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How to Engineer a SMACKIN’ Master Bus

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On my Instagram, I’m often asked about production techniques, and how to get better mixes. Mastering always comes up as a topic of discussion, as there’s a lot of misinformation out there floating around on the internet.

The only job of mastering should be to make a track sound louder. That’s it. A lot of people get caught up in making a vast mastering chain, thinking they’ll be doing a lot of processing on the master track, but more often than not, that’s actually something holding back their mixes from getting better. Over-compressing a master bus can lead to a lifeless mix, and destroy the careful balance the engineer achieved while mixing the track.

That being said, everyone is guilty of having go-to mastering plugins to achieve their desired track volume. I’ll give you some examples of what I use on a lot of my instrumentals and full songs. This won’t be a full-on catch-all magic mastering solution, because as you probably know already, every song is different! Okay, disclaimers aside, here’s how I typically go about mastering a track.

First things first, get your pre-master volume down. And I don’t mean just get it so it’s not clipping, I mean give yourself some headroom! And don’t just slap a limiter/gain knob on the master and pull it down, that’s not going to cut it. That’ll actually hurt your production in the long run. Instead, use your track faders to get your track volume to sit at about -4 to -6db. It’s going to sound quiet. Your waveform will look puny. Don’t worry.

The next thing that I do on almost every master, is use the FabFilter Pro-Q2 (on Linear Phase mode) to highpass everything above 20hz. This will get rid of any extra information that might be floating around down there that will hurt your overall loudness of the mix.

The next thing I do is open up a multiband imager (I use the imager from Izotope Ozone) to make everything below 75hz 100% mono! This ensures that your bass punch from the kick and bass tracks come out of both speakers the same way, allowing them to have more power. Information that is mono is louder than information in stereo because there is no destructive interference going on. While I’m in the imager, I’ll usually spread the upper two bands, where the snare and hats sit, just a bit, maybe 10%. I’ll usually forgo this step on a vocal mix, but it does a great job on instrumentals to make room for the vocals to sit!

Now it’s time to make your mix smack. Use your favorite compressor, and create a parallel track, and fade in a super-compressed signal. This is going to let your whole mix have a nice thick presence in the speakers. Use a slow attack and moderate release setting to make sure no strange volume changes happen during a groove change.

After you’ve faded in parallel compression at about -12db, let the track have some real punch to it by adding some saturation. I’m a big fan of Fabfilter Saturn on my master tracks, and have had great results using the “Faster Master” and “Hip Hop Puncher” presets faded in at 10-20%. I also adjust the In/Out gain, as this is not the final step in my mastering chain! Be careful! This type of blanket saturation is liable to make some parts of your mix muddy! I find that a dynamic EQ or multiband compressor at around 400hz to be a quick remedy for weird mids that might arise after this step.

The final step, now that we have a rock solid foundation for our mix, is to jack the volume up. To do this, I will often plug into the worst speakers I have laying around, and jack the volume all the way up. Then, I pull up my favorite limiter, and get the overall track RMS to sit at about -10rms. Fabfilter Pro-L has a great interface that shows gain reduction and RMS!

The final step is to add one more limiter to decide how bad you want to crush the mix. If you’re mixing a jazz, funk, or RnB track, you might consider calling your master finished right now! If you’re working on hip hop, pop, or EDM, let’s go deeper. The goal is RMS between -8db and -6db. To attain a -8db RMS from here, simply pop on another limiter. I like to use the Izotope Ozone Vintage Limiter to glue together my mixes, because I find it to have a nice warm feel to it. I use this on hip hop and RnB tracks that need to be loud. If I REALLY want to crush a track, that’s when I break out a multiband limiter, like the L-3 from Waves. Check out the “Hot and Crunchy” preset, and bring the output to -.2 db. Then adjust the input slider until you find the sweet spot. It won’t be distorted if you’ve found it, do distortion in the mix!

If you’re still not satisfied with the taste of your mix, consider adding a tape machine, or multiband compression on the low end of your track before your limiters. I’ve found tape machines to be a great way to warm up a mix instantly without destroying the depth of the mix.

I hope you enjoyed this mastering tutorial. If you did, be sure to hit me up on Twitter and tell me about it Check out my live streams from the studio on my IG!