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Saturday, April 26, 2014

THE MINIMAL MASTERING CHAIN (with stock plugins)




Hello and welcome to this week's article!
This article links our in-depth Mastering article, which covers pretty much everything that can be done in the mastering phase, whith our "Mixing with stock plugins" article, which shows us how to mix a song only using the basic stock plugins featured in our daw.

The idea is to try to separate what's essential when mixing and mastering from what's just "the icing on the cake", and to focus on the essential things with just the tools provided in our Daw.
The second objective is to free ourself as much as we can from the slavery of the presets: we must understand how does a tool works and how to adapt it to our song; the presets that we can find on the plugins are always a caricature, made to let us understand the direction of the processing, but they're always exaggerated.
The sooner we'll stop using presets without knowing what the hell is going on, the better our songs will sound, trust me.

Speaking of the essential mastering chain, once we have a good mix we just need to give our tracks the final boost in volume and the final touches to make them sound in line with the commercial products.

Let's start with a compressor. This is needed to reduce the dynamic range a bit, letting us push more with the limiter. We need to check out the average level of our song (for example -10db) and set the threshold of our compressor a bit higher (for example -8db), so that the compressor only lowers the big peaks. The Ratio should be somewhere between 2:1 and 8:1, we need to limit the peaks but not taking away the life from our songs so find the right compromise. The attack and release should be set to a speed that lets the compressor to kick in and go back to inactivity, we don't want to compress everything all the time (ideally, the meter should move in time with the song).

Now we need to use an Equalizer. In theory, in the mixing phase we should have already done all the equalization we need, and if there are problems it would be better to re open the mix and to fix it from there, because now we're affecting the whole mix, so we must be very careful.
A good thing to start with the mastering eq is to take away everything from 45/50hz with a high pass filter,  then we can check out the most problematic areas in the mastering phase, which are usually the lower frequences: sometimes our master needs a little boost in that area, sometimes a little cut, sometimes nothing (and we often can notice it only using a reference track), but probably the best way to eq a track during mastering is using a Mid/Side processor, in the way described HERE.

Now that we have tamed the most problematic frequences we can try to add a little sparkle to our sound, with some harmonic exciter or saturation tool. The ideal would be to have a multiband processor, since in my opinion we should excite a bit more the higher frequences and much less the lower ones (or just bypass them), otherwise the delicate equilibrium we've tried not to ruin until now will be damaged. These tools are usually needed to add some nice ringing to the snare and cymbals, and to add some bite to vocals and guitars, but if we see that we cannot obtain a sensible enhancement, we can just skip this whole step and pass to the limiters.

The limiter is the single most important part of the mastering chain, as we have already seen in many other articles of this blog. What we need to do is to see how much headroom we have and to raise the final volume of our song to a point that it is competitive with the volume of the commercial songs, but at the same time it must not sound excessively squashed and distorted. Our job here is to find the right compromise between power and clarity, without cutting too much the transients.
We should set the ceiling somewhere between -0.1db (if our final track will be played mostly from a cd) and -1.0db (if we are planning to distribute it mainly through internet streaming) and to lower our threshold until we see some gain reduction: we should let the limiter kick in only with the highest peaks, and never let it limit more than 3 or 4dbs, otherwise we will damage our song.

In order to know if the overall level of the song is in line with the industry standards and if there is enough headroom before exporting, we could use some metering tool. Those tools just tell us visually if the song volume is right, or if we could raise it or lower it, and some tool like the TT Metering tool also tell us if the song is too compressed, so that we can limit it less and make it less ear fatiguing.
Once all the meters says that the levels are right and there are no distortions, we can consider our mastering done!

So Here's our minimal Mastering Chain

COMPRESSOR -> EQUALIZER -> HARMONIC EXCITER / SATURATION TOOL -> LIMITER WITH METERING TOOLS.

Hope this was helpful! By the way, the song on the video is a song taken by Wisteria's full lenght "8-Bit Nightmare", played and mixed by me. Buy one copy to support us by clicking on the banner on the right side of this blog!

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