Audio mastering is a dark and difficult art, but it makes a huge difference to a musical project and makes a track shine. If you’re a Garageband user, you can now just export your song and run it through the Lurssen Mastering Console by IK Multimedia and you’ll get all the benefits without the pain. It comes with a list of proven profiles for you to deploy and tweak on Mac, or even iPad.
The look of this software is skeuomorphic – it’s so well done, you can almost smell the stale tobacco, tiredness and disappointment of a traditional recording studio. But hey, we’re in the digital world now, and everything is possible.
The interface — It takes a while to master the mastering interface because, well, it’s a bit confusing. I mean, maybe not for those who have come through the studios, but I haven’t been inside one since the early 1990s. At top left it says Song, and above that is a folder symbol, but the folder symbol is where you load in songs you’ve already saved in Lurssen, mid-project, I guess.
To actually add a song to master, you have to click in the little panel to the right of ‘Song’ and add it in there. In the middle top you have Style, and this drop-down list holds 25 presets, and perhaps these could have been more clearly labelled. I guess I’m just not in the in-crowd any more (logically enough, at my age) but realistically, while ‘Americana’ I think I understand (I’m guessing, Alt-Country-ish with folk overtones?), quite what Americana Loose (More Glue)’ means … pass. And EDM – I had to look that up, although I probably should have known, and ‘Electronic Dance Music’ I concede would be hard to fit across the column. Then there’s HipHop with its glue and brighter/warmer shades, plus Pop Rock with its shades. I would like ‘Alternative’, too, actually, Mr Lurssen/IK Multimedia, and that would be some sort of post-punk English style with warm bass ends and rich midtones, thanks. Think the perfect sound for Gang of Four’s Anthrax and you’ve got me right where I love music.
At top right there’s Preset, where you can add in your own blends of EQ and boost/cut once you’ve played with the knobs a bit (see below).
Underneath this is a rather unnecessary, but not unattractive, picture of a recording studio (see main picture, above). At least no pretend tape animates across some spools when you press play. But you can change this to a wave-form interface by clicking the waveform icon to the right of the centre-top Lurssen logo.
In this way you can see where you are in a song – does the breakout have enough oomph? Etc. The next button might suit the mavens even more – arrow-boxes-arrow: this shows what software elements are actually being used in the mastering pathway, of Tube Equalizer, Solid State Equalizer, Tube Limiter 2, Solid State De-Esser, Solid State Compressor, and under those, on the right, Threshold sliders you can slide left/right. These chain is based on the hardware chain the Lurssen studio actually uses.
This video by the two Lurssen studio principals (one is Gary Lurssen) is a pretty good description of the way it all works.
Controls — Of course, this is a knob-twiddlers delight – you have knobs – large, knurled – you can twiddle: on the left, Input Drive (the volume your track loads in at), and on the right Push (the volume the tracks leave Lurssen at). Under that left to right, it’s an EQ: 60Hz, 120Hz, 3kHz, 6kHz and 10kHz – I think I’d prefer a band readout with an analyser but hey, you should have sorted all that out in GarageBand or Logic long before this finishing stage anyway, and nice to have them if this is the point you perceive something needs a boost or cut. The large Push dial lifts all these 5 EQ knobs (which are actually the controls of the Tube Equalizer) together when you turn them to the right, and drop them all together to the left. This control boosts and cuts while maintaining the ratios between the settings for those frequencies.
You have more controls, too: a slot-headed screw at lower left that you click to turn, to link the right and left channels for stereo balance tweaks; a switch for the meters to view input or, in the up position, output; In and Bypass in the middle (before this mastering chain, or after); and on the right Stereo or Mono.
What’s it like? Well, even a little good mastering can be a very good thing, and although this is a little daunting to look at and has perhaps bewildering presets, it does a great job. It certainly steps your Garageband – and even Logic – projects up a notch. But to really test it, I needed some music of the sort I was used to, that I could compare after running every preset over it, and then that I could further tweak to see if I could come up with my own usable benchmark. Also, I must admit, this was so I could hopefully start to understand the difference between EDM and Americana, and ‘warm’ and ‘glue’.
So I notched up a track in Garageband: two bass tracks (actually played my real bass via my valve preamp into the Mac), a drum track (Garageband Drummer) and some electric guitar loops from the Garageband loop library plus some voices from the legacy Garageband Voices pack, both male and female. I mixed it roughly, took out a representative strip, panned it to balance, put in a couple of fades and then ran it through Lurssen and saved a copy in every single preset. I used the format AIFF, 48000 sample rate, 24-bit.
Actually, when you change a preset, the sliders which change throb a couple of times so you can see, for example, that from Americana Loose to Americana Loose (More Glue) the threshold goes from 9.6dB to 10.1dB and the Makeup Gain changes from 4.3dB to 4.8dB, which helps get a handle on what it’s actually doing to the sound. Under Americana, Brighter changed the two upper EQ’s higher, and Warmer pushed the 120Hz band and 6kHz and so on.
Even here, the interface is a little quirky. For example, it wants to call everything you try and export ‘Lurssen Master’ and you have to click Browse in the Export (rather than Save or Save As, which just saves the Lurssen mastering projects) to stop it putting files anywhere but the default and to rename them at the same time.
Anyway, after a few minutes effort, I had the 25 mastered tracks and the unmastered Garageband output (Share>Export Song to Disc) to compare.
Oh boy. Lots of tiny shades of difference. The one thing I could be sure of: they all sound a lot better than the track I sent them, with extra definition, warmth to the bassline and clarity.
After several hours of listening, and getting confused, and watching what knobs and sliders did on different presets to help clarify my perceptions, I decided for my own music that Americana Tight (Warmer) was best for me, but I could probably tweak it to be that little bit better, although it was already very good, and actually, out of the box, sufficient actually. That’s because my close second favourite sound, HipHop (Warmer) didn’t invoke the Tube Limiter, since it’s both a limiter and a compressor which sounds nice with my bass.
Automation — Want to push a part of the song in the mastering process? Can do. In the Waveform view (selected at top right), you can drag pointers from left and right to set up a loop/replay area, to pick out an area you think is descriptive of the whole or to pick out certain detail to work on. Turn on Read at bottom right (default is Off) and in the waveform view, click the little Plus sign at the right along the bottom to get controls that let you draw the usual Automation handles over the wave forms, as with Garageband, Logic etc (the Pencil tool). Now you can push or drop settings up and down on different parts of the track. This is quite a useful way to set song-wide dynamics – quieten and intro, boost a break and so on. You can grab the rectangular Range control, swipe over the area and tap the Trash can to delete that automation.
The Input Drive and the Push Control can be automated now, just click the one you want. (Automation cannon be done in the Logic plugin version, but is for the standalone Mac/PC app and for the iPad version.
Conclusion — You can get a whole raft of plugins that will do what this does, and they can cost US$1500 each, so it’s worth learning just this one console which combines them all, along with expertise, into one well-priced package. Even on one of the straight presets, your track is guaranteed to sound better, so from amateur right up to the very experienced, this software will be a boon. (If you want to see how you go about mastering purely in Logic, without expensive plugins, that’s possible too, even with no Lurssen, check this video out. I’ve learnt all this in the past, and now I’m very glad to be able to throw finished tracks into Lurssen, tweak a little and go.)
What’s great — It’s actually very well priced considering it combines so much and does everything well through one interface.
What’s not — Pretty studio-centric layout and nomenclature. But you’ll get used to it.
Needs — Anyone wanting to take their tracks, of any type, to the next level.
Lurssen Mastering Console €239.99 (about NZ$386/US$269) but currently on introductory special for €199.99 (about NZ$322/US$224)
System — Intel Core 2 Duo minimum, 4GB of RAM (8GB suggested), Mac OS X 10.7 or later. (Also available for Windows – see the site, below,for requirements.)
Supported Plug-in formats are 64-bit Audio Units, VST 2, VST 3, AAX.
Available — online only from IK Multimedia.