Peter Brandt has made his career out of live recording, live mixing and mastering performances for television, radio, DVDs, etc. for more than 30 years. He's worked with The Rolling Stones, Queen, Sting, Bon Jovi, Michael Jackson, AC/DC, Genesis, Lionel Richie, Robbie Williams, Pavarotti and won a Grammy award for his engineering of Randy and Michael Brecker.
Five years ago, if you would have asked Brandt, the CEO and Chief Engineer of the Remote Recording Network in Germany, about mastering his live mixes with plugins, he would have said, "never, ever." But that was before he worked with Plugin Alliance plugins from the likes of Brainworx, elysia and Maag. "It's a new experience," he said. "The quality is so good in this stuff, I think there's no way around it; this is the future."
Remote Recording Network has a fleet of trucks and vans with nothing but the best analog consoles, analog outboard, analog splitting systems, etc.—as well as two digital trucks—for handling both live audio and video on location for some of the biggest festivals and events in Europe from pre to post: transmission, recording, mixing, mastering, duplication and publishing. While it has an established clientele, things are changing. To stay competitive, Brandt recently founded the spin-off business RemoteTaxi, for hosting slimmed-down digital live audio systems in a typical London cab.
In June of this year, Brandt took the RED 2 truck to do the live audio broadcast of a gig he'd handled before, the Rock am Ring festival near the world-famous Nürburgring racetrack. This year, for the 30th anniversary of the festival, Brandt mastered the live audio for bands like the Foo Fighters, the Prodigy, Interpol, Bad Religion and Bastille with a new plugin mastering chain he had developed over about a year of experimentation in the studio.
Brandt described his goal for mastering live audio as, "getting more power and clarity into the mix. It's comparable to studio mastering, but it's even more on the spot. What's always missing in a live television mix is the shine, power, punch and the compression you normally don't get when you don't have a mastering chain involved. Most people have standard bus compression and maybe an EQ on the live mix, and when you listen to this later, it's not clear enough, not direct enough. You can add all this with the help of the plugins."
Brandt first connected with Waves plugins, but he still wasn't convinced to switch to all-plugin mixing until trying Plugin Alliance products. "For my taste, there's a huge difference in quality between Plugin Alliance and other stuff," he said. "The quality is amazing."
Through trial and error over about a year in the studio, Brandt arrived at his mastering chain including three of the five plugins from Plugin Alliance. His first locked-in choice was Brainworx bx_control V2 for its Stereo Width control and M/S matrix. He then decided on the elysia alpha compressor. "It's very fine device," he said. "It does very little to the mix; it just opens up the signal and gives it a bit more punch—not too much."
Next he chose the Maag Audio EQ4 for its Air Band and to cut off a little bit around 800Hz. "There is no voodoo, it's so obvious," Brandt said about EQ4. "Instantly you hear a difference. What we call the "murk," the "mmm," like the ball in your mouth—goes away. The Air Band is amazing on the Maag. You just work it a tiny bit on some frequencies—you don't add; you take stuff away—and you hear the mix is clearer."
In the mastering chain, he also uses Waves HEQ for "very tiny adjustments" and the Waves L3 Ultramaximizer as a brickwall limiter "just to be sure I don't hit zero on the console." However, he's quick to add that he does not put the limiter last in the chain. Instead, it's important to put bx_control V2 after the limiter. "I use the Brainworx M/S mode as the last in the chain," Brandt said. "That's just what I worked out in the studio, and it makes a big difference. If it sits behind the limiter, it sounds more open; you just have to be careful with your levels."
Brandt runs this mastering chain in Pro Tools 11 on a standard Apple iMac computer using the Merging Technologies Horus mic pre and AD/DA converter rack unit with Ravenna/AES67 networked audio from the digital console to the computer. Brandt of course tested the system before using it live at Rock am Ring.
"We put it on an Insert button of the console, to make sure that if it fails, if the iMac crashes, just hit the button," he said. "Obviously, nothing happened. It went flawlessly, and the plugin chain made a huge difference. The Maag EQ4 and Brainworx bx_control do so much to your mixes in a positive way. Yes, if you compare it with the hardware, there might be a little difference, but to be honest, it doesn't matter anymore. It's not 100% perfect, but you're getting close to it. And funnily enough, when you listen back to this via YouTube, even on a laptop it sounds much better. It not only works on the expensive high-end speakers you have on the truck and on the expensive home system, it also works on the iPhone, because you get more punch and more clarity. That's the interesting side effect."
Now Brandt is looking to sell off some of the very high-end hardware components that made up his previous typical mastering chain: Massenburg GML 8200 EQ, SSL bus compressor rack units, vintage outboard Neve compressors and a hardware Waves L2 Ultramaximizer mastering limiter. He says his new plugin-based mastering chain is easier and faster to achieve results for his live performance gigs, particularly when there are recalls involved. "It's the obvious choice," he said. "You're not in the studio, where you have more time to fiddle around with pans and sends and stuff. This setup makes it instantly open and wider, and using bx_control V2 is easier than trying to do M/S processing with hardware. I wouldn't even know what hardware to use for that."
Brandt has a handful more live festivals that he will work this year with the same plugin based mastering chain, including the huge Swiss festivals Energy Air in September and Energy Stars for Free in November. While Brandt is sold on mixing with plugins, the particular plugins he uses may change depending if he is mixing in the studio or live, or depending on the musical genre. And being able to quickly switch between many products is another advantage that software presents. "When I do symphony orchestra stuff, the elysia compression for instance and the bx_control V2 M/S is perfect for that. When it comes to metal, we're going to use other plugins."
His next big experiment in his ongoing conversion to plugin mixing involves putting plugins running in Pro Tools on the inserts of every channel of the digital console. "When you use Pro Tools as an insert machine, you have a system open to every plugin," Brandt said. "We just have to make sure when we have 64 or even 96 inputs that this works reliably with a latency that's doable. If it crashes, that's the downside, but I'm confident that we'll find a way to do it."
The larger task may be to finally get his co-workers to adopt plugin-based mixing and mastering, but Brandt also thinks he can do that as well. He said, "I'm trying to convince my colleagues to get rid of the hardware and use this setup, because it's easier, it's storable, and you have more ways of choosing different plugins for mastering. Actually, I prefer this way of working."