Mastering has always been seen as a Dark Art amongst the audio community.
It focuses on detailed, nuanced changes to the frequency spectrum, often only making 0.3db to 0.5db in EQ moves and doing small things to totally change the music's perception. Sometimes, in the real world, you’re tasked with having to try to save a mix in the master. That’s an article for another day.
Today, we’re going to talk about the perception shift you have to attain when moving into the mastering stage.
Let’s start by approaching this with perspective. It’s about taking a song someone has made, understanding what parts of that song make it great, and gently pushing that experience to the forefront so that people can truly feel the intention.
I’m going to share a couple of subtle techniques that I use to help my client's work showcase its true potential.
One of the most overlooked things in most people’s mixes is the lower bass frequencies. Most people don’t realize how much those frequencies determine its translation in the car, club, and just as importantly, how much it can break a limiter by making a distorted, squashed-sounding mess when trying to compete in volume with commercial tracks.
Here’s a quick fix to help deal with that.
While you could theoretically do this with any EQ, and a multiband compressor, it’s much more efficient to use the Pro Q3. It also offers a subtle expansion of the higher bass frequencies if the Q function is set correctly.
Starting by placing a low cut at 20hz, you’re helping to slightly limit the impact that the deepest sub notes could have on a large system. After that, using a low shelf to take out 3db of gain at around 60hz, then switching it to dynamic mode, you can make the compression only occur when the bass notes get too rowdy, keeping some of what you would have otherwise lost by simply using a regular low shelf. If you tighten the Q function of the shelf EQ band, an interesting thing occurs. The frequencies above the shelf begin to expand subtly when the lower frequency compression occurs. This could be useful on specific mixes for having better bass playback on smaller listening devices.
Subtle Enhancement to the Perception of Sound
Fabfilter Pro Q3 is terrific in the way that it allows you to choose the parts of the sound you’re affecting with each band (Mid, Side, Stereo, Left, Right)
By boosting 0.3db at 60hz(Mid Channel), 0.3db at 300hz(Stereo Channel), 0.3db at 4khz(Stereo Channel), and a 0.3db shelf at 18khz(Side Channel), you have a starting point for accentuating the possible best parts of a mix.
Once you have those points, solo each band and move them around(maintaining the 0.3db increase, click on the monitor button when hovering over an Eq band). Listen intently to exactly where the band sounds most pleasant and ear-catching, then place it there. It could be 52hz; it could be 72hz. Really, it can be anything in those four bands ranges.
Automation Before Loudness Song Sections
By slowly automating the volume down directly before the loudest parts of the song, it can give the perception of loudness and impact even if the final limiter has squashed down those loud parts. Think of it like this. You’re pulling back in volume so that it feels alive and vibrant when the chorus comes in. Slight nuance, but it goes a long way in making the listener feel something.
Using the Austin Summers Mastering Glue Preset on the Mix: Analog Tierra Buss Compressor, you can hold a mix together and have an upward push.
Essentially, you set a ratio to 4:1, activate the sidechain(120hz low cut), have a 30ms attack(slow), Auto Release, and compensate the volume decrease in the compression with equal gain on the output knob. The idea is to compress between 1 to 2db, not more.
Of course, you could do this in an SSL Bus Compressor clone plugin, but the Tierra sounds so genuine in comparison.
Clipping Before Final Limiter
One of the most valuable dynamics control options available is a clipper. Effectively, it works by completely shaving off the peak of the waveform. It sounds slightly different to limiting, but it helps get a song louder. Don’t push this too much; 1db gain reduction is enough.
In the final limiter, it’s dependent on the type of song you’re working on.
In modern commercial pop music, you should be aiming for -9lufs, not because it’s louder, but because it gives a sense of glue, forwardness and has a similar tonal quality to most commercial music out there. In orchestral music, anywhere from -12lufs to -14lufs can work. Metal tends to go somewhat squashed at around -5lufs.
All I’m mentioning right now is the general idea that each genre tends to lean towards. It’s completely content-dependent. You could get a great master for a pop record at -11lufs, and it may even sound better.
Everything gets turned down to a certain level on streaming platforms, but the lufs can sometimes impact how “finished” a master sounds.
You need to activate the 1:1 mode to set the volume to unity gain and increase the gain slider until you head the essence of the track is being affected negatively, and then dial it back to find the sweet spot.
As always, use your ears and try to approach each tip in this list with accompanied critical listening to each change and see if your song requires a particular move.
It’s ALL in the nuance, feeling, and vibe.