Let’s take a look at how you can kick up the overall intensity of your mix by using effects on the master fader. While some people may prefer to keep the master fader clean with nothing on it, I’ve often found it useful to have my ‘mastering’ chain active throughout the entire process of composing and mixing. Here’s a look at a few tools that can help make that happen and why I choose them.
In this day and age of production, not everything is going to be sent off to a proper mastering house for a level and polish. While it’s of course great to do that, the realities of time and budget constraints do not always allow for that luxury. Plus, there are many great tools available to place on a single master fader to help get that mix pumping where it should be, if you know how to use them right.
What a great mastering engineer can do for your mix is use such tools as EQ, gain and compression to balance out the songs in your project, balance out dynamic range and make it all sound cohesive. They can take a song and make it jump out of the speakers whereas before it may have been lifeless. What they cannot do though is fix a bad song or a really bad mix, that’s when it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
With that in mind, for years now I’ve used a select group of tools that let me hear my production at professional levels—both as its being developed and in the final mix. By doing it this way, it’s not so shocking to hear the changes when those mastering tools are placed on the master fader. You’ve already had a head start by having some or all of them on there during the creation process. By doing this, the mix decisions you make along the way do not sound out of place when adding in a layer of mastering tools like those mentioned above, EQ, compression and leveling.
The tools I’ve turned to time and again all have specific jobs. All software-based plugins, I apply them in a specific order on my master fader, and let them feed into each other. Note that these tools do change with the various productions, depending on my needs. They also may change if I turn to a multifunction plugin that specifically was designed for mastering, such as iZotope Ozone 7.
The first thing in line on my master fader is an EQ. I tend to use the Brainworx bx_digital V3, because it lets me EQ the middle and sides of my master independently. Referred to as M/S, mid side lets me take some of the bass out of the left/right speakers and leave it in the middle. I also tend to pull some of the treble out of the middle and bump up a touch of upper midrange, around 6 kHz or so. I also pull some bass and treble out of the sides, which I find helps in overall mix clarity.
I like to pull down bass frequencies around 60 Hz just a touch from the middle of the mix, where the kick and bass usually reside. Remember, when you do that, your EQ’ing the entire mix, not separate elements. The reason I do this is so I can turn the mix up louder in the next stages and the bass information won’t use up all the dynamic range.
I do tend to turn down both the input gain and output gain, to avoid any clipping. Note that when you bypass the EQ this way (with nothing else following it), it may sound like your mix is ‘less’ than it was before you EQ’ed. But be patient—this is a multistep process. Gain will follow.
Not One but Two
Often, I will turn to a second EQ on the master, and that’s the Manley Massive Passive EQ from Universal Audio.
I prefer the 4 kHz frequency on the Massive Passive, and I push it up just a bit for overall mix clarity. Sometimes I will also do a subtle master cut at 66 Hz to clean up the bottom end. The reason I use this EQ is because I find it to be specifically powerful in that frequency range, and different than other EQs. It’s just another tool for the job.
For compression on a master fader, I prefer the Vertigo VSC-2, which is a software recreation of a $6,000 stereo bus compressor.
Compression on a master fader, which again affects only the stereo mix, can be dangerous, so it should be done with care. If you over compress a mix, you can take the life out of the dynamic range by squashing the peaks—which are natural to music (and our ears). I prefer to EQ before compression, so that the frequencies I’m reducing are not fed into the compressor. Another small step towards a cleaner, leaner final mix.
With the VSC-2, I set the threshold so that the loudest parts of the mix barely move the needle, in other words, the mix is hardly compressing at all. If some peak is out of line and causing the compressor to squash too much on the entire mix, I will go back to that offending track and lower it in the mix. I use this for a few dBs of master gain as well, depending on how hot it is coming into it to begin with. Add gain only when need be, and ALWAYS make sure you are not clipping your mix or distorting it (unless you intend to).
Next in line typically comes the Sonnox Oxford Limiter, which I find to be an invaluable master mix tool. What a good limiter can do is turn the overall volume of your mix up without adding artifacts, such as distortion or crunch. I turn it up only a few dBs in level, for added overall gain. I’m careful not to turn it up too much though, because there are more stages of gain to follow.
I also push up the Enhance slider, which adds extra volume and punch on an almost psychoacoustic level. It’s that little bit of extra ‘air’ on top that makes the difference, and that’s why I turn to the Sonnox Limiter.
Last but Not Least
The last tool in my mastering chain is usually the Massey L2007 Limiter. Why two limiters you may say? I just find that different tools have their specialties, kind of like using two different distortion pedals or two guitars for that matter. Just in this case, the tools are feeding into each other, and the Massey is what I use to glue the entire mastering chain, and mix for that matter, together.
I’ll typically only turn two knobs, the Threshold and Output. Turning the Threshold knob counter clockwise makes the mix louder and the Output knob prevents that louder mix from clipping the master bus, if you pull it back off of 0. A simple, inexpensive tool the Massey L2007 can make the mix louder and thicker without sounding harsh.
One Tool or Several
While I like to use a multistep final master process that involves several plug-ins, I have also had great success with a single tool such as iZotope’s Ozone 7. This is a one-stop shop for all the steps I’ve mentioned above, and then some. It’s all a matter of what your ears hear and how you prefer to work.
Make sure to never clip your audio when using master fader tools. That is the first sign of an amateur production, and it also is unpleasant to hear. Try not to make things blazingly loud, where the natural dynamic range of your piece disappears. While I like to make things hot and punchy, I will approach this mentality with care, always thinking about what best serves the music. Just take your time and experiment and don’t be afraid to try new things. Your listeners will thank you for the effort.