As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Igor Vasiliev has had a major update to his excellent Audio Mastering app in preparation. As of today, Audio Mastering v.2.0 is available for download on the iTunes App Store. If you already own the app then the update is free, while for new users the asking price is UK£8.99; considering the features and how well the app performs, this is a pretty modest outlay.
I reviewed the first release of Audio Mastering back in May 2013 and, while there are plenty of new features in v.2.0, if you want to read about the basic operation of the app, then that would be well worth a look as a refresher. In essence – and as the name suggests – Audio Mastering brings all the key processing options usually associated with the final ‘mastering’ stage of audio production into a single, iOS-sized bit of software.
Mastering is both an art and a science and, in the days of album consumption (OK, I know some of us still buy, and listen to, whole albums, but lots of consumers now just pick the one or two tracks they like best to purchase via download), mastering was the final processing stage where a very experienced producer/engineer/mixer would listen to all the tracks in the project and ‘fine tune’ their EQ, stereo imaging, dynamics and their loudness to make them sit more comfortably as a coherent sequence of tracks. In more recent years, mastering has often been associated with simply making a mix as loud as it can possibly be so that it can compete on radio (or other playback mediums) and stands out to the listener. Unfortunately, used without due care and attention, this can also bring some fairly horrible audio artefacts and destroy the natural dynamics of a mix – hence the desirability of that ‘golden eared’ mastering engineer.
Of course, we can’t all afford that luxury and many musicians now turn to DIY mastering. There are some excellent software packages for this task available in the desktop world (iZotope’s Ozone is perhaps one of the better known examples). And, for those of us working with iOS, the best current solution as a stand-alone app is Audio Mastering.
Audio Mastering made my personal ‘Top 10 iOS music apps of 2013′ list recently and I’m not the only fan in the iOS music app blogosphere as SmiteMatter identified it as his top app of 2013. When I originally reviewed the app on the blog, I was very impressed with the interface and, in particular, the balance struck between features and ease of use. In terms of the sheer number of features, it would be unfair to compare an iOS app costing UK£8.99 with a piece of desktop software costing over UK£200 (which is pretty much what the entry-level version of Ozone costs). However, Audio Mastering scores because (a) it covers the key processes involved (maybe with one exception, but I’ll come back to that in a minute), (b) it presents those processes in a compact, easy to use format and (c) used sensibly (a caveat that applies to any mastering software), it sounds darn good.
So what does v.2.0 add to the mix (doh! – sorry!)?
There is quite a list of new features and improvements. Under the hood, the app features fully updated 32-bit audio processing; whatever that actual bit depth of your audio file, the calculations themselves involved in the internal processing will not have a detrimental effect on that audio.
Perhaps the most obvious change, however, is that Audio Mastering v.2.0 now offers two modes of operation; standard and advanced. Standard mode is pretty much as before so, if you like the compact workflow the app previously offered, that is still available. If you go to the Application section of the Setting page, you can toggle to Advanced mode. Then, the original Controls page gets split into two and two new tabs replace this along the top of the interface; Equalizer and Imaging.
The Equalizer section actually features two sets of controls. On the left are the new L and R Input Reduction faders (useful if the signal coming in from another app is a bit on the hot side). However, the bulk of the display is given over to the new, 5-band, parametric EQ section. Tapping on any of the five EQ control points within the central portion of the display brings the controls for that EQ band into the right-most section (you can also tap on one of the five Bands buttons in this section to make a selection if you wish). Here, you get Freq, Q (bandwidth) and Gain faders plus the ability to mute or solo the individual band should you wish.
The level of control is very good and you can create some quite complex EQ curves should that be what’s required (although mastering is generally best done in a subtle fashion; if the EQ of your mix is that bad, then go back and re-mix it). That said, the ability to set a higher Q value (and thus apply the EQ to a narrower range of frequencies) wouldn’t go amiss. Maybe that’s something for a future update?
The other excellent feature of this page is the real-time spectrum display. This operates in four modes selectable via the four buttons at the top of the EQ display; Off, In, EQ and Out. Off requires no explanation, but the other three modes allow you to see the spectrum display at different stages of the processing. It can be very useful to get a visual cue as to what the processing is doing you your audio to support what your ears are telling you so, being able to contrast the input signal, the signal just with EQ processing and the output signal EQ, is a useful feature.
Under the Imaging page we get the Harmonic Saturator, Stereo Imaging and Maximizer sections. There are a number of refinements here. For example, there are now switchable crossover settings for frequency in the Stereo Imaging section. The Maximiser has also been enhanced with additional options.
Best of the rest
Amongst some other enhancements are improvements to the preset system and the option of a couple of additional ‘skins’ for the app if the blue/green interface isn’t to your taste. However, perhaps the most obvious other highlight is support for Inter App Audio (IAA). Audio Mastering works well within either the Effects or Output slots of Audiobus but IAA support is welcome as this opens up some useful possibilities.
I testing the IAA support via Cubasis and the obvious thing to try was placing Audio Mastering as an insert effect on the Cubasis master stereo output track. Essentially, this allows you to process your complete mix through Audio Mastering on its way out of Cubasis. This seemed to work pretty well. Audio Mastering includes a ‘return to host’ button when used with IAA so it is easy to flip back and forth to your iAA host. The only issue I experienced in this process was that the input level coming into Audio Mastering seemed pretty high. I had to experiment a little with the Cubasis output level and the Audio Mastering input level faders but, once done, I was then able to get a more suitable input signal into the app and apply some Maximizer magic to get the final level where I wanted it.
The missing link?
As I mentioned earlier, given that this is an iOS app costing UK£8.99, Audio Mastering is very well featured and covers all the key processes commonly associated with mastering – but perhaps with one obvious exception; multi-band compression. A multi-band compressor allows you to compress different frequency ranges of your audio separately. A common example might be to have a three band option, allowing you to set different compression settings for low, mid and high frequency bands.
This is useful as it means that, unlike in a single band compressor, any gain reduction done by the compressor because of a (for example) massive kick drum hit, doesn’t cause the levels of the mid and high frequency bands to also be compressed. The downsides of multi-band compression are that they (a) use more processing power and (b) are more tricky to setup (or, more precisely, more difficult to set up without the end result making your audio sound worse rather than better) but, used carefully and with a little experience, it can be a very powerful tool for getting the best out of your final mix.
And why am I telling you all this? Well, at present, Audio Mastering doesn’t do multi-band compression. However, Igor tells me that it is already in development and that he expects to submit a further update to Apple within a few weeks. It would be great to see this feature added, making an already excellent app even better. As soon as it becomes available then I’ll post an update on the blog.
Audio Mastering was already a ‘must have’ app for any iOS musician with an interest in recording their own music. It may not be as glamorous as a new synth or guitar amp sim app, but it is a key audio utility to have in your app tool kit once your mix is finished (well, finished bar the mastering). In terms of the sonics, I’ve only had a limited amount of time to experiment with the new release so far. Version 1 was excellent in that regard and, to my ears at least, v.2.0 doesn’t disappoint.
If you already own the app, then grab the upgrade and enjoy; if you don’t, then Audio Mastering v.2.0 is most certainly well worth a download.for readers in North America for readers in Europe