The Legendary Audio Masterpiece 2 is a comprehensive
2-bus analog processing system conceived by Billy Stull and designed by Rupert Neve. Physically, the Masterpiece is a 6RU-height 19" rack unit that resembles a console miniaturized for mastering engineers. In addition to a fixed main input/output module, there are "channel strips", in this case four stereo pairs. Users can choose the standard configuration, short-load the unit, or something in between. As of this writing, there are four different modules (covered below). I evaluated the "default" configuration for the review as I suspect many owners stay with this setup.
So what makes this version the Masterpiece 2? The original debuted at the 117th AES Convention in 2004 with a $19,000 price tag. Working with end users, Legendary Audio continued to make refinements with the design. The new version incorporates many of these updates and sells at a significantly lower $14,500. The pleasant surprise is that the lower price is coupled with improvements in performance. For example, moving the internal supply outboard meant less heat inside the frame, which allowed for the removal of cooling fans (although they are still available as a cost option, if requested). In addition, this reduced the internal noise in the system. These adjustments also lowered the noise floor in the tape texture module by 10 dB.
Because this is a unique unit, it's important to go over the features. The Main Module handles the I/O. There are no input transformers, which results in a super clean path with a typical THD of 0.0009%. Independent measurements show the Main Module is flat from 4 Hz to 120 kHz. Provisions exist for balanced and unbalanced inputs. This is convenient for rigs that run unbalanced or for keeping something like a phono preamp attached. Bright LED meters display input or output levels (selectable by pushbutton). Polarity reversal and independent input and output gains can be adjusted from +/-12 dB. A set of low and high-pass filters can be engaged, as necessary. A spatial processing section provides options to adjust width (from mono to very wide) and depth (from flat to inside out-you have to hear it to appreciate its uniqueness). The module is crowned with a pair of Rupert Neve custom-designed toroidal transformers. The heritage of these iron treasures hail from Mr. Neve's famous Air Montserrat console.
Running from left to right, the following are the default modules and some of their features. The 1515 Peak Equalizer provides three bands of Mr. Neve's custom EQ design for this mastering processor. Uniquely controlled with encoders, each band has sixteen frequency steps and a continuously-variable Q from wide (1) to narrow (5). Gain is adjustable from -15 to +15 dB in 1 dB steps. For more surgical work, the Zoom button converts the increment to 1/4 dB steps, and mastering engineers everywhere appreciate that level of control. If frequency-dependent compression is required, each band may be independently sent to the sidechain of the Another star of this show is the 1710's Tape Texture section. But first, a public sonic-service announcement. Users must exert caution in applying the Masterpiece tone-shaping sections. It's easy to overdo it. It's kind of like going to a self-serve sundae bar; if you keep adding sprinkles, nuts, whipped cream, fudge, strawberries, peanut butter chips, and so on, you forget that there was once ice cream at the bottom of your bowl. So it goes for the Masterpiece. Every song doesn't need every single topping, so tasteful restraint is in order. However, when the Tape Texture is needed, it can add a roundness and presence like no other unit I've heard. The secret is how hard you drive the unit. I'm referring to going back to the main module's input stage, not just the saturation gain. The lower the input, the more hi-fidelity the unit sounds. Warmth is gentle, round, and controlled. The harder you hit the section, the more aggressive and rock sounding. (At times, it seemed like I had run a mix through an API console, for those of you who can imagine that kind of midrange luxury.) I often found that keeping the saturation to a complete minimum was all it took to add the right amount of gloss over a mix. Again, there is some magic in the gain-staging of this box, and the only way to learn it is to try and try again.
I've been using the Masterpiece 2 for over six months, and I feel like I'm just beginning to understand the potential for this unit. In some ways, it's an Alice in Wonderland journey where you can equalize with effects (tape texture, phase filters, etc.) and compress with gain-levels or a transformer selection. Up is left and right is down, and every preconception you had about this piece of gear goes out the door. I also find that I'm doing less equalization and less compression with other units in my chain. If you are used to equalizing first, then moving to compression, you'll want to alter your approach when using the Masterpiece 2. The various filters, processes, and transformers sculpt the sound on their own. Once you find a pleasing blend from gain, transformers, and dynamics, you'll want to go back to confirm your equalization choices.
Honestly, the Masterpiece 2 would be a steal at twice the asking price. But unlike reviewers who make a claim without data or a warrant, I'll back it up. Go out and try to purchase two Rupert Neve mastering-grade compressors, 1073 modules, four bands of stereo EQ, a tape deck, stereo effects, Air Montserrat-like transformers, etc. What would that cost? Would it have the same low noise-floor as the Masterpiece? Would it be in good physical shape, allow for 1/4 dB adjustments, and possess all of the frequency-dependent input-filtering options? And most importantly, would your motley rack crew have the customer support and reliability of a newly built device? At best, one or two pieces might, but it wouldn't be the same integrated system that makes up the Masterpiece 2. ($14,500; www.legendaryaudio.com)1900 Dynamic Control section. When I first read about the Masterpiece, I was convinced that I would buy a short-loaded system just to get the equalizer and the dynamics section. Then I learned the bad news. As amazing as those sections are, they are far from being the most powerful (and coolest sections); for those we'll have to turn to the 1517 and 1710.
The 1517 includes two bands of shelf equalization and a Classic circuit. Like the 1515, the shelves provide a boost or cut of 15 dB, with the option of moving in 1/4 dB steps. Each shelf has an alternate slope, called sheen on the high shelf and glow on the low shelf. The Classic circuit contains transformers ala the historic 1073 modules. Moreover, the Classic effect can be applied to the whole mix; the low, mid, high; or any combination of these sections.
Moving along we come to the 1710 Tape/Aux/Phase module. Its Tape Texture section includes a real magnetic circuit with record drive and replay equalization electronics. That means mini-heads and real transformers! The aux section allows the insertion of outboard gear. Finally, the phase section lets you rotate phase over all or part of the signal, resulting in effects that range from subtle smoothing to radical tone bending.
The 1900 Dynamic Control can operate with hard or soft knees over ratios that span from 1:1.1 to limit (about 20:1). The sidechain can key from internal signals or from EQ bands from other Masterpiece modules. Alternatively, there is an input filter to enable spotting the compressor on specific bands.
Across the modules are five locations that have an Input Filter section. Denoted by a darker teal graphic box, they allow the user to control how much of a signal is processed by its respective effect. Via pushbuttons, users can select all, low (100 or 200 Hz), mid, high (1.2 or 2 kHz), out of phase, or any permutation of these. For example, the Tape Texture could be applied to the low end, while the Classic module is applied to the low and the mid.
Another misconception I had about the device was a distrust of the illuminated pushbuttons that appear across the face (about 144 times, to be exact). I remember writing Billy Stull back in 2005 to ask about their durability. He responded that the life of these buttons is over 10,000 pushes. That means if you pushed every button 10 times a day it would take more than 3 years to wear them out. After working with the unit, I can attest that the push buttons are not abused every day. However, the illuminated pushbuttons did irk me in a small way, particularly those positioned close to one another. Light from one button can "leak" to non-engaged neighbors. Depending on your studio lighting, this can give the false impression that some lights are depressed when they are not-not a deal breaker, but a small point worth noting. If you find that the LEDs are too bright, Legendary Audio can ship you versions configured to illuminate at 50% the standard level.
From forums and conversations, I have heard that the 1515 Equalization section is probably the most popular among current Masterpiece owners. But my favorite is the 1900 Dynamics section. It covers so much sonic ground. From fast settings at 1.1:1 ratios where it approaches the invisible smoothness of a Pendulum OCL-2, to soft-knee mid-ratio levels, and all the way to the hard-knee spank and smack of an old school JOEMEEK SC2, this guy does it all. By using the input filter, I have been able to make numerous kick drums "sit" in a mix when they were misbehaving. And I have to say I've found the results much more transparent and musical than using a multiband compressor.
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.