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HOW TO: Master Class: Mastering, Plug-In Style

December 22, 2016

Once a project has been mixed, there is one more step before it’s ready for commercial release—mastering. With such a wide variety of affordable plugins available for the job, it makes sense that musicians would want to learn how to use them.

I asked five professional mastering engineers to share tips for someone who is either exploring mastering for the first time or wants to take his or her work to the next level using readily available plug-in processors.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?

Sarah Register with Bianca Casady at The Mastering Palace in 2015.
Based in New York City, Sarah Register (sarahregister.com) has worked on several Grammy-nominated projects during her 17 years behind the mastering console, both in the analog and digital domain. As for what musicians should ask themselves before mastering their own mixes, she says, “What else is there that you hope to get out of this material? And that question can be answered in many different ways.”

When Register explains mastering, she finds that a visual reference resonates with most people. “Mastering is like being handed a picture that already exists: You’re not going to be able to remove a tree from the picture, but you can shape and adjust how the colors of that tree are sitting with the colors of its neighboring elements. Crudely, it’s like Instagram filters: You can put filters on it and affect things in different ways and make different kinds of internal edits, but you’re not re-taking the picture.”

For musicians who feel they can improve their mixes, I asked Register what she would recommend. “The standard options in most DAWs have gotten better and better, so the basic tools aren’t inaccessible anymore. All of the DAWs have their own plug-in options for compression, limiting, and EQ that are totally viable and they can use to take their music a long way.”

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