The new bx_masterdesk is one of those plug-ins I struggle with. That isn’t because it isn’t good, actually it’s worryingly excellent. No, the reason I’ll always struggle with plug-ins like this is that it doesn’t suit me. However, as we know we are all different and that is what makes life interesting.
The issue I have with bx_masterdesk is that I’m more preoccupied than most about how things work. The way I see it there are two alternative responses to an engineer turning a knob and the track suddenly sounding better:
Some people will go “wow, that’s better, which knob did you turn?” The obliging engineer says “oh this one here”. Armed with the knowledge of what happened and how to do it again (maybe even turn that knob further and see how that sounds?) this first person gets on with finishing their track.
I however would start putting test tones through the magic knob, nulling it against a dry duplicate track and inspecting the results on an analyser. At the end of this I’d have a pretty good knowledge of what the magic knob did and why it sounded cool.
However my track wouldn’t be finished and by this point I’d probably be experimenting with multiple parallel paths with different settings, and still not getting my track finished…
People Should Use A Mastering Engineer
So back to bx_masterdesk. This is a clever plug-in. Though not because of what it does, but because it addresses the way most people use audio software. The standard script runs thus: You shouldn’t master your own material, you should pay a mastering engineer to do it because they have the monitoring, processing, experience and most importantly a fresh perspective with which to do the best possible job.
But the truth is that people do self-master. Even people who do employ a mastering engineer only do so for some of their mixes, and then only for the final version. I suspect that there are very few people who haven’t already done a quick reference master which they then have to roll back from before sending something off to a mastering house.
This brings us to tools. I’ve jokingly described giving a multi-band compressor to a novice producer as being like giving a sharpie to a toddler. They might do something good with it but…
More Harm Than Good?
So is it helpful for the person who absolutely shouldn’t be mastering the track - the person who probably wrote, performed and mixed it, who possibly is a musician by training rather than an engineer, to use extremely powerful mastering plug-ins when mastering their own tracks? Might it not be more constructive to design some tools which present the user with a limited set of choices which have been designed by people with the experience to offer enough choices to the user to shape the track to their taste but, and here’s the clever bit, to make sure that all the choices offered are good ones?
This is what bx_masterdesk does. It is a mastering processor for people who don’t do mastering. It offers a limited control set, adequate but not bewildering metering and, most importantly of all, it’s very difficult to make it sound bad. There aren’t many details available about exactly what it’s doing under the hood but I understand that many of the controls are controlling multiple parameters and because of this can act as a helpful safety net preventing the user from going too far.
Instantiated on the master, bx_masterdesk presents a dynamic range meter calibrated in dB. Similar to the crest factor of the music - the difference between the loud and the soft. This meter is helpfully colour coded with a green target range of between 8 and 6dB. In the example mix in this article the loud sections are right in the middle of this green zone with the sparser sections falling just outside at about -9dB. With the switchable IO meters on the right with an averaged DR value these meters give just enough information without correlation meters or RTAs providing extra distraction.
For the most part the controls are self explanatory. To drive the process harder raise the volume, to trim the output back (particularly important as this plug-in doesn’t have automatic gain compensation) pull the output trim back. THD allows harmonic distortion to be dialled in independently of the volume settings and the slightly cryptically named “Foundation” is a tilt EQ style filter allowing the timbre of the track to be adjusted toward extra darkness or brightness.
In a nod to guitarists the EQ is presented as a guitar amp tone stack with a row of cut and boost knobs for bass, middle, treble and presence. Further along this row are the mandatory M/S controls, this is a Brainworx plug-in after all, the mono maker which excludes the bottom end from the widener, and the clever Stereo Enhance control which clearly does more than just push up the level of the sides channel.
The two “resonance” filters credit some explanation. They offer cuts at four preset frequencies which commonly need taming, listening with the the Auto Solo engaged might suggest these are boosts, particularly as they are called resonance filters but these are actually dips at those frequencies. I initially thought these were resonant filters when actually they are filters for taming “resonances”.
The four compressor modes offer progressively gentler settings for an unspecified compression setup. 1 being most aggressive. This compressor can be stereo linked or not using the appropriately named Stereo Link control. The Limiter Turbo switch changes the threshold, ratio and ceiling settings allowing a hotter master but interestingly most of the volume gained through driving this plug-in hard comes from the compressor. The limiter is not the most significant part of this plug-in.
bx_masterdesk In Use
This is easy. It goes against every fibre of my being but it is just a case of instantiate the plug-in. Turn up the volume so the meter is in the green, tip the Foundation control to taste (I found anything outside of the 11 o’clock to 1 o’clock range too much), adjust the tone and width controls and audition the compressor settings by dialling it in using the mix knob. There are filters and THD controls if you like what they do but that really is about it.
This thing sounds good. The tone controls do what their labels suggest in an appropriate and benign way. You can't get tear-your-face-off top end or crazy bass but you can always hear clearly what it is doing. The compressor is unspecified but it sounds not unlike a typical bus compressor and does the "bounce" off the back of the snare in a rock mix that I associate with the particular bus compressor it reminds me of. The other star of the show is the Stereo Enhance which does good, mono compatible widening without changing the level. Like good hardware, bx_masterdesk colours the mix just by being there, without any settings dialled in.
So does this sound good? Yes it does.
In the examples above I have an unprocessed premaster and the same mix with moderate processing applied using bx_masterdesk. Both have been level matched by ear. For me the most significant part of this test isn't the results as much as the time it took to achieve them, this was set up from the default patch in under two minutes and without the level matching against the original would be ready for streaming without incurring a significant loudness penalty from the major online platforms.
And back to my opening statement, bx_masterdesk is indeed “worryingly excellent”.
It’s worryingly excellent because, as a well known rock and roll photographer told me when talking about taking pictures. “The difference between a professional and a lucky amateur isn’t who takes the best picture, it's whether they could do it again”. With bx_masterdesk your drummer could do as good a master as your engineer and because of this plug-in, they could probably do it again!