I receive questions about my mastering chain and how it’s all done – this is how it goes down.
• HARDWARE •
I rely for at least half of each mastering task on Audeze LCD-X headphones. Simply put, they’re awesome, and they have a flat frequency response so you know exactly what’s happening with the song. They’re unforgiving, just like you want it in objective listening, which means that music doesn’t sound good through them until the music actually does sound good – and getting there, now that’s my job! If your songs sound good on these, they sound good anywhere. I’d recommend these to anyone who takes music seriously – it may be the last pair of headphones you’ll buy.
I’m super grateful to Audeze for having me as one of their Ambassadors – it’s an honor.
My monitors are a pair of Adam s2x, which offer me superb monitoring with an even response across the frequency spectrum. They offer me an even response, which makes for a superb addition to working with Audeze headphones.
I plug them into my audio interface: Universal Audio Apollo Twin. I love their analog-modeled plug-ins, but that’s another topic.
The heart of the lab is a top-of-the-line 27″ iMac 5K with a Retina display. This provides me with enough power to run any plugins I need for any mastering job without CPU consumption becoming an issue.
The third important factor is having a few trusted reference songs that you have heard a million times – and knowing how they should sound in your listening space, because that’s how you want your masters to sound.
The fourth tool is a good visual analyser. All those four together – with knowing how the music should sound – is an unbeatable combination, and the satisfaction of my clients tells the same story.
The DAWs I use are Pro Tools 11 and Ableton Live.
I work in a medium-sized room that has a good amount of acoustics panels and some heavy self-made bass-absorbing panels I found thru a local music forum. The sound is pretty tight. Again, Audezes are great and tell me how it all sounds “outside of the monitoring room”.
On my mastering projects (I have a few for different genres), I have a few reference songs. What do the reference tracks tell me? They tell me how commercial, released, well-produced-and-well-mastered tracks should sound. It’s not like I don’t know it, but that’s what it is: reference. Reference in terms of loudness, clarity, bass weight, etc. I usually have five songs there that I have heard a million times; some are pretty much perfect, some have slight flaws (a good reference, too) etc, and those songs together tell me how my final result stands up to the reference tracks, and until it’s as “good” as them, my work isn’t done.
• THE PLUG-INS USED •
[LATER EDIT: I’m always trying out new plug-ins and following the technology, and have found it arduous to try to remember to update this post all the time – I’d rather stay busy mastering and focusing on the absolute best sound I can offer my clients – but this one’ll stay to show how it mostly is and how it once was. So, by the time you read it, this will be outdated and several changes have happened, plenty of new tools have been added to the toolkit, but at least you can see how it once was].
I do move these around a bit, so this isn’t a totally fixed order, but its the default state for my mastering project each time I load it up. Also, you may see that there’s plenty of plug-ins in the chain, and I’d like to emphasize that I do not use them all at once and I only switch on a plug-in if I feel it’s necessary. The very best premasters I get sent require little work and I may be done in 15 mins, while those that take a lot of work may take me three hours or correcting and fiddling, so that’s why I like to have all the necessary tools in my disposal.
Also, I want to make one thing clear about the mastering chain: there are absolutely no presets in my mastering chain. Every single parameter is set to default / “zero”. Every parameter that gets changed is changed by me, and only when I feel that it’s absolutely necessary. The mastering I do is 100% “tailored, custom-made” work – and that applies to every single song, from start to finish – and that’s why I am proud of what I do.
Thing is, songs are all different. This means they all have their own “mistakes”, imbalances, and things that need balancing and correcting – that’s what mastering is about to a great extent. It takes listening. It takes knowing how it has to sound. Only then you can make your judgment on what needs to be corrected and how. Presets are guesses at best, and I don’t do guesswork. Mastering a song using a preset is like making a suit for someone based on a quick look and not actual measurements.
Now that that’s been established, here we go: software/plug-ins.
Hornet VUmeter. First thing to set the level right. Sometimes I received premasters that are fairly loud, and by this simple tool, I can have the level auto-adjust to the properly quiet level to allow me plenty of headroom to work with.
Sonalksis Stereotools. Allows me to set a ”zero width below” value, which keeps the signal mono below the set frequency. Also lets me flip the phase, set overall width etc.
Acustica Audio Emerald. A high-quality mastering EQ with superb sound. I’m doing broad strokes here, trying to get it in the ballpark as much as I can, and it’s amazing what this one can do in that respect.
DMGaudio Equality EQ x 2. One set for mid, one for side. This is a very clean EQ, which is what I want at this stage. I use these to balance the sound as much as I can. That requires knowing the music and how it should sound, and these are a good starting point for me in making the songs sound like how I’d like them to. Most often the songs I handle need a boost around mids and some high-shelving. Some need a bit of a bass boost or cut, and I usually handle that by low-shelving. Sometimes there’s boominess around 100–150 KHz area and that may have to be addressed, too, as it often leaves more room for sub. But it’s always case-specific.
Sometimes there are some narrow, harsh frequency peaks, “ringing” or harsh resonance, that needs to be addressed (read my blog post about treating them). I used to sweep around with EQ bands with +18 dB boost and high Q, searching for nasty resonances, then cutting them out. These days my ear is a bit more trained in that regard, and I can often hear if there’s something that’s hard on the ears without always having to do all-out sweeping, but still, I apply the same technique for cutting out the harshness/boominess.
By default, I’m high-passing the side signal around 200 Hz and adjust the cutoff point if necessary, and that, too, allows me to control the volume of the side signal. A lot of masters I get sent are way too wide, so I use this to control that a bit.
Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machine. Awesome for some “analogue warmth” and adds some saturation. Smooth. Drive it hard and you’ll notice especially what it does, and you can get some of that good grit. I always have it on. It beefs up the bass by default, but you can control that thru Settings.
Slate Digital Virtual Mix Rack. Especially the free Revival exciter module (for low+high) is superb on highs and brings life to a lot of things. The Custom Series EQ + Lift EQ are great, too. I use VMR and its contents on every mastering job. It shines in mixing and mastering in terms of improving the highs + body and adding some thump. It has great-sounding analog-modelled EQs + compressors, which have received a lot of praise for their great sound. In mastering, I don’t use its compressors, but for that, see the next one.
Slate Digital Virtual Bus Compressor. By default, this is always set to off in my chain. I *never* compress unless I feel that it’s absolutely necessary. You’d be surprised how rarely I do. I suppose not compressing much is a part of ”my sound” in mastering. I do receive a lot of thank-yous from my clients for creating punchy masters that haven’t been squashed lifeless and unnatural with compression – that’s what many beginners seem to do, and I see a lot people talk about compression a whole lot in the context of mastering, and I’d guess everybody does it by default without understanding it, thinking it’s the magic “must ingredient”. I’d say it’s not super necessary.
So, when do I compress the master? I’ve written a few words about it in a blog post. E.g., sometimes I get sent masters whose beats are too loud and punching thru the mix too much; the balance of beats and ”the rest” seems a bit off. I use a compressor to adjust that balance so that it starts to make a bit more sense.
The VBC compressors add a little bit of color, and when I don’t want it…
…I use Fabfilter Pro-C2 – it’s a really clean-sounding compressor with an absolutely fabulous interface.
I may try using SDC by SKnote, too, and see which one fits the job better.
Sometimes I split the signal into mid/side via Ableton rack and compress them separately. But this is I do very seldom. There’s been a few cases where there’s been some crazy volume jumps on the side signal, so sometimes you have to address that. Sometimes I may try adding a little bit of saturation/sheen on the side signal to give it some extra liveliness if I feel that it’s necessary. I always aim for a strong mono in the first place because that’s what you need in dance music that often gets played back thru mono club systems. That’s why I keep checking the signal in mono often to make sure it doesn’t collapse when monoed and that it sounds strong enough in mono. Sometimes I have to advise the client to go back to fix the mix if I notice that vital elements dip in volume too much when monoed.
Next up I have Limiter No6 by VladG. By default it’s off. I use it (very seldom) for clipping if I feel that I can’t push the master loud enough. The reason for not being able to push it loud enough usually isn’t in the peaks, but sometimes it can help you a wee bit, and it’s good to have in your arsenal all the small tools that give you that extra 2%. This is one of them. Look into it: it’s free and has many other great uses.
Next I have ProQ 2 EQ by FabFilter. It’s great in every single aspect, but for the sake of keeping my writing relevant and brief, I’ll say that I mostly use it to visually point out to me where some harsh resonant peaks might be happening, and it allows me to grab the spectrum where that happens and simply pull the peaks down; the feature is called Spectrum Grab. It is a lifesaver.
I know I said I do this in the beginning of my chain, too; that’s mostly a habit thing, and I definitely could have this earlier on – or have multiple instances. Sometimes I do move plugins around, so I don’t have a 100% fixed order for them. Stay flexible and rock it as desired.
Next: MDynamic EQ by Melda Productions. Again, for the sake of brevity, I won’t go into giving you a full-length lecture on what a dynamic EQ does (as opposed to a regular, “static” EQ), but I use this one for taming certain frequencies in the song only when they exceed a certain amount/threshold. In other words, the EQ only kicks in when things get wild – or you could boost a certain frequency area in the mix when it gets too quiet.
I’ve found that the effect of that type of EQing is very transparent and it means if you have some parts in the song where, for example, there’s some really crazy trebly cymbal splashes, you don’t have to have your EQ cut the frequency range all the time: it only acts when the trebly part gets too crazy. Love this one.
Also great in production as you can use it in a dynamic EQ fashion to react to a sidechain signal and have it cut the range that your kick occupies off your bassline – only when the kick hits. Handy!
If at this point I feel I need to enhance the sound by EQ any further, here I may the color the sound a little bit with UAD’s Pultec, which is great on lows but also nice for sharpening the highs. I may also employ the UAD SSL 4K channel strip and use it a little bit for EQing / coloration.
Then I have Event Horizon by Stillwell Audio. Does the very same job as I have Limiter No6 do: kills some peaks. It makes things a wee bit louder at the cost of dynamics, so pay close attention to how things sound. I know, it might make more sense to actually have and push this after the main limiter with the ceiling set a little bit below zero, and sometimes I do have it there.
Sometimes at this point I use Satin by u-He. Long story short, it’s a great tape emulation with plenty of parameters to fiddle with. I especially love the Asperity setting, which causes enharmonic distortion to come up in the stereo image. It sounds plain damn wonderful with bass, and I haven’t been able to come up with that sort of effect with any other plug-in.
Here’s something I don’t use very often, but I’m using the MFC Console running in Nebula by AlexB. There’s a certain setting that opens up the mix sometimes, adding air and punch, and I may try it if nothing else helps in that respect (as I said, I don’t ever use all of these plug-ins in one job; I like having a good set of tools for different tasks).
Then there’s Ochre EQ by Acustica Audio – same guys who do Nebula. Just a great, natural EQ for nice sheen or weight.
Another world-class choice for really superb top-end clarity: UAD Maag EQ. Goes up to dog-hurting 40 KHz! Another EQ for breathing high-frequency life into the sound.
Then, the Swiss army knife of mastering: Ozone 6 by Izotope. Let me say I love this one with its different indispensable multi-band modules.
I start with its EQ: I have it high-pass the signal around 40 Hz as you barely need stuff below 40 Hz. I’ve also set that filter to do a resonant bump around the frequency where the cutting happens: this is a great trick for boosting the bass and making the low-end a bit tighter. Protip! I also set the lowpass filter around 15 KHz by default and move it around as needed and listen and see where it starts to cut; then I set it where it feels relevant and keep it there. By this stage I’ll have handled most of the high-frequency problems so this one’s mostly to make sure I’m cutting out all the unnecessary stuff.
Next module is Dynamics (compressor): I don’t really use it a LOT, but I do use it a bit (I especially love its mid/side function; multiband definitely comes in handy when there’s some crazy stuff such as explosions happening in the sound, for example). What I do with it most often is control the low-end, and it does that marvellously well. I do tend to boost the low end, and with the multiband compressor, it’s easy to make sure it doesn’t get too crazy, and it tightens up a little bit. I love it how you can solo all the bands; I usually set the lowest band to reach up to 74 Hz, so I’m making sure I’m only controlling the subs with that one. I do use the other bands as well when it’s necessary; great when you have a super-loud-and-shrill cymbal, for example. This is the final stage where I make sure no frequency range jumps out too crazy or appears overpowering.
Then you have the Exciter module, which I’ve learned to cherish a whole lot, and in addition to other “beefing-up” plug-ins I have, this one is strictly indispensable in terms of adding saturation to different frequency areas: it works just like the dynamics module, for example, and you can set the areas where you want to add saturation. Simply, it’s fucking amazing to liven up the mix. Especially with sub, it’s really, really, really good for making the bass a bit more audible without actually making it a whole lot louder. Protip!
Then there’s Imager. I mostly just use it to make sure all the sub is still mono. I don’t really do a whole lot of widening unless I feel that it’s needed somehow; for that, however, Imager is the bomb.
Finally, there’s the Maximizer, the final limiter. I have surprisingly little to say about it other than it does a superb job at limiting. I don’t play around a whole lot with its settings (limiting “character”, transient emphasis etc); I always go for the IRC III setting, which provides very fast and punchy limiting, serving those well who want that fat punch without squashing or pumping.
(LATER EDIT: As soon as Ozone 7 came out, that replaced Ozone 6 in the chain. The vintage EQ of the 7 definitely has a place in my chain and I love the tone.)
At this stage I may try using Defilter by Acon Digital to even out things a nudge; basically Defilter is an EQ that evens out peaks and boost “holes” in the mix, but I always do my best to make sure they’re gone at this stage.
Finally, I have AOM’s Invisible Limiter. It’s a limiter with very few parameters: limit level (always keep that at 0), input gain (this is what pushes the signal up against the limiter), and output gain (ceiling), and a few more (do yourself a favor and have a look!). You also have Unity Gain, which allows you to listen to the output at a fixed level, letting you hear the effect of the limiting without the signal appearing louder.
I have to say I’ve found Invisible Limiter amazingly transparent and you can really push it before it starts do distort.
Invisible Limiter can actually be paid for annually for a very reasonable price. That’s dope.
Why do I use two limiters? Every now and then it’s good to have the first limiter to do most of the heavy lifting but leave maybe 1–3 dBs worth for the second one: it doesn’t strain the first one that much, and sometimes you get a better breathing result that way.
Then, I have Ableton Utility x 2: one set to 0% width, the other to 100%, and they’re mapped to keys m and s, respectively, so when I want, I can take a quick listen to mid/side signal to hear how things are.
On the master channel, I’ve got Voxengo SPAN to monitor the final result (or see how the reference songs look) and there I especially pay attention where the fundamental (lowest and strongest) frequency is. Also, setting its mode to Average is great in showing resonant peaks. In bass music, you should have your fundamental peaking around 40–60 Hz, and you’re safe. See my dedicated blog post about this.
I’d like to add that in addition to all the numerous tools and plug-ins you may have, the most important tool is listening. You could try and master a song in a high-end studio, but if you don’t understand the “rules and parameters” of the music you’re trying to master and don’t have the ear for how it should sound, you will not get a decent result. It takes understanding the music. You need to hear if the balance is off, is something’s sticking out of the mix too much, if something needs correcting, etc.
I’ve been listening to drum and bass and hip hop since the early nineties so I’d like to believe I understand how this music should sound.
So yeah, that’s it for what I do and how I do it, mostly. Sometimes I may throw some extra spice in the mix: for example, throw a UAD Pultec there to beef up the bass and/or the treble. Every now and then I’ve also been experimenting with some Nebula stuff. It’s good to experiment with anything, but in the end, if you have a master that sounds good, it is good.
I could talk more, but I’ll just leave this there, as it’s somewhat likely that most readers fall asleep before they make it this far.
I work with all genres and styles every day. If you need mastering for your songs or have any questions, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call +358456718221.
I do masters for both novices and pros and everything in between.
Looking forward to working with you,
Janne Hatula (Mastering By Fanu on Facebook).