understand exactly why analog had "THAT" sound, and how "THAT" sound could be replicated In The Box.

    "THAT" sound is actually a deviation or coloration of the original sound, and is a "side effect" (deliberate or accidental) of processing audio through hardware. The deviation can include one or more of the following: phase shift, transient modification, timing shift, harmonics, saturation, crosstalk, noise, compression, expansion, EQ, pitch shift, modulation, clipping, distortion, stereo image shift and signal loss! Many of these are described as "non-linear artifacts".

    OK, so to get "THAT" sound ITB, requires the introduction of "non-linear artifacts". There are some GREAT plug-ins that model the non-linear characteristics of analog hardware. The modeling is so true to the original, that the sound is indistinguishable. We can now emulate tubes, tapes, transformers, transistors, amplifiers, etc. In addition to hardware modeled plug-ins, we now have wonderful digital-only components/plug-ins that provide all the non-linear signal deviation and coloration listed above.

    I now use plug-ins to incorporate "non-linear artifacts" into my masters. Are my masters as 'warm' or 'organic' or as 'big' as analog masters? Absolutely! They now have "THAT ITB" sound!!!

    Simon Morrison is a Mastering Engineer, Audio Architect and Music Technologist, and the developer of the proprietary audio mastering system “De-Constructive Mastering”.

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