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Getting The Late 80s CD Sound (Part 1)

The Modern Mastering series focused, as its name implies, on a very modern sound. This is great for mastering metal, rock, pop, dance, and other very modern styles, but it is not really what you would want for some more down to earth styles. I recently worked on a bluegrass EP and did not want to be so heavy handed in the mastering. I also did not want to go the route of gimmicky and try for a very dirty 30s or 40s kind of sound. I wanted to keep it clean but not squeeze the life out of the tracks. I decided to go for the kind of sound heard on compact discs around 1989. Very commercial and polished, yet retaining much of the dynamic range and air surrounding the music.

Plugins used in this tutorial:

  • iZotope Ozone 3
  • Waves L3 Multimaximizer
iZotope Ozone 3

iZotope Ozone 3

Izotope Ozone 3 is a powerful interface combining all required mastering tools in one system. This makes it easier to use and it sounds better because processing is done via 64-bit DSP until final output. From the warm sound of tube-modeled equalizers to the pure transparency of linear phase filters, the Ozone 3 provides the tools and the technology you need to deliver top-notch audio masters.
Waves Diamond Native Bundle

Waves Diamond Native Bundle

A comprehensive collection of audio processing tools, Diamond brings unparalleled signal processing power to your studio, for tracking, mixing, mastering, creative sound design, and audio restoration.

Step 1: The Stereo Mix (Review)

There are a few key points to keep in mind from Modern Mastering. If these don’t seem familiar, feel free to review that article at your leisure.

  • Start your mastering process with a great sounding mix
  • Render this mix to a stereo file
  • Do your mastering work in a new project with your stereo mix down

Step 2: Leverage Ozone’s Frequency Guide

Add the Ozone 3 plugin as the first effect on your master track. When the Ozone window presents itself you may be greeted with the Preset Manager view. Just press the cancel button. We are going to go the fun route and start from scratch. Show the EQ by clicking the red circle next to Paragraphic Equalizer and turn it on by clicking next to Active (Figure 1). The EQ window serves several purposes all at once. It shows the frequency curve of any EQ you have applied (red line), it shows a realtime FFT style frequency response of your audio (jagged green line during playback), and it can show a few different frequency response guides (gray or pink depending on which you choose). It is the frequency response guide we are concerned with first.

You may have noticed while listening to popular albums or heard industry members talk about the commercial sound. Part of what makes the commercial sound is engineers tendencies to gently roll off the high frequencies. The nice folks at iZotope have been kind enough to provide us guidelines that can be overlaid on the frequency response to help us roll of our highs at about the same rate. Click the Snapshots button (Figure 2). On the right side of the dialog that pops up you will see settings for a 6dB Guide and a Pink Guide (a 3dB guide). The dB rating refers to how quickly the high end rolls off. The Pink Guide was provided to reflect the more modern trend toward brighter mixes so it rolls off gradually. Our target is a sound from nearly 20 years ago so we are going to stick with the 6dB Guide. Turn on the guide by clicking Show (Figure 3). You should now see a gray line below the red line. This gray line represents the gradual high end fall off rate of the commercial sound (Figure 4).

80s master: figure 1
Figure 1
80s master: figure 3 real
Figure 3
80s master: figure 4 real
Figure 4
80s master: figure 2
Figure 2

Step 3: Eliminate Low Sub Rumble and Bass Mask

We talked about eliminating bass mask in Modern Mastering. The same theory applies here and it will be dealt with the same way. You can adjust the equalizer by grabbing the pairs of green arrows and dragging but I like a little more precision approach. Access the detailed EQ controls by clicking Show Info (Figure 5). Set up Node 1 (Ozone calls them EQ nodes instead of EQ bands) as a high pass filter at 30Hz and a Q of 0.70 (Figure 6). The red line should change to reflect these new settings (Figure 7).

80s master: figure 5
Figure 5
80s master: figure 6
Figure 6
80s master: figure 7
Figure 7

With our basic high pass filter in place, you can play back your mix and sweep the frequency higher and lower while listening to the bass. You want to find the frequency where the bass notes just start to clean up without losing their body. Leave the frequency set at this point. In the modern approach we added a second low frequency band at this point to put some extra punch into the bass. We will skip that step this time. Remember, the goal is a slightly more vintage sound (can we call late 80s vintage yet?) where albums were not just a continuous barrage of bass frequencies. Balance and a natural sound are key here.

Step 4: Balance The EQ Across The Spectrum

We turned on that nice 6dB Guide and it is time to put it to work. Play back your track and watch the dancing frequency meter (green line, Figure 8). Focus on any extreme changes in the overall trend of the actual frequency response of your source material. Study Figure 8 and make a few judgments about how this mix might sound and see if you can spot any problem areas. My thoughts are below the image.

80s master: figure 8
Figure 8

Looking at our frequency response we can make several observations:

  • The high end has a fairly smooth drop off already
  • The high end drop off is just a bit steeper than the guide, just a very tiny bit
  • There is a bit of a bass spike around 75-80Hz
  • Between the bass spike and high frequency drop off, the mids are fairly consistent

The bass spike might typically be something we are worried about, but this is a bluegrass mix. A traditional bluegrass band has no drummer and the pulse of the music comes from the stand up bass. This bass spike is right around between the low E and low A on the bass. Keeping our goals in mind for the current mix we see this bass spike is not actually a problem but a desired attribute of the music. It is worth pointing out that blindly following a tutorial without keeping your specific needs in mind will rarely yield optimal results. Always apply these techniques according to the needs of the music you are working on.

The high frequency drop off is already very smooth. It is just a bit faster than our guide, visually, but audibly it is still very smooth. Also notice there are no extreme bumps or peaks in the high end drop off. Around 17kHz the drop off does increase a bit but listening to the recording reveals no problem in this area. If you do notice an unnatural drop in the extreme high frequencies you could fix that in this mix by adding a high shelf at 20kHz with a 2dB boost and a Q of 1.5 or so.

As previously noted, the mids are looking, and sounding, great already. This highlights how much starting with a quality mix can really make the mastering process easier.

Continued in Getting The Late 80s CD Sound (Part 2)

6 replies on “Getting The Late 80s CD Sound (Part 1)”

Agreed, the 80’s mastered sound encompassed a lot of the elements that are noteworthy….clarity, punch, but still leaving breathing room.

The only thing I didn’t care for in some 80’s stuff, was the drums…namely the kick, were understated and in the background. Today we’ve gone to the other extreme. I am simply proposing balance.

A lot of the pop records of the mid to late 80’s had a good example of well rounded balance. Those are always good reference points!


Hi there, i have read your tutorials and tried them on my mixes with great results!

These deserve more comments IMO because they are straight forward but do the job really well.

I hope to see some more on the iZotope Ozone 3 and Waves for that matter good stuff!

Great info, thank you very much. The contents is great! thank you for sharing all this useful knowledge!

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