Mastering is a process applied to a track as a whole that seeks to optimize playback for mass consumption across multiple mediums and formats. This process typically involves a set of specialised audio tools capable of manipulating an entire track’s signal in meaningful and beneficial ways. This article will focus on how we can harness the power of computer based audio plugins to master our own tracks.
Equalization is one of the most important and critical processes used in mastering and the one that involves the highest number of tasks and techniques. For this reason, it’s important to pick an equalizer equipped with all the necessary features.
The EQ can be either hardware modelled or parametric, but it’s important that it include at least Stereo Placement and Solo Mode for each band. Fabfilter’s Pro Q-3 is an excellent choice that provides these and many other advanced features.
A good way to start equalizing your master is to place a low cut filter around 20Hz to remove unwanted and unnecessary rumble that is only eating away your headroom. Next, you can place a second low cut filter with its Stereo Placement set to Side in order to remove stereo information from your low end. You can use the Solo switch to set up this cut more effectively.
Another important task to perform at the start of your mastering session is to remove unwanted resonances that may occur all across the frequency spectrum. This can be done manually by sweeping the spectrum with a band in Solo mode and setting up cuts on the offending frequencies, or automatically with plugins like Oeksound’s Soothe.
The mid range is a good place to set up some boosts in your master. These boosts should be performed with relatively wide Bell filters and not exceed the 3dbs of Gain. You can use the Solo button and then sweep the boosting bands across the mid range to find the best frequencies to boost.
One other EQ step that most masters can benefit from is a broad high-shelf boost in the Side channel on the upper mids. This boost can widen the stereo image considerably and add a lot of clarity, energy and definition to the track. Again, you can use the Solo switch to isolate the boosted area and hear more accurately what’s being added to the original signal.
Saturation can add a lot of excitement and energy to a master if done correctly. For this, it’s important that the Saturation plugin we pick be multiband. This will allow us to use different settings across the frequency spectrum. One of the best candidates for multiband saturation in the market is Fabfilter’s Saturn.
A common starting point for multiband saturation in a mastering session is to disable the low range band to keep the low end tight. Then apply around 50% of saturation to the mid range as a whole or break it down into two or three narrower bands for a more fine grained control over the low and upper midrange separately. The high range band can also be disabled or barely engaged in order to avoid harshness and sibilance.
There are several saturation models to pick from, including Tube, Tape, and Amp emulations. I find Tube saturation to be the best for mastering, as it is very smooth and transparent, but if you want more dirt and grit in your master, you can experiment with Tape. Amp saturation is also a good choice, if you’re after a more classical and retro sound.
Compression also plays a big role in mastering, allowing us to control the dynamics and loudness of our master. There are two main techniques used in mastering compression, each of which require different types of compressors: a multiband compressor for multiband compression, and a regular compressor for parallel compression.
Parallel compression is achieved by setting up a regular compressor on a return track with pretty extreme compression settings such as a threshold of -18dbs or lower and the ratio cranked up all the way up. This highly compressed duplicate signal can then be dialed in on top of the original signal, adding lots of excitement and presence without eating up much headroom.
A multiband compressor can also work wonders on a master by being able to do precise adjustments on the dynamics and loudness of the track all across the frequency spectrum, allowing us to further shape the tone of our master. As a general rule, try using low ratios of around 2dbs in all your bands and boost the gain in the mid range if needed without going much further up than 3dbs.
Limiting should be the final link in your master chain to prevent unwanted peaks in your signal. Limiting can also be used to maximise the loudness of your master in case all the previous stages in the mastering chain haven’t taken your track to the desired loudness target. This is rarely necessary if you do all the previous steps right and don’t need to exceed the standard -14lufs of loudness recommended for streaming.
In case you do need to exceed the standard streaming loudness target, consider using a limiter with True Peak Limiting and Oversampling in order to avoid inter sample distortion and audio aliasing, as well as an Audio Limiting switch to being able to hear the artifacts and distortion introduced into the original signal in isolation as the track’s loudness is maximised. An excellent Limiter with these and other advanced features is Fabfilter’s Pro-L 2.
Here concludes this introduction to mastering where we have delved into the most common concepts, processes and techniques used in mastering along with some basic guidelines and recommendations to get you to start mastering your own tracks.