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How to Make Clear Masters

When making a clear master, EQ is the easiest way to increase clarity, but saturation, intelligent EQ, transient expansion, and limiting all play a role in making a clear master. In addition, some functions like true peak limiting, and oversampling can help or hinder master clarity.

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Clear Masters with EQ

EQ is the most important aspect and luckily the simplest way to add clarity to your master - most times, a master has too much 100 - 300Hz, and not enough 3kHz to 5kHz. To fix this imbalance, simply dip the low frequencies subtly and amplify the higher frequencies subtly.

This can range from 0.5dB up to 2 or 3dB, depending on what’s needed, but it’s best not to make changes greater than this. Let’s listen and notice how this incredibly straight-forward method has great results.

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Gullfoss EQ on Mid and Side Image

Next, let’s look at something that’s a lot less straightforward, but hopefully can offer a creative solution to adding clarity.

First, I’m going to duplicate my mix - then add the plugin MSED to both, using one to isolate the mid-channel, the other to isolate the side channel. Then on both, I’m going to insert the Gullfoss EQ, which will dynamically shift the frequency response to create a balanced response.

Usually, we can only use this plugin on the full stereo mix or master, but with this routing, we can most precisely enhance the clarity of our master.

Let’s listen and notice how it creates an impressively clear and balanced signal that you could build off of.

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Saturation and Master Clarity

Saturation can really help or completely hinder your master in regards to clarity - low-frequency saturation is going to emphasize a second-order harmonic, which is responsible for warmth. At higher levels though, this harmonic leaves a mix sounding very unbalanced and lacking clarity - so let’s saturate the higher frequencies.

This will create higher ordered harmonics which will still help strengthen the lows due to a psychoacoustic effect, but it’ll result in much greater perceived clarity.

Let’s listen to low-frequency saturation, and then higher frequency saturation and notice the difference in clarity.

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Saturating Transients for Clarity

If you’re using Saturn 2 you can set up a modulator, or in this case, an envelope follower, and then adjust it to only trigger when transients occur. If we link this follower to our drive dial, then the distortion will be triggered whenever transients occur, meaning we saturate transients.

Most of our quickest transients will be in the mids to high mids, meaning that we’ll dynamically amplify these aspects, in turn increasing clarity.

Let’s listen and notice how our mix becomes more dynamic and clearer.

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Isolating Transients in a Master

This is another unorthodox method, but hopefully a useful one nonetheless - in short, I’m going to duplicate my master and insert a transient expander on one of the tracks. Then, I’ll invert the phase of one, which will cause phase cancellation to everything except what's different about the 2 signals.

This means that only the effect of the transient expander is going to remain. I’ll then export this isolated transient track and import it back in with my original mix, and get rid of both the original transient expander processor and the duplicate phase inverted track.

Now I have my original mix and isolated transients which I can blend in, or process. Let’s listen and consider how this could be used to increase clarity in a master.

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Upward Compressing Isolated Transients

Since isolating transients was a little bit of work, let’s look at how we can process these transients for increased master clarity. I’m going to add the Sonnox Oxford inflator to the transient track to increase the detail of the transients from the noise floor up.

This will greatly increase their detail, which when blended in with the original mix, will cause even greater clarity. Let’s take a listen.

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What Limiters Add Clarity

Once you get to the limiting stage, retaining clarity especially if you’re squashing transients can be a challenge. I’d recommend using limiters with a shorter release time, and an algorithm that prioritizes transients if you have one - if not, a great free one is LimiterOne by CISDSP Factory.

Recently I’ve really enjoyed the enhance feature of the Oxford Limiter, which increases loudness and detail, without the need to attenuate my transients. Let’s listen and notice how it’s both loud and clear.

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The Adverse Effect of True Peak Limiting

Some limiters include true-peak limiting, which I’ve advocated for in the past, but after looking more into it, it seems to cons outweigh the pros. In short, true peak detection and correction is going to affect your transients by trying to reshape them to avoid overs.

The effect is a less impactful, less detailed sound. With that in mind, it’s best to lower the ceiling slightly instead of using true peak detection. Let’s listen to limiting with and without and see if we can notice a difference - keep in mind it’ll be subtle.

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Oversampling Pros and Cons

Oversampling also has some pros and cons, but unlike true peak detection, the pros definitely outweigh the cons, especially when considering master clarity. Oversampling is going to reduce aliasing distortion resulting in a high-frequency range will less phase cancellation while retaining harmonics that relate to the fundamental.

The con is that it causes slight latency which your DAW will try to compensate for, which will very mildly affect your transients - but certainly to a lesser degree than phase cancellation caused by aliasing.

Let’s listen to limiting with and without oversampling, and keep in mind, this effect may be even subtler than the last demonstration.

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Avoiding Compression Altogether

Typically speaking, compressing a master isn’t needed - especially if you’ve added some saturation at some point in the chain. If you find that compression is needed, and you want to retain clarity, I’d recommend using a slightly longer attach and a release time of 50ms.

50ms is the quickest you can set the release without causing distortion, but if you don’t have any of 20Hz in your mix, you can reduce that time between 40 and 30ms.

Let’s listen to compression, and consider if it’s actually needed.

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