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Mastering in 2020

by | 2 Nov 2020

Mastering seems to have come back into fashion. With the days of extreme loudness behind us and more of a movement towards dynamics how does mastering fit in to modern day productions? Do you need to master? Can you do it yourself? Davide Carbone discusses his approach to mastering in 2020.

With modern streaming sites and digital retailers employing LUFS (Loudness Unit Full Scale) as a method of standardising perceived volumes it’s now self defeating to push for crazy loudness. So more than ever, or at least for the last fifty years, it is important to respect and nurture dynamics in your music. This is best employed by a simple five step process:

1. Use EQ to get rid of what you don’t need. 

This step is about cutting some space into your mix. If your part doesn’t have bass then use a low cut to get rid of everything in the low end. There’s a reason the great mixing desks of the world have a 75Hz low cut on each channel!

My favourite EQ:

Fabfilter Pro Q3 https://www.fabfilter.com/products/pro-q-3-equalizer-plug-in

Most people will agree this is the nicest sounding EQ on the planet. They’re nice people too and offer educational pricing to students of School of Synthesis.

2. Employ FX and saturation to add colour and character

This is especially relevant in todays day and age of trying to sound different without having to reach for a limiter to slam your mix into oblivion. There are so many amazing plugins that emulate units that cost thousands of dollars only a decade or two ago.

My favourite effects and saturation units that can add nice colour:

Soundtoys Little Plate https://www.soundtoys.com/product/little-plate/

It’s a reverb but it just sounds so nice, so analogue and so colourful. bring down the decay and mix amounts! They too look after our students.

Vertigo VSM-3 https://www.plugin-alliance.com/en/products/vertigo_vsm-3.html

Elysia Karacter https://www.plugin-alliance.com/en/products/elysia_karacter.html

There are so many saturation plugins but it’s no surprise to me that my favourite ones are those that emulate real analogue units. Both of the above do exactly this but colour in a nice subtle way.

3. Use compression to control your dynamics and level out your mix

Gentle does it. Level out your mix by gently contouring your dynamics. You still need to hear and feel them but you just don’t need anything sticking out as it sounds unprofessional.

My favourite compressors:

Vertigo VSC2 https://www.plugin-alliance.com/en/products/vertigo_vsc-2.html

It would depend on what type of compression I am trying to employ – optical, VCA, FET etc. If I had to recommend an all round workhorse that does what step 3 should do then it would have to be the Mercedes of compression – The Vertigo VSC2. Mentions go to Logic’s native compressor and Ableton’s Glue which are both fantastic.

4. Check your mix across monitors, headphones and any other speakers to ensure balance

Self explanatory isn’t it? What sounds good on one set of speakers may not sound that great on another, but if you have a decent average then that is an indicator that all the instruments are sitting evenly in their place.

My favourite monitors and headphones:

Anything by ADAM Audio. For headphones Sennheiser, Aiaiai and Audio Technica.

Students – get in touch with us when planning to purchase and we will send you to the right place for an SOS student discount.


5. Mix for loudness!

By using a limiter, we can now push for however loud we want our track to be, but what is relevant in 2020 is that we can use a wide variety of limiters and analysers that tell us how loud our track in LUFS will be, or exactly what it will sound like on Youtube, Soundcloud, Spotify, Apple Music and just about any other medium you could think of. If you need to achieve maximum loudness for a live event or a DJ, you can do that at this last stage too.

In summary, you can master yourself. The reason why someone comes to me for mastering is they want to get that finish and sheen you can only get by running through lovely analogue circuitry and valves. As a mastering engineer there’s not much I can do to help you with steps 1-5, but I can certainly make it sound real nice if you’ve followed modern mixing and mastering techniques.

Protect your dynamics, then push for loudness!

My favourite limiters:

iZotope Ozone 9 Maximizer https://www.izotope.com/en/products/ozone/features/maximizer.html

Just great for retaining dynamics, giving us Peak, RMS and LUFS metering and just having so much flexibility and transparency.