Mastering is sometimes thought to be a purely technical art. But in truth, it has serious impact on the ‘feel’ of any song. Learn how to master your tracks with emotional depth and feel.
By Slade Templeton
Mastering is sometimes thought to be a purely technical art. But in truth, it has serious impact on the ‘feel’ of any song.
In this article, we’ll explore why this is the case, and we’ll demonstrate some examples of mastering chains you can get started with to bring more emotion out of your tracks.
Mastering: A Weird Science?
Mastering is sometimes referred to as a “dark art” or thought to be some kind of magical recipe to make a good song sound great. Conversely, some people may assume it is purely a technical aspect of engineering a record and as easy as dialing in some “set-and-forget” settings. Many people don’t put something like mastering music into the realm of creativity, but it is a key part of the artistic vision.
Let’s first talk about what mastering is from a technical aspect. In short, mastering is taking the final mix-down of a song and making it sound the best it can on all playback systems, formats and platforms. It is the final process in a song’s lifeline before it hits the shelves, shops, streaming sites and radio.
But mastering doesn’t stop there. Knowing what emotion to put (or keep) in the master is critical. This is where musicians should be careful when using online mastering services. Yes, they can deliver good results. But you need to make sure that the intention of the track is not lost and the emotions you’re trying to convey have been enhanced.
Thus, communication with the mastering engineer is extremely important. One thing you hear more often than not in music production and engineering is the use of onomatopoeias. For example, “I need the song to sound more yellow and vibrant,” or, “It needs to sizzle and have that summer sound!” This type of dialogue means almost nothing to an English speaker who isn’t in the world of audio, but to the mastering engineer you’re working with, it can be what leads them in the correct emotional direction for the song.
Manipulating Emotions in Mastering
When you are working on the technical aspects of your master, you will also have to keep in mind why it became a song in the first place. It shouldn’t be forgotten that a song is a creation from the start; after all, it is a work of audio art. The people involved brought it to life from nothing for the sake of creating. Instead of a mastering engineer trying to “put themself” into a song as a guitarist may do, the goal should be to retain and enhance all the elements involved in the production from the beginning: the writing, recording, overall production, performance and the mix. Making a great song into a great master is much more important than turning it into something it’s not. This can kill the mood.
We can do things in the mastering process that embrace the mix-down even further with harmonics, saturation, compression and EQ decisions. Here are a few examples of the mastering process and how they apply to the emotions of the song.
A compressor can make a song feel ‘tight’ and ‘hard’ or ‘loose’ and ‘soft,’ depending on the ratio and attack settings. The faster the attack, the more it grabs the transients and the more edge it will give to a faster BPM genre and interact with the ‘snap’ of a snare or kick.
Using a more aggressive compressor like the SSL G-Master Buss Compressor or API 2500 would be perfect for these applications. Alternatively, you can pull back on the attack and let the music pump through, giving the mix a bit more of a ‘lazy feeling,’ or looseness and roundness. The PuigChild 670 Compressor will be a great solution if you’re aiming for this sound. These “subtleties” can have a serious impact on the emotional side of the song.
Saturation can add warmth to a song making it feel fuzzy, cozy, or “analog,” even in the most digital of domains. It can give the mix a more retro feeling and project an emotion of vintage vibes or nostalgia and romanticism for another era. For example, using Abbey Road Saturator to achieve the analog console distortion sounds used on ‘60s Beatles albums can remind listeners of those recordings and the feelings they evoke. Saturation isn’t always key to mastering, but when working with plugins, it is important.
In mastering, the final process is usually limiting. The limiter choices can make a song feel ‘loud’ and ‘powerful’ or ‘smooth,’ ‘dynamic’ and ‘elegant.’ A loud and clipped master can sound heavy and aggressive. But if you want the limiter (or limiters) to react a little less and not as loud, it can bring the dynamics back in, which makes a song feel more round or bold.
In some genres, you can get away with a loud master to give extra grit, such as Dubstep or EDM styles, while others should generally be a bit less aggressive and smooth, such as Chillout or Ambient. The limiter(s) used will help achieve this emotion. The L2 Ultramaximizer is a good starting point.
EQ can make a song sound bright and exciting or dim and cold. If you push the upper portion of a song, you may get more vocal, hi-hats or guitar attack. This will bring more aggression or shine to a song. If you push the lows of the EQ, you’ll get more power and impact. It’s about finding the balance that works well with the emotions presented. The different types of EQs can also make a difference. The PuigTec EQ can bring vintage harmonics, smoothness to the top end and a huge low end, whereas the F6 dynamic EQ will be more surgical and precise, perhaps giving you tighter results. Finding a perfect combination of EQ choices can work some emotional magic into a song.
Making Moves in Mastering
Let’s hear a practical example of mastering EQ moves and how small decisions can make a big difference to the track.
Here is a before and after example using nothing but the Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain, with only slight touches of EQ and Stereo widening.
- Example 1a – Dry Mix
- Example 1b – Added Mastering EQ
The EQ was used to add top-end shine with a bit of mid/side spread (spreading the sides along with a top-end boost of a couple of dB) and a mono low-end boost for the punch around the kick. With just a few tweaks, this injected loads of color, tone and character to an otherwise dim and narrow mix, giving you the feeling of power and explosiveness. This also gave more edge to the mix, allowing the listener to feel depth that was previously tucked away. This not only manipulates emotions when listening but allows you to ‘feel’ the effects of the production and song even more, particularly the kick, bass, and wide guitars.
Let’s hear another example. Here is the same mix with the same EQ in place, but also some compression and saturation added to give the song some warmth, hugging the EQ decisions nicely to help round it all out. For this example, the API 2500 Compressor and Kramer Master Tape were used.
- Example 2a – Dry Mix
- Example 2b – Added Mastering EQ, Compression, Saturation
Using an All-in-One Mastering Chain
Today, we can literally achieve a fully mastered song with all-in-one mastering console plugins, much like they worked on analog desks decades back. With a simple instance of one plugin such as the Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain, we have all the elements we need for adding emotion and taking the mix to the next level.
Here is a before and after of the mixed song, mastered entirely using the Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain.
- Example 3a – Dry Mix
- Example 3b – Mastered Mix with Abbey Road TG
Mastering with your own Custom Chain
Another great way to get the benefits of multiple styles (and strengths) of individual plugins is to use separate plugins for each stage of the mastering process. A standard mastering chain can look something like this when using separate plugins or a combination thereof:
- EQ (subtractive - used for taming problematic frequencies)
- Stereo Compressor (helps glue the mix)
- Saturation (help give some warmth or saturation character to the master. Each chain makes it work differently, so it depends on what is around it)
- Multiband Compressor (helps level and round the overall spectrum)
- Lift EQ (this is an EQ that will help ‘lift’ the top end, giving more air and elegance. This isn’t always needed but often sounds great following something like a saturation plugin)
- Limiting (this is used to bring everything to the desired level. The trick is to not use only ONE limiter, but 3 different types, each doing something different in their attack and release settings. The first one is usually a faster-acting limiter, followed by a slower one, and then a final limiter making it louder. Each one is doing 2-3dB of limiting rather than one doing it all. Many helping hands along the way is what makes for a great master)
You could even create your own custom mastering chain and save it as a preset on the free Waves StudioRack plugin chainer, which has in-built options for multiband and parallel processing.
Let’s listen to a master from a custom chain, each plugin bringing its own strengths. This chain is a basic one with only the Q10 EQ, API 2500 stereo compressor, Vitamin for saturation, Abbey Road TG Mastering for the “Lift EQ,” and the L1 Limiter.
- Example 4a – Dry Mix
- Example 4b – Mastered Mix with Custom Chain
You can literally ‘feel’ the song’s power come to life with more warmth and more overall punch. This adds the element of intensity and dynamics to the song. These decisions were all part of finding the emotion in the mix and embracing it. Sometimes it is the mastering process itself that can inject this into the mix, but also, it is about bringing what was already there and making it more listenable and enjoyable based on the song’s overall intention.
You could also try using multiband compressors such as the Linear Phase Multiband, or different saturation plugins such as the Kramer Master Tape or the J37 Tape. Every little touch changes the mix’s movement. Whether I am working in-the-box (all plugins) or in the analog/hybrid domain, I will typically have about 10 different stages in my mastering chain, some doing technical processing and some doing the ‘embellishing of emotions’ we have talked about here. Each stage is doing just a little bit to achieve a great master in the end.
Now that we know what mastering is and how it can affect the emotions of a song, I encourage you to try your own hand at mastering. Even if you plan to send your mix to another engineer, this should give you an idea of how the process works. This will also help you with mixing because you know how it’s going to end up, and you can think ‘ahead.’
The better someone understands the process of mastering, the better their mix can end up after it is mastered. So, let’s embrace the song, embrace the mix and embrace the emotions in mastering, and see what it can do to take your production to the next level!
Music used in examples:
“Climb” by Shapes on Tape
Want to know more about Mastering? Find out about Limiters in Mastering and which one you should use!
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