Mastering requires both experience, training and the right tools. Thanks to digital recording, much of the right tools can be had as plugins for a fraction of the cost of their analog counterparts.
While there are virtually endless tools out there for mastering–tape emulators, stereo expanders, aural exciters, etc–there are some tools that are just basic necessities. You’ll find them in every mastering studio in the world. We thought it’d be helpful to give a brief overview of those tools.
Generally you’ll want to start with these five plugins when mastering a track.
A compressor might be the most popular type of plugin for mastering. It essentially reduces the dynamic range of your track, making the quieter parts louder and the louder parts quieter. The result is a richer and more full-sounding mix. The trick, however, is to not use too much compression, or your song will sound flat.
A hard limiter is a compressor with a ratio of around 10:1 (meaning that every one decibel over the thresh hold is reduced by ten decibels). It effectively sets your dynamic limit, which is important for getting the loudness correct.
One of the biggest mistakes indie producers make is getting too much sibilance in their mix. This is often due to their having polished up the highs with an EQ while mixing and resultantly making the sibilance too hot. A de-esser is designed to leave the highs sounding clean and bright, but cut the sibilance down. It’s a go to tool for most producers.
While reverb is often used more in the mixing process, it can be helpful when putting the finishing touches on a mix to add extra depth and fullness to some of the tracks.
An EQ is essential to the mastering process as often it’s necessary to fine tune the frequency levels of a mix to make it sound universally better and balanced. Often the biggest mistake indie artists is having too much or too little bass. A multiband equalizer can be a lifesaver when mastering. Definitely a must have.
Even if you hire someone else to do your mastering (which we recommend you do), these five plugins should be handy in every studio. It’s worth paying extra for ones you really love, too. You’ll get your money’s worth.