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How to Master a Song Start to Finish

  • Start with De-essing
  • Use Dynamic EQ to Attenuate
  • Add Dynamics with EQ
  • Upward Process & Saturate
  • Optional Collective Reverb
  • Optional Mid Hz. Aux Track
  • Mid-Side Master Bus Compression
  • Gullfoss EQ on Mids and Highs
  • Tone-Shaping with Pultec
  • Limiting and Monitoring

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Start with De-essing

If you notice the mix you’re working on has too much sibilance, and you won’t be able to get ahold of the mix session, the best first step is to use a de-esser to attenuate it. With this mid-side de-esser I’ll use both the shelf and bell filters.

I’ll subtly attenuate the high frequencies whenever sibilance is present, no more than a few dB. Since it’s a mid-side processor, the mid will be compressed more often than the side, resulting in more accurate de-essing, and the subtle expansion of the side-image highs.

Let’s take a listen.

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Use Dynamic EQ to Attenuate

Dynamic EQs are a great next step in balancing the frequency spectrum of your master - with this Shade EQ I’ve created 4 filters. First is a gradual slope to attenuate some unneeded lows - then I’ve created a bell at 250Hz and a follower that’s linked to the bell’s gain.

Notice that when the threshold is triggered, the band’s gain is attenuated. Furthermore, I’ve created this band around 2.5kHz to serve as the trigger for my 250Hz band - meaning whenever 2.5kHz passes the threshold, 250Hz will be attenuated.

Since 250Hz often masks 2.5kHz, I created this relationship between the 2 frequency groups.

Lastly, I noticed I still had a little too much sibilance so I put a bell over those frequencies and selected the mid image. This should help dynamically attenuate sibilance like our first processor.

Let’s listen and notice the track is subtly more balanced.

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Add Dynamics with EQ

Using similar concepts as the last chapter, I created a bell over the mid image of my kick’s fundamental - then very subtly expanded it whenever the kick was present. For the high frequencies, I placed a shelf filter on the side image to subtly expand my highs.

This should make my mix more dynamic in the lows, and wider in the high range.

Let’s take a listen to it.

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Upward Process & Saturate

Now that I’ve balanced the frequency spectrum of my mix, I’m going to add harmonics to fill the sound - with an upward processor like the Oxford Inflator, I’ll increase the effect and adjust the input to compensate. Then with the PSP saturator, I’ll introduce parallel valve or tube saturation.

What’s great about this saturator was that I was able to center saturation on my kick’s fundamental using the low section, and over my vocal’s presence with the high section.

Let’s take a listen and notice how the overall mix becomes fuller with the inflator, and then, how my kick and vocal become more prominent with the PSP saturator.

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Optional Collective Reverb

This may not work well for every mix, but for this one, I enjoyed the sound of a really subtle collective studio reverb. With a send, I created an aux track, on which I placed a good-sounding studio emulation reverb and left the wet/dry at 100%.

Then I used the channel fader to blend the effect in. Putting a room reverb on everything can definitely ruin a mix if used significantly, but if blended in very subtly, it can create a cohesive sound.

Let’s take a listen.

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Optional Mid Hz. Aux Track

Mids will play a really important role for a master since just about every playback system will support mid frequencies, even if they don’t support some highs or lows. That said, I like to create another send and aux track, then use a linear phase EQ to isolate the mids.

After the EQ, I’ll use some form of upward processing to bring quieter details forward, and then blend these extra mid frequencies in with the original signal using the channel fader.

Notice that I also sent these mids to my collective reverb, so that everything stays cohesive. Let’s take a listen and notice how the mids sound fuller.

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Mid-Side Master Bus Compression

On the stereo output I’m going to place a bus compressor, ideally one with mid-side processing as an option - I’ll use Presswerk but use whichever plugin you like the sound and functionality of. First I’ll enable M/S processing, then de-link the triggering.

This will cause more compression to the mid than the side, resulting in dynamic stereo expansion.

I won’t get too deep into the functionality of this particular plugin, but another feature I enjoy is dual-phase rotation, which causes mild phase cancellation to higher frequencies, resulting in a fuller low-frequency range.

Let’s take a listen and notice how the track is fuller, louder, wider, and overall more impressive sounding.

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Gullfoss EQ on Mids and Highs

The Gullfoss EQ kind of feels like cheating, but there aren’t that many tools to dynamically amplify and attenuate specific frequencies in such an accurate way. Since it introduces latency which can affect transients, I’ll isolate the processing to the mids and highs to keep my kick intact.

I’ll mainly use the recover function which dynamically reduces phase cancellation, making it easier to hear the mix’s details.

Let’s take a listen.

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Tone-Shaping with Pultec

With the Gullfoss EQ doing a lot of the work to keep everything easy to hear, I’ll use this Pultec emulation to change the tone of the master. I’ll subtly boost the lows, and the air frequencies at 16kHz - then, I’ll dip a little of 700Hz, and boost 3kHz.

The changes are gradual and a little subtle, but this is a great emulation to use near the end of your chain to shape the tone.

Let’s take a listen.

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Limiting and Monitoring

This isn’t always the case, but I often like 2 limiters in series to create a specific sound - for example, the Oxford Limiter has a thick and full sound, mainly due to the enhance function. Then, the Pro-L2 sounds modern while its dynamic algorithm helps retain impact.

Combined, they create a full, aggressive, and upfront sound. Additionally, I avoid any true-peak limiting and instead use oversampling and very low levels of lookahead.

Lastly, I’ll use a loudness meter to measure the LUFS - in this example, the loudness is roughly -10, which should work well for streaming, even if it is turned down slightly.

Let’s listen to the finished master.

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