Devised and designed by Brainworx/Plugin Alliance main man and renowned producer/engineer Dirk Ulrich, bx_masterdesk is the latest addition to the currently trending category of simplified mixing and mastering processors.
Ulrich reckons “many people are overthinking the mastering process”, and to that end, his new plugin (VST/AU/AAX) provides a complete system for quick and easy mastering, via a stripped-back control set that governs a far more complex array of under-the-hood algorithms and processes.
bx_masterdesk emulates an analogue mastering chain, comprising compression, bass enhancement and general EQ, THD saturation, de-essing, limiting and stereo manipulation. The first thing to do is set the input gain into the compressor at the start of the chain using the big Volume knob.
The quietly ingenious Dynamic Range VU meter allows you to visually monitor the loudness level in easy-to-understand terms by describing the difference between peak and RMS levels at any given moment (the crest factor). You can raise or lower the volume as per requirements to keep the needle in the green range (between 6 and 8dB), and you can pretty much rest assured that your track is safely within established ‘loudness norms’.
The Foundation control is your next port of call. This governs a tilt EQ that enthusiastically boosts or pulls back the low end. It’s pretty heavy-handed - surprisingly so, given the restraint exercised in the parameter boundaries of the other controls – and we can’t imagine ever wanting to twist it more than about 45 degrees off centre in either direction. Really, we’d prefer finer adjustment across a shorter range.
Next comes the Tone section, home to a four- band EQ. This enables up to 3dB of cut or boost to be applied to Bass and Treble bands, and a broad mid-range bell filter; and up to 6dB of cut/ boost (with a contrary boost/cut in the high- mids) to the high-frequency Presence band. In the interest of keeping the interface as unintimidating and ‘muso-friendly’ as possible, the EQ looks like a guitar amp tone stack, and the centre/corner frequencies of each band aren’t specified. The coverage is very much as expected, though, with quite a bit of crossover between bands for ‘musical’ EQing.
The dynamics-shaping processes going on within bx_masterdesk are set up and calibrated so that you should rarely need to reach beyond the Volume, Foundation and Tone controls to get your master sounding loud and consistent. However, there are a few other tweaks that can be made if required.
The Comp Mix knob dials the dry signal back in alongside its compressed counterpart for parallel processing, or bypasses the compression altogether. Once again, the options available are deliberately narrowed - from 85-100% wet, or Off - so as to keep everything mastering-appropriate, and it’s handy for reintroducing a bit of dynamic range. The collar around the Comp Mix knob meters the gain reduction for the left and right channels separately – activate the Comp Link button to have both channels compress evenly, should you ever need them to.
bx_masterdesk’s all-important compressor is entirely preset behind the scenes, with no user-facing controls for adjusting the ratio, attack, release or knee shape. All of that good stuff is done for you, serving up a suitably gentle compression profile that just feels ‘right’. It’s not entirely single- minded, though, as Brainworx have employed their TMT (Tolerance Modelling Technology) process to effectively supply four different versions of the same compressor by modelling the variations in physical tolerances that you’d inevitably get with a quartet of identical hardware compressors. These variations largely affect the frequency response and time constants, and although the differences are incredibly slight (we’re talking analogue realism here, not sonically disparate ‘modes’), the four models are certainly always worth flicking through to see which works best for your track.
Another interesting feature is the ability to adjust the Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) up or down from its default setting of -60dB by up to 20dB either way. The effect that this has is often so subtle as to be literally inaudible, but it can be useful for working in a touch of brightness and drive, depending on the mix.
The De-esser, meanwhile, is great for reducing harshness and sibilance. This, too, is collared with a gain reduction meter, and includes a Solo button for isolating the signal being attenuated. Further taming of undesirable signals can be done in the Resonance Filters section. Here, fixed-gain cuts are applied to two of four potentially problematic resonant frequency ranges - 160Hz or 315Hz, and 3150Hz or 6666 Hz - using the Low and High switches. Discernment as to whether or not these frequencies need zapping is aided by the Auto Solo button, which facilitates isolation of each by click-holding.
In the M/S section, the Mono Maker knob ‘mono-ises’ everything below anywhere from 20-300Hz, and Stereo Enhance uses a proprietary new Brainworx algorithm to boost or attenuate ‘musical’ material in the stereo sides signal. The latter is one of our favourite features - wonderfully effective at gently hyping the panorama - and we look forward to seeing it again in future bx plugins. Finally, at the very end of the signal path sits a brickwall limiter, with the associated Turbo button providing an optional extra 1dB boost for heavier masters.
Mastering for all
bx_masterdesk is a hugely impressive ‘instant mastering’ solution that any musician or producer without the funds to hire a professional mastering engineer, or the knowledge and experience to handle a regular component-based mastering chain, will find an absolute godsend for finalising. It’s ridiculously easy to use, every one of its modules sounds superb; and - with the exception of the puzzlingly feisty Foundation EQ - the way it’s been designed makes it noticeably less open to inadvertent over-application than other similar plugins.
That’s not to suggest that you don’t still need to have at least a basic understanding and appreciation of the impact your adjustments are having on the sound, of course, but bx_ masterdesk really does make it reassuringly hard to go wrong.