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Creating a Hip-Hop Mastering Chain

  • Starting with Mid-Side EQ
  • Very Subtle Resonance Reduction
  • Maximization to Fill Mix
  • SplitEQ to Center Lows
  • Program-Dependent Saturation
  • Fresh Air to Brighten Mix
  • High-Frequency Bus
  • Gullfoss EQ Shaping
  • Hard Clipping for Transients
  • 2 Limiting Stages

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Starting with Mid-Side EQ

I’m going to use this mid-side EQ to first make the lows more mono by attenuating the side image’s low frequencies. On this same side image, I’ll boost a little around 400Hz to add depth to the synth and dip around 2kHz to allow the vocal to cut through.

On the mid image, I’ll attenuate some of 250Hz to demask the vocal, and boost the vocal range around 2kHz.

Since the effect will be subtle, let’s listen to a full AB of the original gain normalized mix and the finished master.

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Very Subtle Resonance Reduction

With this resonance reducer, I’m going to very subtly attenuate excess frequencies - this will help make the master clearer and sound more balanced. I started with this Balance preset and adjusted the pre-emphasis bands until I felt the track sounded most balanced.

Let’s listen to it, as well as the delta to hear what’s being attenuated.

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Maximization to Fill Mix

Next, I wanted to maximize the signal, but ensure I didn’t change the timbre of the mix too much - so I picked this Weiss Maximizer, and increased the amount and parallel mix until I was just barely getting some attenuation at the output. I found the loud setting sounded best.

Let’s listen and notice how maximization brings up quieter details and makes the mix sound fuller.

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SplitEQ to Center Lows

Although I’ve always liked this plugin, I was surprised by how significant of a change it made for this particular mix. With it, I boosted the transients of the lows, and some of the tone - dipped some of the tone around 250Hz, and added some tone and transients to the vocal range.

Lastly, I boosted some of the high-frequency transients. What really made a difference though was the mid-side panning of the lows and highs. On the low end, I centered the transient band, which gave the 808 a huge and aggressive sound.

On the highs, I spread the bands to the sides.

Due to the extra transients, I had to lower the output for the sake of having this demo not clip, so you’ll notice it sounds quieter; however, you should notice a big improvement in the low frequencies.

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Program-Dependent Saturation

Next, I wanted to add some saturation, so I used this multi-band processor and separately distorted the lows, mids, and highs. For the lows and mids, I went with a warm tube setting - for the highs, I chose a clean tube setting to keep the transients detailed and bright.

With envelope followers, I modulated the drive amounts of each band, depending on the incoming transient to make the distortion dynamic.

Let’s take a listen to how it fills the sound and adds a distinct character to the mix.

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Fresh Air to Brighten Mix

This Fresh Air plugin sounds great on a hip-hop master, since it amplifies and excites the high-frequency range. It’s easy to use, I just amplified the 2 bands until the mix sounded bright enough, and then dialed the trim back a little to compensate.

Be sure not to overuse this plugin since it can quickly become too aggressive.

Let’s take a listen to how it brightens the mix.

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High-Frequency Bus

So far, we’ve finished all of the processing I’ll do to the original track, so let’s create a bus on which we’ll insert 3 processors - a linear phase EQ that isolates the high frequencies; a Mid-Side routed with which we’ll mute the mid image and a transient expander.

By isolating the high frequencies of the side image, and then expanding their transients, we can now blend in a track that determines the brightness, width, and punchiness of our stereo image.

Let’s take a listen with it blended in.

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Gullfoss EQ Shaping

Moving on to the master output, I’ll use this Gullfoss EQ to shape the response and reduce masking. I isolated the processing to the low mids to highs to keep my kick and 808 unaffected and used a good amount of the brighten function to increase the mix’s clarity.

Let’s listen to how this makes the track clearer and louder by reducing masking.

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Hard Clipping for Transients

Next up for the master output, I’ll use this hard-clipper plugin with some detail preservation to distort my transients whenever they cross the threshold. This causes white noise to occur at each transient, making them more apparent while increasing the overall loudness of the track.

Let’s listen and notice how even though they’re being attenuated, the transients stay loud and punchy.

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2 Limiting Stages

Last up, I’m going to use 2 limiters starting with this Oxford Limiter - I’ll mainly use it for the enhance function which will amplify quieter details of the mix, and accentuate those clipped transients we got from last chapter. Then, I’ll use this L2 limiter with the Dynamic algorithm.

This will but limit the signal and expand some of the peaks, causing an aggressive and loud sound.

The final master was roughly -8 LUFS, but feel free to use this chain and make yours louder or quieter as you see fit.

Let’s take one more final listen to the full before and after of the chain.

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