There seems to be increasing debate over whether audio mastering with plugins is now on par with real analogue equipment. Instead of endlessly arguing the toss I thought it would be simpler to create a direct comparison of the two processes, so I set about conducting my little experiment aiming to identically process two versions of an un-mastered mix.
Now firstly, it has to be said that this isn’t a technical shoot-out. I’ve written other articles about the capabilities of both forms before. This test is not about analogue vs digital as such. It’s more about preferences between the performance of plugins that are often used (hence them mostly being Waves) Vs top of the line outboard processing that is coupled with mastering grade DSP (Digital Signal Processing) and converters.
I duplicated both the gain structure changes and settings using both Blue Pro’s outboard including a mastering console with inserted analogue processors and plug-in emulations or similar counterparts. I picked a mix that was fairly dynamic between song sections while being raucous and in your face during the chorus. I thought this track would suite a modern “loud” master and I felt that pushing the processing harder would expose potential frailties more readily.
Here’s a summary of the processing involved.
MTC-2 console vs. PTHD 8 gain
Hi Pass Filter 35Hz
MTC-2 Filter vs. Waves Q10
Several small EQ cuts (19k wide, 108Hz, 1.8k)
MEA-2 v.s Waves Q10
Harmonic Colour and a small EQ cut (8.1kHz)
Manley MP vs. Bombfactory Pultec EQP-1A
Line amp drive and low-end boost (35Hz wide band +3dB)
TG12345 Curve Bender vs. Waves SSL E Series EQ
Stereo Width 20%
MTC-2 SW vs. Waves S1 Imager
-3dB of gain reduction of invisible compression across 3 bands (no LF compression)
TC system 6000 MD5 vs. Waves Linear Multiband
Brickwall limiting Output -0.3dBfs, around -4db gain reduction
TC System 6000 BrickWall Limiter vs. Waves L2
The plug-in master has a fuzzy narrow quality and seems inset into the speakers to me. I hate how it has cheapened an otherwise expensive sounding lead vocal; it’s slightly nasal now. When played loud it becomes jarring and fatiguing fairly quickly. The harmonic colour emulated by the plug-ins seems false and I feel like I’m looking through a keyhole at the song. Also listen to the way the L2 limiter has killed the transients of the drums and mashed everything together, I think it has also added some unpleasant, unflattering colour.
The outboard master seems louder and the drum transients less affected by the limiting. Both limiters used are 48bit double precision with look ahead, auto0release times and almost instant attack times. The TC System 6000 limiter however has an up-sampling stage, which could be what edged it. It has a richer and warmer tonality and in my opinion is preferable. It also feels wider with a 3D feel that comes at you out the speakers. It’s perhaps down to preference and I prefer mixes with attitude and life that have an extra sense of dimension.
Plug-ins aside please also bare in mind that a mastering engineer treated both tracks with a full range monitoring system in an acoustically treated room. In a home mastering situation you probably won’t have such luxury.
I hope you found this little experiment useful. If you would like us to master your tracks please visit www.bluepromastering.com