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Introduction

As their name appropriately suggests, “Mastering The Mix” are a leading developer of ingenious mixing and mastering plugins, focussing on more natural and intuitive methods of human-machine interaction. Their “3D Room” mixing feature, found in the “MIXROOM” and “BASSROOM” plugins, for example, presents a contemporary and sensible take on traditional EQ methods. Whether it’s enhancing the sonic qualities of your track, ensuring your sounds are as clear as possible, or monitoring the musical elements of your final master, “Mastering The Mix” almost definitely offers a remarkably innovative solution. So, without further delay, here is my take on “Mastering The Mix”’s fantastic array of audio-manipulation goodness.

BASSROOM

BASSROOM

“BASSROOM” was the first of the “Mastering The Mix” plugins to catch my eye when I first saw it advertised a few months ago, so I was more than excited to get stuck in. Powered by modern track modelling techniques, “BASSROOM” quickly becomes any bedroom producer's best friend, as it recommends EQ amendments, similar in vein to that of a professional mixing engineer. If your tracks are plagued with weak or unfulfilling bass, resulting in endless low-end adjustments, “BASSROOM” has you covered; with emphasis on transparency and clarity, the target EQ values that this plugin suggests will usually result in your bass becoming noticeably more concrete, making for an overall much more cohesive mix.

The plugin’s 3D interface, perhaps it’s most defining aspect, seems rather alien and confusing at first glance, but actually makes a surprising amount of contextual sense. Frequency progresses vertically, instead of horizontally, as is seen in typical EQ plugins, and gain is represented by the band’s depth in the room. Louder bands appear closer, with quieter bands further back; just as close and far sounds appear in the real world. Being able to pull a band closer and feel it become louder creates a strangely convincing sense of immersion.

I found that the lack of a graphical representation of frequency content can be seen as a positive aspect; by forcing the manual adjustment of gain and Q values, listening for their individual impact on the mix, it’s easier to recreate the sound in your head, as opposed to blindly moving EQ bands, in accordance to an EQ graph shape. To expand on this, the fact that only the Q values of the bands can be changed, not the focal point of the bands themselves, the common issue of ‘too much choice’, is minimised. This may appear to be a dubious claim to begin with but, frequently, especially in music production, when choice is exclusive to fundamental necessities, it’s actually easier to come out with a great product, as it’s essentially impossible to become blindsided by the abundance of surgical choice.

Typically, in standard EQ plugins, presets don’t make much musical sense, as they aren’t specifically tailored to your unique signal. With both “BASSROOM” and “MIXROOM” however, presets are much more applicable; instead of imposing a predefined curve onto your sound, targets are generated and adapt in real-time to the specific timbre of your input signal, while still applying the tonal characteristics of the modelled sounds.

Additionally, “Mastering The Mix” includes the option to import up to three reference tracks, allowing you to select which sections you wish to replicate the bass response of. Then, in the same fashion as presets, EQ adjustment suggestions are made, working to achieve similar tonal qualities to that of your imported tracks.

In all, it’s safe to say that “BASSROOM” is the perfect final low-end mastering plugin, making crafting a tight bass response, while effectively minimising common muddiness, extremely tactile and intuitive.

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MIXROOM

Logically seen as the perfect companion to “BASSROOM”, “MIXROOM” encompasses the remainder of the frequency spectrum, while utilising the same innovative 3D room response model. With dedicated options for both mastering and mixing scenarios, the latter of which allowing for wider Q values and greater gain adjustment, “MIXROOM” arguably offers much more versatility, over it’s low-end counterpart.

Further enhancing this idea is the inclusion a frequency heat map, exclusive to “MIXROOM”. Located down either side of the ‘room’, this convenient heat map allows you to visibly see both peaking, and emptier, quieter areas of your mix, subtly suggesting areas of interest. To accompany this, each band can be soloed and moved, to ensure your band is focussed directly on your area of interest.

Presets in “MIXROOM” work identically to that of the aforementioned “BASSROOM”; once a preset is selected, your track is intelligently analysed, and a suggestive EQ curve is projected onto the walls of the ‘room’. Aligning with the displayed suggestive curve will help create a tonal balance similar to that of the selected preset model, or reference track. Helpfully, “Mastering The Mix” includes an “Add Smart Bands” button, which will automatically add EQ bands, with appropriate Q and gain values, to accurately match the recommended curve. Although they explicitly describe the ‘Smart Bands’ as a “great starting point”, as a result, I found that these recommended adjustments were rarely perfect.

Despite the ‘Smart Bands’ being a great solution in the correct situation, manually inputting and altering bands by hand, using the newfangled 3D system, yielded unparalleled precision, due to its intrinsic tactility — a quality a typical parametric EQ plugin could only dream of.

To aid in accurately A/B-ing between an affected and unaffected mix, both “BASSROOM” and “MIXROOM” automatically calculate the difference in perceived loudness between the input and output signals. Then, by placing an arrow on the gain slider, indicating the gain amendment needed, both signals can be easily made equal. This process makes your tonal changes and accentuations more distinguishable, when compared to the original signal; meaning it’s easier to decide if your changes are beneficial.

Straying from the tonal shaping functionality, towards increasingly surgical EQ capabilities, “MIXROOM” offers advanced mid-side control. Where standard EQ plugins present the ability to manipulate the frequency response of the middle, left, right, combined left and right channels, and complete stereo field, “MIXROOM” incorporates parameters for fully flexible management over the ratio of mid-side channels. Hence, pinpoint suppression of unwanted ringing, without affecting any other location in the stereo space, has never been so easy.

Overall, throughout my use, “MIXROOM” has proven itself to not only be a powerful tonal characteriser, through it’s carefully modelled response presets, but also a meticulous audio correction tool, with it’s rigorous mid-side regulation. Having such freedom inside of a plugin as fundamentally essential as an EQ makes “MIXROOM” the go-to choice in countless scenarios.

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MIXROOM
ANIMATE

ANIMATE

“ANIMATE” is a multi-effects plugin, consisting of four individual modules, which work together to create a transient, tonal and spatial control powerhouse, breathing life into any mix. Each module possesses its own set of parameters, which persist upon switching to another module. The status of each module is indicated through the lit-up outline of it’s symbol.

The first of the four modules, “Expand”, basically works as a reverse compressor; adding more dynamic range to your track. Any sound above that of the threshold value will be amplified through the expansion ratio, with the ‘amount’ of the effect adjustable via the large central slider. A visual representation of the effect’s intensity can be seen in the luminosity of the glow behind the plugin’s virtual speaker grills; increasing in brightness as the effect is being worked harder.

For all modules, a filter, containing a reactive heat map of your input signal is shown on the left-hand side of the window. This can be utilised in precisely defining the focal area of the plugin’s effects, permitting for minute control over specific areas of the frequency spectrum.

“Expand” showcases it’s excellence notably well when integrated into a drum bus; enhancing the presence of the kick drum, while total bus tightness remains unaffected, is especially simple with this module.

The next module, “Punch”, is a flexible and transparent transient shaper that makes the infamously arduous task of getting percussive hits to sit prominently, yet comfortably in the mix, a breeze. Creating the perfect snare sound has become such a reputably exhausting task that mentioning it to almost any mixing engineer will result in sighs. “Punch” helps turn those dreaded sighs into cries of happiness.

Simply pulling down the threshold, to trigger the module once your snare occurs, before increasing the ‘amount’ slider, causes your snare to cut through even the busiest mix in an organic and satisfyingly impactful manner; it’s really that easy.

Another standout application of “Punch” is demonstrated when attempting to make a kick sample more audible on lower-powered speakers; another recognised laborious job. Solving this issue can be done using one of multiple different methods; subtle saturation of your kick will enhance the upper harmonics of the sound, featuring frequencies much easier for weaker speakers to reproduce, but can cause unwanted distortion. High shelving your kick with an EQ plugin will increase the gain of your upper-end ‘click’, but if you’re working with a consolidated loop, this isn’t an option. “Punch”’s solution to this issue features no such caveats — by only boosting audio above the threshold value, the upper-end transient ‘click’ can be made to stand out, after utilising the filter to define the appropriate frequency band.

Being the most fully-featured, yet least invasive transient shaper I’ve ever used, ‘Punch’ is often the first module I reach for when looking to strengthen my drum loops.

The penultimate component, suitably named “Ignite”, offers a solid option for the generation of one of the most critical mixing elements; saturation. Saturation is a subtle form of distortion, used to create pleasant sounding upper harmonics, based on the original signal. Fitting use of saturation can make any sound noticeably richer, thicker and clearer, causing the instrument it is applied to to become considerably more audible, in a busy mix.

The intrinsic qualities of “ANIMATE”, namely the filter and threshold parameters, make “Ignite” one of the more functional saturation plugins on the market; allowing you to enhance the harmonics of a particular tonal range, or gain point; useful for activation exclusively in a louder chorus, for example. The included mid-side selection buttons also come in handy here; having the far sides of your stereo field saturated, while leaving the center untouched, can construct an expansive sounding texture, with an uncluttered and tidy center channel.

As is standard with most other harmonic saturation plugins, “Ignite” works exceptionally well on synths and vocals, intensifying the colour and character into a brighter, more tonally gripping sound; altogether pulling sounds to the forefront of a mix, and building increasingly powerful and distinguishable articulations.

“Grow” is the final module housed inside of “ANIMATE”; by using the ‘Haas Effect’, “Grow” can heighten the scope of your stereo field. Whether you’re looking to develop a convincing spatial body from upper-end percussive elements, such as hats or shakers, or craft more texturally interesting ‘filler’ instruments, like pads, “Grow” has you covered.

After dialling in your signal-specific threshold, the region of which your audio will be affected can be selected, using the filter control. In this case, you typically won’t want to go below 350-400Hz, to avoid compromising a concise low-end. Altering the ‘width’ value, in milliseconds, before increasing the level of the effect, will define the degree to which the ‘Haas Effect’ is implemented; the further the value from zero, the more intense the effect.

I’ve always been a big fan of these so-called ‘Secret Weapon’ plugins, and tend to reach for them far more often than I’d like to admit. Their ease of use and consistent results leads them to become irresistibly appetising — “ANIMATE” is no exception. Suffice it to say, “ANIMATE” is sure to become a staple plugin of my future productions.

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LEVELS

“LEVELS” is an all-encompassing post processing validation tool, used to ensure that your final master complies with all critical requirements and standards. Housing six separate modules, each monitoring a different aspect of your master, including ‘True Peak’ analysis, LUFS auditing and stereo space evaluation, “LEVELS” makes it impossible to miss errors in your master.

Before diving head first into the gritty details of each component, it’s important to acknowledge the persistent features, irrespective of the current module you have focussed. At the top of the window, you will find five buttons; for soloing left, right, middle, or side channels, along with a mono summing toggle, employable for ensuring mono compatibility. You will also notice that the module selection icons, surrounding the central monitoring space, not only act as buttons, depicting the main focus of the window, but also as colour changing threshold breach indicators.

Upon a threshold being exceeded, “LEVELS” will highlight the corresponding module symbol in red. These threshold values can be modified via presets, automatically adapting them to be in-line with one of many modern, or traditional standards; such as Spotify, Apple Music, or national radio. If you’re looking for full freedom, or want to create a preset for an unlisted service, thresholds can be manually customised inside of the plugin’s settings menu.

Housing an easily legible ‘True Peak’ level indicator, the first, and perhaps simplest of the six modules, is labelled “Peak”. At the center of the unit is the history-conscious maximum ‘True Peak’ label; if this value surpasses the specified threshold, the level indication bars will breach into the upper, red area of the window, with the ‘True Peak’ level label simultaneously turning red, indicating audio clipping. With “Peak” being so inherently basic, checking and correcting your final levels, after running your master through, becomes elementary.

As we follow anti-clockwise around the central, circular focus, the next, and arguably most important unit, is the LUFS analysis component. By featuring a short-term LUFS value, representing the perceived loudness of the last three seconds of your master, alongside the standard integrated loudness, this module ensures every moment of your track complies with the selected distribution service specifications. Hence, avoiding penalisation from any such ‘loudness penalty’.

Next in the “LEVELS” cycle is the “Dynamic Range” section, used for viewing detailed statistics about your track’s energy and aggression. At the top of the plugin, a proprietary, short-term “DR” value is provided, offering an accurate and mathematical reference, for comparing track regions. It should also be noted that this module’s analysis is completely disassociated from the loudness of your track, meaning an overcompressed loud track, and a comparable, overcompressed quiet track, will report the same measurements.

Most alluringly, the central focal area of the window houses a responsive and informative oscilloscope, providing a visual, tactile representation of your track’s intensity, making identifying dynamic movement characteristics of individual areas trivial.

One of the most desirable elements, found in professional mixes, is a strong, impactful low-end. However, formulating a powerful kick and bass is often easier said than done, as other conflicting tracks compete for the same space, reducing your available headroom. Enter “LEVELS”’s next module; “Bass Space”.

After muting your kick and bass tracks, to unmask any unnecessary low-end frequencies from your track, “Bass Space” will chart the location and gain of the leftover frequencies, so that they can be easily targeted and eliminated. If in the rare case that you want to retain some of this residual low-end information, as is with all other modules in “LEVELS”, a threshold point can be applied, with the plugin alerting you when this value has been breached, by turning the component icon red.

Similar to the “Dynamic Range” unit, our next module, “LRA”, measures the variation in loudness across your track. Again, featuring a numerical figure, for efficiently comparing the difference in loudness between the verses and the chorus of your track. At the center of the unit, a large, live waveform can be found, presenting a fantastic visual depiction of your loudness variation; again, much akin to that of the “Dynamic Range” segment.

The final module is essential for ensuring your track’s sonic integrity across all playback devices; stereo field examination. If the left and right channels of your mix feature great disparity, as can often be the case when building excessively spacious mixes, you may lose some areas of your audio when played back in mono, due to opposing peaks causing a phenomenon known as ‘destructive interference’, making your track sound thin and weak.

The center of the window houses a reactive diagram, showing the location of each sample in stereo space, with each glowing ‘dot’ representing a sample. A well mixed stereo field will land the majority of samples in the upper and lower quarters of the circle, resulting in the diagram glowing green. If too much of your mix falls into the left and right quarters of the circle, indicating phase issues, the diagram will glow red.

Offering an arguably slightly more informative measurement, are the left and right location, and channel similarity bars; located at the bottom and left of the circle, accordingly. The left and right location bar will express the current perceived location of your sound, in respect to the left to right ratio of the signal. For a balanced stereo space, the indication needle should remain around the center of the bar. The channel similarity bar compares the resemblance of your left and right channels, with “+1” being completely mono and, hence, in phase, and “-1” being totally out of phase, resulting in destructive interference in mono systems. For a perceptually wide, yet cohesive stereo mix, the needle should reside between the center and “+1”, on average.

Finally, at the very top of the unit, there is an extremely handy filter control, allowing you to decide which area of the frequency spectrum to analyse. This feature is notably helpful, when ensuring your low-end is completely mono, as to combat a disorderly and unclear mix.

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LEVELS
REFERENCE 2

REFERENCE 2

“Reference 2” is the definitive, all-in-one plugin for reference track comparison; getting that perfect tonal balance from your favourite track has never been so straightforward. Simply load your reference tracks into the plugin, either by dragging and dropping, or by browsing and selecting. Then, using the innovative “Level Match” button, match the perceived loudness of your tracks, so each can be fairly compared.

You will notice three different options for loudness matching; “Match to Original”, “Match to Quietest” and “All to -14 Short-Term LUFS”, the last of which I find most appropriate to use, as this is the loudness standard value used by a number of large streaming services. Once consistent loudness has been established, you can seamlessly flip between your current track and your reference track in one of two fashions; “Mirror” or “Free”. “Mirror” will match the playhead of your reference tracks to your DAW transport. This is one of two fundamental features that becomes particularly useful when comparing multiple different masters of the same track; “Mirror” may offer instant A/B-ing, but this essentially falls apart if the tracks aren’t correctly lined up — this is where “Reference 2”’s ingenious “Track Align” feature takes to the spotlight.

If the plugin detects that multiple different revisions of the same track have been imported, the “Track Align” button will appear beside the “Level Match” button. Making use of this feature allows you to automatically match the position of the tracks, which would otherwise be misaligned, due to differing amounts of silence at the beginning or end of each track.

“Free” mode will enable you to create loops inside of your reference tracks, by clicking and dragging an area on the corresponding waveform. Each loop region will automatically quantise it’s start and end points to the nearest beat, contributing in developing an even more seamless experience.

The bottom of the window houses the “Trinity Display”, acting as your categorical visual and mathematical aid for comparing the tonal balance, stereo width and dynamic range of your tracks. The white “Level Line” depicts either the EQ match, or the EQ difference between your track and your selected reference track, depending on which option is chosen. Instead of simply imposing the difference in frequency spectrums between the two tracks, which wouldn’t be particularly informative, the “Level Line” intelligently calculates the perceived tonal balance of the reference track, before displaying the final “Level Line”. This ultimately means your track will not only sound more tonally similar to competitors, but also clearer, as it retains the aspects that define your mix.

The total stereo width for each track can be examined through the distance between the blue ‘width’ line, and the center line. The further the ‘width’ line from the center, the more dissimilar each channel is. Alternating between your track and your reference blatantly exposes differences across the entire frequency spectrum, making your spatial character far easier to dial in.

Finally, the “Punch Dots” featured in the “Trinity Display” indicate the degree by which each section of your track’s frequency spectrum is either over, or under compressed, compared to your reference track. Dots moving towards the central line indicate more compression in your track as opposed to the reference, with dots moving away signifying the opposite. This makes achieving a similar energy to your original track much more accurate, with less emphasis being placed on ear guesswork.

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