In this week's column, I'd like to return to the subject of mastering and the current trend for minimizing dynamics at this final stage. Since the Sounding Off column dedicated to Dynamic Range Day, news has reached our industry of Waves' new plug-in suite, One Knob. For those not yet in the know, the One Knob collection offers one-dial solutions for assorted mastering processes, with it-does-what-it-says-on-the-tin names including Phatter, Brighter and Louder, to name but three.
This is not a review of Waves' collection but rather a piece about whether a single parameter, albeit with a range between 1 and 10 could—and more importantly should—ever offer a tangible solution to the mastering process. Can one size really fit all?
It strikes me that comparatively few producers working from home or in semi-pro studios even 15 years ago would have felt comfortable tackling their own mastering. This is partly because affordable software didn't exist for such tasks, while the related hardware was breathlessly expensive. Partly though, that generation of producers recognised two additional things; firstly, mastering was a specialist role which benefited from a different "listening approach" to production. Secondly, it was seen as a creative process—a chance for a dedicated engineer to bring his/her experience and creative mind to a project to give it additional life from that fresh perspective.
Fast-forward to the here and now and mastering software suites are popular, affordable and available from a range of manufacturers. In the new production democracy where more of us are more willing to tackle a greater number of production tasks, there's a reluctance to outsource our mastering, particularly as it has a reputation for being expensive. I'm all for producers developing their skills, so I'm by no means against the idea that we can all develop skills to create our own great-sounding masters. In fact, I often master my own tracks and those of artists I'm producing.
This does, however, lead neatly back to the choice of tools we need to employ if we're really going to take that process seriously. Surely this involves plug-ins which allow us to tweak parameters enough to find settings which work for us? Even if you're determined to dynamically limit your tracks to "brickwall status," surely you'd like independent control of input level, output ceiling and perhaps a little attack and decay time, wouldn't you?
My concern with the concept of Waves' bundle is that it fuels the myth that mastering doesn't require skills and tools which allow the creative expression of yesteryear. I'm not passing judgment on the plug-ins themselves which I know have been designed intelligently, meaning that they look-ahead into your track and thus do a more musical job than their single-dial operation initially suggests. I am concerned, though, that any aspiring producer with the requisite money might assume from the product description that mastering is simple and that, as the collection's name suggests, One Knob equals One Stop Shop.
As you might have picked up from other Sounding Off columns, I'm always suspicious of concepts which are designed to make life too easy for producers. I'm all for rapid work-flow and our technology allowing us to work at the speed of thought. Indeed, for those of us lucky enough to get paid for the music we make, deadlines often come thick and fast and we require tools which can respond. However, if you had a synth plug-in which contained one dial labeled "better" or indeed an output channel plug-in labeled "success," don't you think you might be a touch suspicious?