A little background…
T-Racks first came on the digital audio scene way back in 1999. A standalone mastering application that included an EQ, Compressor and Limiter, along with basic metering, designed to recreate a sense of analogue equipment and give you professional sounding masters.
It was accessible to many, both technically and monetarily and was even topped with glowing virtual valves to recreate the warm glow of analogue technology.
Well, it’s come a long way in the intervening years where it has been re-designed, added to and improved and Making Music are now having an in-depth look at the latest incarnation of the software. The review will primarily be about the ‘Standard’ T-Racks 5 package, but we’ll include information about the Deluxe, MAX and free CS versions and individual modules available where appropriate.
As usual with IK’s software, the initial installation is all taken care of by their authorization manager. Type in your serial number, the manager checks the validity and then authorizes your computer. You can download the package if you haven’t already done so and installation can then take place.
As is becoming more common in recent years, the software you download is the full version, irrespective of which package you have bought. The serial number is the key here as this only unlocks the functionality and modules that you have actually paid for. So, whether you are downloading the free Custom Shop version or the MAX package, your download and installation will be just under 1GB of data. The reason for this, according to IK, is so that if you want to demo other modules via their Custom Shop application you can have instant access to them without having to download anything additional.
It should also be noted that T-Racks 5 does not overwrite any installations of previous versions. Although technically an upgrade, it is a separate application and so any old projects saved will still open using the old version (as long as you don’t uninstall it), as opposed to the new version.
The UI of the workspace has been completely redesigned and on launching the standalone you are greeted with six panels in the main window. Following in the footsteps of Syntronik, T-Racks 5 can be used in fullscreen and the panels can be resized independently. You can also open separate windows for additional metering facilities and the album assembly functions if required. Not being able to resize the UI was one of the bugbears of previous T-Racks versions (not to mention AmpliTube and SampleTank) and as screen resolutions have increased it has become more difficult to make out on-screen parameters and legending. It’s funny how a small change like this can make software more inviting to dive into.
The six main initial panels are (clockwise from top left) preset browser, the module interface, metering, module browser, effects chain/waveform view and clip list. As these can be resized, you can adapt the UI to your workflow, although you cannot re-arrange the position of each one.
Importing multiple audio files into a project allows for an album of work to be assembled with each song having its own effects chain, rather than one per project. After tweaking your settings and sequencing your album, you can save the whole project and the software also copies your unprocessed mix files to an audio folder as well, making safe backup straightforward.
If you’re new to T-Racks and you have bought the ‘Standard’ version of the software, then you have a compliment of nine processors at your disposal. Not only can these modules be used in the standalone software, but they are also installed as individual plugins and so can be used within any DAW that supports 64-bit VST2, VST3, AAX and AU formats. If you are hesitant with regards to the cost of any of the packages, if this is factored in it becomes a different proposition altogether.
Along with the four from the Classic line-up (Compressor, Multiband Limiter, Clipper, and Equalizer shown above) you also get four brand new modules and an updated metering section, available in the Deluxe and MAX versions as well.
The Dyna-Mu is a familiar looking compressor module and, although not officially confirmed in the T-Racks manual, appears to be similar to the Manley Vari-Mu. In common with the real thing, there is no ratio control and so the amount of compression is dictated by the interaction of the input level and the threshold.
The variable “Mu” is actually the way that driving the input level into saturation before you hit the threshold generates distortion, of the musical variety. This can give your output distinct flavours, whether the input is hot into a high threshold or vice versa. Various switches for linking the sidechain detectors and ganging the main controls are also evident and the module can impart some nice warmth and glue to mixes passed through it.
The EQual, on the face of it is a 10-band parametric equalizer. “Nothing special there” I hear you cry, right after the other shouts of “how many more EQs do we need?” Well, while I would agree to a certain extent (if you’ve got the MAX package there are already 11 other EQs to chose from, if you include the British and White Channels), the EQual is a hybrid of various filters from a range of hardware. You can choose to have a bell curve based on a SSL4000 series, along with the low shelf of a Neve 1073 and high shelf from an API 550A if you so desire, all in the same module. Whether this amount of choice is a good thing is always debatable, but it does add something new to an otherwise well-stocked area of processors.
Master Match & ONE
The final two new additions are curious beasts. Neither is particularly ground breaking in their purpose but perhaps indicate that IKM are trying to entice newer (and less experienced) users into the fold.
Sonic matching is not necessarily a new area of digital processing and there are a number of third party and DAW stock plugins that analyze one source and then transfers the sonic imprint to another. Master Match differs in the fact that it can analyze up to three source files and then generate an EQ curve and relative RMS levels for your own track.
There are sliders to dictate how strong the spectral and level matching affects your final master and this module always appears as the last in any effects chain. I have my reservations as to the usefulness and effectiveness of processors such as these, but it can give some help to push the overall sonic content of a track towards your own personal recording influences, if that is how you like to work.
ONE is another ‘simple’ solution and is perhaps the one (ahem) addition that could be considered to be forward looking when it comes to how some audio mastering is probably being undertaken. Considering that music tech is relatively affordable to musicians who self-promote and upload finished music to the Internet, be it Soundcloud or iTunes, this module can help make pro sounding masters from project recordings easier to achieve.
An all-in-one module (although it can still be used as part of a chain) ONE takes in a number of basic controls for EQ, compression, bass and harmonic enhancers, stereo width and limiting. With a total of only 9 controls, excepting the reset and bypass switches, this does appear to be a solution for those that need quick mastering.
Again, plugins with more than one function are not new, but this one is definitely aimed at the inexperienced user where a quick-mastered version is all that is required. It does the job admirably and would hopefully lead the user to investigate further the inner workings of the other separate modules. Also, in the hands of an experienced user this plugin could be pressed into service as a quick and dirty mastering process to allow musicians to hear what their finished track may sound like once mastered.
Although not new, the metering facilities have been improved and increased greatly. The range of choice has been extended to include the now all-important Loudness Units and you can set the meters to show Integrated, Momentary or Short Term. This will help you hit the target levels for the major streaming platforms, which are slowly becoming standard for the industry. You will also find the obligatory peak and true peak, RMS and useful dynamic range meters here to.
If you expand into the floating meter view, you are faced with larger panels that also give you a Spectrogram, Spectrum Analyzer and a Phase Scope, which all have settings to personalize them to your preferences. Finally, there are old school ballistic meters which can be set as either VU or PPM for left and right, as well as separate mid and sides outputs
Once you have brushed up on the basic principles and workflow of T-Racks it is very easy to use. As always it is useful to keep the PDF manual open while getting used to new software and, although there is some broken English in evidence, the manual is for the most part easy to follow, until you feel confident enough to go it alone.
Just drop an audio file in, choose your processors and away you go. You can re-order modules while keeping your settings intact, save different chains to audition within the same project and easily switch between mono and stereo output to check if your master will fold down properly if needed.
You can have up to 15 processors in one chain, either in serial or parallel and there is a handy equal gain function where you can check the difference between your processed and unprocessed signal at the same perceived level. Very useful as our ears can deceive us into thinking that louder is always better. However, none of the modules have a wet/dry mix control for parallel processing internally, which could be seen as a missed opportunity, especially when in use in a DAW.
If you’re not sure where to start with each module, there are presets available both for each processor as well as complete chains. As always, these are great starting points, but will need some tweaking depending on your material.
The meters show a wide range of information really well and, in particular, the Spectrogram can help greatly in making sure you balance out the frequency content of your track. As it works in real-time any changes, to an EQ for example, show up as you work helping you to visually pick up on any problems, especially useful if you are working with headphones or in un-treated room.
One slight annoyance with T-Racks is that you can only have one processor module in focus at any one time, so there is a lot of clicking around if you are trying to change parameters on, say a compressor and EQ at the same time.
So, is it any good?
Whether you are working with single songs to get a quick version onto your SoundCloud page or as a more seasoned user compiling an album of material, T-Racks will tick many boxes. The new album assembly page is a definite plus and you can also now include ISRC codes and copy protection, along with the more familiar Track ID, song titles etc. This information can be used to render professional formats such as DDP files, as well as PQ Sheets and WAV cues in a variety of resolutions and sample rates, up to 192kHz/32-bit floating point.
Whether the export of DDP files is actually relevant any more due to the decline of CD manufacture is arguable, but these are still important facilities nonetheless. The ease of export is transparent once you have set your chosen destination type and a whole album’s worth of material can be compiled and rendered with little user interaction, which is handy.
The waveform editor includes all the appropriate tools such as fade in/out handles with various slopes to choose from, a zoom function, looping and snapshots. A snapshot is a memory slot for the settings of the processors being used and the software can be automated to change snapshots in different places in your songs. For example you can have different settings for your intro, verses, choruses and outro and your export will be rendered with these changes. Neat!
The update to the UI is very welcome as it now has the added bonus of letting you work in a single window (with the exception of the album assembly page) or in multiple pages if you want the metering to be separate and therefore larger.
How does it sound?
By version five of any software you would hope that the manufacturer has got its core facilities all up to speed and, here, IK Multimedia deliver quality in spades. As with any software (or hardware for that matter) if you push things too far you can destroy a perfectly good mix but when used appropriately T-Racks 5 sounds great.
The analogue recreations, for which the original version gained its reputation, impart a warmth and smoothness to a mix, gently enriching harmonics and gluing it all together. You can also get transparent results, depending on how you use the processors, particularly with some of the ‘digital’ recreations available in other bundles or the Custom Shop (see below). You can be as subtle or brutal as you need to be with parameters and, unless you go too far, the output is clear of any digital artifacts, both during your work and on the final exports.
Although this review is based on the ‘Standard’ version of T-Racks 5, there are two other bundles available that function the same, but with increasing numbers of modules. T-Racks 5 Deluxe includes an additional 13 modules and T-Racks 5 MAX an incredible extra 29, bringing their totals to 22 and 38 modules respectively.
If the larger bundles are a bit over your budget, the Custom Shop is there to allow you to buy individual modules whenever you want to. So you can start with the standard package (or even the free T-Racks 5CS) and add to it as and when you feel you need or can afford to.
Particular favourites from this à la carte menu include the White 2A, based on the optical LA-2A comp/limiter and the EQP-1A based on the famous Pultec unit. Details of all available units can be found here…
T-Rack 5 – Summary
While T-Racks 5 is not a massive leap forward, the improvements in this latest version are all positive, especially the GUI. The newly added modules all have a purpose, whether that is useful to you is down to your workflow and needs but, if you invest in one of the larger bundles, you get the added bonus of them appearing in your DAW as well.
The standalone software has all the relevant tools required to finish anything from a single track to a full album, taking in podcasts and everything else in between. The extended metering covers (as far as I can tell) every current need and the assembly page will help you complete projects quicker than if you’re dealing with multiple pieces of software to master, sequence and complete some export formats.
It’s not perfect by any means (what is these days?) but there is a lot to like about T-Racks 5 and, as there has already been one update to the software to fix some graphical issues amongst other things, IK Multimedia obviously are trying to make it as perfect as they can.
- Sounds great!
- Re-sizable panels and overall improved GUI.
- Sonically can go from transparent to characterful, dependent on how you use it.
- A great range of processors available, either individually or as bundles.
- Album assembly makes it easy to create your finished master project.
- Metering is wide ranging to suit a variety of project and output types.
- Modules can be used as single plugins within your DAW.
- Can’t re-arrange the panel to suit your own requirements.
- Still only adapt one module at a time.
- No wet/dry control for parallel processing within a single module.
- PDF manual is not great in places.
Prices (at time of publication)
T-Racks 5CS FREE (includes Classic EQ and basic metering)
T-Racks 5 €149.99 excl. VAT
T-Racks 5 Deluxe €299.99 excl. VAT
T-Racks 5 MAX €499.99 excl. VAT (Download) €529.99 excl. VAT (USB Drive/Boxed)
Upgrade/crossgrade price €299.99 excl. VAT. (from any previously purchased product(s) of a value of $/€99.99 or more). See website for details.
T-Racks 5 System Requirements
T-RackS 5 is a 64-bit application and requires a 64-bit CPU and Operating System.
• Minimal: Intel® Core™ 2 Duo, 4 GB of RAM (8 GB suggested), macOS 10.9 or later.
• Supported Plug-in formats (64-bit): Audio Units, VST 2, VST 3, AAX.
• Minimal: Intel® Core™ 2 Duo or AMD Athlon™ 64 X2, 4 GB of RAM (8 GB suggested), Windows® 7, Windows® 8 or Windows® 10. Requires an ASIO compatible sound card.
• Supported Plug-in formats (64-bit): VST 2, VST 3, AAX.
NOTE: EQual processor requires an OpenGL 2 compatible graphics adapter.