Can stock plugins in Cakewalk achieve high quality mastering?

by Sep 11, 2019Blog, Tutorials0 comments

The mastering Gauntlet started on September 1st!  Check out The Mastering Gauntlet to see the latest news and announcements regarding the challenge.  While open submission period is now closed, follow us on Instagram or Facebook and comment on our daily challenge posts for a chance to win free mastering!

I peruse a lot of facebook production and DAW groups daily looking to help others in my free time.  Daily, I see people asking the same questions about mastering: if it’s possible with stock plugins, or what plugins should they get?  While I must say that the debates rage much more heavily in certain groups like Producer Dojo and Ableton Live, there was a common denominator among them;

“You can’t master with stock plugins, go buy more!”

Now, no one just came out and said it outright.  However, the overall tone of most responses seems to be the case. Even some reputable artists with decent-sized followings were telling their producer communities that they would never recommend using stock Ableton tools for mastering.  I decided to dive in and see if I could agree with their perspective, that you have to invest hundreds – sometimes even thousands of dollars on high-end, mastering-centric plugins to achieve a commercial quality result.   It would seem like a natural conclusion, after all.  I’ve invested lots over years refining and dialing in my custom signature chains for EDM to get very specific characters.

I set about trying to replicate my signature chain as closely as possible using only what is available with Cakewalk Bandlab’s Suite in order to answer this one question:  can stock plugins in Cakewalk by Bandlab achieve high-quality mastering?

The song I’m using to demonstrate the mastering chain is from my most recent client – Zack Falls, as part of the San Holo remix contest hosted by Cymatics.

What’s this chain doing?

The whole “sound” of the chain is meant to create a style of leveling and tonal character that provides a “sheen” by softening transients while still allowing for the perception of punch and lift to the loudness of the track can reach into extreme levels providing a mix is well balanced, and then provide a prominent low-end emphasis.

The two-stage multi-band approach does the bulk of the contouring while squeezing the critical areas of the frequency range that allow for quite a versatile use across many sub-genres of EDM.  This multi-band contouring approach can easily allow for a range of tonal options.

However, where this chain becomes very niche, is in how the transients are being softened.  Compared to other, more traditional mastering chains that can create an edgy hardness to the transients in percussion elements and really sharpen the impact of the material, this is intentionally doing the opposite.  That’s not to say you can’t achieve impact and punch with this style of mastering chain, but it’s meant to smooth out and create a sense of “gloss” in the final sonic presentation.

Something else cool happened

I was actually quite surprised by the result of this chain.  While I wasn’t quite able to replicate every single nuance and get the same sheen and soft gloss that my primary 3rd-party chain is capable of, there are some things that this stock-plugin chain does that gave this song a huge, pleasant boost in the low-end.

This is achieved at the very end with the Concrete Limiter by flipping in the bass switch.  It appears that 120hz and below (it’s been forever since I’ve read the manual) gets a healthy boost just before the limiter’s dynamics section.  I’m not entirely sure as I have more tests to do, but it also feels as though there’s a pumping emphasis to the limiting style when this is flipped in – which emphasizes the low-frequency priority over the top end.

The Byproduct of Limiting

Jonathan Weiner brought up an interesting side effect or byproduct of limiting in the Izotope Youtube series Are You Listening. With a traditional brick-wall limiter, as we apply harder liming to the signal (more gain reduction), we begin to experience an increase in high-frequency response, especially with regard to the transients.

The Concrete Limiter’s bass function seems to be combating this in a very pleasing way.  With this Zack Falls track, the kick has a sharp, prominent transient that – in the mix, is well balanced.  As I applied harsher limiting, the transients in the kick and virtually all of the percussive elements became a little too exaggerated in the top-end.  Flip the Bass switch on, and the low-end priority kept the top-end of the track softer and less harsh.

The Result

Where those artists are saying they would never recommend using stock plugins to master coming from?  Just why would they give the advice like this?  They’re intentionally setting the tone from their perspective, and you have to keep in mind they’ve been in the production game for a while. At least, long enough to have experience and resources built up to reach for a higher personal standard with their brand.  Everyone’s answers are going to reflect just where they are in their career or which echelon of the industry they reside in.  Those with higher standards are often sitting much higher up in the industry than those they’re offering advice to; but what strikes me as off-putting about their answers is that they’re not taking the time to illuminate their perspective and the reasoning behind why they put down the stock plugins.

So, I say all this because I myself would probably not ditch all of the well-invested resources I’ve built my custom, signature chains with over the years, for just stock plugins.  There are some very small, minute differences happening at every stage and even some things in my chain that just couldn’t be replicated with stock plugins – such as the Waves Center Stereo tool for tweaking spatialization and controlling the lows and highs with the specific dials that plugin offers.  Is that really necessary, though?  No.  I don’t even use that across every master, every time.  It’s just one trick in my bag that I can use to quickly achieve a specific result for a very specific task.

 

Conclusion

So, can the stock Cakewalk plugins do the job?  YES! I feel completely confident in the master I demonstrated here in Bandlab’s Cakewalk. It did some things differently from my custom chain, but it still achieved impact and punch, allowed me to dial in tonal balance that the artist was wanting to achieve, and reach a loudness level that the artist and I felt satisfactory without being overly loud.  Not only that, the concrete limiter’s bass switch addressed something that enhanced the track in such a profound way that my other chains just don’t do, that the master I delivered to the artist was the one produced by this exact chain!

The fact is the tools available to everyone today, no matter whether you’re just starting out, or have been doing this for a while, can achieve whatever you want.  It’s not about the gear, the gear doesn’t make the record.  It’s how you use it that makes the difference.

I would argue to anyone who’s currently struggling with their productions, trying to self-master and considering buying expensive plugins to save your money for more important things.  Invest in yourself first (ie: save money by putting it away in investments that yield returns) before spending on gear or software that doesn’t truly provide you a return on your investment; especially if you’re still early in your career or just beginning.  

We often convince ourselves that the answer to our problems is just one purchase away.  For some, the immediate satisfaction of having a new shiny object that makes things magically sound better may be good enough; but often that initial “high” wears off, and eventually we tire of that sound, or we get stuck again when we’ve changed or evolved in our productions and mixes in a way that we simply circle around to the same problem we had before.  We never took the time to understand the tools and the core problem, and now we are faced with the same lesson.

Explore the chain for yourself

With the launch of my special challenge project – The Mastering Gauntlet, I’m challenging producers and artists to shift their mindset and think smarter.  Why spend thousands of dollars on plugins that only get you that extra 1%?  If you follow anyone successful in the music business, they’ll tell you that just putting out music, and staying consistent with acting on your goals is how you build success.  I’m just as guilty as the next person when it comes to over-investing to chase that final 1%.  The truth is, nowadays, the stock plugins that come with modern DAWs are so powerful that you can absolutely achieve commercial-quality results without having to spend any more of your hard-earned cash!  So, I decided to challenge myself by attempting to rebuild my signature chain with Cakewalk’s stock plugins.  If you heard the demonstration in the tutorial video, the demonstration speaks for itself!

Special Note:

A special thanks to Mark Rosenkreuzer in the Bandlab Talk Facebook community for pointing out that the chain’s Softube Compressor Prochannel module is not bundled with the Bandlab version.  This will require having owned and installed Sonar Platinum. 

For those of you wanting to get similar results and don’t have the Softube FET compressor module, substitute the Softube FET compressor with the Sonitus Compressor and start with the preset > Vintage > Vintage Mix (GR 2-10dB)

This is a great alternative to Softube FET style compression.  I was initially hesitance to include this in the original chain because I’ve seen soo much negative feedback about the old Sonitus plugins from the community over the years and wanted to focus on plugins and modules that people were more acquainted with.  There are still quite a few people in these communities using stuff from older Sonar installs in the new Bandlab Cakewalk. I touched on the negativity briefly with the Sonitus EQ, but if Cakewalk (whoever developing it) ever gets a more robust, modern UI for all of the Sonitus plugins, I’d definitely swap out the Sonitus for it.

I plan to create a new, alternate preset version soon that already has this substitution and will be available as a separate free download.

Your Burning Questions Answered!

I hope this helped you find the answer to the question, Can stock plugins in Cakewalk achieve high-quality mastering?  More importantly, uncover the perspectives and reasons why or why not.  However, If you want to know why mastering is so important, I’d recommend reading my previous article titled just that: “Why is Mastering So Important?“.

I’ve been mastering 1 song per day as part of the Mastering Gauntlet Challenge.    The goal is to master a song a day through September for artists by October 1st, 2019.  However, we didn’t hit our submission quota and we need your help!  If you have an electronic production and want FREE mastering, head over to our submission page here and send us your mix!

Each day, I record walk-throughs where I dive in and explain my approach to mastering the philosophies and dilemmas that crop up with each mix.  Come October, I’ll start releasing each episode and take the questions I’ve received as they apply to the mastering job I’ve done, and answer them.

This would be the perfect time to answer questions you may have about mastering.  What would you like to know?  Leave your comments below and I’ll make sure I address them specially tailored to fellow Cakewalk users!

Need your song mastered?  I offer free mix critiques and mastering previews!  Reach out to me with a brief description of your project, and what your goals are with this release and your brand!  I’d love to hear from you.

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