NI Traktor Review Part 2

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Now that I’ve spent a bit more time with the Traktor S8 controller, I wanted to add to my earlier review with some other things I thought people would be interested in.

For starters, it seems that the meters are improved on the S8. Maybe it’s just me, but I always felt the meters on the S4 were way too fast and never really seemed in time with the music. On the S8, things are definitely more like a traditional DJ mixer.

One thing I do miss from the S4 though, is the loop recorder controls. While you can do a lot of the same functionality with capturing to remix decks, it does use a deck and lacks the simple and focused set of controls you might be used. I know a lot of people say they never used the loop recorder, but it was one of my favorite features.

Another useful shortcut that’s gone is the ability to preview your tracks in the Browser, you have to load them to a deck first to cue. Not a huge deal, but the older method of pushing encoder to cue, then load with a separate button press was brilliant I thought. I hope NI lets us choose to use the old functionality some how.

Speaking of the Browser, one other small annoyance is there’s no way to see if you’ve played a track or not via the S8’s display. This makes it impossible to see what you’ve played earlier in the night, a major disappointment. Hopefully we get a little more flexibility in what gets displayed on the S8 in deck mode, as there’s a lot of things I’d love to customize more. Being able to see minute marker in the waveform display for one, though at least we can see the time played and remaining for each song.

One thing that’s really nice though is being able to grid your tracks right from the controller’s displays. The method is more or less identical to how it works in Traktor on iOS devices, though you can also hear a metronome tick to help you if you want. There’s no way to add Start or Grid marker unless you revert to the computer, but overall the implementation is smart and really speeds up prepping new tracks. Good stuff.

Also I wanted to mention that I watched the free DJ Techtools S8 tutorial videos that came with my order from them. Overall I thought Ian did a really great job a covering the basics and more advanced techniques over the course of the 4 videos. The last video in particular shows you a lot of real world uses for the remix decks and freeze functionality via the S8.

Lots of really good ideas, though many times the streaming from the site reduced the video quality so bad I couldn’t see what was going on. I’m sure that’s partly related to my bandwidth at the time, but it would be nice to have downloads of the videos too. Pirating issues, I get it.

Overall I really am impressed with the S8 still. The remix decks have been easy to learn and make use of, and things are laid out in a way that makes a lot more sense to me. Also just the overall build quality improvements are nice. I never though the S4 was bad, but it definitely was a very plastic looking and feeling unit. The S8 finally feels like a pro-quality DJ tool, something you wouldn’t be hesitant to bring to a big gig. Should you want to deal with the size and weight anyway.

Hoping to finally record a mix with it in the next day or two, we’re in the middle of packing for a large move and finding the time to get in that headspace has been hard 🙂 Stay tuned.

NI Traktor S8 Review

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At long last Native Instruments has delivered an all-in-one controller aimed at digital DJs looking to break completely free from the old school turntable paradigm. But is the wait worth it? Let’s dive in…

First impression count, and the first look I got of the S8 certainly didn’t disappoint. It’s a large unit, probably 20-30% bigger and heavier than the S4 I’m used to, though not so heavy that you’d need to drag a friend with you to the club to help carry it (I don’t miss toting around turntable coffins at all!). While I never personally had any issues with the built quality of the S4, the S8 definitely feels and looks more robust.

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Happily, almost all of the shiny black plastic of the earlier models is covered by aluminum (the area around the displays is the only plastic showing), meaning no more unnecessary fingerprints to clean. For people with OCD like myself, this is MOST welcome! 🙂 The knobs and rotaries feel exactly the same as the earlier versions of the S series, which is fine with me as I think NI has always done a good job there.

The faders however are a noticeable improvement, the throw is much smoother and tighter feeling on the upfaders, and the crossfader actually feels like a proper crossfader now. I still think the fader caps are tiny bit cheap feeling, but it’s a minor point and easily remedied with some ChromaCaps if needed. One benefit of the larger footprint is that you have a lot more room between the controls it feels like, especially in the effects sections. Also, many of the knobs are now touch sensitive, so as soon as you put a finger on them the displays reflect what those controls are ummm…. controlling.

Ah, the displays, now we come to the meat of the new S8, what really sets it apart from earlier controllers. They seem to be identical to the ones on the Maschine Studio I reviewed earlier, which is to say bright and easy to read, even from a distance. Just like with Maschine, NI has done a brilliant job of showing you everything you need to see on those displays, rendering the laptop display completely redundant for everything except searching your library. I didn’t once find myself needing to look at my laptop to DJ with the S8, and that is the real game changer making the S8 feel like an instrument on it’s own in a way the S4 and S2 never did. I’m hooked, and I can’t imagine going back!

While the waveform colors follow the theme you select in Traktor preferences, the actual waveform looks more like the Traktor iOS app than the laptop display. That’s fine though, still super easy to grid your tracks or get the structure of a song at a glance.

Another benefit of the displays is that you can now see your remix decks in great detail, and your effects as well. Since there are now enough knobs on the controller to let you access all 4 effects units at once (finally!), you get a lot more options in how you can affect your tracks in real-time. One note however, the knobs under the displays are endless rotaries and lack the center detent of the top effect knobs. It makes sense as they can also control things like remix deck pitch and filtering too, but it can make setting your group effects back to the center “off” position a little finicky too.

Other improvements are the much more comprehensive IO options on the back, and a louder headphone output on the front. Something that was a common complaint on the S2 and S4, in loud clubs their headphone amps could feel a little underpowered. There’s even a standard 1/8” headphone jack for people using IEM’s or standard earbuds for DJing, a welcome touch as I use those myself occasionally and the 1/4” adaptors always seem to be hiding when I want to 🙂

With the jog wheels gone you’re obviously going to be relying more on Sync to get your tracks lined up, though I’m guessing if you bought an S8 you would be doing this already. The new Touchstrips work great for letting you skip through a track, or push and pull a track a bit to fine tune sync issues. Even if you don’t use the Sync button, it’s still easy to beatmatch tracks manually by adjusting the global Tempo knob and the Touchstrips. It didn’t take me but a couple minutes to get used to doing this, though I doubt I’ll really have much need to anyway.

I’m very happy that the S8 now has a global Tempo knob too. As someone who tends to start out my sets with downtempo and progress to more upbeat songs, this is a much better way of controlling tempo over the course of a set. Much more intuitive than constantly needing to hold shift to “re-zero” the pitch faders on the S4.

The 8 large pads on each side of the S8 give you access to your cue points, user-definable loop and beat jump divisions, Freeze functionality, and your Remix Decks. They feel nice and solid, maybe not as playable as those on Maschine, but very close. Cues and Loop settings are more or less identical in function to the S4, though the new Freeze functionality is an excellent new addition.

If you’ve used the iOS version of Traktor, Freeze will make sense right away, if you haven’t you’re in for a really fun way to remix your tracks on the fly. Combined with the very welcome Flux button right next to them, it’s simple to create your own unique fills and transitions, and have the music kick back in on time and as expected.

The amount of audio you can freeze at any time is determined by the current loop length of each deck, and this is set using the all new loop knob. I find with the new displays, having only one knob for looping works great, you can really see exactly what you’re looping right on the unit with a glance. Though I admit, I did find the rotating LEDs around each knob when the loop is active to be a tiny bit bright and distracting.

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So, what about downsides of the new S8? There are a few things I should probably point out, the biggest one for me currently is that you can’t modify the default mapping of the controller. At all. You either use the default template, or you have to manually map everything with the controller in MIDI mode, which means no HID controls and the displays are blank.

This is a really a shame for me personally, as I’ve been in love with the Xone 4-band EQ ever since I got my Xone62 years and years ago. On the S4, I would just repurpose the Filter knobs to be lowest EQ band, allowing me to access all 4 bands of the EQ as intended. On the S8 you can still select the Xone EQ, but the low-mid band can’t be controlled by the hardware, which makes it pointless. I really hope NI opens this up a little in the future, and judging by the number of complaints I’ve read about this, I’m not alone.

I also found the crossfader curve control a little difficult to adjust, I wish it was one of those knobs that pops out when you pressed it in to make this a bit easier. I did have one small issue with the left display getting stuck showing me a remix deck, nothing I did would get it to revert back to my other deck display. Power-cycling the controller fixed it and I couldn’t replicate, but for the sake of fairness I thought I would mention it.  Finally, with the Browse knobs set to open the browser when you just touch them, I found I kept opening the browser on the displays when I was reaching for an effect knob.  Easy enough to turn this functionality off though.

All in all I really don’t have that much I’d change about the S8 though, I think NI really hit the nail on the head when they designed it. Within a couple minutes I was easily navigating around remix decks, capturing loops on the fly, all sorts of things I never touched on S4 as it just didn’t feel intuitive. It finally feels like there’s a really solid balance between normal two-track DJing, and a more complicated remix deck approach. Not just in terms of functionality, but how easy it is to access all that functionality too.

I think the S8 is a very welcome and well thought-out top of the range controller. Overall it feels much better than previous S models, everything is easier to access, and most importantly the new displays really make it feel like a self-contained standalone instrument (like the Maschine Studio). Once you realize you can focus all of your attention just on the controller in front of you, putting the laptop completely out of sight, suddenly DJing with a laptop feels a LOT more like DJing back in the day did. Focused, fun, and fast to achieve any ideas you might get in the heat of the moment.

It’s probably a bit too big and heavy for DJs that frequently travel, but for occasional gigs and certainly just mixing at home, it’s hands down the best controller I’ve used. I was a little hesitant about the price initially, but after using it even briefly, I think it’s well worth it if you’re someone who never really uses jog wheels or wants better Remix Deck control.

I was forced to admit that NI did a great job on the Maschine Studio, pretty much ticking off all the boxes that took it from good to excellent. With the Traktor S8 it’s clear they are on roll lately, and listening to their users too. Well done Native Instruments, well done.

If you have any questions, please put them in the comments and I’ll answer them asap.  Thanks!

Tarekith

My Top Ten iOS Apps

Since one of the more frequent questions I get asked is for iOS music app recommendations, I figured it was time to list my favorites as of Summer 2014. I’m not saying that these are the “best” iOS apps out there, just that these are the ones I find myself reach for again and again. With that, and in no particular order, here we go!

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1. Auria.

Easily my most used iOS app, Auria is not cheap for an iOS app but is an absolute steal given how powerful it is. Intuitive and fluid audio editing and mixing, the included plug-ins sound great, and there’s great export options if you want to finalize your mix on the desktop. But considering you can also use all of the Fabfilter plug-ins ported to iOS in Auria (available via IAP), you may not even want to use the desktop again. If you work mainly with audio and not MIDI, this is the iOS DAW you want.

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2. Audiobus.

I’ll admit I rarely use Audiobus these days, preferring instead to access my effects and synths in Auria via Inter-App Audio (IAA). But Audiobus was the app that made me realize the potential of iOS music making, allowing you to finally route and record your apps and effects among each other. A game-changer, everyone should own this just in case.

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3. DM1.

Probably one of my favorite drum apps currently, DM1 comes stock with some great samples of all the classic drum machines, as well as some acoustic kits and even some more unique percussion instruments. Simple to use, a fun randomize function, and great iCloud support. One of the more versatile electronic drum machines out there.

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4. Alchemy Mobile.

While it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as the desktop version, Alchemy Mobile is still one of the synths I reach for more than any other on the iPad. Great sounds, just enough tweakability to personalize the presets for your songs, and a very handy 4 track recorder. One of the best balances between power and ease of use on the iOS platform I feel. The additional preset packs aren’t cheap, but all of the ones I’ve purchased have been well worth it if you want more sounds.

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5. Figure.

My go to when I have the iPhone with me and not the iPad. I like simpler apps on the smaller screen, though Figure has a lot more power and versatility than it first appears. Lots of possibilities for tweaking the (few) included presets, and if you’re a Reason owner you can import your songs into that app on the desktop later. Great sounding, easy to use, and perfectly adapted to the touchscreen.

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6. Nave.

Waldorf’s first foray into iOS is a powerhouse, and considering it takes up almost 300+MB of your RAM on the iPad, you’re going to know it if you have a lot of apps open at once 🙂 I found the interface a little confusing at first, but once I got to grips with it I realized just how capable this synth is. If it was a little easier on the CPU and RAM this would probably be one of the only synths I need. Still, in terms of matching what’s available on the desktop, Nave is definitely one to try.

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7. Gadget.

Korg made a huge splash with this app when it was released, and for good reason! The synths sound and look amazing, the sequencer is extremely well done and easy to use for simple grooves or full songs, and there’s promised updates on the way shortly. If you only own one app on your iPad, this is the one I would recommend. Even if it only works in portrait mode, which is very annoying.

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8. iElectribe.

The Korg ER-1 was one of my first drum machines, and this app only improves on that concept. All the sound and interface of the original drum machine, with greater export and copy/paste functionality. You can even re-skin it if that’s your thing. Fun to use when you need some artificial sounding electronic drum, it’s in second place for iOS percussion right behind DM1 for me.

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9. Traktor DJ.

There’s quite a few DJ apps out there on the iOS platform these days, but Traktor is the one I use more than any other. Decent effects and layout, ongoing support and updates from NI, and support of all the new NI DJ Hardware as well. Unless you’re dead set on trying to mimic operating a real turntable on your iPad/iPhone, Traktor should be the first DJ app you try.

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10. Sunrizer.

One of the first iOS synths I ever bought, it’s still one of my favorites. I love the way it looks on the iPad, and the sound quality and features still rival newer competitor synth apps today. Based loosely on the Roland JP series of synths, but it’s capable of much more than you’d expect. Fun randomizer, a comprehensive arp/sequencer, and well thought MIDI functionality make this a no-brainer for me to recommend.

Well, that’s the short and quick version, though as always I’m happy to answer any questions people might have about any of these. And of course, I’d love to hear what else other people are using too. Feel free to drop any questions or comments in the comments, thanks!

Strymon Timeline Review

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Finally got a chance to do my video review of the Strymon Timeline, which you can view here:

As always, let me know if you have any questions, happy to help if I can!

Welcome To The New Blog!

Woo hoo, welcome to the new blog location.  Sorry if you got multiple notifications for this blog post the last day or so, still working out a couple last minute bugs with notifications.  Ummm, that’s all I have, but more soon!

(Strymon Timeline review…..)

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Teenage Engineering OP-1 Review

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Well, it took me a few weeks in order to find the time to do a proper video, but my review of the Teenage Engineering OP-1 is now up on YouTube:

http://youtu.be/Boo-J8jeZjI

I wasn’t able to cover everything, so there’s still a lot the OP-1 can do that I didn’t go over.  Things like tempo and tape tricks, the MIDI controller mode, etc.  If anyone has any questions, just ask in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer them!

Otherwise, I hope you enjoy!

Tarekith

Maschine Studio Review

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In some ways it feels like ages since I last gave NI’s Maschine MKI a try, but it’s been something I’ve been watching mature ever since. I loved the sounds, and the hardware integration felt pretty complete, if a bit long-winded in some cases. At the time though (pre-Maschine v1.5?), there were still too many things you needed to revert to the computer to do. And if I’m honest the basic mono-chromatic displays were a tad on the generic side. It didn’t exactly ooze character and I found it would take me awhile to locate where I was in various menus sometimes.

All-in-all I was impressed, but it wasn’t quite the hardware groovebox replacement I had hoped it would be. After a brief affair, I sold it and set about mastering the Octatrack instead. Well, now the Octatrack has come and gone, and I’m once again interested in Maschine, specifically the new Studio version with it’s fancy displays. With the recent NI price drop during May, along with Guitar Center holiday deals on top, it was a no brainer that now was the time to give it another go.

I won’t go into every function of Maschine in great detail, there’s a ton of reviews out there with that info already. What I want to look at is does it function as a true groovebox now, and how does it compare to something like Push? (a question I see all the time lately)

The hardware itself is the same solid controller body NI has been using for awhile now on things like Maschine MKI and the Traktor controllers. Largely plastic, but with some heft to it that makes it feel a bit more sturdy. Only the lower portion of the faceplate has an aluminum skin, the upper portion is the same fingerprint-attracting gloss plastic that the S4 uses. Grr. Hopefully NI makes some skins for the Studio series, I rather liked the old gun-metal blue one for the first generation.

The pads and buttons all feel nice and responsive, and the knobs are solid and feel like they’ll stand up to a lot of tweaking. The new jog wheel is a little less solid-feeling, but it works well for scrolling in any list, and for moving and editing your recorded notes after the fact. The outer ring lights up to let you know when you’re in a menu or edit function that the jog wheel will be active for, and luckily it’s not too bright even in a dark studio. Ditto the pads and buttons, they looked really bright in some videos I saw online, but in use they’re nicely dim enough to not be annoying. The displays can be independently brightened as well.

One awesome new feature is the fold out legs under the Studio, I was curious about how sturdy it would turn out to be. In use they’re great, very solid feeling and it puts the Studio right at a perfect angle IMO. I use Blue Lounge’s Cool Feet to tilt all my tabletop gear, so having this built in and working so well is a huge plus for me.

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On to the main key feature of the Studio though, those new displays. When I first powered it on, I was a bit shocked that my first reaction was “wow, they’re not retina clarity”. Not that I expected them to be, nor should they be necessarily, just that it’s been awhile since I’ve seen LCDs that weren’t, doh! 🙂 All kidding aside, they new display looks great and NI has done a fantastic job using them to help you navigate and edit your projects as efficiently as possible.

Notice I said “edit”. One of things that sticks out to me the most about the new Studio controller, is that it makes using Maschine feel like you’re working at a dedicated editing station. NI have done such a good job of giving you easy and direct access to all the controls you need to edit your performances after the fact, that it feels like that’s the focus more to me than typical grooveboxes.

This is actually not a bad thing. Usually it’s all about performing and recording your material, and while Maschine works the same as always here, it’s the improvements to post-editing that give new life to things. Fixing mistakes and cropping together performances to create something larger in scope is so easy from just the hardware, that instead of finally achieving groovebox status, the Maschine Studio takes it to a new level.

This is further improved on by the fact NI have removed most of the restrictions of the software in terms of the number of effects you could use. Want 14 compressors? No problem! Need a fancy delay followed by a pristine plate reverb? Simple! It really is simple too, the displays on the Studio work great with the browser. Everything is color-coded tastefully and includes graphics, and with their preset tagging in place as always, finding what you need in the huge stock library is really easy. I’ll go one further even, it’s the best I’ve ever used when making music.

Back to no plug-in restrictions. One of the great things about this, is that it gives you DAW flexibility with a groovebox interface and workflow. Most grooveboxes have boring effects in the first place, or maybe you’re limited to only one or two per sound. With Maschine, you can layer endless effects per Sound, per Group, and on the Master. And then assign whatever controls you want to macros at the same Sound, Group (kit), Master levels.

Again, it takes the idea of a groovebox to a new level, especially given the quality of effects you have access to.

I was really interested in the new drum synths as well, and I’m happy to report they are every bit as awesome as I’d hoped. Nicely tweak-able from only a few key parameters, with everything created to function in a very useable range. You get a lot of useable range out of each drum model, and not a lot of dead spots where some parameters just sound bad there no matter the sound you’re trying to create. I do wish there were a few more percussion and cymbal models though.

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Since I’ve been doing a lot of work with my acoustic guitar lately, I wondered how difficult it would be to record any performances via the Maschine hardware and to edit them to use in my patterns. Happily, I didn’t even need to look in the manual to figure it out, it’s one of the simplest recording, looping, and slicing interfaces I’ve used. Dead simple to capture a recording, trim it, slice it, adjust your slices, and assign them to the pads. All without needing to use the laptop, I was impressed.

In fact, it’s pretty obvious by now for most of you that I like it overall I’m sure. 🙂

They’ve made a lot of improvements to the things that used to normally bog you down when working on a groovebox. Browsing your sounds, carefully managing how you used effects, rearranging your recorded performances, etc. Where as Maschine MKI felt a little bit short of my expectations, Maschine Studio exceeded them a lot more than I expected. Other than naming a new project and changing the colors of the groups (another very useful feature I use constantly), I’ve been able to create super solid song ideas from just the hardware. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could do a pretty cool live set from just the controller too 🙂

It’s still not perfect though.

There’s been probably a dozen times the software and controller integration has gone a little haywire and I had to restart the controller. Or a button press doesn’t do what it’s suppose to. There’s still the odd error message that you have to address on the software and not from the controller, which is annoying. If you can display a message on the controller telling me to check the software, why can’t you just tell me on the controller with a yes no button instead?

And of course, you do still need a computer and soundcard to use it. It does such a good job at working like a groovebox, a couple times I have literally been carrying it to another room to work in new surroundings before I remembers it wasn’t a standalone product. Sigh. A small case, a Mac mini, and a way to temporarily use an iPad as a display could almost make it standalone I guess. 🙂

Minor gripes aside, it’s probably one of the best grooveboxes I’ve ever used. There’s still a little bit of generic feel to the hardware that puts me off at times. But once I sit down and get sucked into the displays, it’s amazing what I can record and edit without touching the computer at all, and I always come away impressed. I can’t imagine using Maschine without the Studio controller myself, but it will be up to you and how much you use Maschine to make that call if you own any of the older hardware.

How does it compare to Push? Well, it’s almost not really a comparison, since they are almost devices with totally different uses. I find that Push is really good at coming up with some interesting and unique sounding song ideas. The step sequencers are more comprehensive since you have more pads, and the whole thing just feels like a musical instrument more than a general purpose controller.

The downside of Push is that there’s very little after the fact editing other than the simple step sequencer. And frankly, the browser in Ableton is weak compare to the way NI does it. Both in terms of content and organization, Maschine is far better here, especially on the Studio controller. Maschine is also much better at post-editing, which I’ve mentioned numerous times so far.

Overall I think of Push as being for someone looking more for a new instrument, a way of playing their own sounds and maybe sketching out some quick ideas to expand on back at the computer later. Creating melodies and even step drum programming is just easier on Push since you have so many more pads to use, and the scales function is really fun too.

Push is also easier to get up to speed on, a lot simpler to figure out since it does a lot less. If you’ve used Live, Push will make sense right away. Maschine doesn’t work like a DAW even though it looks like one, so understanding the structure of a project and navigating it can take awhile.

Maschine is more for someone wanting to have a dedicated and focused way of creating more polished and complete song ideas in the studio. Either for loops or just basic arrangements, Maschine just works better for shaping things once you’ve recorded them. Provided you don’t mind recording everything with a generic 4×4 grid of pads (or with an external midi controller I suppose, though that takes away from the groovebox factor some).

As a complete all in one solution, I think Maschine Studio is probably the stronger package of the two. But if you’re already a Live user, there’s no denying how useful it is keeping it all “in the family” so to speak 🙂 And there’s all those performance options Live offers if you want to take things to the stage later on.

I’ll still use Push for playing around in Live, especially with melodic content, but I think for now the library of sounds that NI is shipping with Maschine is a little more up my alley so that’s where I’m going to be focusing my attentions for the new future.

As always happy to answer any questions if people have them, just them in the comments.

Peace and beats,
Tarekith

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?

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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

Pedal Power

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Whew, it feels like it’s been forever, but I’m finally done with Physical Therapy from my shoulder surgery.  I also had the cast removed from my broken hand earlier this week, talk about relief!  Feels good being able to hold a guitar properly or play a keyboard, not to mention just being able to type like a normal person again 🙂

All of which means…. I can now get back into writing regularly for the blog, woo hoo!

I figured now would be a good time to go over the guitar pedal board I’ve been assembling over the last few months while I was healing, as well as offer some quick reviews on the pedals I ended up using.  While I’ve long been a fan of modeling devices like the Line6 Pod series, I’ve always wanted to put together a really nice custom pedal board too.  Since I’ve mainly been using my Taylor acoustic guitar these days, the pedals I ended up going with were bought largely to use with that guitar.  But, guitars are guitars, so I know they’ll work well with my Parker electric too if I need to.

TeraEcho

This whole idea started when I got the Boss Tera Echo pedal last year.  I was really happy with my HD500 at the time, so I’m not sure what prompted me to buy it other than it sounded like a unique delay pedal (and I love delays!).  I ended up liking the simplified editing and small form factor so much, that I started giving serious thought to taking a break from modelers and focus on individual pedals instead.

Here’s a (sorta) quick break down of what I ended up getting and why:

1. Pedaltrain Jr.

When looking at all the options out there for a board to place the pedals on, I kept reading a lot of good reviews about the Pedaltrain brand of pedal boards.  I knew I didn’t need a huge amount of pedals to place on it, so the smaller Jr. version worked the best for my needs.  The board itself is a nice light-weight aluminum that has just the right amount of angle to it, along with plenty of ways to hide all the cables for the pedals to keep them out of the way.

It comes with a nice gig bag, and more than enough velcro to attach many pedals to the board and move things around while you find the best layout.  I have to admit, I still find it weird attaching expensive electronics to something using sticky tape with velcro on one side, but so far it seems to be working well 🙂  There’s also two brackets included if you want to mount a power supply (PSU) for the pedals underneath, though you’ll need to drill your own holes into the frame depending on the PSU you pick.  Easy enough.

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 2. Decibel Eleven Hotstone SM Power Supply.

I knew I wanted a dedicated PSU for the board, something with isolated outlets for each pedal.  There’s not a ton of options out there for this, and most of the more popular ones are pretty expensive too.  I almost went with one of the Voodoo Labs PSU’s since they get such great reviews, but then I found the Hotstone SM for half the price.  It has just the right combination of power outlets for my needs too, since the digital pedals I use can draw a lot of power.

I had to hack together a way to get it to fit with the brackets the Pedaltrain came with, but once done it’s a nice snug fit underneath.  Nothing too exciting to add about the Hotstone, it powers my pedals just like it’s supposed to 🙂

3. George L’s Cable Kit.

Cabling up all the pedals turned out to be one of the more frustrating aspects of this endeavor, something I didn’t expect.  I tried a lot of the shorter cables intended for guitar pedal boards, including some from Mogami and other higher-end brands.  But I kept having issues with the cables being too short or too stiff for my needs, it looked sloppy too.

Right when I was about to hunker down and solder my own, I came across the George L pedal cable kit.  You get 10 right angle connectors, and 10 feet of cable you can cut to exactly the lengths you need.  The cable is super flexible for easy routing, and best of all you don’t need to solder the connectors.  It’s an ingenious system and it worked perfectly for my needs, I can’t recommend it enough.

Let’s move on the the pedals, in order of the signal flow coming from my guitar:

EPBooster

4. Xotic EP Booster.

The downside of pre-amp in my Taylor acoustic, is that the output signal is quite low, too low to feed normal guitar pedals.  I tried a few pedal pre-amps, but most had a lot of functions I didn’t need or altered the tone of the guitar too much for me.  Eventually I found the EP booster, which provides a simple gain boost with a tiny bit of color.  Combined with a mic to line transformer prior to it in the signal path, I can easily boost the acoustic guitar signal to useable levels.  Sounds great too!

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5. Boss Multi Overtone.

After being so pleased with the way my Tera Echo sounded, I wanted to try out another pedal from Boss’s new line of pedals.  The Multi Overtone (MO-2) has three settings altering the pitch of the overtones, from bright and shiny, to an added 5th, and then an octave lower.  But it’s more than just a pitch-shifter or harmony pedal, it responds dynamically to how you play, and alters parts of the frequency spectrum differently.  It’s a very unique effect, definitely digital sounding, though the Tone knob takes the edge off things some to give it a bit more warmth.

I find that having too wet of a signal from the MO-2 just sounds too weird, even for me.  Used subtly though, it really thickens up and sculpts the sound in a pleasing way.  At first I wasn’t sure if I was going to keep this one, but the more I use it the more I keep finding  some great and unique sounding tones.

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6. Boss Tera Echo.

I’ve already covered the Tera Echo in a review, so I won’t go into it again.  Still an effect I enjoy using for that cascading waterfall of delays sound.  Like the MO-2, best when used in moderation or it can be too much.

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7. TC Electronic Flashback X4.

Did I mention I like delays?  🙂  I knew I wanted a pretty well-featured delay pedal given how much I’d use the device.  I briefly considered something from Strymon or Eventide, but both were pretty expensive and seemed to require a lot of menu diving to program.  In the end I settled on the Flashback x4 since it has quite a few options without needing to deal with any menus.

The best part is that TC Electronic has the Toneprint function if you DO want to dive in deep and program your own patches.  With the iPad or computer software they supply for free, you can edit all of the underlying parameters for each of the 11 delay algorithms accessed on the front panel. Each algorithm has different parameters too, so there’s a ton of depth here if you want it.

The neat trick is that you can save the patch to pedal via USB, or by holding your iOS device speakers near the guitar pickups and hitting send in the app.  This causes a loud noise burst similar to a fax machine to play from the speakers, which the pickups on the guitar hear and transmit to the pedal via your regular patch cable.  It’s dead simple, takes a couple seconds, and feels like magic in use 🙂

I don’t plan on editing my own patches too much right now, trying to avoid doing sound design when I want to play.  Nice to have that option though, and you can store up to 4 Tone Prints on the X4 at a time (well 7 if you save three to the footswitch presets).

The Flashback also has a looper built in, great for doing cool ambient droney things.  All in all a great pedal, my only complaint is that I wish there was at least a Tone knob to alter the sound of the delays.  Other than delay time, feedback, and note division, there’s no control over the sound of the delays from the front panel.  They sound great though, so it’s not a huge deal.

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8. TC Electronic Hall Of Fame.

I was so impressed with the Flashback x4, that I knew I wanted to go with TC again for my reverb pedal.  It only has one Tone Print slot, but that’s fine for me.  The rest of the reverbs are lush, smooth, and sound different enough from each other than you get a lot of variety in one pedal.  It kind of freaked me out the first time I used this pedal, the sound is incredible and feels so weird coming from such a tiny box on the floor.

The Tone and Decay knobs do more than just simple EQ and Time tweaks, they can control multiple parameters at once over defined ranges (via the Tone Print Editor).  You get a lot of control and tweakability from just a few controls, it’s a brilliant way of doing things and reminds me in some ways of my Ableton Live DJ Racks!


Well, that’s the run through on the new pedal set up.  I still have room for one more, likely a modulation-based pedal, but for now I’m going to wait awhile before I buy more pedals! 🙂  Really happy with the range of sounds I can get out of this set up though.  Combined with the looper on the Flashback, I think it would be a really fun thing to use in my live sets.

But first I need to find a new drum machine….

 

… Stay tuned!

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.

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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.

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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!