Pro-level mas­ter­ing in your DAW

– we ex­plore the dos and the don’ts

Future Music - - CONTENTS -

It’s amus­ing that, de­spite hav­ing been ex­plored in hun­dreds of mag­a­zine fea­tures, tu­to­ri­als and in­ter­views, mas­ter­ing is still re­ferred to as a mys­te­ri­ous ‘dark art’. Un­less you’re an ab­so­lute new­comer to mu­sic pro­duc­tion, you’re prob­a­bly al­ready aware that mas­ter­ing is the fi­nal stage of the mu­sic-mak­ing process be­fore a track, EP or al­bum reaches the out­side world. Once a mix’s in­di­vid­ual el­e­ments and buses are bal­anced, honed and printed down to a two-chan­nel stereo file (the ‘pre­mas­ter’) at the mix­down stage, the mas­ter­ing en­gi­neer (ME) will take that file and walk it through a fi­nal round of qual­ity con­trol, be­fore con­vert­ing the track into the re­quired file for­mats.

When it comes to dance mu­sic in the mod­ern age, how good a track sounds is al­most as im­por­tant as its mu­si­cal con­tent. Tracks must son­i­cally com­pete with other re­leases in the same genre. Over the fol­low­ing pages, then, we’ll take you through the mas­ter­ing process; this time, not from the ME’s point of view, but from a typ­i­cal elec­tronic-mu­sic pro­ducer’s per­spec­tive. Whether you want to mas­ter your own mu­sic, or pro­vide a

mas­ter­ing pro with the best mix pos­si­ble, come with us as we clear away the fog and ex­pose this ‘dark art’ once and for all…

Be­fore we dive into spe­cific mas­ter-bus pro­cess­ing tech­niques, it has to be said that, with dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy now within reach of even the green­est mu­sic maker, and with the abun­dance of in­for­ma­tion avail­able on the topic (some good, some not so good), many pro­duc­ers con­sider a ded­i­cated mas­ter­ing en­gi­neer to be an un­nec­es­sary ex­pense th­ese days. Well, hav­ing a fi­nal pair of well-de­vel­oped ears to re­fine your pre­cious mix be­fore it reaches the out­side world is prob­a­bly

the most im­por­tant rea­son for us­ing an im­par­tial pro­fes­sional who does this day in, day out. They’ll iden­tify prob­lems in the track you’ve missed, and will have a spe­cial per­spec­tive of the big­ger pic­ture that some­one who’s lis­tened to the same track for hours can­not have.

Plus, pro­fes­sional MEs are more ad­dicted to ex­pen­sive gear than you are, with most own­ing mas­ter­ing­grade mon­i­tor speak­ers, racks of ex­pen­sive ana­logue equalis­ers and com­pres­sors to die for. Face it: a £2k Mas­e­lec EQ’s +2dB high-shelf boost will sound far sweeter than your dig­i­tal para­met­ric. That said, the old say­ing still stands: ‘it’s the ear, not the gear’. Those mas­ter­ing en­gi­neers can be a snobby bunch, and want you to think that the out­board they re­mort­gaged their houses for will sound bet­ter ev­ery time – but this just isn’t al­ways the case. Ana­logue­mod­elling tech­nol­ogy has now reached a point where it’s ex­tremely hard to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween a £100-200 plugin and its hard­ware equiv­a­lent – so if you don’t al­ready own soft­ware made by iZo­tope, FabFil­ter, Uni­ver­sal Au­dio, Brain­worx et al, mas­ter­ing-qual­ity tools now cost less than ever. And then there’s prac­ti­cal­ity to con­sider: bounc­ing a two-track mix through sev­eral stages of out­board is far more time­con­sum­ing (and harder to re­call at a later date) than load­ing up a few soft­ware ef­fects. So from a prac­ti­cal­ity stand­point, soft­ware al­ways wins, and the sonic gap be­tween hard­ware and soft­ware is closer than ever.

But there’s one fi­nal ad­van­tage to mas­ter­ing your own mu­sic. For a pro­ducer who knows what they’re do­ing, mas­ter-bus pro­cess­ing can be­come a fi­nal ex­ten­sion of the mix­ing process. By ap­ply­ing your choice of two-bus EQ, com­pres­sion

Mas­ter-bus pro­cess­ing can be a fi­nal ex­ten­sion of the mix­ing process

and lim­it­ing your­self, you’ll have ul­ti­mate con­trol over how the end prod­uct will sound. What’s more, you can choose to dial in, re­fine and even com­pletely change your mas­ter­ing chain at any point while you mix – or even set up your mas­ter­ing chain right at the be­gin­ning of writ­ing the track, and mix into it from the start. This doesn’t mean you should hap­haz­ardly pile on pro­cess­ing sim­ply be­cause you can, and we def­i­nitely don’t rec­om­mend this strat­egy to be­gin­ners; for those in the know, though, it’s an­other trick that can give you that fi­nal 5% of qual­ity, sheen, weight and clar­ity. What’s even bet­ter about this ap­proach is the fact that you can al­ways back off your mas­ter ef­fects a lit­tle, and still send a ren­der of your stereo mix to a mas­ter­ing pro­fes­sional, safe in the knowl­edge that the fi­nal prod­uct will re­tain the co­he­sion and char­ac­ter you in­tended; with the bonus of that qual­ity con­trol an ME pro­vides.

Aside from a pre­mas­ter’s tonal bal­ance, dy­namic makeup and co­he­sion be­tween mix el­e­ments, the topic of loud­ness is an im­por­tant fac­tor to con­sider. Ever en­thu­si­as­ti­cally tested your lat­est demo among a col­lec­tion of pro tracks, only for yours to ap­pear much qui­eter than those pro ref­er­ences? One rea­son may have been that your track wasn’t hit­ting re­quired loud­ness lev­els. A key aim of mas­ter­ing, there­fore, is to make your tracks son­i­cally stand up side-by-side with other suc­cess­ful records in your genre, but re­tain dy­nam­ics.

A brick­wall lim­iter (see our tu­to­rial be­low) is a dig­i­tal tool for mas­ter­ing loud­ness. In the dig­i­tal realm, the ab­so­lute ceil­ing of level is 0dBFS – noth­ing breaches this with­out clip­ping. By low­er­ing a sig­nal’s high­est peaks (tran­sients), and there­fore re­duc­ing the sig­nal’s over­all dy­namic range (ie, the dif­fer­ence be­tween the loud­est and qui­etest points), you’ll in­crease per­ceived loud­ness as more lim­it­ing is ap­plied. Slam the gain re­duc­tion too far, though, and you’ll strip away the pre­mas­ter’s dy­nam­ics, plus cre­ate nasty dis­tor­tion and pump­ing arte­facts. It’s a balanc­ing act.

That dig­i­tal 0dBFS (peak) ceil­ing we men­tioned isn’t rep­re­sen­ta­tive of how we ac­tu­ally per­ceive loud­ness: our ears re­spond more to av­er­age lev­els over time, tra­di­tion­ally mea­sured as RMS. That’s why one track can sound way louder than an­other, even if they’re both slammed right up to dig­i­tal zero. In re­cent years, the LUFS mea­sure­ment, in­tro­duced for TV and broad­cast, is now the stan­dard for loud­ness mea­sure­ment.

So how can you use this knowl­edge to in­crease your pre­mas­ter’s per­ceived level, while re­tain­ing punch? Well, al­though a lim­iter usu­ally comes last in the ME’s pro­cess­ing chain, it can help to load this up to start the mas­ter­ing process – af­ter all, if your mix is go­ing to have to sus­tain a stage of peak lim­it­ing, you may as well dial this in as soon as pos­si­ble, to see ex­actly how far you can push things. Put­ting the pre­mas­ter un­der heavy strain in this way can high­light prob­lems in the mix it­self (see Break it till you make it on p34). Af­ter that, there are a few other ways to push up av­er­age lev­els with­out the need for more lim­it­ing. First, make sure the pre­mas­ter is ton­ally con­sis­tent, as a song’s fre­quency bal­ance will in­flu­ence how loud it sounds – read up on Fletcher Mun­son for more info. Then, a sub­tle amount of fast-at­tack com­pres­sion, mixed very sub­tly in par­al­lel, can raise weight from the ground up while leav­ing tran­sients alone.

To clar­ify: as ev­ery song is unique, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for boost­ing loud­ness in mas­ter­ing. A track must of­ten be de­signed to ‘go loud’ from the start. If a pro­ducer has se­lected pokey drum sam­ples, boosted too much treble, and left sub bass flap­ping, there’s only so much the mas­ter­ing en­gi­neer can do to con­trol th­ese in­con­sis­ten­cies be­fore the fi­nal mas­ter lim­iter.

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