As the new Props application Record offers a great buss compressor and full mastering suite I thought it would be useful to show a typical mastering set up and the workflow involved when mastering and delivering a new project.
Although this tutorial has been completed in Record, similar results can be achieved in Reason as the MClass mastering suite is available in both programs. Obviously Reasons lack of audio playback may mean a small workaround but we'll take a look at this as we progress.
Step 1 - Your Finished Mix
There are a couple of ways you can attack mastering your project in Record. You can either export your entire project into a stereo file and bring this into a new 'mastering' project, or the project can be mastered on the fly.
The second approach simply involves strapping your mastering processors across your active project and either tweaking them as you go, or spending time at the end of the track perfecting the sound. Although this can be a useful approach for quickly previewing the project with some processing applied, I tend to prefer starting a new project and importing the dry mix as a stereo file.
The unmastered project.
This method may seem like its a little more work but it separates the writing and mastering processes as two clearly defined parts of your workflow. It also keeps the mastering project clear and uncluttered, you will also find that your CPU headroom is greatly increased using this technique. For the record I tend to use this approach regardless of the DAW I am using to write or master in.
So first up let's get our project exported. Ensure that there are no mastering processors active on the master output. It's also a good move to disable Record's master buss compressor here as we will use it in the mastering process. Remember the less processing your apply to your master now the more freedom you will have to change your mind at a later stage. This untreated file will also be perfect if you need to submit your track for mastering at another studio.
If you wanted to attempt mastering in Reason using this method, which isn't an ideal scenario, you can load your unmastered tracks into a sampler and trigger them with one continuous midi note. To be totally honest if you are a Reason user it is much easier to master your track on the fly and have the mastering devices loaded throughout your project.
The unmastered audio:
Step 2 - Setting Up Your Mastering Project
First of all start with a blank Record project, This is achieved by either deleting any devices present or using the blank template option in the preferences. Now simply add an audio track, this is the track that will contain our unmastered mix.
The new blank project.
You can now import the unmastered stereo file onto the new track we just created. With the channel and master fader at 0db, the track should play back at exactly the same level as it did on export. In fact this will be a mirror image of your file in every respect. If it's not then something has probably gone wrong at export and you should go back and check your settings.
The imported unmastered track.
With everything playing back correctly we are ready to start applying some processing to our file. Before we get into the next stage this an ideal point at which to save your project so that any changes are not lost to the abyss!
Step 3 - Buss Compression
Buss compression is a really important part of a achieving a great final master and luckily Record is very well equipped for this process. Records mixer is actually modelled on an SSL series 9000 console and faithful to the original it features it's famous master buss compressor.
Record's master buss compressor is a pretty simple device and if you have even basic experience with compressors then the controls should be immediately familiar. There is a ratio, threshold attack and release controls here so nothing overly complex to get your head round.
Record's master buss compressor.
As with most mastering treatments we are looking at broad, wide brushstrokes. In mixing you may use pretty extreme compression settings to achieve creative effects or to fix problem audio files but in mastering we should be thinking about subtle settings that enhance rather than 'fix'. This means using a certain amount of restraint and remember that mastering is all about adding that last 5-10% to a mix. Even great mastering won't make a bad track good.
With all this serious stuff in mind you can try to apply around 3 or 4 db of compression to your master. You will best off using low ratios and reasonably slow attack and release times. This will ensure that you don't generate any unwanted pumping artefacts.
The settings used for the demo track.
You will notice that the buss compressor's controls move in 'notches' as opposed to a smooth continuos motion like other processors. This is common in professional mastering processors and allows better recall in settings, you will also find the points available are very musical and often work perfectly in the mix.
The general idea of using a compressor across your whole mix is that you create a finished track with a more even dynamic signature. (i.e. with less difference between loud and quiet sections). Buss compression is also famous for acting as a sort of 'audio glue', creating a cohesion between instruments which may sound slightly disconnected.
If you are very new to the concept of buss compression you could try reading a tutorial I have already written on the subject.
As many of you will already be aware there is another compressor in Record and Reason that is up to the job of performing master buss compression. The MClass compressor is perfect for the task and has another clear, easy to use interface.
The Mclass compressor.
To use the Mclass compressor or any other mastering device we have to use them as master inserts. The next step will look at how we can set up our own custom mastering chains using this method.
The audio with some basic buss compression:
Step 4 - Inserting Mastering Processors
Of course it is likely that we will need more than just a buss compressor to get a polished sound, so let's look at how we add more mastering processors to our project.
The master section of Record is really just a Combinator in disguise, it is capable of housing as many devices (or inserts) as you like. In this case we want to build a mastering chain so we will be using two or three of the Mclass devices here.
Record's master insert section.
There are a few ways to get the processors into the master insert section. An easy way is to use preset mastering chains, this is achieved by using the disc symbol in the master insert section on the main mixer. The browser will pop up and show you a decent list of preset chains for specific mastering scenarios.
Although using pre sets is quick and convenient I think its always best to understand whats going on under the hood. With this in mind lets insert our own devices.
On the master channel in the rack you should see a button called 'show inserts', click this and a new open space should appear at the bottom of the Combinator. By simply right clicking when in this blank space you can create new devices and they will automatically be routed to the master output. Using this method we'll add one device at a time.
Inserting processors in the master section.
Step 5 - Equalisation
So as we already have Record's buss compressor taking care of our mixes dynamics but if we want to brighten things a touch or clean up our bottom end we will need some EQ, the Mclass equaliser is perfect for this. Again the focus here is on quality not complexity, so no one should really have a problem with the controls.
The Mclass Equaliser.
The first thing to do is engage the low cut filter. This gets rid of anything below 30hz, reducing rogue subsonics and allowing more signal to pass into our subsequent processors in the chain and ultimately this will allow a high perceived volume in our master.
Now whether you are adding some upper mids to your mix or cutting a bit of low mid you should keep things subtle. As I mentioned earlier broad wide strokes are the name of the game, so low low Q values and no more than about 3 or 4db of gain on any one frequency. This will avoid coloration and stop your mix sounding hyped.
Bottom line is if you are having to add or remove huge amounts of any one frequency, you need to go back to the mix to see why!
A bit of Mild EQ:
Step 6 - Stereo Enhancement
There's nothing like a nice wide master, it adds interest and depth to your sound and can give the track a great sheen. Saying all that, this really is one area where you have to tread carefully and employ the right amount of control.
Using the Mclass stereo imager device we can add just the right amount of width in just the right places. It's really just a case of choosing the right crossover frequency here. The device employs two separate bands of processing, which have independent width controls.
The Mclass stereo imager.
With your upper band chosen (it helps to use the solo buttons to isolate the correct instruments) you can start to add some width. The lower band should really be left as is, or you can even make it slightly more mono. This will ensure your all important low frequency parts, such as your bass and kick are left untouched.
Some light stereo expansion:
Step 7 - Limiting and Exporting the Final Master
"Louder, make it louder" ... well louder it is. The Mclass maximiser is a limiter dedicated to art of loudness. It's really just a typical brick wall limiter with a really cool soft saturation circuit clamped on for good measure.
The Mclass Maximizer.
By simply setting your desired output ceiling you can drive the input to create a denser and louder signal. Try using long attack and release times to avoid any pumping effects. If in doubt opt for the auto release feature. This really is a simple processor so you should be making super loud mixes in no time ... not that this is necessarily a good thing, but I'm sure many of you will do it anyway.
In all seriousness try not to go too much over around 3-4db of gain reduction here. You will know if its too loud as you will start to bleed from the ears or pass out. Try to keep some of the dynamic response of your tune, as music is supposed to be a dynamic medium!
The beauty of Record's mixer and audio support is that you can import multiple version of your mix, maybe containing different takes etc and quickly audition them. Parallel compression and multiple instances of the same track in your mastering project is also easily attainable ... but this is perhaps another tutorial !
The final master settings.
The finished mastered audio:
- Record Source File
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