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

Pro engineers share tools and tips for fine-tuning your final mixes
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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.”

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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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She also says that a specialized mastering product such as iZotope Ozone 7 can suggest ways to work. “There are lots of preset options,” she says. “It’s a fun way of looking at how different solutions have struck engineers in this realm. I would unhesitatingly tell beginners to start with presets.” But she adds that a preset rarely provides a quick-fix solution. “There is always the ambiguity of different material. Rock songs from two different artists are going to have totally different dynamic and sonic properties. But certainly presets are a good place for beginners to start when thinking about what kind of signal chain to use.”

Having worked with Sonic Solutions and Pyramix software in the past, Register relies on Magix Sequoia when working in the digital realm. “Sequoia’s internal plug-ins are fantastic,” she says, noting one called Ammunition, a compressor with a limiter option. “It’s versatile and you can dig pretty deep into it and have it do exactly what you want.” Among her favorite third-party plug-ins is Brainworx bx_digital EQ running on Universal Audio’s UAD platform. “I like its digital mid-side approach,” she notes. “And it can be as sensitive as you want it to be.”

Based on her nearly two decades of experience, Register recommends embracing improvements in technology. “At any level, you’re still learning. If you can be present and keep your heart open to what’s going on, and your mind active and interested in what’s happening with all of these new experiences, you’re always learning new ways to do things better.” That, she says, provides a more fulfilling experience for her clients.

ONE STEP AT A TIME

Joe Palmaccio of The Place…for Mastering. Like Sarah Register, Joe Palmaccio (theplaceformastering.com) suggests that anyone interested in exploring mastering can start with what their DAW provides. “I would probably start with equalizers,” he explains, “because if I’m doing a mastering session, and I’m going to change the sound of something, most of the time I’d do it with an equalizer.

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“A good parametric EQ would be preferred; one that links in stereo so that you’re not adjusting the left and right channels separately (unless you need to). And while this might sound counterintuitive, I suggest an EQ with more bands than fewer bands because, typically, when you’re doing mastering equalization, the increments you change in the sound are minute. You might want to make a small adjustment in the top end, in the midrange, and in the low-mids. Whether it’s a tube emulation or linear phase EQ will be less important when you’re starting out. But if you only have a 3-band EQ that’s not fully parametric, your options are limited.

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“After that, if we’re going to stay basic, I’d probably add a 2-channel compressor,” Palmaccio explains. “That opens a Pandora’s Box, because there are so many varieties of emulations, whether it’s based on a tube compressor or a FET compressor. There are many other places you can go, but if you’re trying to see if you can improve your mixes, start with the EQ first and then the compressor.”

Once you get used to using basic EQ and compression for mastering, Palmaccio recommends moving up in complexity. “Multiband compression is the next place where you can start altering the tone of your mix; what I call band-splitting or dynamic equalization. A de-essing plug-in is also very important. I use them regularly, in hardware and in software. It’s one of those things you tend to use all the time.” Palmaccio recognizes that these types of processors can seem complicated to the novice, so he suggests visiting the developer’s website, as well as YouTube, to view instructional videos when needed. And although he takes advantage of the processing tools in his Sequoia workstation, Palmaccio uses plug-ins from iZotope, Plugin Alliance, Universal Audio, Waves, and Slate Digital.

He adds that he might take his mastering work from the corrective realm into the creative—what he calls “tone bending.” “Once I put up a mix and get a general feel for it, I might think that it could sound better with something that emulates a tape machine, a transformer, or some sort of console emulation, as if we’re going through a virtual bus. That’s something you wouldn’t think of as an effect in its hardware form, but in the plug-in world it can be a cool effect.”

Palmaccio explains that there are several factors that determine the types of processors chosen. “It can be based on the genre or the style of production. Is the mix really aggressive, where you hear every transient and it really jumps out of the speakers and everything has clarity and sharp edges, or is it a woolly-sounding mix where the top end sounds like it’s rolled off? That will inform what I might or might not do.”

Of course, the clients’ needs are part of the equation. “I always talk to someone about the project, whether it’s the producer, the mix engineer or the artist. If the mix is warm and fuzzy, and it’s the kind of thing were the artist says that they really want you to feel like you’re lost in the gauze of this thing, you have to respect where they’re coming from in terms of how they envision the way the song presents to the listener.”

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LESS IS MORE

“I do all my work in the analog domain, and most of the people doing front-line albums are still working that way,” states Gavin Lurssen of Lurssen Mastering (lurssenmastering.com). “So I don’t use software per se. We do have some tools that we bring in to touch things up, but we do the bulk of our work in the analog domain.”

However, Lurssen notes that “a lot of the equalizers and devices that are built into the digital workstations are pretty good. We find ourselves using the basic EQ in Pro Tools fairly often to clean up something, shelve something, or pull out some rumble. It’s a very healthy-sounding EQ. You can use some very basic stuff to do work with great impact.”

In 2016, Lurssen Mastering teamed up with IK Multimedia (ikmultimedia.com) to release Lurssen Mastering Console (Mac/Win/iOS), a software app the emulates the analog processing chain and console used by him and Lurssen Mastering engineer Reuben Cohen. “The main reason we created the app,” Lurssen explains, “is that we recognized that people were doing their own mastering without any experience or knowledge on how to use these incredibly powerful tools. First, second, and third gear—that was the intent behind creating [Lurssen Mastering Console]. It’s actually doing mastering for you, and then you’ve got to take it the rest of the way.” As with other specialized software, this app provides a way to see how engineers configure different kinds of processors in a mastering context.

Based on the genre of music you select within the app, Lurssen Mastering Console creates a chain of various equalizers, compressors, and other tools that Lurssen’s engineers would typically begin with in a similar situation. “Whatever the style, we have a starting point,” Lurssen explains. “It’ll give you equalizers and compressors in the chain that relate to that kind of music. And then it provides some very rudimentary adjustments on highs, mids, and lows—the whole spectrum—to help you make adjustments without feeling overwhelmed. Of course, you can change the processors once you start, but it gives you that starting point.”

As an example, Lurssen describes how he would approach a project in the Americana style. “Nice, mellow, warm, lush—the first thing in that chain would probably be a tube equalizer followed by a tube compressor. The gain structure going into it will also be set a little looser so you’re not hitting the effects as hard.

“An EDM track, on the other hand, needs to be hard-hitting and in your face, so we would have solid-state EQ with something that might have a de-esser on the end, so you can really hammer the EQ and clamp it down a little bit on the highs and it doesn’t become brittle.”

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Lurssen says that a major problem that exists today is that people overuse their equipment, and the plug-in is designed to help change that. “We want to get people to use it in a subtle way. For us, the overall sentiment is that less is more.”

KEEP PERSPECTIVE

Gavin Lurssen of Lurssen Mastering. “The thing that aggravates me the most in this in- Joe Palmaccio of The Place…for Mastering. dustry is this constant pursuit of turning our craft into a process or into a plug-in itself,” say Eric Boulanger, owner of The Bakery Mastering (thebakery. la). For him, resolution is of the utmost importance, and he wants to hear exactly how the music sounds as he is creating the final master. “I’m monitoring from the output of SADiE, which is recording everything. And that’s truly what’s leaving the studio.

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“Typically, I load in and play back files through Pro Tools, and that will feed my console, and then an A-to-D converter that will record into SADiE, where my masters will be stored. If I do everything digitally, I use an outboard SRC [sample-rate converter], so it’s not going through the console, but through the SRC from 192 to 44.1 kHz, if we’re going to that format. So, no matter what the chain is, I’m listening through the entire process.”

Boulanger also says that his demands in resolution are why he favors the UAD plug-ins. “If you have x amount of resolution going in, you don’t lose it going out of any plug-in. You can get, artistically, what you want to do without a loss in quality.”

Boulanger utilizes Pro Tools templates, where the plug-ins sit inactive in the inserts until needed. “If I decided to try the Shadow Hills plug-in, I’ll activate it. Within five seconds, I know if I’m in the right direction or not. And if you’re not in the right direction, you turn it off. It’s important to listen rather than obsess over what’s on the screen.

The Bakery's Eric Boulanger He points out that another danger—whether using plug-ins or analog gear—is inadvertent gain change. “You might add a processor and think ‘Whoa, this makes it sound so much better.’ Even though you’re not applying any changes, the plugin is making the audio 3 dB hotter. And to the ear, louder is always better. The word of caution when using a processor is to be aware of your levels. Put tones through things and make sure you’re at unity, so when you’re making comparisons, you’re doing it all at the same level.”

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As for go-to plug-ins, Boulanger mentions digital limiting, saying he uses just a touch of FabFilter Pro-L at the very end of the signal chain. “I’m not using it for gain; it’s mainly to catch overs.” In addition to its simplicity, he likes being able to turn off the metering and lights, so that he is not distracted by the visuals. “The single greatest danger of any plug-in is the eye candy; looking at your screen and being more enthralled with what’s on it instead of truly listening to what you’re doing.”

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Boulanger also utilizes the Massenburg DesignWorks MDWEQ5 parametric EQ on the Universal Audio UAD-2 platform. “I use it when something needs to be very transparent; a really good high-res recording that’s just a little cloudy. You cut out a little bit of that mud in the 100Hz range and, when you make up the gain later, it just opens up and sings.”

But while making sure your signal path offers the best resolution you can get, Boulanger points out that quality mastering requires more than simply gathering the right tools. “The only thing people are buying with the service that I provide as a mastering engineer is perspective. It can take six months to record an album and about a month to mix it: I master an album a day. So the perspective is very different. That’s what mastering engineers bring to the table.” For the musician expecting to record and master the same project at home, Boulanger thinks that that kind of perspective will be difficult to achieve.

Nonetheless, he suggests a strategy for someone dabbling with mastering. “Start by working on older material that you haven’t been obsessing over for the past four months. Do something that is fresh. If you can’t do that, get ahold of other mixes, because perspective is the name of the game.”

BIG PICTURE AND DETAILS

Coast Mastering’s Jessica Thompson specializes in both audio restoration and mastering. “We have a very high-end analog system here, and most of my mastering is analog,” says Jessica Thompson, who works at Coast Mastering in Berkeley, California. In addition to being an in-demand mastering engineer, she also specializes in audio restoration. “Most of my digital tools are either for restoration or surgical applications.”

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I asked Thompson what she thinks is the most important skill for someone planning to master their own project. “To be able to think about both the big picture and the details, because that’s what a mastering engineer does,” she says. “We focus in on all of the details of your music, while simultaneously considering the big picture. It’s an unusual way to work, but if you don’t have the ability to work on the details and the big picture simultaneously, you’re going to screw up something; either a particular instrument is going to sound weird or your overall balance is going to sound off.”

Because many musicians are interested in archiving and/or releasing recordings from cassette tape and vinyl, I asked her to describe her audio-restoration workflow, as she prepares these types of projects for the mastering stage.

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“The first and foremost thing is to get the best possible digital transfer of your analog materials. I always do a high sample-rate, flat transfer with the best converters I can get my hands on, using the cleanest signal path. I do it at 96 or 192 kHz. Then I keep that as an archival transfer and a backup I can return to in the future.

“It’s so easy to get a bad transfer, even with cassette,” explains Thompson. “You might think, ‘I can just pop it into the cassette deck and hit play,’ but it doesn’t work that way. Cassette decks are all calibrated differently.” For example, she explains that problems with the azimuth during a transfer can result in a loss of high-end or add phase-iness. Her own deck has a control for adjusting azimuth.

“If you’re working on a restoration project for release,” she adds, “most of the time you get one chance to get [the transfer] right. And if you do it wrong, it’s entirely possible you’re going to destroy your source material or something is going to get released at sub-par quality. And you don’t want that.”

For Thompson, audio restoration is a multistep process. “First you have to correct what’s on the format and what it could or should have been if it were recorded in an ideal scenario. And then you start the enhancement process. With a cassette, I will clean up some of the hiss or the noise floor that exists on that format. Or I might do some spatializing stuff that corrects an azimuth that was off. Those are big, general strokes that are just trying to get things in the right space. And then I’ll do a second pass where I’m trying to enhance. That’s where I use EQ and try to bring out some clarity in the bass, or some richness in the vocals. And then I will often do a third pass where I fix dropouts, warbles, or tape distortion that shouldn’t be there—all the little things.

“Nearly all of this clean-up work is digital and in the box,” Thompson says. “These often need a lot more surgical attention and for that I use plugins. Sometimes I can do everything I need to do in the analog chain. But if there is something particular about the mix that, say, requires very high-Q cuts to deal with a whistle in the microphone that is really piercing and pops up now and then, I will use a digital EQ.”

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Her toolkit includes Sony Oxford Restoration plug-ins and products from iZotope. “I’ve used the Waves Restoration Suite, and whenever possible, I use CEDAR,” she adds. “But that’s all for detail work. Using an archeological metaphor, we’re not talking about digging with a shovel here. This is the part where you get down with your toothpicks, toothbrushes, and tiny chisels and etch out little bits of noise that shouldn’t be there, without damaging the overall songs.

“It’s easy to be heavy-handed with this stuff and lose sight of what you’re really trying to capture,” Thompson continues. “When you do that, you can rip the soul out of a project, or layer it with digital artifacts that sound worse than the inherent noise floor of the archival medium. Nothing’s worse than hearing something that’s been remastered from vinyl where the clicks and pops of the vinyl have been scrubbed out with such a heavy hand that you have also destroyed all of the beautiful transients of the percussion in that recording. It’s so easy to lose perspective and get so focused on clean up that you lose track of the vibe of the music.

“How does she recommend removing vinyl artifacts successfully? “If you’re just beginning, do it manually and spend about four hours per song doing it. This trains you to hear the best way it can be done. Then, later on, if you try to teach yourself to do it with an automated plug-in, you’ll have a sense of what the artifacts sound like and you’ll be able to hear when you’re pushing it too far. You have to invest the time.

“I usually do it with a spectral repair tool in iZotope, because then you can hone in exactly on the click, visually,” she adds. “Often, automating a declicker doesn’t work, and it sounds better to do it manually, I’m going to do it manually. You literally go through, second by second, and every time you hear a click you etch it out with your spectral repair tools.”

Once Thompson is satisfied with her restoration work and it’s time to master the project for release, what more needs to be done? “It’s like mastering any other piece of music. You’re interpolating what it could sound like in the best-case scenario and seeing how far you can take it with the tools in front of you.

“A cassette is naturally going to have a certain amount of noise floor and a certain type of compression, and certain frequency limitations just based on the medium. In some ways, when re-mastering, you’re going to try and make up for that, but you also acknowledge that this is a cassette and it’s always going to sound like that. You’re never going to make it sound like a sparkling, contemporary digital recording. It will always sound like something that is going to live a little bit in the past, in that space that is signified by cassettes.

“The big picture is the song, or the album, or the genre where this music lives in time and space; its cultural context. You’ve got to understand if you’re working on archival music that was recorded in the early ’80s or the mid-’60s, and know what it should and what it could sound like, and how far you can take it. Not that you can’t change it, but a cassette should sound a little like a cassette. Vinyl should sound a little like vinyl. You should nod to that in your re-mastering work.”

Gino Robair is Electronic Musician's technical editor. He is also a musician, educator, and editor-in-chief of Keyboard magazine.