January 13th, 2015 by admin

I often get asked what plugins I use for mastering. With so many options available today, it can be difficult to narrow it down to just a few. I would love to name everything I use, but the list would easily exceed over 20 plugins. However, I managed to put together a small list of essential plugins I use regularly during my mixing and mastering sessions.

DISCLAIMER:

The list here is in no particular order as each plugin is used for different purposes and scenarios. If you don’t know when or where to use these plugins, you can do more harm to your track than good. These plugins alone will not improve your mix.

Right, so let’s get on with it.

Fabfilter Pro-Q – ($199 – Demo | Purchase)

Fabfilter Pro-Q

Fabfilter Pro-Q

Although this EQ is relatively new to my toolbox, I have found myself using it more and more. I immediately knew why it is a go-to for many top producers after using it. I like that it is very transparent! Meaning; you can hear EQ changes of just +/- .33db. That comes in handy when trying to make very small adjustments, unlike most other EQ’s I have used.

Also, it has a post-EQ/pre-EQ spectrum analyzer for visually monitoring what the EQ is actually affecting, and for making precise adjustments. Another feature I like is that it doesn’t add any extra db volume like some EQ’s do. I have not tried the updated Fabfilter 2, but I hear good things. I’m good with this for now.

 Why I Like It:

  • Very Transparent
  • Color coordinated for making precise adjustments easy.
  • A/B Toggle between two EQ settings
  • Mid/Side and Left/Right Mode
  • Pre EQ AND Post EQ spectrum Analyzer
  • No Added DB

WAVES PuigTec EQ – ($250 – Demo | Purchase)

PuigTec EQP-1A

PuigTec EQP-1A

I mostly use this for low-end balance. It has a nice attenuation knob that sort of sucks the low end out like a vacuum and then the boost knob to adjust the volume at which the frequency knob is set. I don’t use it much for anything else, but I really like the way it helps me control the low-end balance on my tracks. When you have a good combo of the attenuation:boost ratio, it just sounds warm and fat!

 Izotope Ozone 5 Imager – ($250 – Demo | Purchase)

Izotope Ozone 5 Stereo Imager

Izotope Ozone 5 Stereo Imager

Best stereo imager I’ve used to date. Period. This tool lets you control the stereo image of 4 separate bands. For example, I can put everything below 180hz in mono, saving lots of space in the stereo field, while adding width to everything above 8500Khz giving that extra high-end shine. Need I say more?

To use Ozone Imager, you will have to buy the Ozone 6 Bundle now, as 5 is no longer available. I have not used v6.0 yet, however.

SSL G Master Buss Compressor – (Available Only in WAVES SSL 4000 Collection $650 – Demo | Purchase)

WAVES SSL G Master Bus Compressor

WAVES SSL G Master Bus Compressor

A buss compressor capable of giving an entire mix or groups of tracks a little compression without over-doing it. Breathes life into your drums or mixes with little effort. Has a side-chain feature that comes in handy. 2:1, 4:1, and 10:1 ratio options.

Fabfilter Pro-L – ($229 – Demo | Purchase)

Fabfilter Pro-L

Fabfilter Pro-L

My search for a good limiter ended when I started using this. The dithering features are easy to understand, and the advanced features are intuitive. I can usually squeeze a little more loudness out of a track without damaging the dynamics by playing with the attack and release. It’s very transparent like it’s Pro-Q sibling.

You can see exactly what parts of the track are clipping by looking at the gain reduction meter and graph. Plus, it has A/B option for comparing 2 different settings.

PSP Vintage Warmer ($149 – Demo | Purchase)

Vintage Warmer 2

Vintage Warmer 2

I know many producers in the industry who swear by this tool. Basically, it is a limiter with stereo/mono options and EQ. I love throwing this on small kicks and making them sound huge. Or even for the simple things like ensuring kicks and basses are playing in mono. The learning curve is a little more difficult, however, and takes practice to use it.

Nomad Factory Magnetic ii – ($129 – Demo | Purchase)

Nomad Factory Magnetic ii

Nomad Factory Magnetic ii

What an incredible tool this is. It does a great job of emulating reel-to-reel tape compression to give a track warmth and tape color to individual tracks, groups of drums, vocals, and even whole mixes. The big knobs make it easy to use. And it has a tape saturation feature, which I find very useful for when a track needs a little added grit.

Also, I can adjust the balance between the lows and highs in a wide-band setting for making high-low balance to a master very easy to do without making dramatic changes to the rest of the chain. Can be easy to over-use if not careful.

Lastly, it has several different tape machine algorithm’s to choose from that emulates the sound of many famous reel-to-reel tape machines.

Brainworx BX Digital V2 – ($329 – Demo | Purchase)

Brainworx BX Digital V2

Brainworx BX Digital V2

State-of-the-art digital mastering processor that provides you with a mastering class 11-band equalizer, M/S De-Esser, Mono-Maker and intelligent Bass- and Presence-Shifters, plus extra M/S features, such as Pan for M&S, and Stereo Width Control

I particularly like this plugin because I can solo a specific frequency, which makes finding harsh frequencies a breeze. If I hear a bad frequency in a track where there’s just too much of a particular frequency that shouldn’t be there, I can pinpoint it with ease, and instantly adjust the EQ accordingly.

After using it you will see why Future Music UK called it “Plugin Of The Decade.”

Voxengo Span – (Free – Demo | Purchase)

Voxengo Span

Voxengo Span

 Last but not certainly not least, Voxengo Span. I use it for two reasons:

  1. Spectrum Analysis: It has a lot of options to adjust it how you want it to look and behave. It also has a full screen option, which I like very much. Have you ever noticed that most spectrum analyzers have small screens? Kind of defeats it’s own purpose in my opinion.
  2. Loudness Metering: SPAN displays level metering statistics, headroom estimation and clipping detection.

Best of all, it’s free.

What kind of Go-To Plugin VST’s or AU’s do you use? Are there any plugins I left out? I am always interested in trying out new products.

Please leave your suggestions and comments below!

November 24th, 2014 by admin

As a mastering engineer of several years, I’ve seen a lot of music come through my studio. As a result, I’ve noticed many critical mistakes producers often make in their productions. So I put together a list the 6 most common mistakes I see producers make, and how you can avoid them.

By avoiding these pitfalls you will look more professional, cut email exchanges with engineers in half, train your ears, and you will know what to look out for in future productions.

1. Producing with the Limiter On
This is one of the biggest mistakes I see. Producers who do this are usually compensating for what they lack in production experience. I know, I know, the track just doesn’t sound big enough, so you add the limiter on the end because it sounds better.

But what you’re actually doing is ruining any chance of successful post-production work because the dynamics get squashed.

It is very hard to reverse the damage caused by a limiter once it has been added. It is usually best to avoid a limiter altogether instead of slapping it on the end of your master output. A limiter should be added as the last processing tool during mastering.

If using a limiter is necessary, just use a compressor with a small ratio (2:1) and small threshold. Again, IF NECESSARY.

2. Exporting Above 0db (Not Mixing Below 0db)
This one I see quite often. When you export your track, it is imperative that the signal does not exceed 0db. When I review a track and see that it does not have any headroom, it is because of 1 of 3 reasons.

a) It was produced with the limiter on (see above)
b) It was exported too loudly.
c) Both. Yikes!

Make sure when you’re producing your track, that the levels on the master channel have clear headroom.

What is headroom you ask? Headroom is the difference of space between the highest peak volume of your track and 0db. Usually, the more headroom, the better for post-production purposes.

3. Producing With The Master Fader Turned Down
I have been here before. You start your track with a kick and you want it to slam, so you turn the volume of the kick up, and turn the master channel down so you have room to add additional elements.

As you start adding more elements you notice that you keep running out of headroom, so you keep turning the master channel down. This technique will lead to tracks that are quiet at the beginning, but way too loud during the second half of the track.

Instead, try leave the master volume at 0db. Fight the urge to move that S.O.B. at any time. Do all your mixing before it hits the master channel and focus on the levels of your instruments.

If I start with a kick, I turn that channel down about -10db, and if I need to adjust the volume I will avoid the master fader volume and instead use the volume knob on my audio interface. I will say it once more. Leave the master fader volume at 0db.

If your levels go above 0db, then you have to mix your project down better so that it does not hit 0db.

4. Exporting in 16bit Without Dithering
You produced everything great! The track looks great! The waveform looks great! Sounds great! Everything is great! Then…. I see a big fat 16bit format.

This is a problem because if your stems are 24bit, and you exported to 16bit without dithering, you’ve just lost 8 bits of information. Gone. Period. Poof up in smoke!

And you will usually hear that in the master version once it is ready (or not ready) for distribution.

Do yourself a favor and check that you export in 24bit or higher if you plan to have any post-work done (mastering). Dithering should be the last step of the mastering process and should only be done once. (See dithering).

5. Cutting Off The End of your track during export.
Indeed, you’ve done everything right. However, the reverb/delay at the end of your track gets cutoff. When I ask a client to double check, they’ve indeed cutoff the end of the track by accident.

This happens because your DAW will export until the end of the last audio clip by default, and will not export any additional audio unless you tell it to do so.

Double check the IN/OUT points when exporting. You’re DAW will tell you exactly what point your track will start AND stop exporting. So export additional time just in case.

6. Not Exporting The Beginning Properly
This one comes up a lot, although not as common. The very beginning of your track starts with a kick, but the first kick sounds quiet compared to the rest of the kicks throughout the track.

It’s usually because the full length of the kick is not being exported due to the IN point being too soon. If that is the case, the rest of the kicks are the same way. For example, at a big drop or after a downtime.

Often times a kick sample is not precisely at the beginning of the track, and actually starts a fraction before. So examine that first kick like it’s under a microscope.

You might have to move your entire track up a fraction and export accordingly.

I hope this has helped you have a better idea of some common mistakes that producers make. If you avoid these you will be on the fast track to becoming a better producer.

 

Get Mastering

 

April 8th, 2014 by admin

While mastering has been somewhat of an expanded service over the years, there seems to a lot of confusion over some topics surrounding this important stage of the production process. Being a mastering engineer allows me to explain such misconceptions. Here’s a list of 9 Common Myths About Audio Mastering – Explained.

1. The Louder The Better

This is simply not true! Loudness is not desirable if it means sacrificing sonic integrity. This means pushing your track so loud that it eliminates all your dynamics in the track.

This can be fatiguing to the ear and have a negative effect on listening when doing so for an extended period of time. Use your volume knob. That’s what it’s there for, after-all.

2. Mastering Will Make A Bad Mix Into a Good Mix

Sadly, a poorly mixed track will almost always remain so. In mastering it is very difficult to isolate specific frequencies without affecting all the instruments.

For this reason, it is vital that a mix-down be mixed as best as possible before going into the mastering stage. That means getting the right tone and instruments balanced 110% before sending out for mastering.

3. Mastering Is The “Dark Art” of Making Music

Mastering is considered by most to be mysterious and therefore nobody wants to approach it. However, with experience, reaching sonic accuracy is just knowing what needs to be done to produce the best results.

This doesn’t mean start mastering your tracks by yourself. Which leads me to the next point.

4. I Can Master My Music Myself

It can be difficult to be objective toward your own music! Especially if you master your track in the same listening environment that it was produced in.

For those reasons, it’s better to leave it up to someone with fresh ears, who can be objective, and has the experience mastering tracks. Even top-end mixing studios will have their music sent out for mastering.

5. All the Mastering Engineer Does Is Add A Limiter

Making a track loud is just one part of mastering. An experienced engineer will do his best to ensure the best listening experience.

This can include, but not limited to: Editing & Fades, Track to Track Spacing, Hum & Hiss removal, Stereo Width, Surgical EQ, Tonal EQ, Compression/Parallel Compression, Adjusting the volumes of tracks to match so the whole project feels like a smooth listening experience, ISRC Codes and CD Text just to name a few!

6. Mastering Costs Too Much

Some mastering engineers can be insanely expensive, and rightfully so. They have decades of experience recording the best bands with the most expensive gear. There are also ones with wide varying ranges of experience, equipment, prices, and quality of work.

It is best that you find one that matches your budget and one you’re happy with!

7. Mastering Needs At Least -3db Headroom

I hear this all the time. The truth is, a good engineer will correct any volume issues before it goes into the mastering chain.

I prefer to work with as much signal as possible. Meaning that I like the audio to be as loud as possible before clipping (At 24bits). Then, during the mastering process I will turn the volume down to a preferable level before it goes into my chain.

Anything below -10db in volume I’m afraid might be losing signal and you should aim to submit mixes louder than -10db, but not reaching or exceeding 0db.

8. Mastering Isn’t Required For All Tracks

Actually this one is probably the most true, depending on how satisfied you are with your mix-down. Sometimes mixes come in that are near perfect, and in that case, doing adjustments like EQ, Compression can actually harm the audio.

It’s worth remembering that you should never underestimate a fresh perspective from an objective and experienced set of ears.

9. You Need Top Of The Line Gear

This is false. You need the correct gear and correct ears to make a quality master. In addition, with the options available today in digital music, it is entirely possible to make quality masters on a budget.

Instead, invest in listening, and new techniques, and understanding of good sounding recordings.

Conclusion

Hopefully this list helps to dispel any myths about audio mastering, and serves to clear up any confusion you might have.

What other myths do you guys hear about? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

February 25th, 2013 by admin

Although dithering is an important step of the mastering process, knowing how to use it, when to use it, and why you should use it will improve your recordings and final mastered audio files.

What Is Dither?

Dither is low volume noise, introduced into digital audio when converting from a higher bit-resolution to a lower bit-resolution.

The process of reducing bit-resolution causes quantization errors, also known as truncation distortion, which if not prevented, can sound very unpleasant.

To understand this better, we must understand bit-depth.

What Is Bit-Depth?

In the digital audio domain, bit-depth is what defines the number of measurement values to describe the amplitude of a single audio sample. Each bit effectively represents 6db of dynamic range.

For example, a recording made at 24bit-resolution would have a potential range of 144db. (See figures 1-2 below).

Dithering (Figure 1)

Dithering (Figure 1)

Dithering (Figure 2)

Dithering (Figure 2)

 

Truncation Distortion

As one reduces the bit-depth, such as from a 24bit-resolution sample to a 16bit-resolution sample, you are reducing the number of values available to measure the amplitude of any given sample.

In other words you now have less values available to describe the dynamic range of your audio. (see figures 3-4 below).

Dithering (Figure 3)

Dithering (Figure 3)

Dithering (Figure 4)

Dithering (Figure 4)

As a result, certain values that are no longer there will be forcibly rounded off to the next closest value.

This truncation results in the loss of very low signal levels, and the creation of audible distortion where the values have been rounded, squaring off the waveform. (see figures 5-6 below).

Dithering (Figure 5)

Here is a 16bit audio file with a line drawn in the middle showing where the audio would be before it was converted from 24bit. (Figure 5)

Dithering (Figure 6)

This illustrates the truncation distortion where the audio is forcibly bent to the nearest bit. (Figure 6)

 

How Does Dither Prevent This?

If you apply dither to a silent audio file, and turn the volume way up, you can hear the sound of dither alone.

You might even see this visually if you add an EQ to the end of your production chain and see the noise moving around even though there is no audio coming from the speakers.

Introducing this subtle noise to an audio file prior to reducing the bit-depth eliminates the truncation distortion. You are in effect trading the distortion for noise.

Given this information, one could determine that the use of dithering on a 24bit sample, and exporting in 24bit or higher resolution bit-depth would be ineffective, as there is nothing being replaced with noise, and is only necessary when down-converting to a lower bit-depth.

The Computer Screen Analogy

To help better understand dithering, I like to use the hand over your computer monitor analogy. How it works is you start by holding your hand over your computer monitor.

Notice that you can see your computer monitor perfectly with the exception of the block where your hand is.

Now, if you wave your hand rapidly back and forth from left to right across the screen (applying dither), it allows you to see the entire screen as apposed to blocks of the screen.

Why Dither?

Now that you have a better understanding of what dithering is, you might be asking yourself, “why dither?” Especially if you can just keep your 24bit-resolution file and avoid dithering altogether.

The answer is simple; all finished, mastered audio files are 16bit. Although 24bit is a higher quality sound with more audio detail, and eliminates truncation distortion altogether, the reality is that 90% of all playback devices are 44100/16bit.

Which means if you try and play a 24bit audio file through one of these 16bit playback devices, it will sound like shit.

In this regard, you should keep the consistency of bit-depth throughout your production process from beginning to end. If you are producing in 24bit and your playback is set to 16bit, then you should be using a dithering tool in your production chain.

If you are recording and producing in 16bit, and your playback is in 16bit, then there is no need to dither. If you are producing in 16bit, and your playback settings are 24bit, there is no need for dithering.

What are the current settings of your project? What are the current bit-depth of your samples? What is your playback bit-depth settings set at? These are all things you should know when producing your track.

Note: If you intend to have your song mastered, it is best to export at the same bit-depth or higher as your project settings are set to. For example, if you are producing in 16bit, be sure to export in 16bit or higher.

If your project settings are in 24bit, and you export in 16bit without dithering, your audio file is damaged before it even goes to the mastering engineer.

Types of Dither Algorithms and Shaping Options

Many dithering options offer noise shaping. Noise shaping allows you to add an eq curve to the dither noise, helping move the energy of the noise to less audible regions within the frequency spectrum for an even better result.

Here are a few popular types.  (I will be using Ableton’s dithering options, though is very similar options in all programs)

Dithering (Figure 7)

Dithering (Figure 7)

 

  • Triangular – By default, Triangular is selected, which is the safest mode to use if there is any possibility of doing additional processing on your file.
  • Rectangular – Rectangular mode introduces an even smaller amount of dither noise, but at the expense of additional quantization error.
  • The Three Pow-r Modes – The three Pow-r modes offer successively higher amounts of dithering, but with the noise pushed above the audible range.

The Images Analogy

Image dithering works the exact same way and is no different than audio dithering.  Below are four images.

From left to right, the first image is an 8 bit image at full resolution, next is the same image reduced to 1 bit with no dithering, 3rd is the same greatly reduced image with dithering added, and lastly in image 4 is the reduced bit image with added dithering, plus noise shaping option added. (see figure 8 below).

Dithering (Figure 8)

Dithering (Figure 8)

 

Last Notes and Conclusion

Note that dithering is a procedure that should only be applied once to any given audio sample. If you plan to do further processing on your rendered audio sample, it’s best to render to 32-bit to avoid the need for dithering at this stage.

Lastly, you only want to dither your rendered audio if it’s final. If you’re sending it to someone else for mastering, or it’s just not yet the master, then don’t dither.

Regarding which mode is best, it’s really best to use your ears and spend some time with the results.

 

*Sources:

Images provided by izotopeinc – http://www.youtube.com/user/izotopeinc?feature=watch

*Helpful Video Demonstrations:

December 21st, 2011 by admin

We have recently been getting asked some questions that we find have been asked to us more than once, so we compiled a list of frequently asked questions we receive about audio mastering and thought we’d share in hopes of helping you with your sound and future mastering projects. Also, we have some changes coming to our website including a redesign of our (more…)

August 25th, 2011 by admin

The mastering process all begins with mixing, as there are several steps you can take when mixing your track to make for easier, cleaner, better mastering. You should do these whether you plan to master material yourself, or hand your project to a mastering engineer.

It’s a good idea to use (more…)

August 21st, 2011 by admin

Some issues that came up in recent mastering projects were loudness and the maximization process. I wasn’t able to get a track sounding as best as I could because looking at the waveform it was playing at a constant -0db. This tells me that the track has already been limited and/or compressed before I had received it.

I just wanted to send a reminder out that light compression is (more…)

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