How to Treat the Master Bus

What’s the secret to the Master Bus?  What’s the best compressor?  What’s the best Limiter?  Should I EQ my track, and if so how should I do it?  

These are some of the common questions asked when someone is trying to figure out how to master a song.  They come up, quite frankly  more often then I’d like to see.  This is a reason why I decided to cover this topic. To try and get peoples focus away from the master bus and into the mix.

Mastering engineers have been working on their craft for years so it’s no surprise that they are genious when it comes to the Master Bus.  I also believe that a mastering engineer worth his weight in gold will tell you not to wait until it gets to the mastering stage.

Equalization

EQ So when do we add EQ and how much do we add?  To be honest I would rather not use it at all but there are occasions when I do have to take it out.  For example, I may feel like the mix is finished, it stands up against the other records but it just feel like the track could use a bit more top end.  So instead of going to each individual element and adding top end to everything, it makes more sense to just add a bit to the master bus.  You see when I’m mixing, I’m more focused on the vibe and creating something musical then I am about making something sounding really bass heavy or bright.  So once the mix is close to completion then I will start shaping the bottom and top end if its lacking.  That’s why I always say focus on the mix first and get a good vibe and make sure its sounding great.  Little things like volume and EQ can always be added but the fact is that making your track LOUD is not going to make it sound good.  So focus on making it sound good first.

Common EQ Techniques

Even though every track is quite different there are some common techniques that seem to be used more often in my mix.  So one thing I sometimes do is take out a bit of bottom end, maybe around 30-40hz to tighten up the track so there’s less rumble.  It also gives a bit more headroom so you can get things louder.  This is because the bass takes up the most room in a mix.  Another pretty common technique I do is to cut some low mids around 300-550hz.  Im talking very small amounts like 1-2db.   I find when my mix is sounding closed off this helps to open it up a little bit.

A couple other things I have done, but don’t do often, is to boost some top end to brighten the mix.  I’ll boost anywhere from 7-12khz and usually with a shelf filter.  Also I will occasionally give a little bump in the bottom end if I need it.  I would probably boost 1-2db around 50-100hz and in this case I would most like use a peak filter.  Again these are all general but they do happen from time to time.

Compression

CompressionI personally am not really a fan of compression on the mix bus.  I see why it is used by a lot of engineers and how it helps to “glue” the mix together but I never found I liked what it did to the sound.  I always felt like my dynamics were compromised so I stopped using it.  Now with that I wont speak much more on this subject just because I feel like I would be beating a dead horse.  My only advice is to try it for yourself and if you decide you like it, then I say you should use it.

Saturation

SaturationThis was made pretty popular by (I think) Charles Dye.  He was really one of the first engineers to try and bring the analog world Into the Box.  He found that one big lacking component in the Digital mix world was the mix bus saturation.  I, for the longest time, was a pretty heavy user of this.   I would start my mixes out with some type of Analog/Saturation plugin engaged and mix through it.  I eventually just got to the point where to me my mixes started sound washy.  Like there was a sheet put over top of them.  And I’m not talking dramatic, just a VERY small amount of it.  But it took me a long time until I was able to hear it, thats how minute it is.  So I tried reverse engineering the problem and found that when I mixed without the saturation I was ultimately happier with the results.  Cleaner, clear, punchier mixes I was hearing.  Now I still use saturation and I use it a lot.   But now its more about, when I choose to use it and what I choose to use it on.  That way certain parts that my not warrent that sound, don’t get it.

Limiting

LimitingAnd last but not least we come to limiting.  Now limiting is probably the most crucial because when I’m mixing my peeks are always safely away from 0dB.  So without a limiter I wouldn’t be able to get my mix sounding louder.  What I normally do is get my mix to about 60-75% done and then I will add the limiter.  But I make sure to keep the output of the limiter safely away from 0dB so I dont introduce any potential distortion coming out of my DAC (digital to Analog Converter).  I will set the threshold until the limiter is maybe taking off 1-3dB, but no more, and then I continue do my regular mixing.  I will probably have to make some adjustments especially to the top and bottom end.  Every time you start to squeeze your mix it always ends up changing the sound and that’s why I dont leave it until the end.  I’d rather know fairly quickly what the limiter is doing and then start to make adjustments to correct those problems.

Final Thoughts

So in conclusion I prefer to only use a Limiter but will sometimes use an EQ as well.  I mean that’s all you really need.  All the important stuff is done in the mix.  If you really need to have your song mastered, then send it to a mastering engineer who is proficient as what he/she does.

Good Luck!

YouTube Video Source: How to Master Your Song/Mixes

Still Struggling with EQ?