Learn about the 8 essential audio mastering tools
Mastering, the black art of the audio process...
There are so many tools at your disposal when it comes time to put the finishing touches on a record. Do you know what they are? More importantly, how well can you use them?
Fab discusses the 8 tools essential to the art of mastering and shows you exactly how best to use them. This video is full of examples that are applied to a wide range of musical styles. You’ll gain a deeper level of understanding as he explains the theory and reasoning behind the application of every tool.
- The Studio
- Compression (and parallel compression)
- Multiband Compression
- Peak Limiter
- Sum & Difference (aka Mid/Side)
Mastery of these tools allows you to enhance sonic characteristics while correcting mix balance issues, giving your recordings power, clarity, and focus.
Here’s just a taste of what you’ll learn:
- Why the room is the most important tool in mastering, why your rooms probably sucks, and how to deal with a less than ideal room
- The importance of great metering and why you NEED it
- Understand and optimize a song’s dynamic range
- How to make masters sound natural and maintain their artistic integrity
- The different roles compression play in mastering
- How to use parallel compression to add density to the track
- The role of EQs in mastering and why many mastering engineers use two EQs
- The purpose of the peak limiter
Once logged in, you will be able to click on those chapter titles and jump around in the video.
- 00:00 - Start
- 00:17 - Tool 1: The Room
- 01:28 - Tool 2: Metering
- 05:49 - Tool 3: Compression
- 11:51 - Parallel Compression
- 15:21 - Tool 4 : Multiband compression
- 20:53 - Tool 5: De-esser
- 22:23 - Tool 6: Equalizers
- 24:29 - Tool 7 : Peak Limiter
- 28:56 - Tool 8: Sum & Difference
Good morning children! Today, we're going to talk about mastering tools.
I mean, tools you use for mastering, not being good at handling a drill.
Here we go! Tool #1: You're in it, you already own it.
Isn't that wonderful? It's your room.
It's the most important tool in mastering. Why? Because what you hear needs to be what you get.
It is most likely that your room sucks, because most rooms suck.
Why would it be more of a problem for mastering than for mixing? Because mastering is the very last step.
After mastering, there's nothing either.
You can't really fix stuff in the shrink wrap, or the download.
Consequently, you'd better make sure that what you hear is what you get, and, unless you're willing to drop a million dollars in a special room, with special floor, special walls, special ceiling, special treatment, special couch, special everything, the best idea is also to supplement your speakers with headphones.
Good ones if possible. Accurate ones.
Not the ones that come with your iPhone. Why headphones? Because the headphones get rid of the room. So if your room sucks, you can make sure that everything's ok by listening to a good pair of headphones.
Of course, you also have to have a great pair of speakers.
But frankly, a great pair of speakers in a bad room, is just a bad pair of speakers, no matter what you do.
So, since it's way beyond the scope of this video to explain how to treat a room, and where to place the speakers in a room, we'll do that elsewhere, we're gonna move on to #2.
Tool #2: Metering! I know, not sexy, but very important.
You need great metering to know how loud your record's gonna be.
Without a good meter, you don't have a reference.
Let me show you a good meter.
There are a bunch of them around.
This is the Blue Cat Audio DP Meter Pro.
What's good about it? It gives you all the information you need to be able to figure out where you're at.
You have your peak levels, and your RMS levels, on the same scale.
Check it out. I'm gonna play some music, you can look at it go.
the green meters on the outside, labelled Peak, are your Peak levels.
The green meters on the inside of the two Peak levels are the RMS levels.
And there's a cool thing at the bottom here in blue, called the Crest factor.
I'll explain that.
And then here, you have statistics.
Not those kinds of statistics, good statistics! Here, it tells you that this track has a max peak of 4.29dB on the left, and 4.18 on the right, and a max RMS of -13 on the left and right... ish.
And then, you have your average levels here.
And then your Crest factor here.
As a reminder, average level is how loud music feels, they call it RMS too, and the peak level is how loud music is for your DAW.
The difference between the two is your dynamic range, or your Crest factor. Let's play the track.
So now you see that your Peak is indeed louder than your average, or RMS.
You can tell the difference between the Peak and the average by reading the Crest factor right here...
about 8.5, or 9dBs, depending on where you are.
That's actually a fairly well-contained mix.
I think that it's very important that you should educate yourself about the average loudness of the records you listen to.
So... what you should do is go online, and download the latest Katy Perry single, for example, preferably from a legal source, and say, the Britney Spears single...
Bad example, she no longer has singles.
Just download something else, something touchy-feely, like...
an old Sarah McLachlan record, for example.
And then, compare the two on a meter.
You will notice that the Katy Perry record is much louder...
meaning that the RMS level, or your average level, is much higher than say, the Sarah McLachlan record, which is a little bit lower, maybe by 4 or 5dBs, which is quite a bit.
If you're looking for a range, these days, pop masters can be as loud as -4dBs RMS, meaning that the music hovers around here, all the time...
during the whole record, it's totally crushed.
And then, you know, more sensitive pop artists will have like a little bit of dynamic left, like -6.
Around -8dBs RMS is about where records start sounding a little more natural, and a little less crushed.
If you're really secure about your manliness, you could consider parking your record around -10dBFS RMS.
It sounds great.
The lower you park it, the more dynamic you have, right? Because the zero is here, the higher you get to zero with your RMS, the less dynamic range you have.
This is the dynamic range left.
The lower you park your record, the more dynamic range you have.
The compromise is of course this...
if this -10... average, and this is -4 average, you have to make a choice where you park your record in there.
If you park your record at -10, or -12, that's gonna sound good, because it's got a lot of dynamic...
provided it sounded good to start with! But can you stand your record being a few dBs softer than the next guy's record? On the opposite range, if you park your record right here, at -4, or -5, or even sometimes -3, I've seen it, the question is: can you stand the last year and a half of work, and 20 hours worth of mixing, being crushed to smithereens, just to be able to compete, and be louder than the next guy? Make your selection, at any time! So you can imagine that having an accurate meter, with a great Peak/Average reading, is a good way to know where you park your records.
I like this one, I use sometimes hardware, some people use the TT Meter, they're available.
Make sure you don't travel without them.
Tool #3: Compression.
I'm gonna keep the meter on, so you can see what compression does to the signal.
Today, I'm gonna use the Flux Compressor...
Right here. Alright.
What is the role of compression in mastering? One of the obvious roles is to add color.
I know a lot of mastering engineers that park an API 2500 across their entire mastering chain, to give that tone to it.
Or some people use some Shadow Hills stuff that's really transformer-heavy.
You basically pick the color for the mix.
You want it more vintage, you want it more in your face, it's a tone thing, almost like an EQ.
Another obvious use of compression in mastering, is dynamic control, since that's what compressors do, with a sound design-ish kind of element to it.
Meaning, the mastering engineer will compress the track to be able to bring the low levels up, and add density to the track, all the while, playing with the attack, and the threshold together, to modify the way the track hits punch-wise.
Let me show you.
A good place to start for mastering ratios is 2:1.
Why is that? Because you don't wanna make it pump, unless that's the style you're looking for, but most likely, you're looking for something pretty discreet.
You're just doing some enhancement here.
2:1 is a pretty soft ratio, it's not gonna kill anyone.
Let's listen to the track.
So! What I hear here, is that there's a quiet verse, and a louder chorus.
If I'm thinking in mastering terms, I know that that quiet verse is potentially a liability.
So what I could do if I want the whole thing to be in your face, and louder, then I may have to bring the verse up.
So I can either bring the verse up, or I can bring the chorus down, by compressing it a little bit.
So the trick here, my gut feeling, would be to place the compressor so that the threshold basically compresses the chorus quite a bit, but doesn't touch the verse too much.
Let's see if we can do that.
Check it out! Now, let's compare before and after, level-wise, on the chorus.
It could use a little bit of gain.
You always wanna compare obviously at the same level.
Listen to what the compressor does to the tone and to the punch of the track.
The attack is at 10ms, fairly fast, so it's gonna catch everything, and it's gonna put everything kind of inline together. Check it out.
It does this... thing.
it does this, it kind of aligns things together.
Do we want that? I don't know! If you like it, you want that, if you don't like it, you may want something else.
What else could you do? You could open the attack. Let me show you.
I'm gonna copy this setting to the B setting on the Flux Compressor, and then, I'm gonna open the attack to 40 ms, for example, just picking a number.
Now, the attack is slower, which means the compressor is not gonna move as fast, it's not gonna catch as much, so it's gonna compress less.
So it's a good idea to lower the threshold.
We were here on the previous setting, on A.
And then B, with the open attack.
It needs a little bit of gain.
With 1dB of gain on the chorus, and the chorus being at the same level, that means that my verse just came up 1dB, which gonna reduce the difference between the verse and the chorus, and help me make a louder master, without crushing it.
Listen to the position of the bass drum, regarding the snare and the guitars.
Alright? So, on A, you might hear that this is this, and on B, you might hear a little bit of this going on. Check it out.
With the short attack.
Because the attack is slower, the compressor will let more the bass drum go through, you're gonna get more punchy bass drum/snare drum thing going on.
It's pretty simple. So how do you decide? Well, say your track comes in really punchy percussive, with lots of dynamic range, and it's a mess.
Then you're gonna use a shorter attack and try and put it together.
Say your track sounds great, or maybe is a little bit smothered, then you open up the attack, use a little bit of compression to bring the low levels, and put some punch back into it.
It's a question of taste. But these are the basic techniques.
No discussion about compression in any style or technique is ever complete without a discussion about the ever mysterious parallel compression.
In mastering, parallel compression is used to dense up your track.
Dense with an E, not with an A. Let me show you.
So, if we go back to setting A on the Pure Compressor, and... let's just crush it.
Maybe slow the attack down a little bit, so that I have more transients.
That's nice and crushed! As a reminder, my clean signal was this way.
As you can see, I'm turning the Dry Mix all the way up, meaning I have nothing but Dry, meaning, uncompressed signal.
Now I'm gonna change the balance, and add some of the compression, tucked under the Dry signal.
As a reminder, the compressed signal sounds like this.
So the crushed signal, which is pretty compact, because it's crushed, comes in, and basically fills the holes under the normal signal, that's just wide open.
Of course, this is a mixed track, so I already have some compression on it, so it's not that wide open. But you can tell the difference.
In this particular case, the best way is to try and match levels, and compare in bypass, otherwise it's a mess, and it's very difficult to figure out what the track really does.
So let me match the levels, and play you what it's like, with and without the parallel compressed signal.
I just matched it... ish.
Listen to the relationship between the vocal and the rest of the track, with and without the parallel compression, and also listen to the punch of the rhythm section.
I start without.
It works great. It's a dangerous tool, be careful! It's dangerous, but not as dangerous as Tool #4...
Let's switch music.
What's multiband compression? It's a bunch of compressors that just only work in certain areas of your signal, going from low to high. It's really not that complicated.
So, say you have a compressor at the bottom...
You have a compressor in the middle...
And then you have a compressor at the top.
What it is really, it's a bunch of filters that separate your signal in different little drawers, and then you can compress whatever is in that drawer.
So, for this track for example, this is the whole song.
You get the full control of a full compressor, just for that one band, so if I listen to the bottom in solo...
Hear how that bottom of that snare is peaking through and being unpleasant? So we can just compress that! It's much smoother, right? It doesn't do that ... thing as much.
I'll play it again. This is without.
Maybe a little bit of gain to match the levels.
Now let's listen to that in the context of the whole frequency range.
So what's going on is I'm compressing, but just the bottom, just what you heard, everything else is untouched.
Without any processing.
It definitely needs a little more gain.
I like the fact that it's more even, but it needs more gain.
It may not be as fat, but it's smoother and cleaner, which means now, I have the perfect terrain to EQ it.
You can think of multiband compression as a way to fix problems.
For example, you could use it for de-essers, I'll show you in a second...
as a way to smooth out the dynamic range, across the frequency range, if somebody sent you a mix that's not necessarily that tight.
And also to do some cool enhancement tricks, like for example...
if I add two more bands to this, I can solo this band, the top band here.
I can say: Why don't I take this "psss" thing, compress the hell out of it, so it's very steady, and it doesn't do this as much, and then raise it a little bit, to see what it does.
So for example...
this, and this. Let's just be wild! As a reminder, without.
Cool. Raise the gain.
Listen to the top, top transients, all the way up there, above the vocal.
Now that they are compressed, and raised, they don't stick out, they're there all the time, It's subtle, but it gives a little more sizzle, and a little more bite to the track, on top.
Listen to the tom attacks.
So when you get your shiny new multiband compressor, and you click on the hyper-master super-loud CD master-ish preset, what's going on? The guy who programs the preset, is gonna - most likely - do this: Enhance the super bottom, that goes "Boom! Boom!" Get rid of stuff that's in the way for energy, like the things that go "Mmm! Mmm!" Which is different from "Boom! Boom!" Tame the medium a little bit, and do a nice shine on top, by either expanding, or compressing and raising the upper mids, and the high end.
Basically, some combination of the last two things I showed you.
You can use multiband compression to either tuck things, or compress and raise things in a controlled manner.
The combination of all that stuff tends to be a bloody mess if you don't know what you're doing. Should you do it anyway? Absolutely! Try it! Nobody will die, it's just music.
Side note on de-essers: you can have a dedicated de-esser, we have a video on that.
If it's a good quality, good sounding, non destructive de-esser, you can use it for mastering. Or...
you can use your multiband compressor. Because what's a de-esser? It's a compressor that takes care of only S's.
Since you know where S's live, just turn that band on, and compress those. Let's check it out.
Let's bypass it, and listen to the track.
We can try, it's pretty controlled, but it'll work.
So, I'm gonna solo the band that I think the S's might live around.
Then, you pick a Ratio, probably brutal.
You lower the threshold.
Et voilà! Of course, it's always better if the mixing engineer de-esses the vocal, since he has control over just the vocal, and you don't.
Whatever you do here will also affect probably the top of the snare, and stuff like that.
But you don't always have that relationship with the mixing engineer.
I know that I scream at myself all the time when I send myself bad mixes.
Tool #6: Equalizers. What's their role in mastering? The obvious thing is to fix stuff.
Somebody sends you a track with +6dB at 60Hz, because they don't hear it in their room... you can fix it! Somebody sends you a dull track... you make it brighter.
A lot of mastering engineers use two EQs in hardware.
One colored one, and one clean one.
SoundTech is famous, GML is famous for the clean ones, and then maybe Pultecs, or something like that, or EAR EQs for the colored ones.
The idea here is: you fix, then you give some vibe.
You use the colored one for the vibe, and the clean one for the fix.
In software, you can do the same thing.
You can use the Epure, or the Sonnox, or something like that, to clean up stuff, and then use some Pultec reissue to give it some vibe.
Giving the tone is one thing, but let's not forget what the original purpose of the equalizer was...
it's in the name: Equalizer.
In mastering, you're gonna use your equalizers to match the tone of different tracks, not just to alter the tone of one track.
You're trying to make sure, provided that's your bag, that all the tracks in that record sort of kinda sound the same.
These days, since the process has changed, that everybody is mixing in bedrooms on headphones, in bathrooms, in cars, on tour busses, not everybody is mixing their record with the same person, sometimes there's ten different people mixing the record, some tracks come in bass-heavy, some top-heavy, some mid-heavy, some don't match whatsoever.
So the mastering engineer will use his equalizers to do that...
thing across the track.
So for example, on this "Colette" track I just finished mixing, bad me, bad me, I hear a little bit of a nose on the bass drum.
That's it! That little .85dB at 136Hz did what I needed to do, tuck that little nose thing a little bit.
you may notice in mastering that the settings are really minimal, maybe 1dB here, 2dBs here, provided the mix was ok.
If you find yourself adding 20dBs at 60Hz, call the mixing engineer.
Tool #7: Peak Limiters.
In mastering, the role of the Peak limiter is one, and one only: to let you raise your RMS level so loud that you can actually beat the Katy Perry record, level-wise.
That's what it's for.
There are many brands that make many Peak Limiters, designed to do just that: crush music.
There are even one or two analog boxes that try to do that.
But it really is the realm of digital.
So how does it work? Very simple! You have no man's land at 0dBFS, right? And then you have your music dancing here.
This is your RMS level, this is your peak level.
This is no man's land.
As you raise your level, your input gain, your RMS levels are raising, and your peak levels are raising, they're happy.
Once the peak levels start reaching no man's land, where they can't go further, then the limiter is gonna tuck them in...
which will allow you to raise your RMS levels further.
It makes sense? So you tuck your peaks in, so you can keep on pushing the input gain.
Of course there's a compromise: you start crushing your music, because the peaks are the life of the music, that's your dynamic range, those are your transients.
So the higher you go, the more damage you do.
That's the compromise we talked at the beginning.
Everything in between.
So let's use the limiter that started the whole trend: Waves L1.
Instead of doing this in this one, you bring the threshold down. This is the same vibe, you're basically doing this, right? You could do this...
or you could do this. Same thing.
Let's go for it! So, so far, nothing happened. Why? Because I'm just lowering the threshold, but nothing else happens, because there's still headroom in my mix.
Where it gets interesting, is when the threshold gets lower than the peaks.
Or, if you're using the Sonnox, or the L2007, or a down/up type of limiter, when the peaks hit the ceiling. Here we go.
I mean, check this out! This is where we started...
Now, we're here.
Isn't that wonderful? Not really! I mean, if you check out at the same level, there's a point where you're gonna hit yourself in the morning.
This is without.
So, you could keep going, they actually have a very neat Link thing here, where you can see what it does to your music.
So we start at, say... -7.
Recognize that sound? Side note: if you were to do this as a real master, and Magda calls you and says: "I want it to be really loud"... Check this out! You're about as loud as the Katy Perry record right now.
Except that this record wasn't mixed to do that.
Consequently, it's very hard to make it that loud, without crushing it.
So that's the limiter. It will let you get rid of the peaks, so you can raise your RMS, and make your perceived level louder, your average level louder.
That's what people use and abuse.
Tool #8: Sum and difference techniques.
You may have heard of M/S miking technique, when you use one microphone cardio in the middle, one figure-eight on the side, middle and sides.
Then you can decide the width of the mid/side. That's for miking.
Now, in mastering, there's the same circuit that can be applied, and you can separate the center and the sides.
Yes, you can... Yes you can! So you no longer think left and right, you think center and side.
Yes, you can! Let me show you.
I'm gonna use the BX Digital EQ on the UAD platform.
This is the whole track.
This is just the sides.
Meaning, only the information that happens right on the sides.
And this is the middle, just the mono signal in the middle.
That is true magic! Imagine: say somebody sends you a track with way too loud cymbals, and they live on the sides of the mix as they tend to live.
The vocal's fine, you don't wanna touch that.
So you can't EQ the cymbals out, because the vocal is fine.
But with an M/S, you can.
I can listen to my side signal, and just touch that.
Check it out.
I'm high-passing the hell out of the sides, but I'm not touching the middle, the middle is still tight.
And now if I have the two of them together, it sounds like this.
So for example, if you wanna hear something, I could take the sides...
And this is the whole signal, with the sides boosted on the high end, and slightly high-passed.
Check it out again! This is without.
Listen to the sides, and the high end of the keyboards, and that little ... thing.
It's subtle, but it's cool, and it lets you do pretty drastic stuff without ruining the center of the record, touching the bass drum or the vocal if those are cool.
So it works for EQ, but it also works for compression.
Check it out.
On Solera, for example, you have an MS button.
If you click it on, instead of functioning this way, it's gonna function this way, so you can compress the center a little more, or the sides a little more, you can do whatever you want.
If you're gonna do mastering, you're gonna need some sort of a Sum and Difference system, unless you're not trying to make your records loud, which makes you a better person, but not necessarily competitive.
In summary, these are a few of the tools that you need to own, to be able to do a good job mastering.
Of course, and you noticed, these are the same tools you just used mixing.
And they're kinda used in the same kinda way.
It's just a question of spirit, and it's a question of reaching a different result.
Go master something! Et voilà!
Once logged in, you will be able to read all the transcripts jump around in the video.
- Blue Cat Audio DP Meter Pro
- Flux:: Compressor
- Flux:: Alchemist
- Universal Audio UAD BX Digital_V2 EQ
- Banda Magda: Oublies La - Spotify | iTunes
- The Arrows: Disaster Queen - Spotify | iTunes
- DJ Colette: Oasis - Spotify | iTunes
- Grand Baton: Drop Off - Spotify | iTunes
Fab Dupont is a Grammy winning NYC based record producer, mixing/mastering engineer and co-founder of pureMix.net.
Fab has been playing, writing, producing and mixing music both live and in studios all over the world. He's worked in cities like Paris, Boston, Brussels, Stockholm, London and New York just to name a few.
He has his own studio called FLUX Studios in the East Village of New York City.
Fab has been nominated for Grammys 6 times, including two Latin Grammys and has received many other accolades around the world, including Victoires de la Musique, South African Music awards, Pan African Music Awards and US independent music awards.
Toots And The Maytals
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