Learning how to set up your mastering chain can be challenging; however, you can follow simple steps and general rules to create a great starting point for your project. In this order, you'll need to import your stereo mix, use clip gain to adjust the headroom, and then decide on your processing.
The first step to any stereo mastering session is to import your stereo mix into a DAW - this is how you’ll adjust, process, monitor, and export your master. Despite the mix’s sampling rate and bit depth, create a session with a minimum of 24-bits and 96kHz.
It’s typical to use the sample sampling rate as your mix when mastering; however, by using a higher sampling rate you’ll reduce the effect of aliasing created from your processing.
Before you being to process your signal, you’ll need to ensure that you have enough headroom for your processing - if mastering multiple tracks at once, you’ll want to roughly match their headroom. The best way to affect the headroom of your master is to alter the clip gain.
I like to have about 5dB of headroom, but how much you start with is up to you.
When you start to consider what processing you’ll use, it’s imperative that you understand how your signal is being routed, and where to place each processor. Your signal starts with the file or waveform, then your inserts, then to any auxiliary sends or busses, and finally to your stereo output.
Place each form of processing in the order you want to affect your signal - and keep in mind that the signal will travel from one processor to the next in that order.
I typically like to have my first insert be an equalizer, with which I’ll attenuate any aspects of the signal that I don’t want to amplify later on in my chain. This attenuation can be stereo, left and right, or mid and side, depending on where the offending signal is.
I’ll typically use additive equalization later in my chain, but some engineers combine both forms as their first insert.
Saturation is a combination of distortion and compression and can be used to control your master's dynamics while simultaneously adding harmonics. Saturation is often thought of as the tone of a sound and comes in multiple forms like tape, tube, transistor, and more, which provide extra clarity or fullness.
When mastering, saturation should be used subtly to avoid unpleasant distortion. Additionally, if you use saturation, use one with oversampling and enable 2x or more.
Whether or not to use compression in a mastering session is often debated, but it seems to be a form of processing that should typically be used only if needed. Compression will let you control the dynamics of your master and change its timbre by adjusting the attack and release.
Optical compression is great for creating a smooth master is used subtly, while digital compressors are used for more aggressive genres.
The last form of processing that you should use on your signal chain is a limiter, with which you’ll increase the loudness and protect the signal from peaking or clipping distortion. The limiter you choose and the settings will greatly affect the timbre of your master and all previous processing.
Like saturation, limiting, especially aggressive limiting can cause aliasing, so be sure to use oversampling if the limiter offers it.
After limiting you’ll want to use a metering plugin to measure both the LUFS and dBTP - the LUFS can be considered your master’s loudness, and the dBTP its level. If you notice that your dBTP is above 0dB, you’ll need to revisit your limiter and reduce the output ceiling.
If you plan to release your music on a streaming service a good range for the LUFS is -14 to -8. Your dBTP should be between -.5dBTP and -2dBTP.
When exporting a master, I like to make multiple versions - the first is a high-resolution version with the same settings as the session. The second is a version for the streaming service I’ll distribute the song too and will be set to the highest settings they accept.
The last is a 320kbps MP3 which is helpful for sharing and radio promotion.