Modern Mastering (Part 1)

Modern music has a mastering style with a very limited dynamic range. Limited dynamic range does not mean the music has limited range. This modern mastering style just means the quiet parts are nearly as loud as the loud parts. Psycho-acoustically, our ears and minds can still tell the difference between the quiet and loud parts. The primary difference is this mastering technique allows the quiet parts to be heard much better.

Plugins used in this tutorial:

  • Waves Renaissance EQ 4 band
  • Waves Linear Multiband Compressor
  • Waves L2.
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A lot of home recordings suffer from three main problems. The first is something I call bass mask. The second is not enough sparkle in the highs. Lastly is a general imbalance across the frequency spectrum. Now for some more specifics.

STEP 1: The Stereo Mix

The first step is to mix your song to the best of your ability. Make a good effort to get the song sounding as good as possible. You would think this should go without saying. No doubt you have heard the phrase, “We’ll fix it in the mix.” Hopefully you have also learned that “fix it in the mix” is usually not a great idea. It is much hard to “fix it in the mix” than it is to just record it right in the first place. Some mix engineers also have an attitude of, “We’ll fix it in the mastering.” This is also not usually a good idea. Strive to mix it correctly in the first place. Mastering is not the time to fix problems in your mix. Mastering is time to take your awesome mix and make it phenomenal. You can’t polish a turd. You can try, but it will still stink.

Render your mix to a stereo file. Don’t be scared by the word “render” if you are not familiar with the term. Some other names in software and the industry for the same process are: mix down, export, and bounce. The goal is to have your whole mix in a single stereo file .Create a new project in your recording software with that stereo file on track 1.

STEP 2: Eliminate Bass Mask

Bass mask is basically what it sounds like. The bass frequencies tend to be overwhelming. In an attempt to get our recordings sounding really phat, we tend to pump up the lows in the kick drum and bass. This has the overall effect of muddying up the mix and making everything sound too bassy. Listen to your favorite CD’s. They sound nothing like that. During the mixing process you should keep this in mind. But lack of punch and muddiness in the low frequencies can still be a problem. Listen critically to your stereo mix. Does it suffer from some bass mask? We’re going to address that now. If you have no idea how to tell, follow this step anyway and do a comparison when we’re done.

We are going to doctor the low frequencies a bit in our mastering process. Add the Waves Renaissance EQ 4 band as the first plugin on the track with your stereo mix. Set up band 1 as a high pass filter at 30Hz (Figure 1). Start playback of your mix. Sweep the frequency up and down (slowly) as the song plays back. Find the frequency where the low instruments (typically kick drum and bass) are just starting to lose their low end punch. Leave band 1 set to that frequency. Yes, leave band 1 set to a point where your low instruments have started to lose their low end punch! This is where band 2 comes in.

Set band two to a typical bell shaped curve at 200Hz, boosted 2.5dB with a Q of 1.5 (Figure 2). You will see it makes a hump in the yellow line (Figure 3). Move the frequency down toward band 1 until the slope of the high pass transitions smoothly into the hump of band 2 (Figure 4). Now play back your mix and massage the gain of band 2 up and down from 2.5dB until you find the setting that gives you back the punch we eliminated with band 1. It is important not to overdo the boost. You want to give your mix back the punch we took out, not add new punch that never existed in the first place. Our mix sounded great before we started mastering, right?

The high pass filter of band 1 eliminates the low sub frequencies that muddy up our mix. Our slight boost just above that restores any missing frequency content and keeps our mix sounding punchy and defined. Your bands 1 and 2 should now look similar to Figure 5 (though your frequencies and boost may differ slightly).

Modern Mastering: Figure 1
Figure 1
Modern Mastering: Figure 2
Figure 2
Modern Mastering: Figure 3
Figure 3
Modern Mastering: Figure 5
Figure 5
Modern Mastering: Figure 4
Figure 4

STEP 3: Add Some Sparkle

Here we are going to bring up the highs to help with sparkle on the cymbals and general brightness of the mix. Turn band 3 of the REQ4 off by clicking the purple light so it becomes grey (Figure 6). Then set up band 4 at 17.5kHz (17500Hz) with a 2.5dB boost and a Q of 1 (Figure 7). Listen back to your mix and focus on how the air sounds. Sweep the frequency down a bit just to the point where you can hear the “air” around the instruments a little better and the cymbals are barely affected at their highest range. Your bands 3 and 4 will now look similar to Figure 8 (though your frequency may differ).

Modern Mastering: Figure 6
Figure 6
Modern Mastering: Figure 7
Figure 7
Modern Mastering: Figure 8
Figure 8

STEP 4: Adjust EQ For Hotter Signal

Boosting EQ always has the potential to take a sound that is not clipping and push it hot enough to make it clip. The Waves plugins have a semi-automated way to help us monitor and resolve the situation. Play your track all the way through. Now consult the meters which will be showing some numbers and the red light at the top may be illuminated (Figure 9). If the red light is not on, the number in the box above it will be positive or 0.0 which means you had no clipping in the output signal and should skip to STEP 5. If the light is on the number above it will be negative (in Figure 9 it is showing -3.1). The number represents the amount of available headroom. A negative value means we have clipping in the output stage of the EQ. Click directly on the number in the box. The number will change and the output faders will be auto-adjusted down by the proper amount. Notice the faders are now set to the number that was in the box (in Figure 10 the faders are now set to -3.1). The output faders have been automatically adjust to the perfect amount to prevent clipping in the output stage without unnecessarily lowering the signal too much.

Modern Mastering: Figure 9
Figure 9
Modern Mastering: Figure 10
Figure 10

STEP 5: Listen And Assess

Play your track all the way through again. This time, do some critical listening and focus on the interaction of highs and lows within the rest of the mix. Decide if you like the way it’s starting to sound. It’s possible we boosted the highs (band 6) and lows (band 2) by too much. So decide at this point if you want to lower the boost on those two bands. If you do lower the boost and had lowered the output gain in STEP 4, then adjust the output faders back to 0.0 and repeat STEP 4.

Continued in Modern Mastering Part 2

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17 Responses to “Modern Mastering (Part 1)”

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  1. Jimmy says:

    Hi
    I was reading your modern mastering tutorial and later I read this article: http://www.har-bal.com/mastering_process.php
    and noticed you have left out the “Figure 11” part. any particular reason?

    I did a test with all 3 that is presented in those articles anyway. You can find it here: http://soundclick.com/share?songid=6519721
    Just a part of a song im working on repeated 4 times with the different mastering tips:
    Mix only
    Benvesco “modern mastering”
    Harbal w/ too much limiting
    Harbal w/ electro mastering

    Which version did you think was the best?
    What did you think of the “mix only” version?

    Thanks for your time. This site has helped me several times. :)

  2. rob says:

    Hi Ben,

    Ussually what the average of RMS will achieve in thi moderen tech.

    best regards

  3. Douglas says:

    What is the adaptive threshold on the multiband?

  4. Hi there,

    I love this site, the articles are fantastic and a great source of info and inspiration to me. I’m currently mastering my debut EP, and I’m using Ozone 4. This is great and allows the mix to become more polished and (although I shouldn’t sound proud) louder.
    [This was important to me, because if my tracks were compiled as a playlist back to back with professional masters, my tracks would sound a LOT quieter and (although not) inferior.]
    The problem I have with mastering plug-ins is that when multiband compression and limiters are used, it ruins my songs! Obviously the dynamics have been taken away somewhat, but it doesn’t have to take punch away for volume, surely?
    My question is; is there any way to master a few tracks and raise the volume to average commercial loudness without sacrificing punch and a massive amount of dynamics? Can’t I just have it the way it is, the way I mixed it – just turned up?

    Again, amazing site, and I’d be extremely grateful for any reply.

    Cheers,

    George B

  5. bvesco says:

    If you want it just the way it is just turned up, then the solution is to do nothing other than turn it up. The problem with that is you run out of headroom and start clipping. To avoid the clipping you need compression. Something I’ve done a few times is start the mix with some roughed in mastering compression already on the master bus. Then you can do the whole mix with it already active and make decisions based on this final sound.

  6. andy says:

    I like your tutorial. There are a couple of things I take issue with though.

    I’d recommend people to ‘render’ their stereo mixes at 24-bit resolution, making sure the track never goes above -6db to -3db at it’s loudest point. This leaves plenty of headroom for the mastering and using 24-bit helps stop the sound degrading when it has to go through all the mastering effects. (You should dither down to 16-bit at the end if you plan to burn to CD)

    You also seem to recommend taking the track up to 0db at the EQ stage.

    Surely at this early stage it’s advisable to continue to leave 3-6db of headroom to ensure no clipping occurs and to leave plenty of room for the final stages of compressing/ maximising. I thought this was standard practice?

  7. chrys says:

    Hello Ben, i hope you’re still active on this wonderful site! First of all thank you for the great advices I’ve find here, they helped me a lot! Sorry for my bad english sometimes, this is not my native language-)
    I have though a few questions.
    1.If i already worked with high pass on most of the tracks, it is necessary to use the high pass on mastering too? Cause i have the feeling my songs lacking the bass frequencies after i do the mastering.
    2.You use only 3 bands in the mastering 4 bands EQ, it’s ok if i feel the need to use let’s say a 6 band eq and use more than 3 of the bands as you indicated?
    3.I work with drum samples, i beat them with my keyboard (using Superior Drummer and Drumagog if i need to replace a sound). I am really confused here. I don’t know if those samples are already EQed and compressed by default. They seem to sound very well as they are, but i always start to modify their sound, as your instructions. I don’t know if those instruction apply for drum samples too, or only for real drums, recorded in a studio. Maybe i don’t need to modify them? Please, can you answer me at these questions? Thank you in advance!

    • mariano says:

      Hey! I use a lot of drum samples and what my production teacher said to me is that a lot of them come already somewhat trated (more if they come in prepared tracks) anyway I always EQ and reverb them. You can notice the difference between a trated sample and one that isn’t when you listen to them and start thinking how much plugins do they need to sound good in your mix. Anyway, I don’t know much and would like to see and answer too!

      Oh, and I bet that if you cut lows in the tracks you don’t really need to put a high pass filter in the mastering, because you already cut those frequencies, although I am guessing.

      cheers!

      • bvesco says:

        I agree many drum samples are already treated. This does mean you might not treat them as heavily but you still might need to give them a little to make them sit right in your mix.

        Cutting lows in the mastering phase may not be necessary at all. As always, you must use your ears and listen and do what sounds right to you!

  8. bvesco says:

    1) The high pass is not necessary at time of mastering if you tracks are not suffering from too much low frequencies.

    2) Yes, use as many bands as you need. I like to keep it pretty organic without EQ it beyond what is natural for the style of music.

    3) Most drum samples are treated to some degree. Don’t blindly EQ your tracks. Evaluate them closely and do only what is needed. Sometimes you don’t have to EQ a track and that is fine, leave it alone!

  9. Chrys says:

    Thank you very much for your answers!

  10. david goslan says:

    hi ben can you help me im playing a mex strat through a fender frontman 100watt amp with a pod x3 live runnig strait to amp input but im getting an annoying sort of microphonic background noise on the clean channels ive tried changing reverb on the pod settings and have gone bak to using the amp reverb but to no avail. thanx

  11. bvesco says:

    This is really the kind of thing that is easiest to troubleshoot in person. Best to ask a local pal to help out or head down to your favorite music shop.

  12. david goslan says:

    dosnt really help

  13. BLACKSTEEZE says:

    Hey Ben,

    Thanks for this wonderful site!

    I’m missing a Info about, how loud to bounce the Stereo file?
    I always was reading about -6-9db before mastering.

    Is that right?

    Greets STEEZE

  14. bvesco says:

    The beauty of the process on this page is that it doesn’t matter too much what level your stereo file is at. The Waves plugs will bring it up to the right level anyway because you master it to 6dB above the desired peak. What I do on my mixes is to set my master track fader to -10dB while mixing. Once I am happy with my mix I adjust the master fader up to where I have between 0-1dB headroom and bounce to stereo at that level.

  15. BLACKSTEEZE says:

    Ahhh nice… Right now im listening to the final Part… I love this loudness (Even if i know its Bad), but im missing some lowend since the First REQ4 Part of the mastering… Need to search a bit more for the right spot.

    Is there a common Sense why wie Master to 6db Peak?

    Ahh that’s the idea i was common with. I’ll put it up next, when i’m hooked with the mix.

    When i now bounce the mastering, can i let logic normalize it or not? I know, we don’t do that for the mix down, but here???

    PS: You still didn’t answer Jimmy’s question about Figure 11… Can you explain, what’s different with the additional moves by har-bal tutorial?

    So far, thank you very much, i appreciate that!