If you have been a regular visitor to the Music App Blog for a while, you might recall that I’ve reviewed both the MasterRecord and Audio Mastering apps from Igor Vasiliev (iMusicAlbum). I was impressed by both of these apps and for a touch of analog warmth or to add some final ‘mastering’ punch and sparkle to your stereo mix, both apps have plenty to offer the iOS musician who uses their iPad for multi-track recording duties.
Igor is now back with a third iOS effect app to tempt you with; Master FX. This new app essentially provides a flexible multi-effects unit in a single app and can be used for real-time processing of either a single stereo signal or two separate signals (on the left and right channels). So, should keen iOS musicians be adding Master FX to their app collections?
In days of old (alright, even today if you go into modern studios that include a hardware element alongside the ubiquitous computer-hub that sits at the heart of most recording systems), effects processors used to come in a hardware format – a dedicated rack mounted device in an fairly anonymous black box and with a few knobs stuck on the front – and with a suitably hefty price tag (well, if you wanted effects of any real quality that is). For most of us who have transitioned away from the world of hardware into the world of software, effects are now more likely to be ‘plugins’ running within your desktop computer based DAW. And while the processing might well be the same in both dedicated hardware and software (both are running code), the software version offers the advantage of convenience and (usually) cost.
As music production under iOS has grown rapidly in both popularity and capability over the last year or so, we have begun to see the same sorts of effects software appearing in an app format. Most iOS DAWs come with effects built in (although the quality can vary tremendously as can the load these effects place on your iPad’s processing resources) but, in addition, there are now some very credible stand-alone effects apps. Examples such as AudioReverb, AUFX:Space, AUFX:Dub or VocaLive (essentially a multi-effects app aimed at vocalists) all offer remarkable quality given their very modest costs.
As mentioned above, Igor Vasiliev already has a track record in this area. With Audio Mastering he provided the first dedicated iOS app for (surprise, surprise) mastering your audio tracks (that is, taking your finished mix and giving it that final push by adding EQ, harmonic saturation, stereo enhancement and then maximising). In contrast, MasterRecord allows you to add some analog warmth to your tracks aiming to simulate the audio characteristics of various analog devices – reel-to-reel tape, cassette tape, analog mixing desks and vacuum tubes – and add these characteristics to your digital audio recordings.
Both of these apps are excellent and, considering their cost (they sell for UK£7.99 and UK£6.99), they produce excellent results. Indeed, if you are serious about using an iPad for multi-track recording, I’d probably put Audio Mastering as a ‘must have’ app to sit alongside my DAW and for processing all my finished mixes with.
Master the basics
So, with Audio Mastering and MasterRecord under his belt, Igor has a lot to live up to with Master FX. The new app is priced at UK£7.99 and is perhaps a tool with a broader range of applications than its two predecessors; Master FX essentially provides a multi-effects processor combining more generic effects options such as EQ, chorus, flanger, pitch modulation, delay, reverb, compressor and limiter. While these sorts of effects can be found in most iOS DAWs already, Master FX does bring a number of features that provide a unique slant to their use. And, of course, there is also the quality of the processing to consider.
However, before we get into those details, let’s consider the rest of the basics. The built-in effects modules include a 3-Band parametric equalizer, chorus, flanger, pitch modulator, delay, reverb, compressor and finally a limiter on the main output. Up to six effects can be used at once but the user has full control over the selection of modules and the order in which the processing is done. It is also possible to have more than one instance of a module within the signal chain.
Another interesting aspect of the app is that it can process two different signal chains at the same time. So, for example, it you had an audio interface that provided two inputs (left and right of a stereo pair), then you can process the left and right channels separately. Indeed, the app includes a number of preset configurations (accessed via the Settings page) that allow you to apply the six possible modules in a number of different ways. This does make the effects processing very flexible and, while this might well be useful in a studio/recording context, it is also likely to appeal to those playing live, allowing you to have independent effects processing of, for example, a guitar and a vocal, from a single iPad.
Another element of the app that make be appealing for live performance is the preset system. As well as presets for each effect module (and which holds parameter values for just that module), Master FX includes a global preset system. This holds values for all modules that are set and their configuration (that is, a single chain of six modules, two parallel chains of three modules processing left/right signals separately, etc.). These global presets can be assigned to any of 12 large ‘live’ selection pads (organised into banks A and B, each with six pads and accessed via the Live tab). This system is nicely implemented and the large format would make it easy to switch between your presets even in a hectic live session.
Of course, multi-effects processors are also very useful tools in a recording context and Master FX can slot into that role also. The app has Audiobus support so it can easily be integrated with other iOS music apps and your favourite DAW and even as a send-type effect if you are prepared to use the DIY workarounds I’ve explained previously for Cubasis or Auria. At present, Master FX doesn’t have support for inter app audio (IAA) but Igor has already told me that work is well underway for this and it is due for the next update. It ought to appear very shortly.
Master the controls
As shown in the example screen shots, the interface follows the same styling as both MasterRecord and Audio Mastering so, if you are familiar with those apps, you will feel very much at home with Master FX. By default, you see all six modules displayed on a single ‘Controls’ page and, from here, you can specify which effect type is placed in each module (using the buttons at the base of the screen) or adjust key controls within a module (tap on a specific parameter within the module display and that then associates the single module fader with that parameter).
Modules can be toggled on/off using the large button at the top of each module. Equally, the Process button (located to the right and above the virtual level meters) allows you to globally switch all the effects on/off to bypass the processing if required.
Once you have added an effect to a particular module, if you want more detailed control over that specific effect, tapping on the button beneath its strip in the main display opens up the full range of controls for that effect. This gives you individual faders or selection buttons for each of the effect’s parameters and is obviously easier when fine-tuning a specific effect.
You also get access to the effect-level preset system in these effect-specific screens. The app is supplied with a number of very useable presets for each effect type but you can, of course, create your own should you wish.
Record a master
While you can use Master FX to process live audio signals, via Audiobus, you can also use the processing on files you recorded at an earlier time. You can also import audio files directly into Master FX (much as you can with Audio Mastering and MasterRecording) for processing or audioning within the app. Files can be imported/exported to the app via iTunes sharing, Dropbox, wireless networking and exchanged with other apps via an audio clipboard.
The app includes a ‘player’ function that allows you to play an audio file that has been transferred to the app. You can also record the results of processing done on such an audio file or record the output of processing on a live signal. This system is actually very flexible as, via the Settings tab, you can choose between recording the ‘dry’ signal from the live inputs (great for just capturing an audio source), recording the processed version of the live inputs but while also monitoring the ‘player’ (great for recording a new processed part while listening to a backing track) or record the complete output (live inputs plus player).
Master FX supports WAV and AIF file formats, 16 or 24 bit depths and 44.1 or 48kHz sampling rates. All these can also be configured via the Settings tab.
Master of the effects
So much for the technical details, what about the effects themselves? While the simplicity and flexibility provided by the interface are very welcome, this is perhaps where the real highlight of Master FX is because the effects processing itself sounds very good indeed.
While you perhaps don’t get the full range of controls you might see on a dedicated single effect app, in each case, Master FX gives you enough control to get a good job done but without drowning you in too many choices. For example, with the compressor, while you can fully adjust the threshold at which compression will kick in, you get to pick between a number of fixed compression ratios, attack and release settings rather than also have a fully variable fader-type control for each. This actually makes for a very rapid setting up process for the various effects and, as these various preset settings seem to have been very sensibly chosen, instead of being limiting, it just makes Master FX easy to use.
The one area where I’d perhaps qualify that is in the EQ. While, in essence, you get a three-band parametric-style EQ and the fader allows you to fully adjust the gain +/- 12dB, in terms of the centre frequency and width (Q) of each band, you get a small number of fixed values to pick between. For general (and gentle) EQ tasks, this is not such a problem but it does perhaps limit your ability to make really surgical EQ adjustments with Master FX’s EQ module. That said, I liked the sound of the EQ and there are some excellent presets that can get you started for general corrective or creative tasks.
Indeed, I liked the sounds of Master FX’s effects processing overall. I experimented with Master FX using a number of sound sources – vocals, acoustic guitars and electric guitars and electric bass (both of the latter via Audiobus and through BIAS, using Master FX to adds effects processing to the amp modelling provided by BIAS). In all cases, I was impressed with the results. There is no fuss or widely extreme stuff going on here; just very solid and smooth processing of the type that, 95% of the time, is exactly what you need. For those with the need for the some more experimental processing options, you might easily team Sugar Bytes Turnado alongside Master FX; they would complement each other well.
Master FX seemed to play nicely with Audiobus and any other iOS music apps I chucked at it via Audiobus. Used with both Cubasis and Auria, recording the processed output from Master FX was both straightforward and produced very good results. In terms of the processing quality, from an app costing UK£7.99, there is an awful lot to like and very little to complain about.
There are times when you need the detailed control that a dedicated, single-function effects processor can offer (for example, the best reverb you can muster as a send effect for vocals when mixing) and there are times when you need an ‘all-in-one’ multi-effect approach (for example, applying several effects to an instrument track). Master FX is an excellent choice for the latter of these two situations. It provides an flexible suite of all the general effects that, nine times our of ten, are just what you need to get the job done.
However, with its very flexible routing options (being able to process two sources independently and having full control over the order in which effects can be applied) and the very clear nod to use in a live context via the Live pads for preset selection, Master FX is more than just a workhorse processor for the iOS studio; it should also appeal to those wanting a compact but flexible effects processor on their iPad as part of a live performance system.
At UK£7.99, the flexibility, processing quality and easy of use make Master FX excellent value. As with his Audio Mastering and MasterRecord apps, Igor Vasilliev’s Master FX comes highly recommended.for readers in North America for readers in Europe