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The Links in Your Mastering Chain

“Mastering” has been discussed extensively both in our inSync Tech Tips and in the audio world in general. Despite the frequently expressed opinion that this art is best left to the pros, more and more of our customers are tackling the mastering process for their own projects. Some who are new to the process have asked:

Q: “In what order should I arrange my mastering hardware/plug-ins for the best results?”

A: There are three fundamental tools used in mastering: compression, equalization, and limiting. They’re almost always set up in that order, although there might be artistic or creative reasons to justify another scheme. Here’s how each functions in a mastering environment.

Compression can be used to tame an uneven or overly aggressive stereo track. This assumes you’ve already applied compression to individual tracks – such as bass guitar – before routing them to your mix bus. Some mastering engineers use multi-band compression, primarily to avoid squashing high frequencies while controlling lows and mids. This can require some practice to accomplish.

Equalization is applied to the compressed signal, primarily to “touch up” frequencies in your stereo master track. EQ is generally applied lightly at this stage – if you find yourself dialing in major boosts or cuts (one benchmark is 3dB or more), you probably need to return to your mix and address individual tracks. This is often an issue with vocal tracks that get buried in the mix.

Limiting comes last, mostly because its processed output needs to maintain a high level of integrity. In digital terms that means the highest possible resolution. With a master track you’re primarily concerned with controlling peaks. Limiters such the Waves Ultramaximizer (hardware and plug-in) are designed to reduce peaks without allowing the average program signal level to suffer. An alternative is the Sony Oxford Inflator plug-in, which uses psychoacoustic principles to increase the apparent loudness of a track without distortion.

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