Mastering music is often a process that is overlooked. I did this for so long before I properly learned how to master my music. For me, I just threw on some buss compression with a preset and a limiter and hoped for the best. 😅
In this post, I’m going to walk you through how I go about mastering one of my beats including my go to plugin chain I typically use. First, i just want to go through some basic tips to keep in mind.
What is Mastering?
In simple terms, mastering is essentially the process of taking a single stereo mixed track and making it “radio ready”. Is it enhancement process? yes and no. Really your main priority should still be balance when it comes to both mixing and mastering. With that said, mastering does involve the process off adding “finishing touches” which you could say is a form of enhancement.
The mastering process typically includes this process:
- A buss compressor
- Multiband Compressor(Not always needed!)
- Tape Simulator (Glues and thickens track)
- Saturation(can increase perceived loudness and give the track a push forwards)
- Harmonic exciters(for both high and low frequencies)
Within each of these processes, we have to be extremely subtle to avoid over processing the sound and killing the dynamics. The ironic thing is, the less work we make these plugins do, the louder you mix actually is perceived.
The beat we are going to be looking at today is called “Orange”, have a listen below.
Buss compression is a process in mastering that we use to add glue. This makes the track a little bit more punchy and and controlled.
This is always the first process I do in my mastering chain and my favorite plugin for it is the Waves SSL G-Master Buss Compressor.
To get buss compression working right, we want to make sure that our attack is fairly long(I usually start with 10ms or 3ms), release is on auto, ratio 2:1 and makeup gain at 0 at this point. Next we take the threshold down to the maximum. I know it sounds like 💩 right now but have faith! 😅
The only reason we are doing this is to actually hear what the compressor is doing and in order to do that, it helps to go from one extreme(no compression at all to maximum compression). Next we are going to slowly raise the threshold back up until the tiniest amount of compression is happening and the needle is moving with the tracks rhythm. This shouldn’t sound very audible at all and if it does, you are most likely using too much compression.
Lastly, we are going to take the makeup gain and put it up by maximum 1db. We aren’t trying to gain loudness with this compression, we are just trying to glue it together a bit more.
These are the settings I ended up with:
Without Buss Compression:
With Buss Compression:
A tape simulator is a great way to thicken a track and add some further glue. One of my favorites I go to is Waves Kramer Tape.
When you load up a tape simulator it might look a bit overwhelming but really there is only a few controls we have to worry about to get comfortable.
Head down to “record level” and crank it up to the maximum. Straight away we are gonna hear that this is adding a tone of saturation and making our beat sound distorted. Now we can hear what its doing, lets turn this down until the distortion goes away and when you find that setting, back it off by a further 5-10% to be safe that you are not over processing.
Next, head over to flux and put that up to the maximum setting. Then slowly turn that down until there is no audible distortion.
If done correctly, by just using these two controls, your track will have added warmth and thickness in a subtle way.
These are my settings for this track:
Without Tape Simulator:
With Tape Simulator:
When people think harmonic exciters, the first though is usually to excite the high end and bring out the crisp highs. However, for this track we are going to a bass enhancer to bring out the punch of the track. This plugin is called Waves MaxxBass.
This plugin takes the bass frequencies of your song and creates upper harmonics of the bass to make the bass come to the foreground, this especially helps the bass stay strong on less expensive or cheap speakers.
When you load up the plugin, you will see 3 sliders. Input, original bass and maxxbass. Lets drag the maxxbass slider all the way up. You should hear right away how this brang out some upper high bass frequencies you couldn’t even hear before.
Next, lets adjust the frequency section. try to go between 80-110hz to find a sweet spot for the track. Then drag the maxbass slider down until you can barely hear it. This is different for every track but often I end up in the -8 to -7 region.
Give that an A/B test and you should notice how much punch and lower end drive your track has now. Its literally like a magic trick. 🧙
These are my settings for this track:
Saturation(the magic plugin! 🧙)
This next plugin we are going to use is considered by many as a “magic plugin”. With no other way to describe it, it takes your track and makes it sound louder without actually making it.. louder 🤷♂️
I know it sounds crazy but by literally pulling up a slider, the dynamics and loudness of your track just come to life.
This plugin is called Sonnox Oxford Inflator.
When you load up this plugin, just drag the effect % up and see for yourself. I do find for hip-hop or bass heavy genres that its best to make sure “band split” is enabled.
Here is my settings:
Without Sonnox Oxford Inflator:
With Sonnox Oxford Inflator:
The last process we are gonna apply to this track is to apply a limiter. This will bring up the volume of the track to competitive volumes ideal for streaming and posting online.
A limiters job is to limit the peaks once they hit a certain threshold. This is how we can squash the sound a bit to decrease the dynamic range. While we don’t wants lots of dynamic range, we also do want some so be very careful with this process. Squashed music sounds very lifeless and if mastering is done right, the track should retain a lot of the life it had when you received it for mastering.
I’m currently using the Fabfilter Pro-L2 limiter plugin as its very transparent.
For beats, I like to load up the preset from version 1 called “Hip-Hop – Made for Beats Xtra Wide” then I put my cieling to -0.12 and pull up the gain until I see the reduction meter reading about -3 to -5 dbs maximum.
I then check my RMS level to make sure it’s sitting between -12db and -8db at the loudest part of my track.
These are my settings:
Mastering is all about subtle adjustments from a signal chain that works together as a team to create the final result.
In this track, we didn’t cover stereo enhancement or EQ’ing a faded track to add sheen. Be sure to tune in for future tips and tricks where I will cover those topics. 💯
For now, I hope this helps give you an understanding of the mastering process as a whole so you can bring new life to your music. 🎵