Mastering plugins to get your track sweet, wide and loud

mastering for musicians

OK, first of all my fellow pro engineers this post is not for you! Get to gearslutz if you want a lively discussion about dynamic range and how mastering has killed music… I don’t completely disagree with you there…

This post is for people who make their own music and aren’t quite at the point of paying a real mastering engineer but do want to release their music, either through a commercial platform like apple music, spotify etc, or just through youtube, soundcloud, bandcamp or direct downloads off their site…

I’m no mastering engineer by any stretch of the imagination but due to time and or budget constraints, or just the context of what I’m producing I have done plenty of ‘mastering’ of my own music.

In-case there is any confusion, let me briefly explain what I see mastering as:
Although there are several facets to it, overall, mastering aims to prepare the ‘master’ copy of a recording. Historically this process has been quite different depending on the final storage medium. Basically a vinyl master would differ from a tape master and eventually both of those would differ from a CD master, and now a digital master for streaming (mp3 or mp4 etc). The other side of this process was about maintaining consistency across an entire album of songs, both in terms of level and tone.
These days after the mainstream death of albums as well as vinyl, tape and even CD’s it seems to be that mastering has become more about two things. Translation across multiple playback systems and competing with other releases with respect to level.

For those guys that didn’t take their beef about dynamic range somewhere else and are still reading this, hopefully, we are beginning to see the end of the loudness wars now that the major streaming platforms are normalising everything to -14LUFS… so yes the level competition may be irrelevant…

A lot of engineers are anti automated or ‘AI’ type mastering solutions, maybe because they worry about losing work or because they understand that music is an art-form. It’s very difficult for an unemotional machine to process how a song makes you ‘feel’ and how to enhance that. However, I will point people to a tool that might work for your context or budget… LandR. the free option will give you 2 mp3 masters per month which may be enough for someone casually doing cover songs, YouTube vids etc. If you are a singer/songwriter and just need a little sweetening and loudness for your track then give LandR a try. Plus if you want to get your tracks onto iTunes, Spotify, Google Play + all other major services you can do so from as little as $1pm.

When you are ready to Do It Yourself, then here are a couple tools that you might need along the way.

A DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)

Of-course if you are making your own music then you probably have this already, but just in-case you are doing a live recording, or producing all of your content on a phone/tablet, then you might want to try something a little more flexible than Garageband!

If you are mastering for CD, then this is another ball game all together. Full DAW’s like Studio One Pro can do this or you can use a plugin like HOFA CD-Burn in another DAW but I haven’t used either…

I’ve used and liked Wavelab in the past especially if you want to make ‘gapless’ CD’s but I haven’t used it in like a decade… I don’t even have a CD burner any more. Anyway, check this video out and consider it if you have nothing else:

 

 

Otherwise even the most basic (like the ones that come with a soundcard or keyboard) or free versions of any major DAW can handle a stereo track at least, so if you are using Logic, Ableton or Cubase then you are good to go. I use Pro Tools because well, because I have it and I’m used to it, but just remember that while Pro Tools First is free, you can’t use any third party plugins (this is the same in Studio One) so if you are looking for a free solution, then check out Audacity if you are on Mac/Linux and Cakewalk if you are on windows…

Reaper is also great, but not technicaly free! Finally, if you use the Adobe Creative Cloud Suite, then you should have access to Audition which was technically the first audio software I ever used, back when it was Cool Edit Pro.

References

I highly recommend getting in to the habit of using a reference to guide you when mastering. It’s good to use them while mixing too, but remember that a lot of the mainstream music you might use as a reference has been slammed into a limiter to get it loud and this can create false expectations or at least an unhelpfuly high bar to reach. Nevertheless this is how you should try to use a reference. Find a track that you like that is similar to the one you are working on and bring it into your DAW alongside your track. Before you start listening, match the levels of the two tracks. If you don’t match the level, then the reference will always sound ‘better’ even if your mix/master is good.
Once you have the levels matched then A/B your track and the reference and pay attention to the following things:

1. Overall Tone
This is where a spectrum analyser can come in handy. I tend to always use the one in Ozone 5, again because I have it. Some DAW’s have a stock one, or have an analyser in the EQ like Logic does. Otherwise I’ll recommend you get Voxengo Span, It’s free and it also has some useful metering (which will come in handy when you are trying to match levels of your references)
The frequency response should be pretty even from 20Hz – 20kHz but listen to how bright the ref may be in comparision to yours, listen to the contrast in low end… ask yourself if any particular range of frequencies sticks out or is lacking in comparison to the ref.

2. Individual details
Depending on the genre of music there may be an emphasis on drums or low end, or the style might be quite busy and mid-range heavy, this is why it’s important to pick a reference in a similar style to your track. But regardless of genre, usually the vocal is one of the most important elements, so listen specifically to the lead vocal in the ref, both in terms of tone and width, then compare it to your own track. Then listen out for each of the other key elements, the drums/perc the lead instruments, remembering to note how they differ from yours.

At this point you may realise that you should have been using a reference while mixing and you need to go back to your mix and adjust the balance of things. If you are going to do this, I would recommend taking a break once you are done with the tweaks. After the break you can come back to the mastering stage. Check some advice on references from Dave Pensado:

Plugins

Modern DAW’s come with plenty of useable plugins for mastering these days, and you may not need anything else, but nevertheless Im going to list my go to plugins for mastering, many of which are free!

EQ – SWEET

I use 3 kinds of equalisers, each for different things.

1. Clean, surgical EQ:
You should have one EQ that is mostly ‘transparent.’ While many people recommend a ‘Linear Phase‘ plugin they aren’t necessary for this context (remember we are just DIY mastering our own music right now!) For this I use the good old Digidesign EQ III because its super clean! and for the most part the stock EQ in your DAW should be perfect for this also. Another good and free alternative which has the added benefit of a spectrum analyzer for those of us with silver ears is the Melda MEqualizer from their free bundle. (just keep the soft saturation down for this use)
Otherwise I also like the Waves Q10 for it’s super surgical hi-Q bands. (use my link and get 10% off: https://www.waves.com/r/yhezzv)

clean transparent mastering EQ

2. Character, analog EQ

If I feel that my track is needing ‘sweetening,’ then this is probably what I would try first…
This EQ is what you’ll use to make broad boosts or cuts to adjust the tone of your track, again this is where a reference comes in handy.

The plugins I like for this have some kind of ‘analog’ character to them, here are some free options:

Slick EQ – Make sure EQ sat is on and use the British mode for an SSL style EQ (narrow cuts and resonant shelf – i.e. a boost of the shelf creates a cut just below the shelf). Or the American mode for a Neve style (proportional Q i.e. boost gets narrow as you increase the gain).

BeeHappy 550 – I haven’t used this since there is no AAX (Pro Tools) version of it, but if you are looking for the ‘API’ style of EQ then give this free plugin a go.

Sonimus EQ – I like this for the drive alone, you don’t even have to boost or cut anything to get some warmth/saturation out of it.

PTEQ-X – Unfortunately there is no AAX version of this, but its a great Pultec emulation, great for improving the low end especially. The one I use is from Nomad Factory but it isn’t free…

Again I also like the Waves PuigTeq (use my link and get 10% off: https://www.waves.com/r/yhezzv)

3. Dynamic EQ

A dynamic EQ reacts to changes in level, It’s like having multiple narrow band compressors. I tend to use a dynamic EQ to address specific problems like boxiness/muddiness in the low end, harshness in the upper-mids or issues with ‘essing’ on vocals. The great thing about a dynamic EQ is that you can tame some of the mud without killing the warmth because you are effectively only Eq’ing when there is a build up at that frequency. You can achieve some of this with a multi-band compressor, and of-course if you want to you could automate an EQ or split sections of a song up and apply individual effects to that section for e.g. if there were issue just in the bridge you could put that on a separate track and EQ that differently to the rest.
There are technically some other free options and your DAW might have a stock one, but this is the only good one I know of:

TDR Nova – from the same guys who do Slick EQ, this plugin is literally rediculous for something that is free. If you only download one new plugin after reading this, this should be the one!

If you have a bit of spare cash, then the Waves F6 is excellent and actually makes a great clean EQ also so get the demo and check it out. (use my link and get 10% off: https://www.waves.com/r/yhezzv if you decide to buy it)

Imagers and Reverb- WIDE

Personally I don’t like using either of these at the mastering stage and since I’m generally working on my own music, if I feel that a track lacks width then I’ll go back and fix this in the mix. imagers, and especially reverb can often cause more problems than they are worth. If you do use a reverb, I tend to find a room/hall/plate with a short-ish decay time around 2s can work with a lot of EQ to prevent it muddying up the low end and poking out to much in the top end.
An imager can be useful to narrow the low end, I usually make everything below around 100Hz mono and sometimes add a bit of width only in the mid-range area but of-course you need a multi-band imager to do this easily.

iZotope offer a free version of their imager from their Ozone plugin which is ok. then another free option which i often use for the safe bass function is A1 Stereo Control. For reverb, you can try your stock reverbs or this free plate reverb from TAL.
 
I also like the Waves S1 for imaging… although I find its best at taking something from wide to super wide. (use my link and get 10% off: https://www.waves.com/r/yhezzv)

Compression – LOUD

Similar to EQ’s there are 3 basic kinds, clean compressors that  mostly just control the dynamics in a transparent way, character compressors that affect the tone, distort transients or ‘pump’ and finally multi-band compressors. To really get your track loud though, you will need a limiter, or sometimes called a maximiser. Make sure you have a good level meter, if you haven’t downloaded Span already, that will work, but also check out the Youlean Loudness Meter.

1. Clean, compressors and limiters:
The stock dynamics plugin in your DAW again probably fits the bill here, I often use the Digidesign Dyn-3 for this, but by far my favourite clean compressor, paid or free is the Kotelnikov from TDR. I tend to use a character compressor more often though…

For a maximiser you’ll also want to look for something very clean. If you are trying to get your track up to -7LUFS you are likely to be introducing plenty of distortion already so there is little need to add more by using a vintage limiter like an 1176 or LA2A for this. I tend to go for the limiter in Ozone for this, its difficult to find free limiters that have look ahead and true peak or inter-sample limiting. If you are looking for something free, have a look at Frontier from D16. With EDM or other bass heavy music I have most often found that I can get a master louder with the Waves L3 with it’s intelligent ‘multi-band’ limiting. (use my link and get 10% off: https://www.waves.com/r/yhezzv)

2. Character, compressors:
I like to use a bus compressor when I’m mixing, I have the Focusrite Red 3 which is great for a bit of ‘glue’ and I almost always mix with this on from the start, I don’t hit it hard, just 1-2dB of Gain Reduction. When I have worked on a friends track or I’ve needed to help a library track for a video then I often use an ‘analog’ style compressor to help glue a track together or maybe to try stop a vocal from poking out too much or tame some loud transients in a mix. When I use the term ‘character’ compressor, I’m referring to something with some analog modelling, some transient distortion or even some kind of noise to add to the character of a track.

I managed to get Bus Driver from Nomad Factory when it was free and I love it for this, It’s only $19 though from Don’t Crack. I like the tube saturation in it and often use it mainly for that and just a few dB of GR.

MJUC Jr – From Klanghelm who make several great free plugins, this is my favorite and most used plugin from them. It models a Vari-mu style of compression which is great on a mix bus as a gentle pillow for the dynamics…

Thrillseeker VBL – Only windows 32bit so I haven’t even tried this, but it’s another good free option if you are looking for the vari-mu sound.

DCAM FreeComp -The classic VCA bus compressor is  another great option, this free one was my go to until I got the Red 3, it’s modeled on the SSL bus compressor.

Molot – From vladg (or basically Tokyo Dawn) this is a great ‘dirty’ compressor although it can be a little confusing to use and doesn’t have an AAX version, It is most definitely not clean!

On a killer special at the moment, the Waves PuigChild is also a great vari-mu style compressor that I find great on hip-hop and other drum heavy genres. (use my link and get 10% off: https://www.waves.com/r/yhezzv)

3. Multi-band, compressors:
Another great way to shape a full mix that needs a bit of work to get it to translate better across multiple playback systems is a multi-band compressor. This can technically be achieved using filters to split up a track into several ‘bands’ of frequencies, then applying a normal compressor to each band and then summing the bands again so theoretically you can use any compressor for this, and certainly if you have something like Metaplugin or MB-7 then you could even achieve this in one plugin instance. However there are of-course some great plugins designed especially for this and here are the one that I frequently use for mastering.

Just recently released is version 9 of the all in one mastering plugin Ozone:

I love Ozone and I’ve been using it since v3. I’ll be brutally honest, I used to use a cracked version of it and decided that when I started making money off my music that it would be the first thing I bought. I bought v5 and I use it in literally almost every session, mastering or not.

If you are looking for an all in one solution for mastering that is powerful, flexible and intelligent, then Ozone is amazing!

McDSP ML4000 -includes a very transparent single band look ahead limiter, the ML4000 is a 4 band dynamics plugin that can be used as a gate, expander or compressor. Great for shaping overall tone of mixes…

Xfer OTT – Popular with EDM producers, OTT is a free multiband comp that you should definitely try out.

Limiter No6 – Also from VladG Sound, this is only a 2-band dynamic unit and technically a limiter and not just a compressor, however it is an interseting and free option…

Although superceeded by the C6, the Waves C4 is a great multi-band compressor that I also use on busses in a mix, especially in post. (use my link and get 10% off: https://www.waves.com/r/yhezzv)

 

Now you have the tools...

OK, so I’ve shown you all the tools you might need, now what to do!?

After you have used your reference, you should now have an idea of what you need to do… or try to do in order to get your track sounding more like a ‘record’ as they say. With your notes… or mental notes you can start to sculpt the master from your mix. One thing that you may notice about your reference is that the frequency response is quite even, there usually aren’t any huge holes from 20Hz to 20kHz depending on genre. Some styles of music are slightly more bass heavy, EDM etc and slightly lack midrange, while the more ‘live’ genres like rock tend to have a very full and often midrange heavy sound. Overall though, I find that the more even the frequency response is, the more likely the track will translate well to other systems.
Usually I go through this process:

1. Shaping tone
I often use the match EQ function, and/or an analyser to help me to find any specific problem frequencies that need to be cut out and where the track lacks something. Ideally this can be achieved with a few subtle moves and a bit of saturation. If a track needs a lot to get it there i try to do it in phases, using a slightly different tool each time so I may combine saturation, EQ, dynamic EQ and multi-band compression all to lift the top end for example. I find that the end result is better if I only do a little with each plugin.

2. Shaping dynamics
Often this is just a tiny bit of ‘bus’ compression just to glue everything in a mix together a bit better, but sometimes I’m trying to achieve more punch by accentuating the transients. This can also be an area where multiple tools can be used, and probably one of the most powerful of these is one that gets overlooked, basic audio editing… If necessary I will often cut up a track into it’s sections (intro, verse, chorus etc) and just use clip gain (or volume automation) to help create anticipation or improve a buildup or drop. Remember that a good song has movement, it has contrast. so don’t aim to just get a track to hit 0dB from start to finish.

I know that level is a constant debate among engineers and I’m probably going to get slammed for this post, especially by people who haven’t read the whole thing. My view is that people will almost always pick a louder song as the better one, so I have no problem with you wanting to get your track loud. Just know this… it takes a lot of finesse and skill to get a track really loud without killing the vibe. It’s so easy to destroy the life in a track when you squash the dynamic range out of it. I have the greatest of respect for the ME’s (mastering engineers) that manage to get tracks up to -7LUFS without them getting crunchy and distorted to hell. Trust me, their ability to do this is not just about having the right limiter and ‘giving in’ to the artist or label to push it that hard.

I guess I have the luxury that I most often work with music for video and there are quite strict standards on loudness so I seldom actually need to make something really loud… I would suggest that we all actually do the same and aim for our masters to hit around -14LUFS. If your music is going on Spotify or iTunes then it’s going to get turned down or up until it is at this level anyway.

I’d love to know if this article has helped you in anyway, leave a comment or find me on facebook and share your story.

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