(A preface: I don't want to take away from what a passionate, professional mastering engineer could do for your music. I've gone that route before and been happy with the results. Having another pair of ears on the job, especially when they belong to an expert, can be a great benefit. It's also costly. If you're looking for a simple way to up your home production value, or you're like me and have the inspiration to drop 100 songs a year but not the bank account to get them all professionally polished, this guide is for you!)
Mastering used to give me headaches because there were so many possibilities to sculpt a song's sound. I was told it was the stage at which you were meant to make your recordings shine, but I placed too much importance on that - because of course, you should also be trying to make things shine in mixing, and in production, and in performance, and all the way back through to the songwriting.
I've learned that less is more. Mastering is a finishing touch, not a place to work out problems. The better all the elements leading up to it are, the easier of a job it is. While I now spend about twice as much time mixing as I used to, it's cut my mastering time down to probably a tenth of what it once was.
I've settled on a four-stage mastering process which is:
1. Maximizing compression for loudness.
2. EQ for musicality.
3. EQ for finer adjustments.
4. Limiting compression for the final bit of glue, and balance between tracks.
So here's the mastering chain I've used, and loved using, for the past few years. It's simply four plug-ins from Universal Audio, and it accomplishes both loudness and clarity with minimal effort. (I should mention that this is what I've settled on after trying all kinds of things from Waves, iZotope, Ableton, PSP, SPL, FabFilter, and Steinberg.) As I'm now dealing with consistently solid mixes, with all but the most out-there tracks I can just slap this on and tweak a few things and I'm good to go.
1. Precision Maximizer
This is the workhorse for volume and punch. I generally only touch the left two dials, with input between 1.2-2.4db and shape between 50-100% on most tracks. Extremely soft songs, like ballads, will be the exceptions where those numbers will be significantly lower.
2. Pultec Pro EQ
The curves on this EQ just seem to have a very musical shape. I give a boost around 60hz for my low end presence and I like a broad bandwidth lift at 12khz to make things sparkle. Both of these I'll dial in to taste, but on the boost knobs I rarely go above 3 for treble and never above 2 for bass. The occasional mids-heavy track will also benefit from a mild dip at 500 or 700.
3. Precision Equalizer
Most of the time I just stick this on to to get a clean low cut of everything under 20hz, and that's it. After having put in the work to make everything sound as good as possible with my mic placement, my mixing, and my individual track EQ, plus having the Pultec shape things immediately before this in the chain, there's usually very little left to improve. However, as it can exert more precise control than the Pultec, I will sometimes dial in small values to help with small things that are still sticking out - I'm talking 1db or less here.
4. Precision Limiter
The easiest thing of all 'cause it's just one dial. I'll have it land anywhere between 0.75-3db but in most cases it hovers somewhere near 2db. On a track where not a lot of compression is needed I might keep the Maximizer settings lower and have the Limiter bring up the volume. For the most part though, this is where I adjust for balancing loudness between tracks grouped on the same release.
That's it. And 95% of the time, that's all I need. I fully encourage any home recordist to pick up these plugins and use these settings if you haven't already settled on your mastering solution. The real lesson here is to be hyper attentive to your mix, which allows you to simplify mastering to just a few basic decisions. I'll talk about mixing in a future post!
As this will serve as a sort of master post for my mastering process - pun fully intended - I'll just add some quick notes about the other plugins I occasionally reach for. And then you'll know literally everything I use!
UAD Precision Multiband: For the type of song where I want something a little more drastic - forceful pumping bass, aggressive cutting highs - I'll add this to the beginning of the chain and tweak one of the many useable presets.
UAD Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor: This might come into play before or after the Pultec if I feel a track needs a little more compression on top of what the Maximizer can give me. It handles complex, dynamic material well.
UAD SPL Tube Vitalizer: This thing can really make things shimmer. While it's capable of much more, I tend to use it to bring out high end clarity and energy when a track is a bit muddled - probably the only instance where I'm using a tool to combat a problem I couldn't or didn't solve in mic'ing or mixing. Usually first up in the chain.
Waves L1 Ultramaximizer: For simpler material where loudness is more important than dynamics - sparse hip-hop beats, driving dance tracks - I'll use this instead of the Precision Maximizer. You can push stuff quite far without the audio breaking up.
Hope this has been helpful, and happy mastering!