Updated: Mar 5
Now it's time for the mastering stage, and in this article I will discuss the check points that I have gathered for my own mastering process. Feel free to modify and create your own as you see fit.
Before the checklist, I just want to describe my typical plugin chain for the mastering process.
I use an AMPEX ATR-102 UA plugin for tape saturation, followed by Sound Theory Gullfoss dynamic EQ, then followed by Izotope's Ozone 9.
The first thing to check is the level of the mix you've received. It should be around or below -23 LUFS and -6 dB peak. If it's close enough I will trim it with a gain plugin. If it isn't... well back to the mixing desk :-)
This is to ensure the levels hit the AMPEX at the sweet spot.
Ok so here are all check points:
- Check that the tape saturation (or compressor if you use one) has the proper input level, not over saturating, and is delivering the same level at the output, only with the proper sound enrichment applied.
- Check that the EQ is actually adding benefits. On the dynamic EQ for example, quite often I leave the bottom end and the high end flat, and let it focus on the mid and mid-highs. The reason for that is that the dynamic EQ might attempt to fix deficiencies on the arrangement which should have been dealt with during the production stage.
- Now on Ozone 9 you might cascade your modules differently or you may be using other plugins that do the same job. These principles are still applicable:
- EQ -> Imager -> Maximiser
- EQ is used to fix tonal balance. You never trim more than a few dB here and there, and always double check tonal balance by both listening and also using some visual aid like Tonal Balance control from Izotope or similar.
- On the maximiser or limiter, verify that you have true peak detection. Shoot for -1.1 dB maximum as the encoding to AAC and mp3 for example may clip your audio if it's above that. To be on the safe side I limit things at -2 dBFS.
- Run the song with the maximiser or limiter first and just the EQs and tape saturation if you have them, aiming to achieve your LUFS target - I normally go for around -14 LUFS as it suits most streaming platforms.
- Then add the imager and any other processes you may want to enhance the audio. At this stage, level adjustments to keep the -14 LUFS target should be minimal.
- When adding dither, I favour Izotope's algorithm, adjusting it for the bitrate I am going to bounce the audio to. At this stage, I bounce off to 24-bits 48kHz WAV.
- Listen AT LEAST on you monitors in mono and stereo, your headphones, and a few other speaker options you have around the house or the studio.
- Use emulators if you can. I use the ARC 3 by IK Multimedia to not only fix deficiencies in my room's frequency response, but also to simulate devices I don't own, like a boom box. I also use the Waves Abbey Road Control room 3 on my headphones.
- Don't forget to turn these off before you bounce !
- Can't overstate how important it is to listen in mono. Most DAWs will have metering plugins for LUFS, peak and so on, as well as a stereo image and correlation meter. Negative correlation will make things 'disappear' when in mono.
- Final hint is that when that happens, I go back and see if inverting the phase of one of the channels of the offending track (the one with the disappearing notes in mono) fixes the issue. Quite often it does.