iOS Mastering Apps Comparison


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As a full-time mastering engineer who likes to make music on an iPad in my spare time, it’s no surprise I have an interest in the recent flux of mastering related iOS apps coming out these days. Add to that how many people I see on various forums lately asking which of the options is better, and I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at a few of the more popular mastering apps and see how they compare. I’ll be looking at the following apps in this review:

Audio Mastering by iMusicAlbum $12.99

Final Touch by Positive Grid, Inc. $12.99

Auria with Fabfilter in app purchases $49.00 + IAP’s

This isn’t a full review of each app, those are already online if you want to learn more about the specifics of how each of them work.  Rather, I wanted to see what things (good and bad) stood out in each app, and how they directly compare to each other in terms of functionality and sound quality. For this comparison I am listening to each app with my iPad Air connected to a Lynx Hilo DAC via the Apple Camera Connection Kit, an Emotiva XPA-2 amplifier, and finally my Tyler Acoustic D2x monitors.  Custom room treatments by GIK Acoustics USA.

I’m using a few songs I wrote entirely on the iPad for testing purposes, in a variety of genres.  Most have a good bit of low frequency information useful for testing dynamics processors, and they were made on the iPad and thus keep with the iOS theme.  Audio Mastering and Final Touch both can function as Audiobus and Inter-App Audio effects, as well as load files via Audioshare, Audio Copy, etc.  Auria is a dedicated DAW in it’s own right, and functions as an IAA host, as well as Audiobus Output. For all three apps I used iTunes file-sharing to import my songs however, and it was quick and painless in each case.

Because Audio Mastering and Final Touch both are similar all-in-one mastering solutions (ala Ozone on the desktop), I’m going to focus on the comparing them first, then discuss how the Auria method of iOS mastering differs.  Let’s get to it then…

Being all in one solutions, Audio Mastering and Final Touch both share a lot of features, though more differences than I expected too. Both allow you to insert various mastering related processors into your signal chain, though in Audio Mastering’s case, the order of effects is fixed. It still largely makes sense except for putting the reverb in front of the compressor, but then again I personally have never understood the need for a reverb in 99.999% of all mastering. Regardless, point for Final Touch for allowing your to freely change the order of processors, as well as for having two EQs available.

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Navigating in both apps is basically through tabs for each type of processor, with navigating done via dedicated transport buttons and a waveform you can scroll with your finger. Final Touch has the waveform visible at all times, while there’s a dedicated tab you need to go to in Audio Mastering in order to change the playback position precisely. Almost another point for Final Touch, but it has this weird fade-in it does each time the playhead is moved or playback begins. Makes it difficult when you’re trying to narrow in on a problematic transient I found.

One big difference in the apps is that aside from just audio processing, Audio Mastering can also apply user defined fade-in and fade-outs, convert file types before saving, as well as loop portions of the waveform if needed. So for more detailed and precise audio problem-solving, I find that Audio Mastering has the lead here.

Alright alright, but how do they sound is all anyone wants to know, right?

EQ

Of the two, I preferred the sound of Audio Mastering’s EQ to the one in Final Touch. Sweeping the mids you can hear that it’s a very smooth and natural sound, there’s very little phasey-ness happening around the active band. It does what you want and stays out of the way. The Final Touch EQ isn’t bad at all, but it can get a bit harsh the more you boost it,  it definitely imprints it’s own sound with more than a few dB’s boost. Opening the Q helps some, but I still preferred the sound of the Audio Mastering EQ for most uses.

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However I have to point out that Final Touch EQ can also be used in mid-side mode, in fact almost all of the Final Touch processors can run in M/S mode, and that’s a huge bonus. I use M/S processing a lot in my mastering work, it can work wonders when you learn to think from an M/S perspective!  Also of note is the fact that every EQ band can be set to multiple types ala low pass, high pass, peak, shelf, etc.  If you just need a few small EQ tweaks in your track, Final Touch definitely has more options in how you use it.

The built-in analyzer in both EQs work fine, though in Final Touch they are definitely smoother and better reacting, as are all the meters in Final Touch. The interface overall is generally smoother in Final Touch if I’m honest, everything moves fluidly and it’s very easy to find exactly what you’re looking for. Audio Mastering looks and feels more like a piece of lab equipment, precise and designed for a very specific and functional purpose.  🙂

Moving on…

Compression.

Both Final Touch and Audio Mastering are set up by default to work as multi-band compressors, though Audio Mastering can also be set to single-band, which is likely how I would use it for most of my mastering work. You’d be surprised at how little multi-band compression is actually used in professional mastering, but I digress…

In it’s single band mode, I thought Audio Mastering sounded very good and would likely be my first choice between both apps if that were it.   Transparent and works exactly like you’d expect, this is not a colored compression.  However in multi-band mode, I preferred Final Touch for both it’s sound and ease of use. Although strangely, there’s no way to see your actual gain reduction when using compression in Final Touch, which seems like an odd thing to remove from a compressor!  Maybe I’m missing something…

The compressor display in Audio Mastering is slightly confusing, and working with multiple bands feels like it takes a lot of tapping to get things done. One thing that’s true across Audio Mastering though, it’s much easier to nail precise settings thanks to the large faders for almost every parameter.

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Final Touch’s multi-band compressor is pretty easy to figure out, and overall sounds decent for what it is.  Though as I mentioned, I thought dialing in precise setting with the little dials a bit fiddly at times. To sum up, for compression I’d normally reach for Audio Mastering in single-band mode, but if I needed multi-band compression (and I rarely do) then Final Touch would get the nod.

Reverb.

Hands down Final Touch wins this one, unfortunately it’s not even close. Having a lot of reverb experience from their guitar apps pays off it seems, the reverbs are much more realistic and better sounding than those in Audio Mastering. In fact, Audio Mastering’s reverb is the most perplexing thing about the app for me. It’s more like an echo pre-delay sort of thing than a true reverb. It gives space without muddying things up, but it’s still a very artificial sound to my ears.

Considering this is the least important tool in the mastering chain (IMVHO), not really a big deal either way.

Spatial Tools.

Of the two, Audio Mastering gives you slightly more control over adjusting your spatial parameters for things like stereo spread or making the low end more mono-compatible, with multiple user-defined processing bands available. There’s also a built-in harmonic exciter (which I thought sounded pretty good in small doses), something Final Touch doesn’t have.

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However I personally find Final Touch a little easier to use, and the metering a bit more helpful in actually setting the parameters. Final Touch also has simple tools for checking mono compatibility, flipping channel phase, and swapping left and right channels.  While I would probably choose Final Touch for the interface alone, either one is more than good enough for the tiny tweaks processors like this usually handle in mastering.

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Limiting.

It’s hard not to associate loudness with the term mastering, as it’s what most people attribute the mastering process to. While this is handled typically by peak limiters in the studio, both apps here call these processors Maximizers.

Both limiters sounded more than good enough for transparent limiting of a few dBs, and they both surprised me by how far they could be pushed before distorting (handy for you Beatport producers 🙂 ).

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This time it’s Final Touch that gets more control over the limiting parameters, including one of the most comprehensive dithering sections I’ve seen in almost any app, iOS or otherwise. Struck me as odd that they simplified in so many other areas (I.E. no compressor gain reduction), but choose to offer a huge range of choices here.

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However, despite having a lessor degree of control, I found that when pushed hard I preferred the sound of the maximizer in Audio Mastering more than Final Touch by a little bit. It was easier to retain transients and if I was called on to make things stupid loud it would go a bit further than Final Touch before starting to distort.  This is only in extreme cases, like I said for light to normal limiting duties, either app works just fine in this regard.
The more I think about it, the harder it becomes for me to say that one is better than the other. The basic mastering tools in each are more than capable for self-mastering your own releases. They each have additional tools that are slightly different from each other too, things like harmonic exciters and additional EQs.

Overall I found that Final Touch was easier to navigate in, and also simpler to figure out the controls for the devices. That doesn’t mean that Audio Mastering was difficult, just that with the flat display (which I prefer normally) and the single color interface, it can take a few seconds to find what you’re looking for. In it’s favor, you typically have finer-control over those parameters once you do.

In terms of sound quality it’s a toss up depending on what type of processing you use the most. For EQ and limiting, as well as it’s single-band compressor mode, I’m personally favoring the sound of Audio Mastering. For reverb, spatial tools, and the multi-band compressor I’d lean more towards Final Touch.

Both apps are on sale at the moment for $12.99, so if you’re serious about mastering your iOS tunes it would be well worth having both in your arsenal. At the very least it’s a small investment to make to try both and see which you prefer yourself, considering how important this step of the production process is.

Which brings us to….

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Auria

While not a dedicated mastering app in it’s own right, there’s enough professional tools available for it that Auria can fill that role easily. As a stand-alone DAW, it has all the editing and exporting options you could ask for, and the built in EQ, compressors, and limiter are all made by PSP Audioware, well-respected plug-in manufacturers in their own right.

The real power comes when you consider that you can also purchase all of the Fabfilter plug-ins to use in Auria, and for MUCH cheaper than their desktop counterparts. This gives you access to Pro-Q, Pro-C, Pro-MB, and Pro-L, some of the best plug-ins ever made and in use in professional mastering studios around the world.

These are identical to their desktop versions, and since there’s plenty of reviews of those online, I won’t get into the features. Suffice to say these are already some of the best software mastering tools you can buy, so there’s no worry about quality.

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The downside is of course the higher cost, you’re looking at $50 for Auria and on average about $30 for each of the Fabfilter plug-ins (Pro-L and Pro-MB are $40 each). It’s a sizable investment, and quite a bit more than the alternatives I compared above if you only want them for mastering. However you get a lot more flexibility with the Fabfilter plug-ins than with the alternatives too. Dozens of EQ or compression bands if you need, different limiting algorithms, upward compression and expansion, comprehensive metering and spectral analysis, etc.

But I think for some producers, some of that complexity could be overwhelming. There’s a lot of ways to alter your audio, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, not always for the better. And of course you can only use those plug-ins in Auria too, they’re not Audiobus or IAA compatible.

For me it’s an easy choice, I know my way around EQs and compressors, and Pro-L is hands down the best limiter made if you were to ask me. I’ve already mastered a few projects for people using the iPad and these tools, and they impressed me just as much as they do on the desktop. If you want the very best and you know how to use them, it’s hard to beat the options this method of iOS mastering offers.

I have to admit though, I was pleasantly surprised at how well done both of the other alternatives are. The gap in sound quality and functionality was much smaller than I expected it would be with the tools I use daily in my mastering business. So while I’m content to continue using Auria for my iOS mastering, I’m actually really glad I spent time with Audio Mastering and Final Touch too. I came away much more impressed than I thought I would be.

For 95% of all producers out there, these are all you need for mastering your own music. All the tools you need are included, they both have decent presets to get you started, and they both sound really good until pushed much harder than you probably need to. I’m pretty awed with the power and sound-quality of the tools we have at our disposal on the iOS platform, and I never thought I’d say that about something like iOS mastering tools as well!

Hopefully this helped clear up some of the differences and similarities between the mastering tools I’ve talked about here. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments or on the forum where you saw this posted. Happy to answer any questions if I can!

Peace and beats,
Tarekith

Your Masters Matter

Masters

As usually happens, it all started with a crazy idea. For a while now I had been considering changing all of my copies of the tracks I had written to AIF files, instead of wav files like I had been using for…. well, ever.  The main driver was that I wanted a better way to make sure all the graphics I had created for my releases stayed with the audio files. And as the DJs among you might already know, AIF files support not only embedding artwork, but also meta-data.

And speaking of DJs, I wanted to convert all of my Tarekith DJ and live sets as well. Not just for the artwork aspect, but also because I could then embed the tracklists in the files as well. Just makes it easier to ensure all the relevant info is there when I need it.

And just for fun, I figured I would also do the same for all the MP3 versions of my songs, except I would create 320kbps AACs as the compressed format. I’ve already been releasing all my tracks online as AAC’s over the past year, and so far it hasn’t been an issue for anyone. Why AAC? Read my blog post on the subject here: http://tarekith.com/mastered-for-itunes/

Of course, nothing is ever easy is it?

The plan had been to first create all the different formats I needed from the original wav files, and then bring everything into iTunes to do all the tagging and artwork embedding. But as I started collecting all the current files I had, I realized that somehow things had gotten sloppy over the last 20 years. Sometimes I might have a wav version of a song but no MP3 version (not a problem), other times I might only have an MP3 version of one of my DJ sets, but I didn’t have a wav version saved on my hard drive (problem).

I’m normally really organized when it comes to my own music, but over the last 20 years I’ve written over 130 songs, as well as dozens of live and DJ sets. Somehow a few tracks didn’t get copied to the right folders I guess. I wasn’t too stressed about it though, because I ALWAYS make physical back ups when I finish a track as well, typically to CDR or DVDr.

As I started going through my stacks of CDR backups however, I began to realize that some of the really old ones had hit that point where they were no longer readable. Or maybe I had saved the DAW project files for a song, but no longer owned that DAW (Cubase, Reason, etc). Either way, quite a few of the back ups were either unreadable, or I couldn’t access the data easily which really defeats the purpose.

That’s when the fun started. 🙂

I had to slowly go through every one of my archives and check to see it was readable, then burn a new copy if it was more than 5 years old. In some cases I had to enlist the help of friends with different software to help me get access to DAW projects I couldn’t open on my own. In the end, I was able to create the AIFs and AACs I needed for all of my songs and sets, with only one exception. Luckily that was a crap song I did last minute for a contest years ago, so it wasn’t a huge loss.

Still, a scary reminder that physical media isn’t permanent, and that we need to check our archives every so often to avoid scares like this! I always knew it was going to happen eventually, this is just the first time I had experienced it with some of my own archives. Crisis narrowly averted! 🙂

Once all the new files were created, the next step was to track down all of my artwork for the releases. Pretty easy for the newer stuff, since those were all on my website with the artwork already. But for some of my older tracks, I had to either revisit the CDR back ups, or spend a lot of time hunting around online for the right images. My previous artist name was “rEalm”, so it’s not as simple as you’d think to find some of this stuff via Google!

The last step was to get all the info I wanted to embed in the files. Things like details I might have posted on forums about how I wrote a track, or maybe copying the descriptions from my blog or tracks I had for sale on Beatport and Addictech. Just any information about the song that I, or maybe other people, might find interesting in the future. Maybe.

Last but definitely not least, I had to bring it all into iTunes and get it all organized. I thought a lot on naming conventions, standardized formatting for the info, tags I wanted to use, etc. Just to make sure everything had a consistency to it and would make sense to anyone other than me who happened to look at the info.

The final step was then to burn all of the new master AIF to disc once again as a redundant back up, along with copying them to a couple USB sticks. I still have to re-grid everything in Traktor, but right now I’m burnt out on this project since it took so much longer than I expected. Someday! 🙂

Now, I can see some of you shaking your head at all this. It’s a lot of work, and since I had wav versions of just about everything anyway, why bother? Well, for me this is my legacy. This is showing what 20+ years of hard work did, it’s what I’ll leave behind when I depart this world. More than that though, it reminded me that just because we religiously save and make back ups, it doesn’t mean they will last forever.

Media decays, formats change, tools come and go from our arsenal, things get lost or misplaced, you name it. In short over a lifetime of making music you’re going to generate a lot of it! Take the time now and then to go through some of your old back ups and make sure you can still read them. At the very least, get in the habit of saving a high resolution copy of your masters and keeping them all in one place.

You never know when it might save your ass, and at the very least it’s a good habit to make sure you really have the back ups you think you have!

Ear Career

ErikBabyDJ(your blog author was already hooked on music as a baby)

By far, the question I get asked the most often is “how do I get that professional sound in my tracks?”  It’s interesting, because while I definitely know exactly what people are referring to, and remember wondering the same thing with my own tracks at one time, and I can’t think of the moment when I thought “aha, I’ve done it!”.

Barring any sudden insights or learning some hidden secret, that means it was a more gradual process.   Anyone who’s been writing music for some length of time likely realizes this, but what exactly is it that we have to learn?  Obvious answers are usually that you need to learn your tools better, or study different production techniques so you know how (and when) to apply them to improve your music.

I suppose there’s also the need to improve the tools you use as well, from the instruments used to create the music, to the monitors we use to listen to it.  Certainly the tools we use don’t necessarily define the quality of music we make, but better tools do tend to lend themselves to better results much easier.

Still, I’ve met a lot of producers who managed to hit all of those marks fairly early on in their production careers, and yet they still struggle with getting that “sound” that they’re after.  It’s easy to say the rest comes down to practice (and I’ve done so many times in this blog), but practicing what?

It’s sort of strange considering it’s music we’re talking about, but you really don’t find a lot of people talking about how they trained their ears over time.  And I don’t mean with specific ear training exercises like being able to identify fixed frequencies or EQ points (though that’s definitely good to do!).  Rather I’m talking about the skill of learning to step back from your music and really HEAR what the overall picture sounds like.

It sounds like a simple thing, but if you’ve ever tried to teach someone how to do it, you realize it’s not as easy as it sounds.  Learning to not focus on specific parts of a song we like, or perhaps a section that gave us a lot of trouble while writing it doesn’t come naturally to our ears.  We tend to focus on what we know, or what we were working on most recently rather than the big picture.

But it’s not just the big picture of our own songs we need to listen to, but also how our song works in other environments.  Everyone I know realizes how important it is to listen to your music on other speakers to see how well it translates, but doing so efficiently and accurately takes a long time to learn.  I know early on I would often find myself burning multiple CDs to listen to mix revisions over and over in the same listening environments.  So it’s not just the act of referencing your song elsewhere that’s important, but how easily you can hear flaws this exposes and correct them too.

All of this is a rather long winded way of stating that one of the most useful skills you need to learn as a musician is just the ability to hear things as they really are.  I know that sounds rather nebulous, but I think it’s one of the most important skills successful musicians and producers have learned over the years.  It’s not just learning YOUR speakers in YOUR studio, but learning how things sound elsewhere.  And most importantly, then being able to make the correct correlations that allow you tweak and tune your music to sound even better.

To me, that’s what defines that “professional sound” more than anything else.  It’s not about the tools or techniques per se, but that knowledge of how music works in different environments and becoming good at minimizing any issues that might compromise your message as a result.   We’re attracted to songs that just sound good no matter where you hear them, and that skill more than any other is what tends to separate the “professionals” from those still learning.

While there may not be an easy way to learn that skill other than repetition, it’s definitely something everyone can work towards improving.  It takes practice to learn to stop focusing on one part of a song and step back to hear how everything works together.  Take a few minutes every day that you’re working on a song and try to do it.  Stop for 5 minutes and just listen to the song pretending it’s the first time you heard it.  What sticks out, what works, what doesn’t?

Likewise learning to identify problems in your tracks when you hear them for the first time on a new set of speakers somewhere else takes time too.  Try setting a goal of listening to a song you know well on a new set of speakers or headphones once a week.  How quickly can you spot known problems, what sounds best in your song on the new set up, what sounds worst?

Little games like this are things I find successful musicians do all the time without really realizing it.  Getting into the habit of always being aware of how things sound in your environment, and how you can use that to adjust your own productions is one of the best skills you can learn if you want to get better at getting a nice, polished sound in your tracks.   When you spend the time learning to hear what doesn’t work well, you’re going to be left with only things that do work, and that’s ultimately the sign of a quality production!

Hope you enjoyed the article this week.  Now that my hand is healing and I can type much easier, I’m hoping to start getting these blog posts out more frequently once again.

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I don’t often ask for help, but this is one of those times I’m turning to my readers to help me out if they can.  This month has been slower than normal for the mastering business, and with medical bills from my recent broken hand coming in, the timing couldn’t be worse.   It would be a big help if you could pass on my contact information to anyone you know who might be looking to get something mastered.   Referrals like this are truly the only way I get new customers, so just quick 1 minute email or Facebook post to a friend can help me out more than you know.

Thanks everyone, I appreciate all your help and support over the years, and especially in difficult times like this!

The Tarekith Update

Well I know it’s been a bit light on blog posts here lately, so I thought I’d do sort of a general update on a what’s been happening here in the studio. I’m in sort of a bit of flux in a lot of areas right now, so my apologies if this comes off as a little rambling! 🙂

For starters, I wanted to thank everyone wishing me luck with my shoulder surgery earlier this year. Things have been progressing great, I almost have full range of motion back and the physical therapist has me weight training already. Still fiending to get on the bike, but I know I’m almost halfway there now so trying to be patient 🙂

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My plan while recovering from surgery was to renew my focus on learning guitar, especially with the new Taylor acoustic I bought. Happily that has been going very well, I’ve been practicing almost daily and already starting to notice huge improvements. I’ve ditched the pick all together at this point, and am now focusing a lot on fingerpicking. Not so much traditional fingerpicking, but definitely learning as many techniques as I can to add my own style and feel to it.

Because I’ve been enjoying the guitar so much, I’m starting to consider putting together a new live set using it as my main instrument. Quite a jump from hardware groove boxes! I’m still mentally toying with different options, but in the mean time I decided it was time to start playing around with some dedicated guitar pedals. My Boss Tera Echo is still a dream to play, and I just ordered a TC Hall Of Fame reverb pedal, and an Xotic EP booster to get the Taylor’s signal a little more usable.  Thinking about the TC Flashback x4 as well.

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When I haven’t been working on the guitar, I’ve been thinking about where I want to focus next when it comes to studio and live work. I’m still happy working on the iPad for tracks now and then, but I want get back into more of a hardware workflow too. Not just for writing tracks but for performing them too.

Strangely, for some reason I’ve really been giving serious thought to Maschine Studio. Crazy, I know 🙂 But it looks like the newest software updates have solved a lot of my previous complaints about Maschine. And it’s hard not to appreciate how much more hardware-like the new display will make the controller feel. As much as I love Push and Live, I have to admit the Live library really doesn’t do much for me when it comes to finding sound ideas to use when creating tracks. That was one area I really liked about Maschine when I tried it previously.

But, we’ll see, nothing is decided yet. I still might go with more traditional hardware too 🙂

The mastering business was a bit slower than normal to start the year, but with me being out for surgery anyway it worked out.   Things have ramped up a lot since then though, and 2014 is already looking to be a great year.   And it certainly is fun listening to those Tyler D2x’s every day!  🙂

Last but certainly not least, I  broke my right hand in three places last week.  Yes, right when the shoulder was starting to feel better, I decided it would be a good idea to hit the refrigerator in a rare display of frustration.  Stupid I know, and now I get to pay for it.  Oh well, no guitar for a bit I’m guessing, so I’ve decided to just spend my time focusing on music theory again.   I was doing a little every day as part of my guitar practices anyway, now I can sped more time on it 🙂

Well, that’s about it, and not terribly exciting I’m afraid.  Hopefully the hand heals up fast and I can get back to writing again soon!

Confidence

Of all the interesting quirks I see in musicians, one of the more frequent is people having no confidence in their own music. You might have seen this too, someone posts their track for others to offer feedback on, and then they proceed to point out everything wrong with it and why they don’t like it. Before anyone even had a chance to listen with a fresh mind and decide for themselves, the producer has already skewed their opinion negatively.

Another common example I see in my mastering business is people coming to me and saying things like “I know this isn’t as good as what you usually work on, but could you still master this?”. The surprising thing is that usually these are very good songs too, not nearly as bad as the producer thought!

I think as artists we all have insecurities in what we produce. Will other people get it? Does my lack of experience show? Will it sound good on other playback systems? Of course, just saying be more confident doesn’t work, things aren’t that easy for some people.

I’m lucky in that I also get to work with a lot of musicians who DO have confidence in their music. And I think it’s important to state that I believe there’s a huge difference between confidence and being cocky. I see that too 🙂

One of the things I’ve found that separates the confident producers, is that no matter their skill level, they are aware of how long it takes to truly become a talented musician or producer. They know they are just at one point on that path, and that they still have a lot to learn. Doesn’t matter if they’ve been writing music for one year or twenty years, they know that they are putting their best effort forward all the time.

To me, it seems that confidence for them comes not just from having achieved some success, but being realistic about their skills at any time too. When you know you have an endless journey ahead of you, and take that desperate rush out of the equation, you become more accepting of what you feel your current limitations are.

You can more freely seek help from others and be open to their suggestions. It’s no longer an affront to your belief in your skills if someone offers a critique of your work, because you understand what your strengths and weaknesses are. It allows you to remember the positive things you can do, while recognizing the areas you have to focus on next.

The next time you find yourself feeling uncertain about your own music, don’t project that to others. Remember we all have certain things that come easier to us, and that everyone progresses at a different rate. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to push and drive yourself to succeed, but temper that with the realization that this is a LONG process. As long as you are always striving to better your music making, you can be confident than you’re doing the best you can.

Take some pride in how far you’ve come already, and have the confidence to know that your music is just as valid as everyone else’s!

Tyler D2x Full Review

This was originally posted on Gearslutz, but I thought I would copy it on the blog as well for those that are curious.

Tyler D2 07

I spent months researching new monitors for my Seattle-based mastering studio, and one of the names that kept coming up again and again is Tyler Acoustics. There’s a decent bit of information on their flagship D1x’s online, but I didn’t find a lot of information on the smaller D2x’s, so I wanted to write a review for others who may be considering this monitor.

One of the things you’ll hear the most about Tyler Acoustics, is just how friendly the owner Ty is. When I called to discuss the D2x’s I was interested in purchasing, Ty was the one who answered the phone and happily ran me through all of the options available. All of his speakers are available in 4-5 standard wood finishes, but if you want he can also use one of over 80 custom veneers. There’s a slight up charge for this, but Ty only charges you exactly what he pays for the veneers so it’s a far price I felt. Since I’m based in the Pacific Northwest, I really wanted a sitka spruce veneer and this was only an additional $200.

Because these monitors are primarily designed for audiophile listening rooms where the listener is seated lower than your typical mastering engineer, the tweeters are roughly 12” inches below I needed them to be. Not a problem, as Ty also builds custom stands for his monitors for just this purpose. If you buy the stands with the monitors, he cuts the stand price in half to $200, not a bad deal for custom woodworking!

Shipping and tax are included in the price as well, so with my sitka veneers, two 12” stands, brass feet, and “mastering engineer” discount Ty was offering at the time, the total price for the monitors was $4680. A full refund minus shipping is available if you’re not happy as well, making a large purchase like this almost worry free. All of Tyler Acoustics speakers are built to order, and I was quoted 3-4 weeks before the speakers would ship. Despite a small 3 day delay due to bad weather in Kentucky where these are made, Ty’s shipping time was spot on too.

D2Boxes

The Tyler’s arrived on a standard palette with the stands, each boxed individually and heavily padded on the inside. Each speaker weighs about 155lbs in the box, so I recommend having a friend help you get them into your studio. Especially if it’s on the 3rd floor of a building like mine is!

One of the things you hear a lot about Tyler speakers is how well made they are. Unboxing mine I was certainly impressed with the build quality of both the speakers and the stands, which match the shape of the speakers perfectly. In fact, they almost look like one unit when stacked and in place, putting the full height at 64”. With the D’appolito style speaker layout, it makes for a very impressive looking speaker!

I admit, I was a little surprised that there was some tiny chipping (checking) of the veneer on some of the edges. I’ve done a lot of woodworking myself and know this is common with certain woods, and especially when cutting veneers. However I was surprised that no effort had been made to fill these, as it would likely have made them unnoticeable. It’s a tiny thing for sure, and maybe that is just how it’s done with higher end speaker cabinets. But it’s not something I expected to see for speakers costing this much money, even if it is relatively minor. Oh well, easy enough for me to fill on my own if I decide to.

D2Checking

D2Checking2

The Sound

(I am powering these with an Emotiva XPA-2 amplifier, and for comparison my main studio monitors for the last 3 years have been Event Opals.)

One of the other things you will read a lot about when researching Tyler Acoustics speakers, is that they REALLY need about 200 hours to burn in and sound as flat as they are designed to. In fact Ty himself told me this a few times during our phone conversations, give them 200 hours before judging how they sound.

Keeping this in mind, I set about listening and comparing the D2x’s to my Opals, while fine-tuning their positioning in my studio as well. Right off the bat the first thing that came to mind about their sound is that it’s “bigger” than my Opals were, which is no surprise given that the Opals are a much smaller monitor. The D2x’s had a much more immersive sound field, and the low end in particular was much more present than I was previously used to. No excessive, but definitely more revealing of what was happening below say 60Hz.

At the same time, the tweeters felt very dull and restrained in comparison, and while I knew I was hearing more low end, it didn’t feel as accurate as the Opals. The Opals just were a lot more revealing in the high end, it was easier to hear excessive sibilance or cymbals that were too harsh. I chalked this up to the monitors being new and not broken in, and spent the next 8 days playing music and 96kHz pink noise through to fix this.

Every couple of days I would compare them to the Opals again, and even after just a few more days of using them, it was apparent that they were slowly sounding better and better. The highs were opening up a lot, and the low end was getting deeper and more controlled sounding. I know some people don’t believe the “myth of breaking-in speakers”, but in this case the differences in sound were very obvious to me. Especially listening back to back with the Opals which I know very well (easy to A/B via my Lynx Hilo), giving me a standard to compare them to.

I also used this time to fine-tune the positioning as I mentioned. Because I work in a small to medium sized mastering studio, I was noticing that the imaging was very susceptible to small changes in placement. By the time I had roughly 200-240 hours on the D2x’s, I had the placement dialed, and felt they were properly broken in. The highs were much smoother while still being detailed, and the low end response felt a lot flatter than it was initially.

The biggest change in sound over the Opals was the low end for sure though, the D2x’s simply have more of it available making excessive sub-bass issues in the tracks I was working on dead easy to spot (and fix). I will say I was glad that I had added an extra 128 cubic feet of bass-trapping to my studio as part of this monitor upgrade though. I could easily see the low end being too much for smaller rooms without lots of bass-trapping, probably less of an issue for larger studios and listening rooms of course.

I don’t want to start using a lot of nebulous, vague terms to describe how these speakers sound, so I’ll just keep it simple and say they help me work better plain and simple. It’s easier to hear issues in the mixes I’m sent for mastering. Great mixes sound amazing and I’m able to polish just a tiny bit as needed, while poor mixes and all their flaws stand out like a sore thumb allowing me to really zero in on the faults.

Definitely one of the best upgrades I’ve done for the studio, and at a really fair price given the results. Just be sure you have the patience to really burn them in before you start to judge how they sound, as this did make a huge difference I feel. Coming from a smaller near-field monitoring set up, it’s been a real pleasure getting to know a full-range speaker set up and seeing just how much of a difference it can make in my mastering. Looking forward to working on my Tyler Acoustic D2x’s for many years to come.

Happy to answer any questions that people might have as well, just drop me a message or post in the comments!

Loudness Wars Part 2

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I’ve been getting a lot of questions about my blog post on winning the loudness wars earlier this week, so I made some examples to put this in perspective. Don’t analyse or anything first, just play the first one and turn up your monitors until it sounds nice and loud like you’d normally listen to your music:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/Deviate01-1770.m4a

Now without touching the volume, play the second one:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/Deviate02-Limited.m4a

Both of these were peak normalized to read -20 LUFS (Loudness Units Full Scale), just like they would be in the ITU-R 1770 spec we’re talking about. The actual number doesn’t matter here, just the fact they they are both set to the same LUFS value, and thus should sound the same loudness.

At first listen, not too much different right? So big sigh of relief people, we’re not talking a huge change here. 🙂

However, when you listen a little closer, hopefully you can hear that the second file is a little less punchy, just as loud but not quite the same impact from the sounds. A tiny bit distorted too, a side-effect often times of the volume levels we must master to today.

So there’s definitely an audible difference, but it’s not huge. At least in this example, I’ve heard worse with examples like these.  Like I said, some people won’t care given that it’s not a huge difference. For those that do, likely it means you’re just going to be mixing and mastering the same as before, you just won’t use a peak limiter at the end. That’s it.

Same EQ and colorful compression if you want, but no need to slam it to make it loud, as you can hear it’ll be just as loud as one you do limit. So why bother? Aesthetic reasons perhaps, but it won’t be a knee jerk reaction that you apply to every song as a matter of course like it is now.

Hope that helps!

(Don’t forget to turn your monitors back down 🙂 )

We Won The Loudness War?

Fellow Seattle producer and Ableton Live Trainer Isaac Cotec asked me to write an article for his blog about the recent news that an end to the Loudness Wars as we know them might be coming soon.  I attempt to give a brief overview of why people are saying this, and how it affects your average producer now and going forward:

http://subaqueousmusic.com/production-articles/sound-design-tech/223-we-won-the-loudness-wars

Hope you enjoy, and expect to me return the favor and host a music production-based article by Isaac in the future!

Learning To Listen Again

Inner Portal Studio Upgrades 2014 #2.

Well, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I ordered some new monitors for the studio, Tyler Acoustic D2x’s.  Due to huge snow storms in the US, they took an extra week to get to me, but the wait was worth it.  Last Thursday, 4 big boxes arrived via UPS Freight, the 2 speakers and their stands.  

The freight truck couldn’t make it up my driveway, and the UPS driver was lazy in his own weird way, so we ended up pulling all 4 boxes at once up a long hill on a dolly.  It was sketchy, but soon they were safe inside.

Tyler D2 02

The next step was getting them up to the studio on the third floor, knowing that the large boxes were almost 160lbs each.  Oh, and I did it myself, with the injured shoulder, fun.  🙂  A bit of leverage and using my legs to push from below made it not too difficult, but still a bit intimidating as you don’t want to slip and have one of these come back at you!

Tyler D2 03

The only really difficult part was getting them on the 12 inch stands I had made for them (gets the tweeters at ear level), but by that point I was determined.  Luckily it all worked out, and after a couple hours playing with the positioning of the new D2x’s (as well as the Opals now), it was all working well.   This is obviously a pretty big upgrade for me, so it’s nice to see it all set up in the studio finally:

InnerPortalStudio

 Of course the $6000 question everyone keeps asking me, is how do they sound?

In a word, different.  I know, not very descriptive, but that’s the best way to describe it.  Right away I could tell they had real depth to their imaging, placement of instruments was incredibly precise.  But I knew before I bought these that they would need 200 hrs to break in, something the manufacturer reminded me of a few times in the process of ordering them.

Like most of the reviews of Tyler Acoustics speakers, at first they come across as a little underwhelming.  It’s a big sound, you feel like you’re really IN the music in a way I’ve never experience at this level of clarity.  But the lows were frankly weak, and the highs were frankly dull.  They sounded “good”, but not reference grade mastering monitor good.

Again, all this I expected, and having confirmed it with my own ears, I set about breaking them in.  They’ve been playing non-stop since I got them, so I’m at about 120 hours now.  I have the Hilo set up to switch between the Tyler’s and the Event’s with a button press, so it’s been easy for me to compare the way they sound (in a nice level-matched way) quite simply.  The Opals are a tiny bit closer together than they used to be, but otherwise they are what I know inside and out, having used them exclusively for the last few years.

Right away it was apparent the Beryllium tweeters on the Opals were a lot brighter than the D2’s, the highs were right in your face while the D2’s were much more muted.  It wasn’t bad, but definitely more smooth than I was used to.  Luckly I’m told it’s pretty easy to swap out a resistor on the tweeter crossover to make them a little more present sounding, so I always have that option later depending on how they break in.

The D2’s also have a more prounced low end, it’s not so much louder as just deeper and more physical feeling.   I had always used the way the Opals made my chest feel for deep bass as a guide for how much was too much, and with the D2’s this is much more a whole body affair. 🙂

Still, I know that I have to break them in fully before I draw any conclusions, so that’s what I’ve been doing.  Anytime I’m not listening to music on them and comparing with the Opals, I’m blasting pink noise at 96kHz through them to really get all the speakers working.  After 5 days of non-stop use, they already sound a LOT  better.  The subs are much more apparent, and the tweeters have brightened up a little too.  Still a big difference from the Opals, but I’m only halfway there.

It’s been interesting trying to assimilate this huge change in the way I’m going to be hearing things, while at the same time knowing I have work coming in too!  When you’re used to a playback system so well that you never have to second guess yourself, learning how to hear music all over again is both a fun challenge and a bit stressful too!

But, I’m not complaining 🙂

I’ll post some more of my thoughts on this change in a couple weeks once everything has been broken in and I have some more mastering done on them!

——————

I just wanted to remind people one more time about my video series on Optimizing Sound Quality In Ableton Live too.  Been getting a lot of good feedback on these 4 videos, and I can’t recommend the rest of the Warp Academy stuff enough.  If you’re a Live user, you probably won’t find better deal on Live training:

http://www.warpacademy.com/tutorial-series/210-optimizing-sound-quality-in-live-2/

Thanks everyone, until next time!

Optimizing Sound Quality In Ableton Live

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This is something I’ve had to keep under wraps for quite awhile now, and it’s something I’ve been pretty excited about.  A long time ago, in a galaxy…  well actually just a long time ago, I was contacted by DJ Vespers about a project he was working on.  His plan was to create a way of providing world-class Ableton training for rates that were more accessible for a wider range of producers.

While the plan was to release content only from Ableton-Certified Trainers, he asked if I would still be interested in doing a set of videos for the site.  I’ll admit, I was kind of hesitant.  I get a lot of people approaching me wanting to work on projects that sound too good to be true.  And I’m really trying to be 100% focused on my mastering business these days (big changes coming in a couple weeks!).

But the more we talked, the more I could see that he had a solid plan in place, and experience getting projects like this off the ground on the scale he was talking about. And with the core group of Certified Trainers he already had onboard (Jake Perrine, Isaac Cotec, Michael Maricle, amongst many others) I could see that this had real potential to be something important that I wanted to be a part of.

We talked over a few ideas, and in the end I decided that my first series of videos should be about something I’ve spent a great deal of time looking into, achieving the best sounding productions in Ableton Live.  Over and over I’ve seen even experienced producers miss some of these options, and then wonder why something in their song doesn’t sound right.

In the 4 videos I produced for Warp Academy, I quickly break down and explain all of the different places in Live where you might be inadvertantly hurting your audio quality without realizing it.  A detailed explanation of each of the videos is here:

http://www.warpacademy.com/tutorial-series/210-optimizing-sound-quality-in-live-2/

Warp Academy has a special $19/month membership fee going right now, and that gets you unlimited access to a LOT more content than just my videos.  Even if you don’t care about videos, I highly recommend you take a look at the site and see what’s on offer.  $19 to access all of that training (let’s be real, you could unsub after one month if you REALLY wanted) is a great value.  Hopefully some of you use this chance to really increase what you know about Ableton Live!

Expect to see a lot more about Warp Academy in the coming weeks, this is just a soft launch for friends and family 🙂  Ableton themselves are going to be promoting this heavily shortly, as there are now a LOT of Certified Trainers making content for the site.