Updated: Nov 21, 2020
1. Input Stage
I CALL THEE... *drum roll INPUT STAGE *angel's choir
I don't actually call this the input stage. I don't have names for sections in my mastering chain and if I had, I would try to come up with something clever ;)
In fact, I don't think in sections when I'm mastering, it's much more an intuitively flowing work without a rigid order of use.
But for the sake of making sense in this article, I decided to name this first part Input Stage.
Sometimes True Iron is my first instance, other times I will not engage it. Kazrog True Iron is a wonderful saturation box, based on behavior emulation of different line transformers. It can go from being phenomenally subtle, to being an obvious saturation box (great for parallel processing). I'm not going to use this every time. I'm not even going to use this very often, but I can use it to give the source material a pinch of specific saturation before it goes on to becoming a great master.
2. Cleaning Up
Cleaning up the first really really important set of processing events for me. If I had to put priority on anything in mastering, this would be very high up on the list. The name says it, before doing all kinds of further shenanigans with a mix, I find it ideal to clean up its sonic irritations.
A standard device in any mastering project is a static EQ. Very standard tasks would be applying high-pass and low-pass-filtering here. I'll use DMG Equilibrium but there are other great alternatives. Obviously Fabfilter Pro Q, your DAW built-in EQ, etc. Use cases: There could be an overly massive kick drum which needs static level reduction.
But there could also be a reoccurring, boomy sounding bass note or reoccurring, temporarily stacked up low mid range that needs a dynamic type of level control. Soothe and/or Nova are my choices there. Another good use case for dynamic level control would be overly loud "s" or "sh" sounds in a mix. These are only temporary occurrences over the course of a whole song and don't require static EQing.
*Fabfilter Pro Q 3 and probably other plugins combine static and dynamic EQing in one device.
I use Oeksound Soothe 2 or TDR Nova for that, sometimes I even both but that's very rare. They do some similar things, but they do enough different things to use their combined forces when necessary. Again, very rarely have I felt like needing them both, but today I did actually (November 17th, 2020) and that's why I want to include both. Otherwise, I would have only included Soothe. Soothe is part of the template, Nova is only added when I want it.
*When a mastering chain is decided and final, I will delete whatever device I haven't used, to avoid any confusion on future recalls. I don't leave any unused device in the chain.
3. Musical Balancing
Musical balancing describes my way of creating a coherent and well-balanced sound from lows, over mids to highs. Some mixes will need this more, others won't. TDR Kotelnikov is my choice for single band compression, without leaving a fingerprint. I tend to use single band compression very lightly, typically way less than 1db of gain reduction at a super low Ratio. The Knee and the Attack/Release times are a key factor for me. I don't like to create or enhance a compression characteristic which hasn't been in the mix before. The result is often a slightly more coherent, slightly tighter sound, a mix that "sits well".
Ozone 9 Rebalance is something that I don't use often, but it can help me to rebalance the levels Drums, Bass and Vocals, with it's advanced isolation algorithm.
When I want multiband compression, Waves Linear Phase MB is my personal choice. It's old but I like it. It's not very fancy looking, which I really dig. It puts the focus on listening, rather than looking. After cleaning up and after conventional compression, there could still be an imbalance amongst the four frequency sections of my LinMB: Sub, Low Mids, Presence Area and the Air Band. When I engage it, I use this like a subtle rubber band, into which I drive the mix and which holds the mix in place a little better. Controlling these four bands individually with the LinMB can create: - a more consistently distributed level-over-frequency - a more well spread out spectrum (which is the same as above) - a more "modern" sounding master (which to me is the same as above, again)
TRacks De Esser can be a weapon against harsh sounding areas like vocal sounds (like "s" sounds) or against overly loud and annoying instruments in the high end. Using its Soft setting and using it very very subtly, can absolutely take the edge off a brittle and hissing top end.
4. Tonal Shaping
This is where I get creative to fill out holes and to enhance whatever area is still lacking. This can involve the classic Dangerous Bax equalizer. Sometimes one click is just what I've needed. Its broad and musical low and high EQ can a put the cherry on top of the cream.
Black Box HG 2, almost plays the same role as the True Iron (right at the beginning), except it emulates a different kind of saturation, a tube based saturation circuit. Success with this is highly dependent on the settings, and I keep it simple and very very very subtle with this thing, it can bring out tone, room sound/ambience, sometimes it turns out bringing the mid range percussion more to life. I find that especially on music with vocals and real instruments, it can bring the whole of the upper spectrum to live. With the Black Box HG 2, it's really helpful to have an advanced level of focussed listening and concentration on the fine details. Lindell TE-100...A couple of years ago, when I first opened this infernal machine, I was intimidated and it probably gave me nightmares for a week. But it looks way more complicated than it is and it's so worth diving into. It's "a nod to" an iconic tube EQ, the hardware unit (Klein & Hummel UE-100) is actually a maaaaassssive tube EQ. Not the most surgical EQ but great sounding for boosts and generally just great for adding a lot of character and color!
Millennia NSEQ-2 is a flexible EQ that can "mimic" a tube or transistor behavior in an EQ. Great sounding lows and top end and overall nice for broad adjustments. Typically, I might use two of the four machines. On the other hand, sometimes the incremental changes of multiple different EQs are the way to go. This is where intuition and experience come in handy, to make a decision. But that's not what I'm writing about doing today :)
Often it's more clever to stick to simplicity and keep it simple. You have probably heard other mastering people say this and it is common practice amongst many professionals.
I like nice and subtle soft clipping that's not obtrusive at all. I like Elysia Alpha for that. In fact, I only use it for it's little clipping module. Clipping is another process that requires critical hearing to make the right choice. Elysia Alpha's soft clipping is not helping me to ever louder masters, instead it's helping me to shave off peaks very lightly and if necessary helps to slightly increase the limiter input without making the limiter work more.
My limiting chain is this: - Waves L1+Ultramaximizer (doing a truly very very tiny amount of limiting) into the - BX Masterdesk (also doing very little compression and applying a little THD) into the - golden standard that is Fabfilter Pro L2
Adjustment of Look Ahead, Attack and Release settings are crucial on my final limiter, the Fabfilter Pro L2, other it can alter transient response, punch and low end.
Every mastering person is on the hunt to less gain reduction and more "dark magic trickery", hence every mastering person will find their own little unique setup. This is mine but it's a steady evolution.
When you use multiple compressors or limiters in a serial manner, you have to be aware that serial compression is not just additive but instead "kind of multiplicative". You are doing gain reduction in the first compressor and therefore change the relationship between quieter and louder levels. You are bringing it more together. But what you run into the next compressor is the newly changed material, so you'll definitely have to fine-tune the settings of your follow-up compressor differently, as to not react stronger than necessary.
I use SPL Hawkeye probably since early 2019 or so, for all the modern things that I sometimes need/want to know. More importantly though and what's more significant to my decision-making are Waves Dorrough (classical level metering) and BlueCat FreqAnalyst Pro (analyzer). I use both since I have started doing mastering in 2009. Other things came and went, these stayed and I wouldn't change. I feel very much "at home" with these two :)
Until next time
Author: Robert Hundt // Date: October 4th, 2020