IK Multimedia T-RackS 5 by Sound-Guy
IK Multimedia T-RackS 5, ARC 2.5 & the MEMS Mic
Product Info: IK Multimedia | T-RackS 5
IK Multimedia | ARC System 2 with MEMS Microphone
All prices in US dollars or Euros.
T-RackS 5 (standard with 9 processors) $/€149.99
T-RackS 5 Deluxe (22 processors) $/€299.99
T-RackS 5 Max (38 processors) from $/€299.99 depending on what IK Multimedia products you have - $/€499.99 if you have no credits with IKM.
Mic Room Processor from IK Multimedia Custom Shop is $/€69.99
ARC 2.5 with MEMS Mic is $/€199.99
MEMS Mic alone is $/€69.99
ARC 2.5 software alone is free for ARC 2.x owners.
If you’ve been recording or mixing audio for any length of time you have likely found IK Multimedia (IKM), who have been developing both software tools and hardware for almost twenty years. One of their products that I’ve found to be extremely valuable in my studio is the Advanced Room Correction system known as ARC. First introduced in 2007, it was the first software based room correction product, and came with a “flat” measurement condenser microphone that the software used to evaluate and correct frequency bumps and dips in a room. In 2013 they released version 2 with better software and an improved mic.
However, condenser mics are subject to unit to unit variation, and drift in frequency response over time, as much as several dB. Although the software took into account the nominal initial performance of each mic model, there could be some inaccuracy introduced by a particular mic. IKM has recently introduced ARC 2.5 that introduces the ability to use a new, very accurate mic. The software is free to current ARC 2.x owners (and will be familiar with little change other than the new mic choice, though it has better resolution in the low frequency band), and the new MEMS mic alone costs about $70, which is not much considering what this mic can do. If you don’t have ARC 2.x already, the software with mic is normally $200 (but on sale thru December 31, 2017 for $150).
A New Mic
MEMS stands for MicroElectro Mechanical Systems, a technology that was first used in ink jet printers. It has been extended to many applications including airbag deployment sensors and valve stem tire pressure sensors. And almost every tablet, phone and game controller uses MEMS gyroscopes and tilt sensors for detecting orientation and movement. MEMS mics have been available since the early 2000’s, and have been used by the billions in phones, tablets and laptops, but have not been used in any studio grade microphones up to now. Their extremely small diaphragms yield lower signal-to-noise ratios than we like in a studio mic. But that may change in the next few years with new MEMS technologies, and for a measurement mic, the signal to noise issue is not a serious problem, especially considering the upside of these mics. They are extremely consistent from one unit to the next. Millions of them can be made with frequency responses tracking within half a dB. And unlike traditional condensers, they are extremely rugged to physical shock and very stable over time.
About now you may be wondering why I’m explaining the new ARC MEMS mic in an article that started off titled T-RackS 5? I’ll get back to that soon! T-RackS 5 is the latest version of the now 18 year old mastering and mixing suite of compressors, limiters, EQs and reverbs. It has four new processors that possibly alone are worth the price of the $150 basic version. And it can utilize ARC 2.x in its monitor output without applying the effect to the audio rendering which saves needing to turn off ARC each time you render.
However, there is one processor module I want to focus on while the MEMS mic is fresh in your mind, the Mic ROOM. This processor comes with either the Deluxe version or the Max version of T-Racks 5. However, you can purchase the Mic ROOM plug-in alone for use either in T-RackS or in your DAW for $70 (yes, on sale for $35 before December 31, 2017). The MEMS mic is $70 as mentioned.
Why do I mention these together? Because the Mic ROOM has emulations of twenty rather fine and classic mics, including the Shure Model 55, the classic dynamic mic introduced in 1939 (and still in production), the Electro-Voice RE20, Sennheiser MD421, AKG C12 and C414, Neumann CMV-563, TLM 170, U67 and U87, and ribbons like the Royer R121 and Beyerdynamic M160. And the Mic ROOM processor uses a specified source mic, including all the mics in its emulation set, plus some others. Of course using a Shure SM58 with its limited bandwidth as the source mic will not likely result in the best U67 output! However, the MEMS mic has a frequency response from 20 Hz to 20 kHz that is calibrated in the software to within +/- 0.5 dB. It is an omni mic with no proximity boost, but the Mic ROOM has a control to add a controlled amount of proximity bass boost from none to very pronounced - in fact, it can also reduce the bass boost from a recording made with a cardioid mic. And it has a distortion control to add a bit of tube warmth. There is no added latency using the MIC ROOM over your system settings - 32 samples in your interface gets you 32 samples of delay. Of course you can track using a zero latency mode and then play with mic types, proximity FX and tube warmth in the mix!
There are a few mic emulation systems with both hardware and software components now on the market from a bit under $1,000 to about $1,500, but for the budget studio wanting to bring some classic and top line mics into their repertoire, the MEMS mic and the Mic ROOM plug-in can do a pretty decent job. I ran tests of all the mic emulations using pink noise (20-20 kHz) to see how the spectral plots varied, while listening to the output, and, I could clearly see and hear the differences. Pink noise is a good test signal since it is perceived as sounding flat over its bandwidth because it has equal power per octave. I also tried recording my voice using the MEMS mic, which by itself is not very flattering for anyone, being very flat itself, but running the results through the MIC ROOM I was able to hear distinct differences and found I preferred the classic Shure Model 55, favored by Elvis, Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Dinah Shore, Dean Martin, Toni Bennett, Tom Petty, LeAnn Rimes, Metallica, and Mariah Carey, among others. Your choice may vary!
I noted that MEMS mics are noisier than we like in a quiet studio, so is the ARC MEMS really usable? In fact it’s equivalent noise level (or “self-noise”) is rated at 29 dB (A), which is a SNR of 65 dB(A). While this may sound quite high compared to a Shure KSM44A with self-noise level of 4 dB, the Shure Beta 98A condenser mic has self-noise of 30 dB (A), and costs about $200 itself. The sensitivity of the ARC MEMS mic is not rated by IKM, but I measured it to be about -37.5 dB (rel 1v/Pa) or 13.3 mV/Pa, which is typical for a small capsule capacitor mic, and 10 dB more (3.3 times) the sensitivity of the Shure Beta 98A. So not a problem with any good preamp.
I would not use the ARC MEMS or Beta 98A mic to record a quiet string quartet, but rock music, a vocalist, or such instruments as horns with close miking would work fine as long as the maximum sound level is within spec (124 dB max, no distortion figure given - but at that level your ears would distort badly, and permanently!). In my vocal tests the noise level was not intrusive and would be masked by a musical performance. And I sometimes add noise to a mix, such as using a tape emulation plug-in, so noise is not always a bad thing! Vinyl, which some people still say sounds the best of any media, has a SNR of 60 to 70 dB (some say 80 dB, yeah, sure, maybe on a brand new disk, for the first few playings), and the old compact audio cassette that some of us grew up with was lucky to hit 50 dB.
Back to the ARC
If you don’t have the ARC system in your studio, you should consider it. Of course, you should first apply whatever acoustic treatment you can afford to eliminate reflections and standing waves. There are many articles online and in the usual recording engineering magazines to help with this. You can spend as little as a couple hundred dollars using a DIY approach, or you can spend well over a thousand dollars using commercial absorption and diffraction panels, and bass traps. But once you’ve tamed the reflections and standing waves to within 5 to 10 dB or so, it will likely cost a small fortune to make the room any better, especially the bass frequencies. In my experience, ARC 2.5 will deliver a much better result than $200 worth of additional sound control material. My own studio has moderately good sound treatment but still had bass build-up and a few peaks and dips in the 6 dB range (and one frequency peak as large as 10 dB). Using ARC 2.5 tames the room to about +/- 1 dB from 35 Hz to 20 kHz. And my subwoofer delivers down to 25 Hz at -4 dB, though I often mix with it turned off (and use a different ARC correction setting).
T-RackS 5 is the latest incarnation of the standalone mastering program, and all its processor modules can also be used in a DAW for mixing or mastering duties. It can use any of the 38 processors that IKM has in its Custom Shop, up to 16 in the standalone version. And just having discussed ARC, the standalone T-RACKs version will use your ARC correction module if you have one on your computer without using up one of the 16 processor slots.
This latest incarnation includes some fine new features and four new processors, ONE, an 'all-in-one' mastering box, EQual, an EQ.with ten bands of hybrid parametric control and filters modeled on classic API, Neve, and SSL consoles, Dyna-Mu, a compressor based on the variable mu (gain) tube compressor design, and Master Match, a slightly new twist on corrective EQ, somewhat like Voxengo's Curve EQ or Tokyo Dawn Labs’ Nova GE. These four new processors are included in all three paid versions of T-RackS 5. Most of the 38 IKM processors include left-right and mid-sides processing with separate controls for each channel - mid-sides processing is crucial for mastering and often valuable during mixing.
T-RackS 5 has updated the software and added a new user interface that can can handle up to 4K resolution. There is a preset browser with both "global" and "module" sections, where global presets install entire mastering chains with all their settings (up to 16 modules), and module presets affect only the chosen module. You can view either the FX chain or the waveform of the current audio file in the large lower pane while the upper pane shows the currently selected FX processor with adjustable controls.
You can also have one parallel path placed in combination with the main processor chain. There is a Module Browser in the lower right that enables adding processor modules to the processing chain - just click and drag a module to where you wish it to be. You can open multiple files in the standalone version which will be shown in a "clip list" window with information about each file, allowing you to select one for processing in the FX chain. Selecting a clip opens the file and all the modules with settings that were previously used with that file, and each file can have a unique processing chain. And of course you can save everything as a T-RackS project. Multiple files can be viewed in a new Assembly window, alternately laid out on a pair of tracks, each with its own processing chain, for creating an album sequence for CDs, download services or streaming media. You can add/edit DDP, WAV-Cue and PQ sheets, and export audio with appropriate metadata.
T-RackS 5 has a new metering suite with comprehensive meters and graphic displays. There is a fixed meter group in the upper right of the main window in both standalone and DAW versions, and you can also open up a floating version with even more displays. The scales and responses meet ITU-R BS1770-4, and show loudness, phase information, dynamic range, and even a spectrogram. Everything you need in these days of loudness standards. And there is an equal loudness mode in the standalone version (they call it equal gain, which is not strictly correct) that can correct the processed sound to match the unprocessed (bypassed) sound, but only if the processed level is higher than the source level.
How Does it Sound?
I won’t describe all the 38 processors (see the IKM site - it is very well designed so you can quickly view details for any of the processors, try any of them for free, and buy the ones you like), but I will say that the audio quality and processing effects are as good as I’ve found anywhere. Several of the analog ‘boxes’ sound very analog, and provide that ‘glue’ to mixes as fine as I have heard. I especially like the new Dyna-Mu compressor which is just lovely, and EQual EQ which is both very precise and very ‘analog’ when needed. I found that Master Match was actually able to improve some ‘final’ mixes better than I would have believed possible, but this is a very subjective thing. The ‘all-in-one’ mastering box, ONE, also proved to be impressive on some tracks, though I’m used to using a processing chain of my choice, which T-RackS provides in spades. I should mention the 1176 and LA2A emulations - I have several of these already from other vendors, a couple costing well over $100 - but I find these IKM emulations to be the best sounding ones I have heard. Another very impressive processor is the EQ 432, an emulation of the Sontec 432c, a box that literally costs as much as a good used car! I don’t have the real hardware, but the IKM emulation sounds excellent to me, and provides very precise, step-settings of all controls. There are another 31 processors with some fine EQs, a good De-Esser, more compressors and limiters, some distortion tools, and a nice tape echo machine.
One criticism of T-RackS is that it cannot use third party VST plug-ins in its standalone mode. While this is true, you can use any of the IKM plug-ins in your DAW as 64 bit AU, VST2, VST3, or AAX plug-ins, along with any of your usual plug-ins, so it’s not all that bad..And the IKM processors are so good that I’ll be using many of them in my DAW from now on.
More excellent tools from IK Multimedia with a reasonable price considering the quality and capability. ARC 2.5 will impress you if you haven’t tried it, and even at the list price of $200 is a good value (and includes the new mic). T-RackS 5 provides a great price per module if you “Max out”, and even with the lessor versions. And you can audition any of the processor modules before deciding which to buy, so other than possibly depleting your check book, there is little risk involved!.
Pro: Standalone version allows working on multiple files with separate processing chains for each file, and saves all settings like any good DAW. And you can use the T-RackS mastering system in your DAW as well as using the individual plug-ins as normal 64 bit AU, VST2, VST3, or AAX units.
Speaking of plug-ins, there are many excellent plug-ins in the Deluxe and Max versions, with an adequate set in the standard version. And the cost per module gets very low if you buy one of the bundles, especially the Deluxe or Max versions.
The new Assembly window provides a clear editable view of multiple audio files and their relative time positions. You can edit and export track data including DDP 2.5 (Disc Description Protocol), Wav Cue and PQ sheet information
Very comprehensive metering suite with ITU-R BS1770-4 compliant measuring modes. And meters can be used freely in your DAW.
Integration of ARC 2.x room correction system is excellent, placing it in the monitor output while not employing it in the final audio processing.
Equal Loudness mode when bypass is engaged helps identify changes to audio without loudness bias.
In short, good value for money - the more you spend, the more you save! If you already have some of the IKM plug-ins in your computer, they will discount the price of the Max version appropriately.
IKM's Custom Shop makes it very easy to evaluate and purchase any of the plug-ins you do not already have (maybe too easy!). And you can use any plug-in for two weeks before having to buy it (or decide against it, which is unlikely!).
Gotta be pretty good stuff since Tom Lord-Alge, Nick Davis, Matty Amendola and other Grammy winners claim to use a number of IKM products!
Con: The Custom Shop makes it very easy to audit and purchase any of their plug-ins you do not already have, so you can quickly max out your credit card!
Standalone version cannot use your stash of VST, AAX or AU plug-ins.
Both ARC 2.5 and T-RackS 5 are 64 bit programs in case you are using an ancient 32 bit operating system.
Some "gray-on-gray' graphics in T-RackS that may be difficult to decipher on some older displays such as TN (twisted nematic) LCDs. Look fine on a good IPS display.