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My mastering chain – signal flow

by Ian Shepherd



A question I get asked all the time is “what’s your mastering chain ?” – meaning

What order do you put your processing in, when mastering ?

So for what it’s worth, here is the answer. I’ve worked like this ever since I was first trained as a mastering engineer, and it applies whether I’m in the studio with clients or working on my own stuff at home. 90% of the time, my chain is:

  1. Gain
  2. EQ
  3. Compression
  4. Limiting

However this isn’t set in stone, by any means ! Here’s a more detailed list – I only use the items in italics occasionally, not on every project.

  1. Gain
  2. EQ
  3. Stereo processing
  4. Compression
  5. EQ
  6. Gain
  7. Soft clip
  8. Limiting

Stereo processing

This is probably the most likely of these options – a fair number of projects benefit from a little extra width or depth in the image, or tightening up slightly. There’s nothing fancy about this – I just boost the mid or side signal slightly as necessary.

Rarely I might use some M/S processing, too, or only work on the width of a certain frequency range. Once in a blue moon I might use M/S compression, but this is a real last-resort and only where a remix isn’t an option.

EQ & Gain after compression

I think this counts more as a preference, really – EQ and gain after compression have a very different effect on the sound.

Before compression, EQ & gain changes are harder to hear, because the compression itself works against them. For example, if a kick drum is too high in the mix, or contains too much low-frequency energy, it can cause more pumping than you would like.

Cutting the frequency where most of it’s energy is before compression will reduce the pumping. Cutting it after compression won’t affect the pumping, but will still balance the EQ.

In general, EQ and gain after compression have to be used in much smaller increments. +/- half a dB before compression may go unnoticed, whereas after compressing to release levels it can be like night and day.

Soft clipping / saturation

This can be via the compression or limiting processing, or by pushing high-quality analogue gear hard. This isn’t recommended with budget A/D converters, or any analogue gear where headroom is in short supply, though ! It’s not necessary on every job, but sometimes it’s just what the doctor ordered.

[Edit - I've had a few people ask for more detail about the gain stages, so...]

Gain

I’ve listed “gain” as separate stages for a few reasons. Here they are:

  1. Just because I’m using compression and limiting, doesn’t mean I’ll necessarily change the level. These are methods of dynamic control, not purely for boosting level. I wanted it to be very clear this is a separate decision
  2. I like to be able to A/B as many different stages in the process as possible, to get a clear idea how they are affecting the sound. If I use the gain parameters in a compressor plugin (say) to boost the level, when I hit “bypass” the level will drop, and I won’t hear a fair before/after comparison. For the same reason, I always keep the gain in the limiter at unity, and if I boost several EQ bands, I will often pad the level slightly in the EQ itself so that when I bypass, the levels sound consistent
  3. I wanted to make the possibility of having gain both pre- and post-compression – see above
  4. I use Logic if I’m working at home, and I use these various stages as inserts in the mixer. In Logic, the fader gain is always “post-fader”, meaning that if you want to boost the level going into an insert, you need to add a dedicated gain stage, unless you boost it via compression or EQ – see point (2)

(Important note – if you want to use Gain in this way, it’s crucial that your DAW uses floating point DSP for all it’s internal calculations. Otherwise you’ll clip all the processes prior to the limiter.

An easy way to check is to crank the first gain stage right up till it’s exceeding 0dB, bypassing everything else except for the limiter, and check that the limiter is working hard. If it isn’t, you’ll need to keep plenty of headroom until the final limiting stage and lift the final level there.

In fact, this could be a major headache and you might want to consider doing your mastering in another app… Luckily most audio software does use floating-point DSP these days, but it’s worth double-checking – all the plugins need to be correctly written to support this feature, too.)

So, there you go – as I say all of this can change depending on the source material, but that’s my “default” processing setup.

How about you ?


Image by Robert Fornal

 

facebook comments:

16 Responses

  1. Joe Gilder says:

    Here’s a question. When you use “gain,” is that typically a dedicated gain plugin, rather than using the gain functions on EQ’s and compressors?

    I could see how that would make sense for A/B-ing EQ or compression, getting a before/after listen without the level of the signal changing. Is that the idea?

  2. Thanks for the post Ian.
    I second Joe’s question. Would be cool to get more info on the gain stage(s).

  3. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Joe & Sigurdór,

    Great questions ! I’ve updated the post, hope it helps.

    Ian

  4. Strangenotez says:

    Ian, once again a wonderful post. I especially like the breakdown of why you use gain as a seperate stage. can’t wait to try it in practice!

  5. I prefer Eq-ing after dynamic processing.

  6. Damon Gentry says:

    Hey Ian, I just want to thank you for all the incredible info on your site, I’m in the process of assimilating it all. I appreciate your down-to-earth approach. My friend and I make music and we like to do everything ourselves from writing to mastering. The two albums we’ve done sound too lo-fi so we’re really trying to put an emphasis on mastering with our new EP. I feel like your tutorials are going to help us knock it out of the park. Thanks again and best regards,

    Damon

  7. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Damon,

    You’re welcome, glad you like the site !

    Ian

  8. Jason Suko says:

    Great Stuff Ian…using gain to maintain equal levels during A/B is real helpful so we don’t pick just pick the “louder” to be better.
    Jason

  9. Riley Weller says:

    Thanks Ian,

    Good description all throughout the post. I really struggle in getting my master at that “commercial” standard.

    Thanks for all your videos and info!
    Riley

  10. Ian Shepherd says:

    Thanks Riley & Jason, glad you found it useful !

  11. Another great article. Cheers :)

  12. Vidar says:

    Hi! Hope not this is considered spam… I just followed what you wrote about in the mastering chain, on my latest tune GIMP-MASTER (yup: half of the name is named after this article). I’m afraid of putting too much gain on it, also I’m wondering if it is too much bass in general on the track.

    If you have time please take a listen and give some feedback :)

    http://soundcloud.com/vidul/gimp-master-vidul-original-1

  13. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Vidar,

    Not spam – but please drop me an email ? ian AT production advice.co.uk

    I charge for detained feedback but will try and give you a “twitter-length” reply :-)

    Cheers,

    Ian

  14. Leon Portelance says:

    Ian,
    I didn’t see reverb on your chain even as an occasional. Do you never use reverb on a master?

  15. Ian Shepherd says:

    I can count the number of times I’ve used reverb in mastering on the fingers of one hand – in my entire career …!

  16. Hi Ian & Everyone Else,

    This is a very interesting article and skills share. It’s much appreciated.

    I’ve recently started experimenting with mastering individual tracks using the Fabfilter EQ, Compressor and Limiter plugins in Wavelab 6. What I’d like to know is how the process and workflow unfolds when mastering an entire album as my understanding points to the fact that the first single of the album is usually the song that receives treatment first, followed by the rest.

    Will the rest of the tracks in an album receive the exact same treatment as the first track or…?

    If you could expand on that, I’d really appreciate it. This is a field in which I’d like to become an expert.

    Thanks in advance.

    Michael Gabriel
    http://soundcloud.com/michael-gabriel-2
    > These are just normalised mixes

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