121 Mastering Tips from the Experts

121 Mastering Tips from the Experts

July 26, 2017 — We surveyed 71 mastering experts in search of the best tips… and the response we got was incredible. Our panel sent us over 500 awesome mastering tips!

The toughest part was narrowing them down to only 121, and then organizing the tips into the sections you see below. (Actually, we received so many awesome tips, we were able to create “bonus” articles for the experts’ mastering plugin recommendations and their thoughts on the loudness wars.)

Thanks again to all of the experts who contributed… and thank you for reading. Whether you’re a professional audio engineer or musician, or a complete newbie, we’re confident you can find something below to immediately apply to your own music.

Cheers!
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Scott Hawksworth
Founder, AudioSkills

Click here to view the entire list of our expert contributors, including links to their social media profiles.

Table of Contents

Click on a link to jump to a particular section of mastering tips. Otherwise, keep scrolling and get ready!

Beginners

Strategy

Techniques

Bonus

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Mastering Advice for Beginners

What’s your best advice for a beginner who is just starting out mastering, and wants to develop their skills?

  1. You have to start by listening: Listen to lots of very good recordings and become familiar with how they sound on the finest reproduction systems and compromised systems. Become familiar with the effects of PLR and PLR reduction and make sure you can identify when transients have been deleteriously affected (e.g. overcompression). Then try to obtain well-made raw mixes, which is the hard part. — Bob Katz, Digital Domain
  2. Spend all your initial efforts to create an accurate and high resolution monitor/room situation. That will enable you to refine your listening skills and eventually make good judgements on what may be needed. — Dave McNair, Dave McNair Mastering
  3. Do lots of ear training. EQ will be your number one tool, so get to know those key frequencies inside and out. — Ian Stewart, Ian Stewart Music
  4. Mastering is all about listening. The more variety of music you can listen to, the better foundation you will have. Listen with Purpose. Listen to the work of “the masters” and DO NOT get hung up on what type of gear they used or why it’s unfair that they got great mixes to work with. Study and learn – a lot – before you start turning knobs or clicking a mouse. — Scott Hull, Masterdisk
  5. Develop your skills on as many styles as you possibly can doing both recording and mixing for as long as you can before trying to make the jump to mastering. This is both art and science and besides technical and people skills you need to develop your ears, instincts and of course your own professional criteria but that can only be properly developed thru time. — Camilo Silva F., CamiloSilvaF.com
  6. Practice on a variety of local bands for no charge. Then listen to your results on a variety of real world playback systems. Find out what your monitors are doing to your masters. — Don Grossinger, DonGrossinger.com
  7. Pick a reference with an ideal 1) tonal balance, 2) density/punch, and 3) volume for your genre and tastes — and stick with it! Your job is to match your material to your reference in those three areas. Anything else is best addressed in the mix. — Brian Hazard, Resonance Mastering
  8. Mastering a song to match a reference song is like carving a block of wood to match a reference block of wood. Learn all the tools and techniques it takes to match a reference, and you’ll master anything for anyone (provided that the mix is decent and allows for that). — Janne Hatula, Fanu Music
  9. Embrace the mistakes you will inevitably make, and learn from them. Be gracious and generous to your clients whose music they entrust to you. — David Glasser, Airshow Mastering
  10. You can’t polish a turd… you need to learn how to mix well before your masters will start sounding good. Mastering can fix some mix errors, but if your mix has a lot of problems mastering tends to only exacerbate them with compression and limiting. My practical advice would be to try to master a new song everyday while watching YouTube tutorials and comparing your masters to professional tracks in your genre. If you keep this up long enough you’ll get very good eventually. — Zach Caraher, Big Z Mixing & Mastering Services

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Mastering Philosophy

Do you have a mastering philosophy you’d like to share? Or, could you explain how you look at the art of mastering?

  1. Music lives because of its dynamics. Don’t kill them! The loudness war is over and listeners know how to use a volume button. It’s always more fun to get up to turn the music up because it sounds great instead of having to get up because the music yells at you. — Stephan Mathieu, Schwebung Mastering
  2. My mastering philosophy is everything in moderation. Instead of being heavy handed on one EQ, use several very lightly. You don’t want to completely change someone’s mix in mastering, you want to enhance it. — Katie Tavini, KatieTavini.co.uk
  3. As a mastering engineer you might sometimes be the only person who can hear things that no one heard before in the previous steps (from the composition of the piece to the mixing) so it is your role to make all the adjustments possible with only a stereo track at your disposal. — Mathieu Bedwani, MathieuBedwani.com
  4. Audio mastering is not about signal processing or the equipment that is used. In short, it’s about making judgment calls to improve or retain the quality of the clients mix’s and to compose/assemble all of those mix’s into a cohesive smooth listening experience for the end user on most types of playback systems. To achieve this consistently, the mastering engineer has to know the sound of their listening space and how it translates to real world play back systems,to react to first impressions and act objectively using the highest quality equipment that will assist in executing the deciding judgments made. Making sure there is a line of communication to the client is as critical too. — Ed Littman, Ed Littman Mastering
  5. I try to focus on artistic intent and do what’s necessary to make it come alive. I also try to set levels and technical specs so it will play as well as possible across all media and formats — Jonathan Wyner, M Works
  6. It’s all about boosting the emotional response of a song by working on the sonic energy allocation. Dynamic and harmonic. When I work on a song it has to go back to the artist not only louder but also, clearer and more exciting even when level matched with the original mix. I’ll never sacrifice any quality to the detriment of loudness. — JP Villemure, Villemure.net
  7. The art of mastering is twofold: First, a ruthless introspective study of your own musical preferences, experiences, and biases. Second, leveraging that developing awareness and insight to maximize the potential in every track with precision and clarity. — Michael Curtis, Movement Mastering
  8. Mastering should never be “fixing” a mix. It should be “polishing” one. — Kevin Nix, L. Nix Mastering
  9. A lot of people are confused that mastering is all about using a specific chain of plugins/analog equipment. For me mastering is improving mixes so they can be the best they can be. Mastering engineers are the fresh set of ears to catch the little things that slip in the mixing process. We use our tools (plugins/equipment) based on our judgment on what can be improved. — Matthew Wolk, Matthew Wolk Mastering
  10. Fundamentally mastering is all about listening. Processing is always secondary to listening. If I were to have a “mastering philosophy” it would be to simply listen non-objectively and critically prior to making any processing adjustments. What does the mix really need? Many times it’s less than you think. Do not default to any sort of processing, truly listen and then make adjustments, listen to those adjustments, A/B those adjustments against the original mix (level-matched) and hear if what you did actually benefited the mix at hand and the project as a whole. In short – listen, listen, listen! — Mark Trewella, Full Circle Mastering

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Inside vs. Outside the Box

Inside the box mastering versus outside the box… is one better than the other? Which one do you prefer (and why?)

  1. It seems that a lot of studios are still using outboard gear because it gives that warm analog sound everyone enjoys and its physical appearance is appealing and fun to control. Plugins though are being designed to replicate exactly how the gear sounds which is great and still offer that analog feel. I prefer plugins because you don’t have to worry about repairs, patch bay, and recalling your settings each time you go back to that master. Plugins seem to now provide the same quality and are definitely a time saver. Also a little more affordable. — Chris Blaney, Inner Creative Sound
  2. The million dollar question that doesn’t matter. It’s all about doing what’s best for the song and knowing what tool to use to get there. Sometimes it’s digital, sometimes it’s analog, sometimes it’s both. You get paid to sign off on a record whether you do anything to it or not. The goal is to make it translate everywhere. Whatever you need to use to do that should dictate signal chain. — Sam Moses, Moses Mastering

  1. They both have their ups and downs. When mastering analog, remember that your transients are softer but your imaging is clearer. — Kenneth Candelas, KCandelas.com
  2. I believe a blend of both is the wisest approach as they each have their advantages. OTB offers the warm world of analog and a tactile connection to the controls. ITB offers surgical precision and the luxury of saved custom presets. — Cory Allen, Altered Ear
  3. I still prefer mastering outside the box for its greater dimensionality and stereo imaging but, in concert with some of the look-ahead features of plug-in compression, you can have the best of both worlds: transparency and focus. — Hans DeKline, Sound Bites Dog
  4. Either one is completely valid. My own work is about 50/50. I prefer one or the other based on getting the best results. — Dave McNair, Dave McNair Mastering
  5. I like mixture of both… for hardware, a high quality audio interface with AD/DA converters is a necessity for a mastering engineer. These days plugins offer some superb hardware emulations (i.e. UAD), so hardware sound vs software sound can be just a matter of taste. I love plugins for their flexibility, quickness (no need to rewire/cable things), and undo/ history states, which is often not achievable with analog hardware. — Paul Jalowecki, Chrome Mastering
  6. Outboard gear has great ergonomics and often times adds a color which can’t be emulated with plugins. The downside is the price and the inability to quickly save settings. The sonic differences between outboard gear and plugins are getting smaller every year but if you have a really great monitoring setup it can still be quite audible. Great monitoring is much more important than using outboard gear instead of plugins. — Dave Harris, Studio B Mastering
  7. I’ve worked in both mediums but the vast majority of my career has been spent inside the box. Technology has leveled the sonic playing field at this point and for me the ability to instantly recall a mix at any time far outweighs working outside the box. — Drew Lavyne, All Digital Mastering
  8. Good hardware is a joy to work with, but plug-ins have come a long way in quality over the last few years. You can certainly do professional grade masters ITB these days, plus it saves on recall time and lets you put your money toward the 3 most important things that can never be ITB: your room, monitoring, and conversion. In short, until you’ve got those 3 down, stay ITB. — Ian Stewart, Ian Stewart Music

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Mastering Theory & Strategy

What are your key mastering strategies?

  1. Do a lot of A/B comparison with the original pre-master to see if you’re actually improving the song (compress it so it’s at the same volume level as your version). — Paul Jalowecki, Chrome Mastering
  2. Always listen first. Before you do any type of processing know exactly why you’re doing it and what you hope to achieve. Then process, and listen again. Are there any undesirable side-effects to what you’ve done? (Hint: there almost always are). Only when the benefits outweigh the side-effects should you move on. — Ian Stewart, Ian Stewart Music
  3. Check your masters outside of the studio! Just because a master sounds good in your studio doesn’t mean it will sound good in other speakers and headphones outside of your studio. “Portability” is the measure of a great master. — Chris Graham, Chris Graham Mastering

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  1. Communicate with the artist often. And remember it’s their vision you’re trying to enhance. Your role should be that of support. You’re not there to outshine the artist but to instead help the artist shine. — David A. Lopez, DavidALopez.com
  2. Here are key mastering strategies to use. Always remove any rogue resonances before you begin any processing. This can be done by performing an EQ sweep and attenuating the problem frequencies. Low shelf at a minimum of 31 Hz to remove any clutter on the bottom end that could eventually contribute to the detriment of subsequent harmonics. De-Ess at the start of your Mastering chain to prevent the compressor from reacting to the wrong frequencies. — Earle Holder, HDQTRZ
  3. Spend more time watching LUFS loudness meters than you spend watching that peak meter. Anyone can get a peak meter up to 0 dBFS. Work on settling that loudness meter around -10 at the most. — Patrick Anderson, ThePatrickAnderson.com
  4. A multiband compressor can be an effective tool for managing the low end of a mix. Bypass everything but the bottom band and find a compression setting that controls the “boom”. The “solo” button for that low band really can help dial in an appropriate level of compression. — Ron Boustead, Resolution Mastering
  5. Always reference with the source material at the same loudness, go back and forth to know what you’re doing to it. Same loudness is very, very important. If you don’t have a speaker controller that handles this, I recommend the “Perception” plugin. — Julian Silva, On Air Mastering
  6. Be open to feedback from your clients. They are the ones hiring you. Making small changes can create big differences when it comes to the overall feel and sound of the music — Maor Appelbaum, Maor Appelbaum Mastering
  7. Mastering is about making fine adjustments to the EQ and dynamics of a finished mix, highlighting aspects where necessary and masking deficiencies but without discrete adjustment of individual elements. A mastered track should closely represent the producer’s objectives wherever it is heard. — Nick Watson, Fluid Mastering

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Prepping Your Mix for Mastering

Aside from leaving plenty of headroom, what should mixers keep in mind to help their mastering engineer get better results?

  1. Label the files right and make sure everyone is on the same page. Also if you make a reference version that is “Loud / Limited / Quasi / Pseudo – Mastered” for the artist to listen to, send that in addition to the un-mastered mix to the mastering engineer. It’s good to know what the clients are used to hearing as well. — Maor Appelbaum, Maor Appelbaum Mastering
  2. Always send a mix to your mastering engineer in the sample rate & bit depth that you mixed it at. We prefer to work at the highest quality possible. Don’t worry about changing it up – we can do that at the very end! — Katie Tavini, KatieTavini.co.uk
  3. Make sure beginnings and endings don’t have accidental cut outs or artifacts. When I get songs to master I assume it’s 99% the way the band wants the song to start and end. — Jake Reid, Machine Drift

  1. Pay special attention to the balance between kick drum & bassline. This is the foundation upon which many great mixes are built, & some of the most important elements to balance in a mix. — Loz Gill, Fat as Funk
  2. Don’t overdo things (EQ, compression, reverb) or at least be sure it’s too much for the good of the song. Make sure you hear what’s going on for real. For example, make sure you don’t EQ a resonance made by the acoustic of your working space. Know the flaws of your room, your ears/brain and your monitoring system and compensate for it. — JP Villemure, Villemure.net
  3. First make sure the transients of your sounds are ok. If these are good your track will be vivid & dynamic. Secondly avoid limiting and over-compression on your master channel. The last thing to remember is to always send a WAV of AIFF file to your mastering engineer. So no MP3. — Jack, Mastered by Jack
  4. Have your own “faux” mastering session. Bounce out the record, tie your hands. The big win here is getting yourself in a different headspace and really make sure you’re happy with how things are jiving. Gentle EQ for the most part here. Then when you can’t possibly improve it, then pass the mix off to mastering engineer with a fresh perspective. — Michael Curtis, Movement Mastering
  5. Be very cautious with what you put on the master fader. Leave the heavy processing off. Heavy buss compression and equalization are the enemy for me. It does not leave much room for me to work with. Mastering equipment is expensive for a reason. The equipment we use is transparent and the right adjustments will only improve on the original mix. Leave the master processing to the experts. — Matthew Wolk, Matthew Wolk Mastering
  6. Respect Fletcher-Munson curves! Our ears are most sensitive to 2 kHz – 4 kHz. Instruments and vocals tend to resonate in that area and our ears fatigue when there is too much of it. Spend time redistributing that energy to the octaves above and below 2 kHz – 4 kHz. — Ryan Schwabe, RyanSchwabe.com
  7. Leave nothing “up for mastering” outside of overall loudness. Check the mixes out on multiple playback systems and get feedback from friends whose ears you respect. When in doubt render alternate mix versions (i.e. vocal up, vocal down, snare up, etc.) to give the mastering engineer the most flexibility. If you have any concerns with the mixes or specific notes you think would be helpful be sure to communicate those clearly. Finally (and hopefully this goes without saying) send 24-bit (or 32-bit) stereo WAV or AIF files at whatever sample rate you mixed at, do not send MP3/MP4/lossy files! — Mark Trewella, Full Circle Mastering

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Common Mistakes When Mastering

What is the single most common mastering mistake? And how can it be avoided?

  1. Underestimating the power of EQ. I feel like many people think about mastering in terms of just loudness and punch, but tone-shaping is a big part of it as well. Using a really nice EQ to sculpt a track’s tone and vibe can yield great results if done with care and knowledge. — Nick Garcia, Nick Garcia Tunes
  2. When dealing with tracks that have a very strong 100-250 Hz sinewave-style leads (i.e. whistle bass and the like) be very careful when hitting the limiter with them. These waves distort extremely easily when limited or compressed too hard. Two tips to avoid distorting: 1. Simply lower their levels via any means like multiband compressing or just EQing. 2. Just don’t push that track so loud! 🙂 — Martin Olmos, Allmostt Mastering
  3. Trying too hard to impress the client. Try to be objective and do just what the mix really needs (while respecting the mixer’s work), this is the most difficult thing and the BIGGEST goal in mastering. — Miguel A. González, Black Box Mastering
  4. Mastering so loud that there are nearly no dynamics left in the music. Besides from the distortion and artifacts it gives, the result will sound flat and lifeless. Try using meters and loudness recommendations. — Arie van den Velden, Redial Studio
  5. Inaccurate monitoring system and/or acoustics. Either invest in setting up a proper room with adequate cubic volume, good dimensional ratios, appropriate acoustic treatments, proper listening position and monitor placement to ITU standards, or utilize reputable dsp speaker and room correction. — Brent Lambert, The Kitchen Mastering
  6. Not having a meter that measures RMS, peak, and dynamic range. Get one and learn it! — Julian Silva, On Air Mastering
  7. The single most common mastering mistake is thinking that mastering is an act accomplished by tools. It’s a process of assessing finished mixes in a professional listening environment (as neutral and balanced as possible) and having the experience and objectivity to decide what needs to be done to improve the sound. There’s no box or plug-in that can do this. — Paul Abbott, Zen Mastering
  8. It’s important to not lose sight of what treatment would be best for each individual recording. Bands often have unrealistic goals of meeting some sort of reference sound that is so dissimilar from their mix that you’ll do a great disservice by focusing on the reference more than the recording. I find that artists tend to appreciate expert explanations of why you’re taking a different direction (that’s in the best interest of their mix), even if it’s not what they’d originally been asking for. — Bill Henderson, Azimuth Mastering
  9. The biggest and most common mastering mistake I see is engineers not having a set listening level when creating their masters. Having a set listening level is a way to keep everything you listen to in reference to each other, and how you know you can trust what you hear. To achieve this, simply pick a level that is comfortable to listen to for a few hours, make a mark on your console or interface, and do not move the knob from that position. After setting that level, I set my secondary reference level by dropping the output by -10 dB (If you are using Pro Tools, just drop in a trim plugin at -10 dB and bypass it on and off). That secondary reference level is key in helping get another perspective on the master, and I will bounce back and forth many times throughout a session. — Ian Garrow, IanGarrow.com

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Gain Staging Techniques

What’s your best tip or advice for gain staging in mastering?

  1. Once I get the session set up I like to listen through every song and note where each one is hitting so I get an overall picture of dynamics and if some songs were printed quieter than others. This gives me a starting point on how to approach what needs to be added for mastering. — Jake Reid, Machine Drift
  2. In analog a good rule of thumb is to make sure you are at the optimal gain on one device before getting to the next. In digital it is a bit easier, just make sure you are not clipping in the plugins that don’t react well to it and don’t clip your master buss, then you should be fine. — Mathieu Bedwani, MathieuBedwani.com
  3. I used to use raise the gain in my analog compressors then clip the ADC for the final loudness. Clipping converters can have a better sound than using a limiter on some program, but I discovered that if I keep the analog gear at unity gain & capture at 24/44.1 with the full wave intact then use the make up gain with my DAW and a quality limiter, it sounds better. With one pass I’ll have more options for possible revision or formats to be requested by the clients. — Ed Littman, Ed Littman Mastering
  4. Always level match every processing you make so you can compare only one qualitative change at a time. Only boost the volume of the song at the end of the chain with the limiter. Get some visual help of a LUFS meter, but don’t rely on it too much. Make sure you listen to at least 5 seconds before make judgement on the loudness of a part of a song. — JP Villemure, Villemure.net
  5. I stay at -20 dBFS RMS right up until my final limiter and use it to “get loud.” I do this because I know every single piece of equipment in my chain is happy with that level and won’t get overcooked. Plugins that emulate analog gear can still get fried even if you’re not hitting digital zero! — Michael Curtis, Movement Mastering
  6. Develop your own process that works with the equipment/plugins you use and stick to it. That will help you to be consistent with your projects. As long as you don’t crank the outputs of every processor you should be good to go as long as you have a mix with the proper headroom. — Matthew Wolk, Matthew Wolk Mastering
  7. Your signal-chain must be malleable from song to song. In order to easily rearrange the processing chain you must calibrate your signal-chain (plugs or hardware) for unity pass through. This allows you to rearrange the order or simply bypass processors without significantly impacting processors down the chain. This is true for mixing as well. — Ryan Schwabe, RyanSchwabe.com
  8. Use analog (style) VU meters so you are checking the average level not just the peak. It’s much more helpful. — Joe Lambert, Joe Lambert Mastering
  9. I rely heavily on my monitor control, VU metering and before / after volume matching. Once you understand where your ‘transmission level’ is at relative to the outside world, gain staging falls into place. — Timothy Stollenwerk, Stereophonic Mastering

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Multiband Compression Techniques

What’s your favorite tip or technique for using multiband compression effectively in mastering?

  1. I use multiband compression to add a final touch to frequencies that may be standing out too much, help it smooth out a vocal (de-essing) , or tighten up some low end without it affecting the higher frequencies. If you find yourself messing with it too much, you should probably go back to the mix and make some adjustments there first. — Chris Blaney, Inner Creative Sound
  2. Use it with care. Nowadays, a lot of productions don’t need it because they already have a compact sound. — Arjan Rietvink, Arjan Rietvink Online Mastering
  3. Except in extreme cases, I avoid multiband compression, or multiband processing of any kind. There’s no analog for it in nature, and it always sounds unnatural. The only thing a good mix needs is a touch of broadband compression for glue (assuming there’s none already on the master bus at mixdown) and limiting. Plugin suites like Ozone are dangerous because people feel like they need to use every module. You’ve heard it a thousand times, but it’s true: less is more. — Brian Hazard, Resonance Mastering

  1. Visualize the audio image as a physical space. The frequencies of the song must all fit in that space perfectly. In each song, there will be naturally dominating frequencies which push other frequencies out of the way and create sonic pressure. Use multiband compression to restrain each frequency band so that they don’t fight each other for room and there is plenty of air for the whole image to breathe. — Cory Allen, Altered Ear
  2. For when it’s necessary, I use it to tighten up the mid range. Low ratio, slowly bring down the threshold until it gently manages the loudness of the vocal. Always making sure that the GR (Gain Reduction) goes back to zero frequently. — Chris Carvalho, Unlock Your Sound
  3. For the kind of music I work on, I tend to use multiband compression to deal with issues in the mix. For instance, when the kick drum is too loud, I’ll use a limiter on just the low end to pull that into place. Or on the top end, I frequently use de-essing to take care of high frequency elements that pop too far out of the mix. — Randy Merrill, Randy Merrill Mastering
  4. I use very fast attacks (0 ms – 5 ms) on high-mids (around 1 kHz – 9 kHz) or top end (10 kHz and above) to smooth out piercing or harsh sounding snares/rimshots or hi-hats. I recommend using low gain reduction (1-3 dB) settings – the extreme attack settings can be an easy overkill to the song. — Paul Jalowecki, Chrome Mastering
  5. Use it only when absolutely necessary and as sparingly as possible. If you have to use Multiband compression make your first split at around 160 Hz; if you need a third band start at 3200 Hz. If that’s really not enough bands, find a halfway-point between the 160-3200 Hz region (for four bands) and/or the 3200-20,000 Hz region (for four/five bands respectively). I’ve found that frequencies at or near 160 Hz and 3200 Hz to be almost universally effective for 80-90% of the material that would benefit from MB compression. — Karl Machat, Mister’s Mastering House
  6. Multiband Compression is fantastic tool for reigning in low mids which can clutter the bottom of a mix, so if things are murky try pulling down around 120-160 kHz and see what happens. — Drew Lavyne, All Digital Mastering

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Limiter Techniques

What’s your best tip or technique for using limiters?

  1. Mix engineers shouldn’t hard limit the mix all the time. Using a hard limiter on your mix is great for finding out what happens to a mix in mastering and getting it loud for the band to check out in their car but they are often overused and make mastering much harder. All the brick wall and psychoacoustic math really damages the music and can mess up the mastering process. This is why I use 90% analog. I tend to only apply 1-2 dB of limiting after the analog chain. — Nick Zampiello, New Alliance East Mastering
  2. Read up fully on how they and compressors work and how your particular one works. Many different desired effects can be created by using just one, or even a chain of them! Read the manual and be the don of that thing! — Martin Olmos, Allmostt Mastering
  3. Try to spread the load over multiple limiters rather that one limiter doing all of the work. If a project calls for a lot of loudness, I would typically use an analog limiter in front of the A/D converter (Pendulum PL-2), followed by two digital peak limiters each doing a little bit more. How much you lean on each of these limiters is project dependent and usually requires some listening and tweaking to find the right interaction between them. Experiment! — Dan Coutant, Sun Room Audio
  4. I find the subtle use of 2 or more limiters and compressors in the signal chain more effective than one limiter set to “stun”. I often use a compressor on the low end specifically before any other dynamic processing, Tightening the bottom end allows me to get a tighter sounding record, without over-compressing. — Ron Boustead, Resolution Mastering
  5. Engage the limiter as the second to last processor in the chain (before any final dithering), but set its levels and other parameters first prior to any other processing, as these choices will affect all other processing decisions. When setting your initial average levels with this make sure your monitor controller is set to a point where most mastered tracks from that genre would sound present – generally listening at a level giving around 83 – 85 dB as measured at your listening position by a sound pressure level meter – and then dial in the level so that the track you are working on sounds present and satisfying to you – often doing level matched A/B’s between the limited/processed audio and the original unprocessed source (so a monitor controller that allows you to do this is a must have for mastering). At this point it’s good to tweak parameters to see if things like impact of snares and kicks can be optimized, or if distortion can be minimized, while perhaps trying different limiters set to similar gain reduction to make sure the limiter chosen is the best one for the particular track. — Steven Berson, Total Sonic Media
  6. Crank up the input gain, reduce the output and mess with the settings. Then bring the gain down by 50% and tweak the settings again trying to get the punchy elements to come through whilst minimising distortion. Then bring the limiter down to between 1-4 dB of input gain and do any final adjustments. This should help you get the perfect settings for your material. Try and use a limiter with oversampling and watch the true peak meter to make sure you don’t clip. — Tom Frampton, Mastering The Mix
  7. Don’t rely on a limiter to do too much. Generally I keep it within about 1-3 dB of limiting on the end of the mastering chain. What happens before the limiter is what’s important. The limiter should be used for final volume level decisions. — Jerry Tubb, Terra Nova Mastering
  8. Don’t depend on them to add all of the gain. Much of it can be done before with saturation and compression. — Mark Downie, Western Mastering
  9. Use level matching so that you can audition exactly what the limiter is doing to the mix. Our ears are easily fooled into thinking louder is better. If your limiter doesn’t have a ‘smart bypass’ feature then offset the output by the same amount as the input. — Steve Kitch, Audiomaster Mastering Studio

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Favorite Mastering Chains

What is your preferred mastering chain?

  1. Tends to stay pretty consistent. First I’ll repair anything that needs repairing with iZotope RX. Then for processing, I do a lot of work with McDSP. Hi/Low-pass filters (F202), followed by multiband EQ (with just about anything from the FilterBank bundle). Dynamics processing can go any number of ways; I love playing with the SPL Transient Designer from Plugin Alliance, as well as the ML4000 for multiband work (but I’ll generally leave the limiter disengaged). I might use some mid-side processing thereafter if I feel the stereo image could use a little articulation, followed lastly by the either the McDSP ML4000 limiter or the Massey L2007. I’m generally done there, though sometimes I top-off just a touch with the [FREE!!!] Slate Revival plug for some subtle harmonic sweetening. — Patrick Anderson, ThePatrickAnderson.com
  2. Depends on the track completely, but mostly I end up with something like ( Digital EQ > compressor > analog EQ > compressor > m/s processor > saturation > limiter ) — Arie van den Velden, Redial Studio
  3. I prefer to use some combination of neutral or “corrective” equipment (solid state, no transformers) and gear that leaves a little more of a sonic footprint (tubes). Typically that would include both analog and digital processors. An example chain would be a solid state EQ, followed by a tube EQ, followed by a solid state compressor, followed by a tube limiter. Different amounts of gain would be applied at each of these stages depending on what the source calls for. — Dan Coutant, Sun Room Audio
  4. Digital processing for surgery and analog processing for tone and feel. Specifically, I primarily utilize either the Weiss dynamic EQ or software dynamic EQs (and non-dynamic EQs) when there are mix issues that need narrow-ish bandwidth correction or m/s processing. I utilize my analog chain, focusing on gain structure between components for the desired effect (or lack thereof), broader Q equalization, and subtle dynamic processing. — Brent Lambert, The Kitchen Mastering
  5. I normally use a combination of plugins and analog hardware. Software first to sweeten the material for my analog chain and do any precise EQ cuts and de-essing if needed, then analog gear for some broader strokes of EQ and mild compression, followed by make-up gain to hit the analog to digital converter at a certain level (which is dependent on the project) and print back to digital. This is usually followed up with a gentle digital limiter and dither once back in the digital domain. All processing work is done at 96k and is up and down-sampled as needed via Weiss Saracon software. Highly recommended. — Justin Perkins, Mystery Room Mastering
  6. In this order… Stereo width (If needed: Ozone 7 elements) Harshness control (if needed: Plugin Alliance Refinement), EQ (Fabfilter Pro Q2), MB Compressor (Pro MB), Analogue emulation EQ (UAD Manley Massive Passive), Analogue emulation compressor (UAD Shadow Hills), Exciter (UAD Sonnox Oxford Inflator), Analogue tape emulation (If needed: UAD Studer), Limiter (Fabfilter Pro L), Metering Plugin (Mastering The Mix LEVELS) Referencing plugin (Mastering The Mix REFERENCE) Speaker calibration (Sonar works). — Tom Frampton, Mastering The Mix
  7. I use a hybrid approach in mastering, both analog & digital processing. Digital processing for surgical EQ, frequency specific compression, and for audio restoration. Analog hardware, especially high end Equalizers & Compressors for that big sound. I often use 1/2″ analog tape as well, to warm up cold ITB all digital mixes. Mastering specific converters are also best. — Jerry Tubb, Terra Nova Mastering
  8. I start with analog: EQ, compressor, saturator, harmonics enhancer. Then I add few plugins for optimize the stereo image and loudness. — Francesco S., Dirty Drop Studio
  9. I use a non-standardized type of process from start to finish; one of the reasons I’ve been in the mastering business for 20+ years. It depends on the project, but generally there will be these things within my chain of go-to tools: Compression, EQ, Low-end Roll-off, De-essing, Vintage Compression/EQ, Multiband Compression/EQ, Tube Processing, Limiting or Maximization. NEVER Reverb. People ask me about that sometimes. In my opinion, that’s a mix issue and you would never need reverb in mastering; it seems semi-professional to me to do that. — Doug Diamond, Diamondisc Audio
  10. This is entirely dependent on the type of music being mastered, and a lot of engineers work across a vast spectrum of genres these days. I generally prefer a few EQs early in the chain to deal with any excess or deficiencies in the curve, before any dynamics processing is applied. A lot of recordings I work on don’t need a lot of compression, or any at all. Some need more harmonic content, others need a bit of saturation – there is no concrete answer. The one constant would be a limiter of some type at the end of the chain. — James Plotkin, Plotkinworks

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The Best Mastering Plugins

What’s your #1 favorite mastering-related plugin?

  1. Vertigo Sound VSM-3 from UA is awesome! It is one of the “best secrets” of mastering. The harmonic distortion is tasty! I use it in DP for mastering in the box. — Gabriel Alvarez Franchi, GabrielAlvarezFranchi.com
  2. The FabFilter Pro-L limiter has been my go-to limiter recently (out of about 10 of them) – very versatile and generally works well to preserve transients without introducing too much distortion. — Steven Berson, Total Sonic Media

  1. I absolutely adore the DMG EQuilibrium EQ plugin, I use it for VST and it does probably 80% of my processing. It’s flexible beyond what I thought was possible and almost always sounds completely predictable and if it’s not right you are a few clicks away from fixing it. — Joe Caithness, Subsequent Mastering
  2. Perception by Ian Shepherd and MeterPlugs. Hands down. An incredibly easy tool to use that truly lets you hear what you’re doing to a track without the variable of loudness. Can’t live without it. It’s third party and can run in any DAW. — Michael Curtis, Movement Mastering
  3. iZotope Ozone 7 is an incredibly great sounding, flexible collection of tools that have made my job so much easier. — Hans DeKline, Sound Bites Dog

We had so many great mastering plugin suggestions that we couldn’t fit them all into this article. Click here to see our entire list of the best mastering plugins.

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The Loudness Wars

There’s a lot of heated discussion about “the loudness wars”… what is your personal opinion on the loudness wars?

  1. Normalized streaming services are going to make the loudness wars obsolete within a very short time. Try to educate your clients that their masters will sound wimpy and uninvolving and actually lower when played on a streaming service if the loudness of your master is higher than the target level of the streaming service. — Bob Katz, Digital Domain
  2. It’s great to have dynamics in music for sure, but it’s also cool to have something compressed if it fits the desired sound. I can go both ways – whatever fits the music, the styling, the client needs and the recordings. Nowadays we can get so loud that it can be hard to listen to a whole album without getting our ears fatigued, so finding a middle ground is a challenge and I see that as a priority in finding a nice balance when possible. I want the client to be happy and the listeners to enjoy it. It’s not as easy as it might seem to be and you can’t win them all — Maor Appelbaum, Maor Appelbaum Mastering
  3. Leave the loudness to mastering. Many mixes come in already loud and there is little a mastering engineer can do at that point to get dynamics back. Beyond that, I don’t think too much about the loudness wars. Some material sounds great super loud while others don’t. It’s totally program dependent. — Noah Mintz, Lacquer Channel Mastering
  4. Thankfully the “loudness war” has been dying down over the years. Still predominant in certain genres but in my experience it’s more or less about those artists wanting their tracks “hot” (sometimes pushing things further than I’d like) as opposed to trying to be louder than some other album that is already slammed. Most now seem to understand the limitations and drawbacks of pushing loudness too far, which is great! — Mark Trewella, Full Circle Mastering
  5. The loudness wars are being ended for us, thanks to major outlets like Spotify, Apple, and Google. They all have been introducing some form of loudness normalization that is engaged by default in most apps (such as Sound Check in iTunes, or Spotify’s “same volume for all songs” setting). If your song doesn’t have dynamic range, it’s going to get turned down by these programs on playback due to its higher average loudness level. A song that peaks at the same level, but has greater dynamics will have a lower average loudness, and will remain untouched by the app on playback. The result is that the more dynamic song will sound louder and punchier to most end listeners than the one that got leveled a 0 dBFS in mastering. This is a really good thing! — Patrick Anderson, ThePatrickAnderson.com
  6. The need for loudness usually depends on the style of the music. Big dance-floor tracks need it, labels and artists ask for it. For easy listening music or vinyl there is no need to push the limiter. It better to keep it more dynamic. All depends on the target. — Denis Emery, Mastering.lt
  7. The loudness war still exists and will always exist; it’s just changing strategies at the moment. As loudness normalization takes over the streaming services, there is no need to create high RMS or LUFS level digital masters anymore. The CD loudness war is becoming irrelevant in the age of digital streaming. There is currently not a standard but as you go louder than roughly -14 or -12 LUFS (it depends on the streaming service), you reach a point where the material is just turned down or “”loudness normalized””. This is so that the listener can have an enjoyable listening experience in a playlist or shuffle mode situation without the levels of songs going all over the place. Going any louder than whatever the streaming service normalizes to ends up working against you. — Justin Perkins, Mystery Room Mastering
  8. It would be great if everyone could dial it down 3-6 dB and live in a more natural dynamic musical environment. But in the real world that’s not happening, so learning to make loud but clean as possible masters is paramount. Making the correct decision about loud vs clean, a good balance between the two. Recently I mastered a project twice, upon next-day listening the first pass I felt was just too hot & compromised the quality, so I redid it 2 dB lower, and everyone loved it, including me. — Jerry Tubb, Terra Nova Mastering
  9. Not over. Still not over. There’s many, many places in the world where people still use CD’s and other non-loudness normalised playback mediums a lot so competitive volume is still around and will be for some time. I’m not afraid of volume as long as I’m not distorting and not choking and killing the snare….And yes, hardware is key to me for achieving that (i simply cannot get loud and clean ITB as my gain staging on my analog gear and A/D is a key part of that). But at the end, it’s the client’s call and the vast majority of them want it LOUD. Try to educate them on the subject… Excruciating! — Camilo Silva F., CamiloSilvaF.com
  10. It all depends on the kind of music you are trying to make. If you’re making dance or pop music then you don’t have much of a choice – you have to make your tracks sound as loud as everyone else or you’ll sound unprofessional and stick out like a sore thumb. If you’re making indie rock, folk music, etc. then this isn’t nearly as important and you can preserve your dynamics more. — Zach Caraher, Big Z Mixing & Mastering Services

We received so many thoughts on the loudness wars that we couldn’t fit them all into this article. Click here for more thoughts on the loudness wars.

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Sage Advice

Any other mastering tips or advice?

  1. The more fancy stuff you learn, the more you realise the best engineers can do better with the absolute basics. Always try to do as little as possible, but RIGHT. — Bob Macciochi, Subvert Central Mastering
  2. Sometimes people pay me to do nothing to their mixes. It usually takes me 6-8 hours to do decide that nothing is the right course of action. A good mastering engineer has to have the confidence to send a mix back untouched if that’s what’s right for it. — Noah Mintz, Lacquer Channel Mastering
  3. If your tracks are distorting when you’re not near professional loudness levels then that’s a huge sign that you need to go make some changes. EQ is the best area to mess around in when troubleshooting this problem. — Zach Caraher, Big Z Mixing & Mastering Services
  4. Keep good records of everything you do and keep all files organized and labeled. If you are running an actual mastering business you might be surprised how often clients will need things from previous sessions, even many years later. — Dave Harris, Studio B Mastering
  5. Mastering doesn’t end at the digital limiting stage of a given song. There are still important steps and best practices to follow when sequencing an EP or album, PQ coding, CD-Text, metadata, quality control checking for clicks, pops, and other unwanted sounds, DDP creation, and creation of the final master in a myriad of formats needed today. As Bob Katz says, “Respect The Data.” It’s easy to be careless with the technical details of things such as bit-depth and sample rate changes. These careless acts may not be immediately audible, but these issues can compound as your master travels down the line and distribution chain. — Justin Perkins, Mystery Room Mastering
  6. If you don’t have full range speakers, get a ‘Subpac’. The low end is where most home made masters suffer, and the subpac is a cost effective way to understand what’s going on down there. — Tom Frampton, Mastering The Mix
  7. De-ess your vocals properly. I hear more vocal sibilance ruining records than anything else. If you de-ess correctly then you will find your vocals sit much better and can be louder, not brighter. Bright vocals often ruin mixes and are impossible to turn into vinyl masters without re-visiting mixes and de-essing vocals. — Lewis Hopkin, Stardelta Audio Mastering
  8. Don’t be afraid to ask bands or engineers for a new mix (even if you think it might hurt some feelings or bruise some egos). The power of home recording allows a lot of bands to take a DIY route nowadays, which predictably leads to mastering engineers receiving subpar mixes now and then. Your job is to get the best end result for each artist, and if you think the way to do that is by fixing a crappy mix, then don’t be afraid to tell them why it’s crappy and how it can be corrected (in the interest of making it awesome)! — Bill Henderson, Azimuth Mastering
  9. Don’t use gear merely for the sake of using it. If a recording sounds great to start with, less is probably going to be more. If you don’t immediately hear anything that needs attention, start bringing the master levels up – anything subtle will begin to present itself more at that point. Remember that everyone hears things differently, and that your role is to help your client hear their recording the way they envision it. — James Plotkin, Plotkinworks
  10. Keep fit! Mastering requires concentration and focused listening, and exercise is proven to help your brain work better. It may sound like a silly, but you’re more likely to produce better work if you’re healthy and happy! — Katie Tavini, KatieTavini.co.uk

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