When it comes to what goes on the master bus things can sometimes get a little confusing. What compressor to use, which EQ, what affects limiting has and whether any of these should be used at all.
With that in mind, we decided to dive in and pass forward our personal experiences. Every track is different so learning the principles and techniques are more important than copying settings.
When To Add Your Plug-ins
Now this one is out for debate but our personal experience has shown the best mixes comes from having your EQ and compression set up from the start. Adding compression and EQ at the end can have drastic effects on the balance, punch and vibe of a mix so working within these from the start can stop drastic decision from being made towards the end of your session.
Templates: Are a great way to save time. My personal one loads in an EQ with the HPF filter enabled, a tape machine plug-in (I like the bottom end bump) and a compressor that has a side-chain option.
Tip: Keep your master bus plug-ins on a separate screen – it’s easy to get excited and start slamming these by accident. Aim for 2-4db reduction at low rations.
Gain Staging – What does it mean?
Gain staging is basically controlling the level that’s being sent around your DAW or hardware. Ensuring the levels aren’t clipping plug ins, red lining your software or affecting your headroom is all important. In other words, look out for those red lights or VU’s / meters going over 0db.
Keep Your Master Fader at 0db.
Now this one is DAW dependant but a great rule of thumb is to keep the master fader at 0db when mixing. It can be super easy to turn this down, especially if you don’t have a volume control for your speakers but you can easily end up in a world of distorted pain at the end of the mix.
In Ableton Live, the master fader comes AFTER your plug-ins hence turning down the output might stop your session from clipping but the reality is you could easily be maxing out the plug-ins within your master chain and you’d never know.
We’re talking clipping EQ’s, compressors and more.
Eq can have incredible effects on your overall mix but be careful you don’t try and solve a poor mix by drastically Eq’ing the master. The master EQ is affecting the whole mix so your attempt to brighten the hi-hats could easily be adding harshness to synths and bringing out Esses’s in vocals. Think big picture.
We covered EQ in greater depth on our EQ blog post – Essential reading if you want to learn about which EQ to use, hi-passing for clarity and the effects of sub frequencies on mastering.
We all know the settings of a compressor but deciding on which ones to use can be tricky. First we must decide what we want the thing to do:
Slow Attack – This will let through your initial transients like kicks and snares then will clamp down on the tail of the sound. This can often ‘glue’ a track together.
Fast Attack – This will get triggered by your initial snare and kick transients. This can be incredibly effective in allowing you to push your drums but can easily cause your track to duck and lose impact as a by-product.
Release Times – Again this is often decided by what you want the compressor to do.
Fast Release – The comp quickly returns to 0 and is ready to go again – could cause pumping and artefacts.
Release In time with your track – can feel more natural but may struggle to move away from being in compression.
Adding a little saturation can add life and vibe to a mix but be careful about how much you use. Tape emulators, desk emulators and saturators can all do a good job but be careful. The wet/dry mix can really be your friend – start small.
And finally, the humble limiter. It’s probably time for some home truths about limiting. So, the first question is:
Are you mastering your own music?
Yes – Then the limiter is a must. Yes the limiter will flatten some transients but no, it’s doesn’t have to crush your mix and sound terrible. The limiter is just a 100:1 compressor and stops any transients from getting through and clipping.
Note: If you want to get a louder mix you’ll need to lower the dynamic range. If you snare is the loudest thing in the mix with the most energy it WILL remove some of that snare but that’s fine. It’s a tiny transient and is a necessary evil for increased gain – don’t worry.
No: Probably not going to be needed as you need to leave room for the mastering engineer – they won’t want to be dealing with cropped transients and limited wave forms.
The Touch Loops Team.