Before I settled on MasterCheck, the TT Dynamic Range Meter had been the centerpiece of my metering. Although I felt totally comfortable with that one, it was stuck in 32-bit mode, and when Logic went to 64-bit only, I felt it was time to move on.
The winning feature on the TT Dynamic Range Meter’s was its RMS metering display, and several other companies expanded upon this design to varying degrees of accuracy. Then, I discovered MasterCheck.
MasterCheck is among a select group of plugins that the mastering community deems accurate. All the measurements reference “ITU-R BS.1770”. That is to say that this is a Loudness Unit meter, not a conventional dB or RMS meter.
More recently, NUGEN has released the MasterCheck Pro update, which expands the existing set of tools, enabling you to work directly with the codecs and volume levels used by popular streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music.
Note that the MasterCheck plugins aren’t designed for the audio-post community. NUGEN has its own surround-capable solution for this market in its VisLM 2 plugin.
If you’re not familiar with the terrain of modern mastering, here’s a very brief summary: In the past, when we used to cut masters for CD, the main measurement devices we used were Peak and RMS (average) level meters. Master levels for CD grew very high because the CD itself embodied a fixed end-level for the product. Record labels and artists kept pushing for the maximum because, “louder sounds better,” which resulted in the average level of rock or pop CDs coming in at about -8RMS. Loud, but potentially, grating and lifeless.
Various agencies then moved to provide guidelines for loudness, as the general perception of producers and mastering engineers was such that the quality of music production was being stymied by excessive compression in order to achieve ear-shattering levels. So, the ITU and EBU both developed industry standards which has produced a new measure of loudness: The Loudness Unit.
The idea is that if we have a common unit of measurement, we can all work to that standard. The measure of loudness over the entire length of the program material is its “Integrated Loudness” level.
Many of the major streaming services (Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, etc.,) have implemented systems to keep the user experience as even and seamless as possible in terms of playback level. Loud tracks are turned down to a nominal LU (Loudness Unit) level for playback and quiet tracks are turned up to match that level. This process is known as “Loudness Normalization”, or “Replay Gain”.
What this means for your master is that concerns over achieving maximum relative loudness are no longer as important, because any attempts to increase the level of your tracks beyond a certain point could be overridden downstream. No longer is the final level of the track’s playback embodied in the file as it was with CD. Although the relative level of your tracks may change from platform to platform, the element that is far less likely to change is the dynamic range within the track.
That’s where MasterCheck Pro comes in. Let’s see what it has to offer.
Features and Use
Available for $199, MasterCheck Pro is compatible with Mac OS X and Windows in VST2, VST3, AU, AAX and RTAS plug-in formats. It gives you an accurate ITU 3-second “Short Term” measurement of Loudness Units (LU), which to me, is reminiscent of VU metering.
Note that there is no “Momentary” reading on this plugin, but I don’t find this to be an issue as that is almost akin to reading a Peak dBFS meter and not very helpful when setting relative song levels in mastering.
MasterCheck Pro also shows you the Peak to Loudness Ratio (PLR). This is the difference between the loudest signal and overall average, measured over 3 seconds. By carefully monitoring the PLR, you can see how much the mix is being compressed, irrespective of the output level. For me, if you can keep the PLR between 8-12 LU you will have a modern punchy mix that retains dynamics and will suit both downloads and streaming.
Visually, MasterCheck Pro is easy on the eyes…and rightfully so! When mastering, my eyes tend to reference the PLR and LU meter every 10 seconds or so. MasterCheck Pro’s GUI is uncluttered: PLR at the top, Integrated Level beneath, and Short Term meter to the left. NUGEN gives you the option of fine-tuning the color scheme of the volume gradations for LU level, PLR and True Peak (more on True Peak later).
In my mastering process, there will typically be several meters open, such as MeterPlugs’ Dynameter and LCAS
MasterCheck Pro also allows you to monitor clipping in detail. One of the by-products of codecs is that the level can sum at the output to greater than it was at the input, due to signal modulation. A file normalised to 0dBFS will almost certainly show clipping if it has been changed into an MP3 or AAC file. Similarly, files played through streaming codecs could clip. True Peak metering (displayed large and clear on the right of the GUI) provides you with an adjusted level to help avoid clipping.
In addition, MasterCheck Pro boasts a wealth of additional features, such as Codec View, which (although not scaleable in its rather large display) allows you to flip between Compact and Codec in the settings shown below. This incorporates an Encode section showing up to five streaming profiles (consisting of Codec and Data Rate).
Something I hadn’t really thought about before is the effect of data quality on clipping. Spotify for instance has three different codecs for mobile, desktop and premium. What MasterCheck Pro will tell you is how close you are to clipping across all of the output options simultaneously. Up to five mini meters can monitor clipping directly below the main True Peak meters.
In the above picture, the streaming profile for iPlayer is loaded. You will see in the bottom center four “Profiles.” These go from high bit rate streaming to low bit rate at the bottom. Notice that as the data rate drops, the clipping increases—this is useful information in establishing the sweet spot for a maximized but safe level.
The codec is the engine that compresses the data, and each codec removes different elements of the frequency spectrum and stereo field. If you want to actually monitor the audio quality, you can flick between Meter and Monitor mode. Meter will give you the visual data but with the unprocessed audio. Monitor will output the sound after the codec.
A lovely extra is a Delta button, which allows you to monitor the differential pre and post processing. With this button engaged, you can flick though the various data rates and codecs to hear what each will remove, and the results are quite shocking. This feature could easily lead you back to tweaking your mix to compensate.