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How to Master a Beat & Vocals

When mastering a beat and vocals, you can use processing on the beat and vocal separately before collectively processing them on the stereo output. Mid-side EQ and compression on the beat works well, whereas resonance and sibilance reduction helps balance the vocal - then EQ and limit the output.

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M/S EQ on the Beat

In today’s session, we have a beat and vocal which have already been mixed - so this will be similar to a stem mastering session, just with only 2 stems.

Let’s start with the beat and move over to the vocal later, before adding collective processing on the stereo output.

With a mid-side EQ, I’ll introduce a high-pass filter on the side image to make the beat’s low frequencies more mono - then I’ll boost 300Hz on the side to fill out the sound. Lastly on the side I’ll boost a little of roughly 2kHz and expand the beat’s highest frequencies.

On the mids, I dipped a little of 250Hz on the mid to reduce its masking effect on the vocal, and did the same around 2.5kHz, again to help the vocal cut through.

Let’s listen to this EQ being enabled, and keep in mind it’ll be a little subtle since we have more processing to add.

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M/S Compression on the Beat

With a mid-side compression, I can delink the channel’s detection and set their thresholds individually - in short, this means I can cause more compression to my mid image than the side. I’ll select auto-make-up gain which will amplify my mids, like the kick and bass.

Then whenever compression on the mid-image occurs and the side stays the same level, we’ll get dynamic stereo expansion. Let’s listen to how this thickens the mid-image, but then subtly expands - giving the beat some life.

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Subtle Vocal Ducking on Beat

I want my vocal to sit on top of the beat a little more, so I’ll use this ShaperBox plugin by CableGuys and select the Volume module. On the main page, I’ll side-chain the vocal, and use the editor window to reduce the amplitude of the beat.

I’ll only do this by a little less than 1dB, and then isolate that attenuation to the mids and highs. I’ll select Audio and the external side-chain icon to ensure that the vocal is what’s triggering the attenuation.

In the trigger window, I’ll set the algorithm to complex, increase the detail, and smooth the attenuation.

Notice when we play the 2 signals, the attenuation only lasts when the vocal is present. This subtle ducking will sit the vocal on top of the beat, but without any of the coloration or artifacts that would occur from side-chained compression. Let’s take a listen.

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Parallel Aggressor for Transients

This parallel Aggressor works incredibly well at making a beat impressive - I’ll use the spank dial to introduce compression and transient expansion, and select the preserve lows icon to keep them more dynamic. On the heat side, I’ll introduce some saturation and emphasize higher frequencies.

Then I’ll blend the 3 signals until I find a good level for each.

Let’s listen to how this plugin really polishes the beat, making it enjoyable loud, and punchy.

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Side Image Expansion Send

Last up for the beat, let’s use a send to create a bus or aux track - on which we can use the plugin MSED to isolate the side image. After this, I’ll insert a transient expander which I’ll set to 100 percent, and isolate the expansion to the highs.

Afterward, I’ll blend the effect in with the side. In short, this expands and creates transients on the side image, causing a uniquely wide and aggressive sound. Let’s take a listen.

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Inflating Vocal with Tube Settings

Let’s look at the vocal, starting with this inflator plugin - I’ll set this to 100% and compensate for the gain change by lowering the input. This plugin saturates the vocal, and brings forward quieter details, causing it to sound full - the 0 curve value sounds like a tube, FET hybrid.

I chose this plugin since it improves the details without altering the timbre of the signal too much. Let’s listen to how it brings the vocal forward.

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Resonance and Sibilance Reduction

Next for the vocal, I want to reduce excessive resonances and sibilance - to do this I’ll use a resonance reducer and affect almost the full frequency spectrum, before lowering the mix. To reduce phase cancellation and avoid any aliasing distortion I used higher settings and some oversampling.

Then I used this de-esser to reduce sibilance - the de-esser might not always be needed, but the sibilance was a little aggressive in this case.

Let’s take a listen to how the vocal becomes more balanced.

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M/S Maximization on Output

So the beat and vocal are done - let’s work on their collective signals by processing the output. With this maximizer, I’ll bring up quieter details a moderate amount with the amount and parallel dials, and then select the wide option - similar to chapter 2, this will dynamically widen the signal.

If you don’t have this processor that’s fine, any subtle maximizer will help increase the loudness without heavily altering your peaks.

Let’s take a listen.

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Air EQ on Output

I really like this free plugin whenever I need to add some highs to a signal - I’ll just increase the mid-air and high-air dials subtly and then reduce the trim to compensate. Looking into it more with plugin doctor, it looks like it equalizes high frequencies and excites.

Meaning it adds harmonics to the highs as well. Let’s listen to how this processor brightens up the overall sound.

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Clipping and Limiting Settings

Last up let’s get the signal to a commercially loud level while still retaining transient detail - I’ll start with clipper and use hard clip settings to add some white noise to the highs whenever the threshold is crossed. Using the detail preservation function, I’ll also retain some of the original sound.

Next, I’ll insert a more traditional limiter - this one has a dynamic function that expands the transients making it great for retaining the life of the signal. Notice that I turned off true peak detection and used a little lookahead and some oversampling.

Additionally, I slightly de-linked the left and right channel’s detection, which is a personal preference, but I find that it makes the master more interesting by attenuating the left and right channels separately.

Lastly, on the right, we’ll notice the signal’s loudness is about -9 LUFS even though we didn’t need to smash the peaks. This is why I choose to use maximization earlier, and it shows how stem mastering definitely has its benefits.

Let’s take a listen to the final result.

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