Resident Advisor Review
Producers and technically-minded musicians of all stripes love to obsess over master buss processing. Combinations of compressors, stereo imagers, saturators, limiters and EQs are treated like secret weapons that promise to give your tracks the extra special "something" that separates the mediocre from the exceptional. Even for those that are wary of illusory silver bullets, the promise of a quick fix can be distracting. The irony is, if you've taken proper care of more boring but important factors like instrumentation, structure and balance, master buss processing should, at best, be a barely perceptible garnish before sending your tracks to mastering. And even if you're doing your own rudimentary mastering of a demo, for example, those aforementioned factors play such a bigger role in determining a track's quality as to make fussing over the master buss immaterial.
Of course, this sort of perspective doesn't hold much weight in the world of production software marketing, and multi-purpose master buss plug-ins have proliferated. The trend has been to bundle different types of processing into a single plug-in, giving users access to powerful combinations of effects that you could only otherwise achieve with multiple, more expensive plug-ins. Some come with advanced control sets, like the iZotope Neutron, while others boil things down to a single knob. Sample Magic's Boost falls toward the latter camp, coming with a spartan set of dials for compression, tone, width and limiting, switches labelled "boost" and "brick" and input and output controls. A single knob controls multiple parameters simultaneously but rather than giving you access to the particulars, Boost encourages you to start at a preset and tinker from there. While some may baulk at the simplicity, there's something to be said for mixing with intuition and following your ears rather than worrying about the miniature of thresholds, envelopes and whatnot. And there's nothing to stop you using Boost on auxiliary channels or as inserts, expanding its remit beyond the master buss.
After placing Boost on the master for the first time, it's apparent that you need to pull the output level down by around 4-5db in order to keep the gain staging in order. Otherwise, everything sounds bigger, brighter, wider and "better" but the high jumps in overall output mean that you're flying blind. However, it dawned on me that every single preset has different degrees of make-up gain and crossover frequencies, and so required differing levels of gain adjustment. It seems better to just barrel in without paying too much mind to such issues, let the algorithms do their thing and follow your ears. Trying to figure out what was happening just slowed things down. So after building a basic loop with no processing whatsoever, I chose the "Transparent Master" preset, matched the output levels and compared the results.
As you'd expect, we're dealing in minor subtitles. But they do add up. A bit of extra high-end gives the hats and clap a hint of a glassy glint, everything is pushed to front without being overbearing, the soundstage feels more open and the low-mid range has gelled slightly. For dance music in particular, I found the Colour control rarely needed to breach 40% as the mix can take on the hissy brittleness associated with the super-loud mixes of radio music. The same goes for the Stereo control. At low levels it does a nice job of making a bit a space for the top end of percussive elements like hats and snares but push it too far and you get a weird, splayed sound stage. The interaction between the compression and the Colour parameter leads to some presets having distinct tonal qualities, as if you can see the EQ peaks shifting about while you scroll through the options. As such, I get the sense that users will find a few presets and zero in on those few choices exclusively.
I found that Boost became more versatile when taken off the master buss and set to groups and auxiliary channels. Sculpting an entire mix is obviously quite different from working with individual elements and I found the latter task made better use of Boost's tonal range. Where a certain preset might sound too bright and compressed on the master, it could sound great on an effected sample or synth or in parallel to a percussion buss. In this instance, I broke the low content, percussion and atmospheric elements into groups and inserted instances of Boost on to each. Yet again, the effects are minor but certainly add a degree of edge. The hats are now pretty in your face, giving the balance a metallic edge and a greater perceived loudness. The low-end is rounder but perhaps we've lost a touch of mid-range—we're almost getting into smiley-face EQ territory.
It must be said that a bunch of the presets sound very good for bouncing out demos to test outside of wherever you're working on your music. It can also help out problematic mixes, although of course you would recommend working on your mix rather than buying a plug-in as a bandaid. Boost probably functions best for these purposes—you mightn't have it on your master buss when you're bouncing out a pre-master but you might if you were bouncing a demo to play in the club. Also, if you're at a stage where you don't have a lot of high-end plug-ins (which really isn't the end of the world), Boost is an affordable and easy way to carry out tasks that you mightn't be able to achieve with your DAW's stock offering. For those with folders and folders of plug-ins already, you might appreciate having greater clarity about what's actually happening to your mix than Boost can provide. But even so, there are some algorithms here that are pretty slamming for a little over 100 Euro.