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.
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?
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.
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. 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂 ).
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.
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….
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.
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,