The MDWDRC2-Native represents a paradigm shift in dynamic processing for plug-ins. Rather than a traditional compressor or limiter, this is a comprehensive dynamic conditioning tool. Massenburg DesignWorks, headed by none other than engineer/producer/gear designer George Massenburg [Tape Op #54, #63], has finally released a plug-in that reflects the decades-long evolution of his legendary GML 8900 dynamic range controller hardware. The term “dynamic range controller” indicates, as you will see, that this is more than a simple compressor. The GML 8900 is considered the holy grail by the few people lucky enough to own one.
Standard compressors and limiters respond to a signal's average or peak electrical level over time. The MDWDRC2 detects the signal's loudness much in the same way the human brain does. Its patented dynamic range control technology – VEA (variable exponent averager) – enables it to analyze and react to both the average/RMS and peak levels of the audio signal simultaneously. To better understand the significance of this type of control, let's consider our intentions when managing a lead vocal in a mix.
First, it is important to ensure that the lead vocal does not become too quiet and cause the words to be lost, particularly when a singer trails off at the end of a phrase or swallows a word before taking a breath. To address this issue, one approach is to manually automate the gain of the signal to boost the volume of the quieter phrases before the signal hits any additional dynamic or harmonic processing. The MDWDRC2 automates this process by applying a user-controlled amount of gain to the signal below the compressor's threshold. This differs from simply increasing the input level of the compressor, as it only amplifies the low-level signals without raising the volume of sounds that are already above the threshold.
Second, we must maintain a balanced mix by preventing the vocal's loud phrases from overpowering the rest of the mix. This can be achieved using an RMS-style compressor. The MDWDRC2's Main compressor utilizes a true-RMS detector to analyze and control the loudness of the signal. This detector's response imitates the frequency sensitivities of human hearing by employing an ITU Broadcasting Service 1770 sidechain filter. LUFS meters, which gauge the loudness of audio signals, employ this same 1770 filter. The attack and release controls of the MDWDRC2 are symmetrically linked and managed by a single Timing control, providing transparent and musical tracking of the signal’s energy.
Third, a limiter may be necessary to regulate any short volume peaks that get past the compressor. The limiter’s timing and sensitivity should be tuned to complement the behavior of the compressor to ensure seamless control of the vocal, whether it’s gently riding the overall level or quickly tamping down peaks in the signal. The MDWDRC2 provides a peak-detecting compression section that operates in parallel with the Main RMS-detecting section. The MDWDRC2 constantly hands-off control between the RMS and peak detectors, transparently optimizing the loudness of the signal.
The MDWDRC2, following in the footsteps of the GML 8900 hardware, is capable of controlling either an instrument, a subgroup in a mix, an entire mix bus, or a master in a way that no other single processor can. I found the key to optimizing this plug-in was to always adjust parameters while listening to a signal in the context of the mix. The controls interact with each other, so dialing in an optimum setting is a series of moves that will play one control against the others. Using the plug-in quickly becomes intuitive, and it’s shockingly good at controlling lead instruments, drum busses, and full mixes. While this is generally a transparent processor, the controls can be tweaked to introduce obvious artifacts for added harmonic growl and even distortion effects. This processor is not meant to replace your favorite vintage FET, optical, or tube-based compressor, but rather to optimize the signal before hitting those compressors and allowing them to behave more predictably. You may find, as I do, that transparent processing of lead instruments is actually the desired result for a vast majority of sounds in a mix.
During my use, the plug-in was excellent at controlling vocal levels across many musical genres. Instead of relying on a typical vocal chain consisting of a Waves MV2 for low-level upward expansion, followed by an FET-style compressor for peak control, and then a tube-based unit for gentle gain-riding, I was able to replace the entire chain with just one instance of the MDWDRC2, and it sounded excellent. This allowed me to save time and brain power on clip gain automation and focus more on the creative mixing process.
Since there are no pre-existing vocal presets, I developed my own recipe. First, I adjust the threshold to get a few dB of gain reduction on loud passages. Then, I fine tune the compression by adjusting the knee and ratio. Next, I play a passage with a wider range of dynamics and use the Main slider to bring up any quiet phrases. If any words or phrases still stand out too much, I pull down the Peak control. With this method, the average vocal level remained constant and the quiet and loud parts moved closer to the average level. The default Timing and Exponent settings worked well, and I only found it necessary to speed up the Timing control when using heavy amounts of compression for more pronounced effects. Additionally, I found it beneficial to set up the compressor and compare the result with and without the 1770 filter engaged. Full mixes and busses generally benefitted from the filter, while individual tracks sometimes worked better without it. With individual tracks, I also rarely found the need to adjust the Exponent or Release Override controls.
While mastering a mix that simply needed a bit of a hug to glue it together, I found the default Timing settings, a 1.5 dB boost of the Main control, and a ratio of 1.7:1 produced a subtle increase in density during the soft intro along with a slight amount of glue during the loud passages, without any obvious compression artifacts. In mastering, I often struggle to find a compressor that doesn't detract from the mix in some way, whether it is a change in tone, diminished stereo width, or loss of power in the lower octave. The MDWDRC2 provided the compression effect that this mix needed without any of those unwanted artifacts. I can see this processor becoming a permanent part of my mastering chain.
The MDWDRC2 also includes look ahead control, an external sidechain input, a bypass gain control for level-matched bypass, output gain, a few useful presets, and the ability to store A and B snapshots to compare and fine-tune your settings. The plug-in window can be resized to accommodate different screen resolutions. If you’re open to a fresh approach to dynamic processing, this plug-in will be an invaluable tool.