In this tutorial I'll help you to understand what is the most suitable equipment to purchase for a mastering studio.
The recommend equipment is divided into three types of mastering studio:
- Dedicated Home Studio: private use or just starting out
- Semi-Pro: part-time
- Pro: part-time to full-time
In this tutorial I'll show you the following equipment required in creating a mastering studio:
- Audio Interfaces
- Digital Audio Workstations
- Multiband Compressors
Additional Extras that you should consider:
- Harmonic Enhancers
- Audio Restoration Software
- Audio Editing Software
- Conversion Software
- DDP Software
- Power Conditioners
It’s worth noting that any equipment listed not appearing under the heading Pro doesn't mean that it wouldn’t be found in a high-end studio.
A Selection of Equipment
1. Audio Interfaces
An Audio Interface is used to connect equipment to a computer and improve its sonic qualities. As mastering engineer, the main reason for any given choice would be the quality of the analogue-to-digital and digital-to-analogue convertors.
Dedicated Home Studio: Focusrite Saffire Pro 26
The Saffire Pro is a great introduction into the world of audio interfaces. With the ability to work at 24-bit/96kHz, the provision of plenty of I/O’s and a quick and easy set up makes for a great first time investment.
Semi-Pro: Universal Audio Apollo
The Apollo provides access to impressive array of Universal Audio’s plug-ins. UA has successfully created dedicated plug-ins that is modeled on high-end mastering hardware.
Pro: Prism Sound Titan
The Titan’s A/D to D/A convertors are often described as unbeatable. The Titan provides tremendously clear conversion in the high end with excellent definition in the lows.
My advice: Pro’s might go a step further and invest in a dedicated A/D to D/A convertor to compliment the audio interface.
2. Digital Audio Workstation
A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is a software programme used to record the audio.
Dedicated Home Studio: Reaper
Reaper wasn't designed as a post-production DAW. However, it’s excellent for mastering duties due to its many features that include extensive rendering options and the ability to A/B seamlessly.
Semi-Pro: MAGIX Samplitude Pro X Suite
Samplitude Pro is an audio editing and mastering DAW. It comes with loudness metering tools and an encoder preview, useful when mastering for iTunes.
Pro: MAGIX Sequoia
Sequoia is the leading solution for a mastering engineer. It possesses extremely intelligent features. Highlights include its wide range of dithering types that can be monitored during the mastering process.
My personal favorite is its ability to add the dither only when needed. For example, the noise switches off during silence, often at the start/end or within a song.
My advice: No DAW excels in all areas. Take time demoing a range of DAWs to see what works best for your workflow and needs. Consider the most important aspects such as editing tools, export options and plug-in suite.
Equalizers are used for changing tonality and correcting problems. They're used subtly in the mastering process with EQ changes often no more then 3db.
A mastering engineer would require a stereo or dual mono EQ unless you're purchasing two equally matched mono equalizers.
Dedicated Home Studio (plug-ins): FabFilter Pro-Q or TDR SlickEQ M
The Pro-Q has become a popular choice for a plug-in EQ. FabFilter have made EQing problematic frequencies quicker and more accurate due to its stunning visual display, the ability to solo an EQ band and a feature called spectrum grab.
The SlickEQ is has been specifically designed for the mastering engineer. It has some excellent features, one being the ability to easily alter the stereo width and balance of individual bands.
Semi-Pro (hardware): Elysia XFilter or TK Audio TK-lizer
The XFliter is linked stereo equalizer. It has a feature titled passive massage that is used in creating a high-end sheen.The EQ doesn't have stepped pots, allowing control of the full range of frequencies.
The TK-lizer is a mid/side equalizer allowing you to solo and manipulate the mono or stereo information independently. This EQ has stepped controls that are ideal for keeping the L/R changes the same when required.
Pro (hardware): Manley Massive Passive
The Massive Passive is probably the most common M/S equalizer found in a pro mastering studio. It’s well known for its broad mid range, which is ideal for rock music. The unit adds a desired colour from just engaging it.
My advice: An analogue eq is often better for adjusting tone, whilst a digital one is preferred for attenuating problematic frequencies.
Compressors are used to control the dynamic range of the audio. As with EQ’s, a mastering engineer would require a stereo or dual mono compressor.
Dedicated Home Studio (plug-ins): FabFilter Pro-C or TDR Kotelnikov GE
The Pro-C is an attractive and intuitive plug-in that can give far more visually feedback then an analogue compressor. It can be model itself on various compressor styles.
The Kotelnikov offers a lot of control. With features like equal loudness bypass and the ability to solo just the compression makes this a highly intelligent plug-in.
Semi-Pro (hardware): Elysia Xpressor or TK Audio BC1
The Xpressor has a reputation of being a flexible compressor allowing you to dial in precise settings. The frequency selective sidechain filter is a useful in allowing you to dial in exactly how much low end you want uncompressed. The warm mode button is useful too in quickly adding colour to the compressor.
The BC1 has a useful blend option for parallel compression. It’s extremely transparent without extreme settings, which can be useful for gluing a mix together. Another characteristic is its punch, which can work well on dance or drum heavy music.
Pro (hardware): API 2500
2500 provides many features for a hardware compressor. Aside from the standard compressor options, the API has a soft/hard knee setting, make-up-gain ideal for A/B testing, and the ability to engage the compressor without engaging the settings, which is ideal for adding colour.
Mydvice: If you’re investing in an analogue compressor, take time to research the different gain-control elements like VCA, Variable Mu, FET, Opto and their different sound characteristics.
5. Multiband Compressors
A multi-band compressor allows for compression to be added to a specific frequency band.
Dedicated Home Studio (plug-ins): VMS Multi-Band Compressor or TDR Nova—Gentleman’s Edition
Look no further then the VMS Multi-Band Compressor if visual feedback is your priority. The VMS has pre and post compression analyzers and oscilloscopes that can read the difference between them.
The Nova GE can be easily used as an expander, which is useful in increasing dynamic range in overly compressed audio.
Semi Pro (plug-in): Blue Cat’s MB-5 Dynamix
The MB-5 Dynamix has some great features which include a wet/dry feature which is rare on a multiband compressor. It can also be used as a limiter too.
Pro (hardware): Tube Tech SMC 2B
The Tube Tech SMC is a 3-band analogue compressor, which can also be used as a de-esser. The SMC has a desired colour just from engaging the unit.
Limiters are used to limiter the peak of the audio once it reaches a threshold. You will always find one placed at the end of a mastering engineers equipment chain.
Dedicated Home Studio (plug-ins): FabFilter Pro-L or Voxengo Elephant
The Pro-L has an attractive and useful metering display, which shows inter-sample peak information. It’s quick and easy to get a starting point using the limiter styles feature.
The Elephant has a wide range of modes providing distinctive algorithms for any mastering occasion. The Elephant includes a useful DC filter to remove unwanted frequencies in the low end as a result of DC offset.
Semi-Pro (plug-ins): DMG Audio Limitless or PSP Xenon
The Limitless is considered to be the most advanced plug-in limiter available. It’s one of the few limiters that can be used in multi-band mode. It has two release times, one for the transients and one for dynamics allowing for greater volume in your masters.
PSP Xeon has a reputation for being one of the most transparent limiters making it ideal for acoustic music. The dither options allow for dither to switch off automatically when total silence is detected in the file.
Pro (hardware): Maselec MPL-2
The MPL-2 is a brick wall limiter that can be used as a de-esser with its ability to control the threshold for the high frequencies only. The limiter is well suited to dance and RnB.
Advice: Most people favor digital limiting over analogue for its ability to be more precise and safer. However, some people prefer the colour that an analogue limiter can provide.
Studio Monitors will likely be your most valued asset in terms of cost and importance. They can be divided into three types:
- mid-field, and
...with most pro studios using the latter.
Dedicated Home Studio: KRK Rokit RP10-3
RP10 3-ways are considered to be the best mid-field monitors for value for money. You can set these speakers vertical of horizontal, making them ideal for a small studio.
Semi-Pro: Unity Audio The Boulder MK II
The boulders are a large mid-field speaker with two bass drivers, helping them go down as for as 33Hz. You can work on these for long hours without the ears becoming fatigued.
Pro: Dunlavy SCIV
The SCIVs are full-range speakers and were originally designed for home hi-fi use, but have become a very popular in high-end mastering studios. This is due to their reputation of being extremely flat, whilst having the ability to go down to 27Hz.
- Most full-range monitors are passive. As a result of this you will need to budget for a high-quality amplifier manufactured by Pass Labs or Bryston for example.
- For mid-field monitors, a subwoofer should be purchased.
- Near-fields for mastering are not suitable on their own.
- In addition to all, invest in reference monitors with limited bandwidth like the Avantone MixCubes, found in both home and pro studios.
8. Additional Extras
Enhancers can help bring colour and excitement to your masters. They’re ideal for music that has been mixed in the box or analogue equipment that is clean and transparent in character.
- Sonnox Oxford Inflator (Digital)
- Thermionic Culture Vulture (Analogue)
My advice: Harmonic enhancers work best when used subtly.
Using headphones, as a reference is not uncommon. ‘Open back’ headphones are the preferred option for mastering.
- Sennheiser HD-650
- AKG K-702
My advice: You may need to purchase a headphone amplifier, as often the volume on open back headphones can be quite low.
Audio cables are necessary for connecting analogue equipment. They are many types of cables but the most common in a mastering studio is the XLR.
My advice: When possible, keep the cables short. The shorter the cable, the better the signal.
Analyzers have come along way in recent years with their ability to present far more then just frequency information in a visually attractive way.
- Flux Pure Essential Analyzer
- Brainworx bx_meter (dynamic range)
- Voxengo SPAN (frequency spectrum)
My advice: Analyzers are useful at helping us identify problematic frequencies but don’t say anything with regards to tonal adjustments. Remember the rule, ‘don't master music with your eyes’. Analyzers should be used a reference only.
Noise Reduction Software
Noise reduction software is designed to remove artefacts like hiss, clicks and pops from the audio.
- WAVES Restoration
- Zynaptiq Repair
My advice: Remove any artefacts before mastering.
Audio Editing Software
Once the master is complete, the engineer will often proceed onto editing the audio. This could include trimming, fades and segues.
- Audiofile Triumph
My advice: Audio editing software is the perfect tool for auditioning the order of the songs and the space between them.
Conversion Software (sample/bit rate)
Converting sample/bit rate in your DAW can be the quickest option but not always the best in terms of quality.
- Voxengo r8brain
- Audiofile Myriad
My advice: You may find SRC Comparisons helpful when comparing one conversion software against another.
Ideal for CD duplication due to its 100% accuracy. Text information can be added like artist’s name, song titles and ISRC codes to help retrieve royalties.
- Sonoris DDP Creator
- Hofa CD-Burn & DDP
My advice: Both mastering engineers and pressing plants recommend a DDP image for CD replication. Offering a DDP for your clients could seal you the deal of becoming their mastering engineer.
Your investment needs protecting. A power conditioner contains a circuit breaker protecting your equipment from multiple electricity surges. Other benefits include fewer power sockets needed.
- Furman M-10X E
- Samson Powerbrite PB10
My advice: Power conditioners don't just protect against surges. Other aspects could include noise filtering and isolated outputs to protect against hum.
Equipment is useless if you don't have the skills to use it.
- Mastering Audio: the Art and the Science by Bob Katz
- Audio Mastering by Jonathan Wyner
My advice: Investing in a good book could well be your best investment.
Making the leap into starting a studio of any kind can be a costly and timely adventure.
My top three tips:
- Gradually build your studio;
- Spend time researching equipment through forums; and
- Demo equipment to see what works best for you in terms of workflow, inspiration and needs.
If you get this right, you could be making a profit from expressing your talent whilst working for yourself—aka Living the Dream.