Steven Slate has been known for producing dynamic mixes. He teams up with Fabrice Gabriel to bring us an exciting and groundbreaking mastering tool. Could this be the beginning of a new chapter in “The Loudness Wars”?
What’s Loud Got To Do With It
If you have worked with recording and mixing music in any fashion over the past decade you are familiar with what many call “The Loudness Wars”. The effects of it are everywhere from your living room, car and even when you are picking up your favorite snacks and supplies at the groceries it seems everyone wants to be heard above everyone else in this audibly crowded world we live in.
The main problem with all of this is that you definitely lose something in this process mainly the very thing you are trying to control, “dynamics” the loud and soft of things that give music its life and character. I found this excellent video that sort of demonstrates what is going on. You can also read a great interview with mastering engineer Bob Ludwig from NPR here.
As you can see from the above example you really can destroy the sound of a recording by falling into the trap of making it loud just for loudness sake. Mastering is a very important part of the music production process and has in the past been reserved only for those who have had many years of studio experience and a focus on making the overall music performance more enjoyable rather than just making it louder for radio’s sake.
Years ago when TC-Electronics introduced “The Finalizer” it opened the door to anyone who had the money to purchase this new “magical” device that would make your music sound louder and better. The truth of the matter was that this actually tended to do just the oppostie. If the tool was in the hands of someone who did not have the experience or ability to use it in a musical or artistic way the end result created horrible sounding masters that came accross sounding harsh and brittle with the life squeezed right of it.
FG-X To The Rescue
Fast forward to 2011. Yes the loudness wars are still in full swing but thanks to tremendous advances in technology the magical tools we have today are dare I say even “more magical”. Steven Slate is no novice when it comes to producing high quality audio for artists and has used this extensive experience to finally bring a musicality in the area of mastering technology. He brings us the FG-X Virtual Mastering Processor.
From the Top
First off the FG-X comes to you as a download after you purchase it from the Slate Digital site. You also must have an ILok account and USB key installed in order to store your product license and to use the plug in. I had some initial issues getting things going installing the iLok drivers and such. I would recommend downloading and installing the iLok drivers and client software first before inserting your iLok USB key. This would ensure that things go smoothly if you do not already have an iLok key installed.
I am currently running SONAR X1a 64 bit as well as SONAR 8.5.3 64 bit on a Windows 7 machine. After you install the FG-X you need to run SONAR’s plugin manager so you can see the FG-X in your VST effects menus. I was pleased to see that the FG-X had a native 64 bit version available as this seems to circumvent any issues that older 32 bit plugins might have using SONAR’s Bitbridge 64 bit support for 32 bit plug ins.
When I first pulled up the FG-X the first thing I noticed was the top notch GUI and graphics. I was also very pleased at how things were laid out and organized making the plugin easy to get around. Let’s take a quick look at each module.
The Comp Module
The “Comp” module consists of a very transparent mixbus compressor that is characterized in many cases as the “glue” to bring things together. Sometimes having so much going on in the mix with instruments and frequencies can tend to stand out or be on their own so to speak. Having a solid mixbus compressor can create a sort of synergy bringing things together in a more musical way. The Comp module uses the classic “Optical” and “VCA” mixbus designs as its foundation and does so quite nicely.
You have a lot of control over the “Comp’s” parameters beyond what is on the surface. Slate Digital has done an extrememly good job at giving you control when and where you need it. You have the ability of going under the hood and specifying exactly how you want each control to behave and the ranges that you want to work in.
There is no need for you to have the ratio knob deal with values you would never use yourself in a typical mix or mastering situation so you can have the values you want represented. As always one of the assets to a digital plugin is the fact that you can save as many presets as you like to deal with the various situations you might encounter. Here with FG-X you are the master of your mastering plugin and that power and flexibility goes a long way.
The Level Module
This is where a lot of the fun begins and truly the most impressive aspect of FG-X. One of the first things I did when trying out FG-X was just to start moving the “Gain” control to see what would happen. I had pulled up something with a heavy drum and bass mix happening and it was amazing to hear what happened as I increased the Gain.
I told someone the other day that I wanted a haircut without it looking like I got a haircut and here we have a similar desire, I want it loud without it actually looking like I am making it louder.
The secret to FG-X and what sets it apart from every other mastering plug in is the way they handle transients or those loud peaks in the mix usually generated by drum hits or similar percussive dynamic instruments or even a vocal performance. It sort of looks at everything going on at a specific time in the audio and seperates the transients so it can treat them with the due respect and care they deserve.
Here again you have a lot of control over this in the LO Punch (deals with of course the Low frequency transients such as Kick drums and basses for instance), Detail (dealing with the higher frequency based transients like snare hits and cymbals, or the sparkle), Dynamic Perception (gives you the ability to inject a perceived movement in the dynamic range), and last but not least the ITP control
Intelligent Transient Preservation. This control is the secret sauce used in the FG-X. This control is what tells FG-X how to look at the transients occuring in your mix and how the rest of the Level module should handle them..When the slider is all the way down it sort of looks at things going by in a more casual way but all the way up in the Hard setting it will be looking at every transient passing by. The higher settings are particularly designed for more hard hitting mixes while the smooth is more suitable for you guessed it more laid back and possibly more weighted to mixes that tend to be more lower frequency oriented.
Easy Does It
Like anything a little can go a long way. According to the FG-X manual they recommend to start out with most of the Punch, Detail, ITP, etc. parameters at their lowest point and then working up from there. It makes a lot of sense to do this as you might be surprised that you just need that little bump here or there to make a difference. That is another area where FG-X shines is the fact that you can do “A”-“B” comparisons on what the unprocessed sound is compared to what you are doing to it with FG-X. The “Constant Gain Monitoring” setting allows you to hear what FX-X is doing to the original without introducing the increased Level adjustments. This is a great way to tell just how much you are effecting the master.
Our ears are so good at automatically compensating for things so it is a good idea to always compare to the original after working with things for a while. Another good things to do is to take a break here and there while working with areas such as Level maximizing as you can start getting things pretty out of control if you are not careful.
The Eyes Have It
Another great asset of the FG-X plug in is the metering section. You have so many ways to visualize what the plugin is doing and how it is affecting the audio.
Here again you have total control over the scale and range of the meters and even how the “needles’ respond which adds to the realism and usefulness of the plugin.
Since Mastering is the final stage before you release your music to the world you want to have every possible way of not only hearing the results but seeing the actions of the various modules and FG-X shines in this regard.
You Must Use Your Power For Good
Being exposed to so many overly processed and maximized mixes has really made me more and more aware at how important the dynamic element is. Dynamics equals life in musical situations if you take the dynamics out you take the life out of a performance. The rise and falls of how a verse and chorus flows together or when instruments build to a crescendo is what moves you on the inside. It is also those quiet moments that move you emotionally in more subdued moments.
Like the rainbow you have to have all of the colors to fully get the impact of it. Likewise with music the colors of the dynamic rainbow have all got to be there or you will just be standing there wet from only the downpour that just happened.
Having such powerful tools also comes with it a responsibility to use them effectively and creatively taking time needed to learn about each parameter and going into it with the idea that even though you can go to “11” does not mean you should.
You will be surprised at how just subtle variations can make huge differences. Another thing to always keep in mind is to give your ears some brief breaks when working in a mastering or mixing situation you would not believe how quickly levels can continue to creep up as your ears compensate for the changes in level.
A New Mastering Era?
Using the FG-X and seeing it in action really has impressed and changed the way that I look at how level maximizing should be approached. In every respect Slate Digital has approached this plug in in a musical and creative way.
The power is in your hands, how will you use it?
The FG-X Virtual Mastering Processor is available now for $299.00 and can be purchased directly from the Slate Digital website.