by Craig Anderton
LIKE MUSIC RECORDING AND VIDEO PRODUCTION, MASTERING—THE FINAL
stage between mixing and distribution—has migrated to the desktop. As good as
the tools have gotten, one reason why people still go to professional mastering
engineers is to exploit their ears and experience, as mastering is a specialized art.
It’s also good to employ fresh ears that haven’t been immersed in the project all
along. Nonetheless, if you define mastering as “making the mix sound better prior
to distribution,” why not give it a try? If you don’t like the results, you can always
take your mix to a pro.
|Fig. 1. A classical music file in Steinberg’s WaveLab 7. Processors include EQ and stereo width expansion; note the spectrometer window toward the top.
Most in-the-box mastering employs dedicated
audio editing software like Sony Sound Forge,
Steinberg WaveLab (Figure 1), Adobe Audition,
BIAS Peak, and the like. These often include their
own mastering-quality plug-ins, but you can also
use third-party plug-ins from companies like
Waves, Universal Audio, PSP, Voxengo, and many
others. iZotope Ozone 5 is a suite of plug-ins and
diagnostic tools (Figure 2) that’s a one-stop shop
for mastering processors; IK’s T-Racks is a software
mastering suite that can also add a vintage
fl air. Many mastering engineers swear by Har-Bal,
a stand-alone program with sophisticated EQ,
limiting, and stereo separation options.
Increasingly, it’s also possible to master right in your DAW. Magix Samplitude has always emphasized
this, and PreSonus Studio One Pro has
separate tracking/mixing and mastering pages
(Figure 3), with excellent album assembly options—
if you edit a mix, the version in the mastering
page will update automatically.
Some DAWs also include mastering plugins
(like MOTU’s MasterWorks and Cakewalk’s
Linear Phase EQ and multiband compressor),
and provide at least primitive CD-burning
capabilities. Nor are you limited to plug-ins—
provided you have the spare outs and ins on
your audio interface, almost all DAWs and
audio editors let you send a signal to external
hardware processors, which can appear in the
program like plug-ins.
Th e process always starts by listening to the mix
multiple times—get to know it really well before
you start tweaking. But enough generalities. Here
are some specific tips.
Treat your room and use decent speakers.
Accurate mastering requires accurate monitoring
because you want a transportable mix that
sounds good on all kinds of listening systems.
For example, if you cut low end because your
speakers’ bass is exaggerated by their being in
the corners of an untreated room, your mix will
sound fine in your studio, but won’t have enough
bass when played back on iPod ear buds. For
more on dealing with your room, see our feature
on page 52.
|Fig. 2. iZotope Ozone 5 Advanced’s Meter Bridge includes several mastering-oriented diagnostic tools.
Th e big three: EQ, dynamics, and everything
else. I consider mastering about 85 percent EQ,
ten percent dynamics, and five percent everything
else (e.g., stereo enhancers and harmonic
exciters). I’ve received acoustic projects recorded
in a room with resonances, and used EQ to create
narrow, shallow notches to take them out. EQ can emphasize or reduce the impact of individual
instruments, like tame an overly-loud hi-hat
without affecting other sounds, or boost a kick
for a big dance mix. It can help compensate for
mistakes caused by mixing in a room with bad
acoustics, and add definition and sparkle. You
can sometimes even minimize “digital brittleness”
by adding a steep, high-cut filter starting
around 15 to 18kHz.
Don’t squash. It’s ironic that even though digital
playback media doesn’t have significant dynamic
range limits, people act as if it does. Excessive
compression or limiting may sound dramatic
at first, but eventually gets fatiguing. Th e trick
is finding the sweet spot between a level that’s
competitive with other cuts in a playlist, yet retains
dynamics. I like maximizer plug-ins with a
continuously variable threshold, as I can close my
eyes, move the fader back and forth, then park it
in that sweet spot. Another trick is “micro-mastering.”
If most of a mix’s peaks reach –5dB but
a couple dozen go to –1dB, I’ll normalize just the
half-cycle of those couple dozen peaks to –5dB,
then normalize everything back up to –1dB. This gives a 4dB increase in level with no perceptible
Don’t master while you mix. It’s technically
possible to insert mastering-type plug-ins into
the final master bus when mixing for “one-stop
mastering,” but I advise creating a mix without
any bus processors, then mastering it as a separate
entity. You’ll approach the mix with fresh
ears, and your original mix will always be available
if you need to re-master it.
Downscale your changes. Half a dB of EQ added
to a drum track isn’t going to make much difference,
but on a final mix, you’re adding it to every
instrument. If you’re new to mastering, whenever
you make a change, immediately cut it in half.
For example, if a 3dB boost at 4kHz sounds good,
change it to 1.5dB and let your ears acclimate to
the sound before you decide you need more.
|Fig. 3. PreSonus Studio One Pro has a page dedicated to mastering, which can include effects for individual tracks as well as master effects for all tracks.
Remember Newton. For every action, there’s
an equal and opposite reaction. If you boost the
treble, for example, you’re also de-emphasizing
Beware of inter-sample distortion. When
the digital-to-analog convertor in your audio
interface reconstructs a signal, it may exceed
0dB despite what the meters show. That’s
because most meters measure the level of
individual samples, but an analog waveform
drawn from those samples may create an arc
that extends above zero. SSL offers the free
X-ISM metering plug-in that can alert you to
Craig Anderton has mastered hundreds
of tracks in the past few years,
and is Executive Editor of Electronic