digital masters :Whats your mastering process ?

Discussion in 'Mastering' started by Guss, Mar 17, 2007.

  1. Guss

    Guss Guest

    If you do not mind your secrets being known , tell us about your mastering process. What steps do you take, what software do you use ?
    Recently I spoke to a mastering engineer and he told me he split the track into four frequency bands and then compressed/raised volume/ and widened each one to increase volume. Is this similar to your process and if so , if digital, what software tools do you use to do the splitting, the compressing/boosting and the "widening" ?
    Obviously some don't like to overcompress things and for good reason but Id like this thread not to turn into to much of a discussion of the evils of over compression. Another important fact are the acoustics of the room and monitor speakers but since they are huge topics in themselves perhaps we could just stick to the tools used and techniques involved.
    For point of reference I make electronica but am also interested in mastering Reggae,Salsa,electro acoustic/experimental and Psychedelic rock.
  2. Massive Mastering

    Massive Mastering Well-Known Member

    Jul 18, 2004
    Chicago area, IL, USA
    Home Page:
    (Dead Link Removed)

    There are no "secrets" -

    1) Listen objectively

    2) Do what the mix needs.

    It's pretty rare that it needs to be crossed-over 3 times and whacked with maul-the-band compression.
  3. Guss

    Guss Guest

    MM - your comments are unhelpful - if you feel this thread is flogging a dead horse then please feel free to ignore it.
  4. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Distinguished Member

    Dec 12, 2001
    Oberlin, OH
    Home Page:

    First read the sticky at the top of the forum page.

    Second do a search and you will find that there are LOTS of questions like yours. This forum seems to get about one or two a week.

    What works for one person on one song may not work for the same person on another song and most times will not work for you when you are using different equipment and have a different monitoring setup. There are no such things as a "standard" mastering setup and there are no secrets.

    I use to do a bit of magic when I was younger. I always wanted to know how to do the illusion but learning the mechanics was only part of the formula I also had to learn how to present the illusion to make it real and the only way to do that was to practice in front of a mirror. Mastering is like magic to the extent that you can have the equipment and the basic knowledge of how to proceed but you can't be given the experience (i.e. practice) by reading a forum or asking others how to do it. You have to roll up your sleeves and get involved.

    I have a WEISS EQ-1 MKII and a dbx Quantum II compressor and I can give you the settings I use "normally" but if you are using a Sontec EQ and a Maselec MLA-2 mastering compressor limiter those settings probably will not work. I monitor with ALON IVs and a Bryston 4B and an acoustically designed room. You may be doing your monitoring on a pair of MACKIE speakers in your living room. The difference in the monitoring setups are such that if I did a mastering job and your did a mastering job using the same equipment and the same material they would sound different due to the monitoring setup and our personal preferences.

    There are soooooooooooo many variables it is hard to give you some "general settings" Best to follow the sage advice of Massive Mastering and develop your ear and your mind though experience.

    Hope this helps....
  5. TrilliumSound

    TrilliumSound Active Member

    Jul 29, 2004
    Montreal, Qc, CANADA
    Home Page:
    IME, simple is beautiful, simple is not necessarely easy. Having four compressors in four different freq ranges as a default setup just hurts my brain and probably the mix as well. So, to answer to your first question, no, this is not similar to my process and to approach any mix in the first place. I would say EQ'ing will help the most in balancing the mix.

  6. Michael Fossenkemper

    Michael Fossenkemper Distinguished past mastering moderator Well-Known Member

    Sep 12, 2002
    NYC New York
    Home Page:
    There are many ways to skin a cat. I had a fellow mastering engineer over at my room and we were discussing some stuff and we both found it very funny that although we use the same type of gear (compressors, eq's, limiters) the way we approach a project is completely different. I believe it also has to do with how you look at things. Do you listen to somthing and say to yourself "I think it needs more of this" or do you say " I think it need less of that"? It sounds simple but it makes a big difference in how you approach something.
  7. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Jun 22, 2004
    Philadelphia, PA/ Greenville, DE
    Home Page:


    To get you started, I would first suggest you do a little research in the historical sense. Information is out there, google is a good place to start.

    Back in the pre-digital world, (vinyl and acetate), "Mastering" was simply the process of getting the sound from a master tape to fit into a different (and in many ways "Smaller") space, spec and parameter-wise. The average completed tape produced in studios had a far bigger dynamic range, stereo imaging was different, and of course ditto for EQ. Too much bass made the needle skip out of the grooves, louder levels meant wider grooves which meant shorter playing time, out of phase cool sounds meant difficult-to-track problems for the physics of analog stylii, and so on.

    Over the years, as this process has faded out to all but "niche" status (see vinyl/obscurity), Mastering has taken on a newer meaning, but it's roots are still similar to the old vinyl days.

    You're still taking a "finished" product from a mixing engineer, and hearing it with "fresh" ears and arguably batter playback equipment and space, putting the mix through it's final check out before committing to a CD (which can handle a lot more things sonically than vinyl ever could.)

    In its purest form, that's all there is to it. Sometimes mastering is nothing more than a bit of level adjustment from track to track, stereo/mono phase check, general EQ, dropping in PQ (track) codes, and printing out a track/timing sheet for the replication plant. A really honest mastering engineer knows this as soon as he/she hears something that's already done well, and has the smarts not to mess with perfection.

    Other times, (more common today than ever, esp with project studios and bad mixing enviros) people expect more "magic" to happen after the fact. Sometimes (most times?) tracks really need it, sometimes it's arguable whether they do or not. Each case is different.

    The thought of strapping a comp/limiter across four split up bands gives me hives, I gotta tell you. Sure, it can and does fix certain problems under certain situations, but to walk around bragging about that as a general "Fix", I just don't know. Yes, it'll give it a certain "SOUND" alright, but I don't think it's something that fits every scenario.

    Finding all the "Tips and tricks" You can is a good idea, but probably best to keep it in the generic sense, as folks have already pointed out to you, each case is different.

    I've got a handful of things I use on a regular basis, but they're for a different style of music, and I'm not sure if they'd be any use to you, other than general info. I'll try to post a few when time permits.

    Meantime, good luck and keep digging and LISTENING. It's out there, and you'll find your way eventually.
  8. Guss

    Guss Guest

    Thomas thankyou for your reply.
    So far any attempts at finding out what Mastering engineers actually do ( as opposed to sound engineers) has been a bit like approaching the local witch doctor - lots of hype, bizarre feathered dances and growling but not many straight answers !
    Yes I read the sticky before posting - no I couldnt find any posts that covered all the questions I had. I was not asking for someone to magically transform me int a mastering engineer, just to let us know what they actually do (in general) . I have read online quite a bit about it but still remained unsatisfied as to where the line was drawn between sound and mastering engineer - many of the things attributed to a mastering engineer should be possible to any engineer with good equipment, no standing waves, dead room and a good pair of ears.
    I have 15 years experience as a sound engineer so am quite aware of compatibility and translation issues between different monitors and gear but would still be interested in your compression settings and how you apply them ( ie do you use a seperate compressor for each frequency on each instrument etc etc ).
    Several mastering studios around my way ask for tracks to presented as four different frequency bands which what I was curious about.
    As I say I really don't understand what a mastering engineer does that a good sound engineer shouldn't do already.
    For example making sure that the track translated well onto all speakers is something a good engineer should do anyway , making the album flow well is the job of the musicians , so this is what I find baffling - what do these guys actually do that the engineer can't ?
    This is doubly confusing because many mastering engineers also have experience as recording engineers, do they just change hats to fulfil the different role ? Are mastering engineers just like having another sound engineer go over your work but with fresh ears and more expensive equipment ? If so why not just invest the money in better equipment and work with another experienced engineer ?
    Recently I have also had several experiences where the mastering engineer has actually mad my mixes sound worse ! I'm sure there are some true masters out there who are worth every penny , but there are an awful lot of charlatans as well.
  9. Guss

    Guss Guest

    Thankyou Richard,
    Yes indeed the mastering engineer who used this technique actually managed to ADD distortion at about 50 Hz so you are right - it DID harm the mix.
  10. Guss

    Guss Guest

    Hi Michael,
    In ansew to your last question when I mix its a bit of both. Recently for example I was asked to polish up a really horrificly badly recorded rock and roll band. Im not used to rock and roll mixing anyway but it required boosting some frequencies and cutting others . Its a bit like sculpture in a way.
  11. Guss

    Guss Guest

    Re: .

    JoeH ,
    A straight answer ! Excellent post thank you. Ill definitely take the time to study it in more depth. Some of what you said was kind of what I was already thinking but it is nice to hear you say them too and point out specific mastering activities .
    I have done a fair amount of reading but couldnt really clearly see the difference between what a mastering engineer did and what a good engineer COULD do. From what Ive read mostly it boils down to the equipment , experience and acoustic enviroment of the mastering engineer should be superior to that of the mixing engineer .
    Yes the tracks I got back from the mastering engineer who split the track into 4 eq bands actually made it sound worse !
    I usually work with electronic, ambient and electro acoustic music, but recently have started working with Salsa, Cumbia anb Rock so need to know more.
  12. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Distinguished Member

    Dec 12, 2001
    Oberlin, OH
    Home Page:
    Suggest you purchase Bob Katz's excellent book on mastering. It can be found at his website or in most any good bookstore. Read it cover to cover and keep it as a reference. Then try and schedule a session at a local mastering house. You can either attend the session with one of your clients or book time there yourself and watch what is happening. I think you will learn a lot and you will have time to ask questions. Mastering is not a black art as some have suggested nor is it something that should be attempted without understanding what you are doing especially if you are going to charge for your services. In mixing you are worried about the individual tracks and how the instruments sound when mixed down. In mastering you are worried about the whole sound of the song. Think of it this way. When doing mixing it is like you are very focused on very small details and when mastering your are focused on a very broad sweep of sounds and how the individual tracks fit together.

    Best of Luck and let us know how things are going....
  13. Guss

    Guss Guest

    Thanks again Thomas, I was only kidding about the witch doctor. You are right of course experience is essential to really understand the process. The expression "cant see the wood for the trees" springs to mind - the mastering engineer can see the wood for the trees.
    I was discussing yesterday with a friend this subject. He said to me that Mastering engineers need a totally dead room whereas mixing engineers mix in a room with "equal dispersion characteristics" . If true why is this ? What makes the Mastering engineers capable of mixing in a dead room but a studio engineer isnt ?
    Anyway I shall certainly read BobCatz - its been recomended a couple of times now.
  14. Ballz

    Ballz Guest

    Hey Guss,
    to throw in my 2 cents on the "what do you use" side of things, here's what I typically use.
    I'm editing, mixing, and mastering all in Pro Tools, so it's all digital after tracking. On my master stereo track I use some very useful plug-ins from Waves.

    1st in the chain is normally the "LinMB" which is a linear, mulit-band compressor. This comp splits the mix into 4 separate frequency ranges and allows me to compress them separately as needed.

    Last in the chain I use an L3 Ultramaximizer which is a great limiter. You can get a lot more volume from your mixes without worrying about peaking. You can certainly compromise the quality of the audio you're dealing with if you over use this limiter by reducing peaks by more than 3db or so (you'll especially notice the high end frequencies smearing if you crush your mix).

    In between the Multiband Comp and the limiter I'll usually use a lowband linear EQ, sometimes a stereo imager, I've used the MaxxBass plug in on the master track before, it just really depends what your mix need.
    But yeah, typically a multiband comp, and good eq, and a limiter; then I go from there. Good luck and happy experimenting! It's the best way to gain experience.
  15. Michael Fossenkemper

    Michael Fossenkemper Distinguished past mastering moderator Well-Known Member

    Sep 12, 2002
    NYC New York
    Home Page:
    Guss, who are you talking to? you need to broaden your scope of engineer friends. To make generalizations on rooms without ever having been in them is a bit premature. This is how mis-information is spread on the internet. One person says something that is completely untrue and before you know it, thousands of people are running around regurgitating it.

    multiband compressors and multiband limiters are a lazy inexperienced way to try and achieve a balanced mix. Why learn to cook when Mcydee's is right around the corner and open 24 hours. If you want something good, you are going to have to work, and you are going to have to work hard. Learn to deal with it now or die young.
  16. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Member

    Sep 26, 2005
    Guss, so you have 15 years in the audio business, eh? What's the matter with this question? "ie do you use a seperate compressor for each frequency on each instrument etc etc ". That's quite a non sequitur. Oh sure! I'm using 1024 compressors to cover all of the notes played by that French horn soloist recording I made. Now most of us in the audio business are not in our right minds and that's why were in the audio business. It seems like you are also?

    I've never heard of a mastering engineer asking anybody for a multitrack frequency split master. That doesn't make any sense. Multi-band dynamics processing such as the discriminate audio processors used for broadcasting have become popular with some of the recording folks. Why? Because it is a type of mush everything together and "even everything out" fix for helping to correct otherwise sloppy, poorly engineered and mixed projects along with the loudness wars of FM radio. There is no good reason to use a multiband compressor on anything unless it is to make everything louder than somebody else's louder and for corrective or enhancement purposes, when necessary. Otherwise, most everybody utilizes broadband dynamics processing in mastering.

    In the days of vinyl, I had to send my master tapes out since I don't have a Neumann VMS70 cutting lathe, nor Scully nor Presto. And for the past 11 years, I've never sent any of my digital projects to any mastering engineer (sorry guys). I do all of my own mastering and as like other people suggested, I listen very carefully to what it needs after you're done with the mix. If you're good, it won't need much of anything. When I'm fixing one of my friends home produced crappy rock-and-roll recordings, it usually requires a fair amount of surgery and turd polishing. In that respect, I might possibly use a multiband dynamics processor? Dead room? Live room? Funny you didn't mention your car? A good mastering engineer needs good references. That's why they have those incredible monitors. For the rest of us, I have already monitored my projects on numerous monitors, in numerous locations, under all different kinds of conditions. That's my reference. It works well for me and my clients. I've never had a complaint.

    If you're the engineer I think you are? You'll need a mastering engineer.
    Ms. Remy Ann David
  17. bwmac

    bwmac Active Member

    Mar 15, 2007

    Hi Guss,
    well for a thread that wasn't suppost to be answered because its been asked so many times, seems like a few of us still like to talk it over.


    the best I found on it so far is
    some say that you can't master at home because you need to much equipment.
    well you can mix it really dam good and spit on it then.
    BTW, none of my chit ever sounds right, but i'm still trying.

    I use T-Racks sometimes

    or I Eq and compress and polish with every fx that I think it needs then I come back the next day and may end up removing most or some.
    I also use things like the VC-64 vintage Channel
    AMD Live!™ motherboard

    hope this helped.
  18. Guss

    Guss Guest

    Thanks Ballz interesting post. What kind of music do you generally produce out of curiosity or is it a wide range of stuff ?
  19. Guss

    Guss Guest

    It depends on the type of music you are making and how you go about things. Some people put a different multiband compressor on each instrument .
    Well Im not as unbalanced as SOME engineers Ive known but still I have my moments .
    Yes I listen to my mixes in as many different speakers as possible - car stereos, $*^t hi fis , good hi fis etc etc
    Yes I have 15 years in the recording industry but as you might have guessed not in any conventional manner. I have been primarily involved in electronic, experimental and electroacoustic music and such things as diffusion systems etc so I have had little use for a mastering engineer as yet, though some of our stuff has been played on national radios without any complaints either !
    Recently I sought to try out what a mastering engineer would do for an ambient album I had done and he actually made it worse - this was the guy who asked for four different frequency bands and gave me a rather distrorted view of mastering it would seem. Multiband compressors can be used to great creative effect in electoacoustic music especially the steinberg one which allows you to invert the compressor and isolate different frequencies, they have a slightly different effect on the sound than just using eq.
    As for your last comment - you havent even actually heard anything ive done so I think thats a bit early to start making snide remarks - if youd like to hear some please let me know and Ill pm you a link, but unless you work with experimental music its not likely to be anything you are used or to working with or particularily like , but I think you'll find the engineering is to a pretty high standard.
  20. Dozer

    Dozer Active Member

    Nov 21, 2006
    Home Page:
    Maybe there should be a sticky in this mastering section that shows, people that are willing to contribute, signal chains and the such.
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